Prologue

She usually enjoyed taxi journeys. The drivers, she knew, encountered a unique sequence of passengers every day; they must have listened to all kinds of amazing stories, and, by consequence, must have amazing stories to tell. Today, however, she would have been grateful to have landed one of the less talkative drivers, to stare out the window uninterrupted. Unfortunately the driver had recognised her. She had therefore made the effort to appease the enthusiasm of one more admirer by deploying the same stock phrases and responses she used in every interview.

In turn, she had feigned bright interest in the man's daughter, evidently a die-hard fan. She agreed with a forced smile to sign the back of a crumpled supermarket receipt. Self-consciously placing the scrap of paper on the empty passenger seat instead of stuffing it back in his wallet, the driver thanked his famous fare, oblivious to any insincerity in her pleasantness. She felt fraudulent, as though the autograph sitting on the leather seat had been scrawled by someone else: she was naturally kind, innately positive; having to act such qualities felt wrong. Grudgingly, she took it as a sign that she was still adept at the job she had abandoned less than forty-eight hours ago.

It was the right thing to do, she assured herself. She gazed out the window and experienced a pang of nostalgia: the expanse of fields being grazed by sheep and their newly-born young, surrounded by seagulls and crows; the moody skies, interposed by columns of wind turbines; the winding roads lined with trees, cottages and pubs … It all meant home.

The cast and crew would undoubtedly be scratching their heads back in Los Angeles where she'd left them – her phone had not stopped buzzing inside her bag – but she'd never been more convinced of a decision in her life. It had been a long time coming. The intensity of the past few years had slowly weathered her, like waves crashing against a lone sea stack – until one incident had finally sunk her, had finally opened her eyes to the toxic side effects of her profession.

She closed her eyes, fighting back the emotion rising in her chest. Stay strong, for five more minutes. Finally, the taxi turned a corner and the driver pulled up before a pair of impressive iron gates.

A hammer blow to the stomach: a pack of men was here waiting for her, and they pounced on the taxi like hyenas to a carcass, cameras poised, rough voices shouting. She wasted but a second on wondering how they could have known of her arrival so quickly: showbiz news travelled unlike any other, as fast as neurons across a synapse, as ruthless as wildfire.

'D'you need a hand getting inside?' asked the driver eagerly as he accepted her notes and coins; he was evidently enthralled by the prospect of tasting a glimpse of stardom life. She politely turned down the offer, which she regretted the second she opened the back door.

Click click click.

'Congrats on the award, Alexa, you and the team must be proud.'

'Over here, Alexa, let's see that smile.'

Click click click.

'Why have you returned to the UK, Alexa?'

'Homesick, is that what it is?'

'Have you missed Garth?'

Parasites, she thought savagely as she threw the taxi door shut and buzzed opened the iron gates with a button on her keyring. At once she marched up the long straight drive and the men jogged after her. One of them raced in front to snap pictures of her face, which she quickly buried in her scarf. She kept her expression blank and bored, despite her heart ramming against her ribs. Her breath shortened as she again fought back tears. It was all she could do to not break into a run. The three-tiered house at the end of the drive never seemed to get any closer.

Click click click.

'Are you heading back to LA soon?'

'When does filming for the new season start, Alexa?'

'Don't go just yet, Alexa, turn this way.'

Click click click.

At long last, she rounded the gently-playing fountain, flew up the steps of the wooden veranda and burst through the front doors, which she slammed behind her. To her stupendous relief, her parents were waiting in the hall for her. Her mother immediately rushed forward.

'Mum –'

Her voice was lost in her mother's shoulder, and now the tears burst their banks. Two whole days she had kept them at bay: from the night of the awards evening, while throwing her possessions into a case, during the ten-hour trans-Atlantic flight, to the taxi journey from Gatwick. But now, seeing her parents in the flesh for the first time in months, all the emotion was gushing out of her. Her whole body shook with it as she threw herself into her father's arms.

'It's OK,' he murmured, kissing the top of her head. 'It's OK … You're home … You're home.'