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Diana's Books

The Modern Girl (PAPERBACK)

The Modern Girl (PAPERBACK)

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A compelling story of love, family and secrets, for fans of Kate Morton, Fiona Valpy, Mary Ellen Taylor, and Hannah Richell.

Two women, ninety years apart, and an abandoned house that holds the key to a secret.


When Frances Stewart wins a beauty pageant in 1931, she also wins a Hollywood screen test which enables her to leave behind her staid Victorian lifestyle in New Zealand and become the ‘modern girl’ she aspires to be. But she soon finds the reality behind the glamorous Hollywood facade isn’t as wonderful as she’d imagined.

Ninety years later, Paige Sinclair travels to New Zealand to meet her previously unknown and ailing grandmother, and an ancestral home she is told she will inherit. With a failed marriage and alone in the world, Paige feels compelled to look back into the past to satisfy her need for family and connections. So she starts with her grandmother and the mysterious, abandoned house which holds the key to a secret Paige is determined to uncover. But some secrets are never quite as they seem…

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EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE

FRANCES, NEW ZEALAND, 1931

Frances heaved a frustrated sigh and sat back in her seat, its newness creaking a little under her. She scanned the image which filled the screen—sophistication, beauty and drama rolled into one, Norma Shearer embodied it all. So how could she succumb to Leslie Howard’s charms after the passion she’d experienced with Clark Gable?
The ruffled curtains fell over the swirly letters, The End, sending a waft of welcome air her way. The illusion was broken, the sights and sounds which had enthralled had vanished. Instead, she was aware of the beam of light shining from the projectionist’s room, peppered with dust from the newly built Regent Theatre.
‘Come on, Frances’—Jean nudged her—‘let’s get going. The chaps have gone ahead already.’
Frances continued to gaze at the final image, distorted now as it shone onto the rippling silk of the curtains. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’
‘You’re just as pretty as she is. Anyway’—Jean shrugged—‘who cares about her? What about Clark Gable?’
‘I know! He’s so handsome and charming. Much better than Leslie Howard.’
‘Nothing wrong with Leslie. If he walked in now, I’d be perfectly happy to chat with him.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Or maybe even do more than chat.’
‘Jean!’ said Frances, never failing to be scandalised by her aunt, who her parents mistakenly believed to be a safe chaperone.
‘Now, if only we had a few like him around here! Or at least one for me.’
‘What about me?’ Frances called after Jean, who was wriggling through the crowd.
‘He’d be wasted on you,’ she called back to Frances with a big grin. ‘You wouldn’t know what to do with him!’
Frances shot one last look at the screen, hoping for a final taste of the glamour she always found there, but it was gone. It had vanished the moment the curtain had fallen, and lights had flooded the theatre, revealing the florid decorations which one newspaper had optimistically described as ‘artistic’.
Clutching her beaded bag, Frances followed Jean through the crowds, keeping her head down, not wanting to meet the eyes of anyone who’d overheard Jean. Frances had enjoyed more freedom since her parents allowed Jean to chaperone her, but not enough to remedy the lack of worldliness about which Jean had teased her. Love, for Frances, was still purely a cinematic experience.
She emerged into the glamorous foyer which smelt of polish and perfume, and caught sight of Jean’s red hair bobbing around in front of the tall figure of Noa and his friend Harry, who were waiting for her by the potted palm. Jean and Harry walked outside, leaving Noa leaning against a pillar, watching her approach. Frances slowed a little, conscious of his eyes on her, and the swing of her new bias cut dress, which clung to her curves in a very modern way—which her parents most certainly wouldn’t have approved of.
‘So?’ she asked.
‘So?’ he replied.
‘What did you think of the movie?’ She gestured toward the poster of A Free Soul.
‘She wasn’t a divorcee but she believed strangers could kiss!’ He read the headline with an American accent. ‘Whoever wrote that garbage should be shot,’ he said, with his usual cool, ironic tone. Normally she liked it, but tonight she found it irritating.
She gave him a glance Carole Lombard would have been proud of and brushed past him to retrieve her jacket from the checkout girl, ignoring his offer of help. She walked ahead of him through the foyer and onto Mannington’s main street, dusty from a summer with little rain and redolent with the smell of petrol from a passing car, and horse dung. Damn real life, Frances thought with a sigh.
Noa tapped out two cigarettes from the packet he’d bought in the cinema. He held one out to her.
‘You asked, Frances.’
She narrowed her eyes and took the cigarette, still annoyed. ‘I should have known better than to persuade you to come with me.’
He shrugged as he waved to a friend across the street. ‘You didn’t have to persuade me much,’ he said, with a slight grin. ‘I was curious to see the result of so much time, money and anticipation.’ He looked up at the cinema’s facade. ‘The Regent Theatre. The great hope of our country—American films and fantasies, while ordinary people haven’t got two pennies to rub together.’
She shot him a black look. ‘Be quiet and give me a light.’
He tossed her the lighter, but she tossed it back again.
‘Better still, you light it for me. About time you sharpened up your act, or else you’ll end up a sad and lonely old man.’
‘For all you know I might have a very sharp act, and a string of girlfriends in Wellington.’
She laughed at that. ‘In which case you can show off your moves now.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘To you? And what would you know about moves, sharp or otherwise?’
She formed her lips into a pout and raised an eyebrow in what she hoped was a suggestive way. ‘You’d be surprised.’
The corners of Noa’s mouth twitched. ‘I most definitely would.’
‘Then give me a light.’
‘Why?’
‘Because that’s what they do in the movies.’
‘In case you haven’t noticed, we are not in the movies. This is real life, and you’re quite capable of lighting your own cigarette.’
She wasn’t going to back down. ‘Can I have a light?’ she asked in her best low, sexy voice. Noa drew back a little. She felt a difference in him but didn’t stop to consider it; instead she pressed her advantage. She tilted her head to one side and slid the cigarette between her lips.
He flicked the lighter, which flared in the dusky light, and held it out. She dipped her head and held his hand steady, just as she’d seen on the big screen, and he stilled. As she sucked on the end of the cigarette—still very much a novelty—she felt his eyes on her. She looked up, with her best sultry gaze, and continued to suck until the end of the cigarette glowed in the twilight.
She dropped her hand and straightened, her eyes never leaving his. The gaze held and for one long moment neither spoke. He flexed the hand which she’d touched and flicked the cap back onto the lighter.
‘That was quite some show, Frances.’
‘A show? Maybe it’s actually me.’
‘Actually you,’ he repeated. ‘All grown up.’
She laughed, aware of a different note in the sound, something slightly false as if she were still being Carole Lombard. ‘I’ve been all grown up for a while now. Other people have noticed. But not you.’
‘I’m beginning to notice now.’
Carole Lombard disappeared instantly. Her heartbeat quickened, and she couldn’t take her eyes off him.

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