Maya was just six years old when she witnessed her mother plunge to her death on the cliffs near their house…
Everyone in town said it was a mercy that she remembered so little. But there are some things Maya has never forgotten: that her mother was beautiful and kind, and she loved Maya very much. It’s what her father Stephen always tells her, about his perfect wife.
Years later, Maya still lives with her father in their cliffside home. Thankful for all the sacrifices he has made for her, she never pushes to find out what happened the night he lost the woman he loved. Even when she hears the whispers in town about him, and what they say he’s done.
But then Stephen introduces Maya to his new girlfriend Amy, and Maya starts to feel uneasy. With her soft dark hair and big blue eyes Amy looks just like Maya’s mother. The more time they spend together the more Maya notices just how similar they are. And the tune Amy hums whilst cleaning the dishes is the same lullaby Maya’s mother sang to her when she was a little girl…
A thrilling and twisty tale, His Hidden Wife will keep you up all night, desperate to race through to its final conclusion. Readers of Gone Girl, The Couple Next Door and Lisa Jewell will be hooked.
What readers are saying about Wendy Clarke:
‘One of the best psychological thrillers I have read in a long time, I read this book from cover to cover in less than 24 hours, unable to put it down… It's been a long time since I have read a book that captivated me quite so much.’ Real Mum Review, 5 stars
‘The twists in this were U-N-B-E-L-I-E-V-A-B-L-E! I've read many thrillers in fact that's my main genre and this one blew them all out of the water… so suspenseful, action-packed, dynamic that I stayed up till almost 3 am to finish it.’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
‘I started reading it and didn't stop reading until 2 am. It was impossible to put down… thrilling and mysterious the entire way and by the end my jaw dropped. The ending wasn't something I expected at all.’ Living My Best Book Life, 5 stars
‘Wow, wow, wow! What an amazing novel!… Secrets, lies and terrible events galore, this is a real rollercoaster of a ride throughout.’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
‘Had me flying through the pages to find out what happens… My heart was racing as I was reading. It kept hitting me with twist after twist… I have to say it's the best thriller I've read this year.’ Ramblings of the Book Addict, 5 stars
‘Wow what can I say! I should be sleeping now but I was so gripped by this.’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
‘My god a real rollercoaster of a read… Read it in one sitting, finally turning the last page at 2 am…
Release date: February 4, 2021
Print pages: 350
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His Hidden Wife
The sea mist, that has yet to clear, swallows everything in its path, leeching the colour from the land. It’s strangely comforting, this lack of clarity. This blurring of reality. It heightens the other senses: the taste of salt on her lips, the roll and break of the waves far below her.
Either side of the girl, as if protecting her, the metal ribcage of the pylon rears skywards, like a giant puppet, its arms held up by the power lines that join it to the next one… and the next. On and on across the rolling Dorset hills.
She doesn’t move – just watches the last of the mist lick at the skeletal frame of the tower. But it isn’t long before the sun penetrates through, bringing the world back into sharp relief.
As its rays catch the wires above her head, turning them into silver spiders’ webs, the girl smiles. The sun feels nice and warm on her face, and she can smell the seaweedy tang of the air. Hear the waves breaking rhythmically onto the stones, the sea calling to her. She doesn’t know why she’s lying here, her mist-damp fringe clinging to her forehead, but she doesn’t care.
She’s at peace.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. Or is there?
Someone is calling her name.
It’s her father, worry raising the pitch of his voice. She wants to answer, but she doesn’t. She can’t because then he’ll know what she knows and will be sad. For what she feels deep inside her chest – in the heart that’s pumping against the damp fabric of her white school blouse, despite the calmness she feels – is the certainty that only comes when a loving bond is severed. The bond between mother and child.
Her mother is dead.
The door closes with a satisfying click, and after a few seconds, Teresa hears Louise on reception call out goodbye. A deeper voice replies, then there’s the sound of the outside door slamming, and through the partly closed blinds Teresa sees her last client stride down the path to where his car is waiting in the street.
When she hears the engine start, she closes her eyes and massages the area of soft skin between them with her thumb and index finger, relishing the silence. Even though today has been a relatively quiet day, this last client has been particularly difficult. She’s been treating him for anxiety-related OCD brought on by his wife’s cancer diagnosis, and his progress has been slow. Even getting him to enter her consulting room had been a challenge, and she’s shattered, her only thought to get home and run herself a long hot bath. But that will have to wait. She has obligations, and her own needs are a long way down the list.
Shifting herself on the chair to get more comfortable, she focuses on her breathing, concentrating on the sensation of her breath. In through the nose. Out through the mouth.
Every now and again, the sash windows of the therapy room give a small rattle. It’s getting windy outside, and it’s forecast to rain later. A part of her wishes she hadn’t told her mum she’d visit this evening. After the day she’s just had, the thought of driving the fifty minutes to her house and the same again on the way back, isn’t something she relishes, especially when the time in between is filled with worry and frustration. But she knows she has to.
Her mind has left her breathing now, wandering to places she doesn’t want it to go, but she doesn’t let it worry her. She knows that it’s natural for your attention to stray when you’re trying to clear your mind. The important thing is not to obsess over where your thoughts have taken you.
Gently, she pulls her wandering mind back from her mother and focuses again on her breathing. Visualising the air moving through her nose, filling her lungs, the rise and fall of her chest. Thoughts of her mother slip away. She’s in the here and now. Aware only of her breathing. In out. In out.
The sharp rap on the door makes Teresa jump, and she opens her eyes, turning her head to the door just as it’s opening. For a second, she thinks it might be her client returning to check, for the third time, that their consultation will stay confidential, but it’s not, it’s Stephen.
He frowns as their eyes lock, noticing her surprise. ‘Sorry, were you busy?’
Just hearing Stephen’s calm voice makes her relax. ‘No, I was just trying to wind down a bit before I go home.’
Stephen comes in and takes the seat across from Teresa. He rests his feet on the low coffee table between them, and Teresa feels the warmth of his smile. How is it that, however hard her day has been, he always manages to make her feel that she’s not alone?
‘I find a large glass of wine works for me,’ he says with a chuckle.
But Teresa can see the tiredness written in the bags under his eyes. He looks just like she feels.
‘Busy day too, huh?’
‘Not particularly,’ he replies. ‘One cancelled this afternoon, which, to be honest, was a relief. I haven’t been sleeping well. Don’t know what it is. Perhaps I’m feeling anxious.’
She looks at him, taking in his soft check shirt and cords, the beard that is a tad too long and the unruly greying hair. Despite the difference in their ages, they’ve been good friends as well as colleagues for many years, and Teresa knows him so well. Her own serious, exacting temperament has been a foil to his more laid-back one. They’ve worked well together, treating people at his Wellbeing Clinic for the last three years.
‘You’re looking tired, Stephen. Things all right at home? Is Maya okay?’
She watches as he slides out the pen that’s clipped to the pocket of his shirt, clicking the nib in and out distractedly.
‘Yes, she’s fine,’ he says.
‘That’s good. Working at the care home must take it out of her.’
‘It’s good for her. She likes the routine.’ He looks as though he’s going to say something else but doesn’t, and Teresa wonders if he’s being honest with her. She’s only met Stephen’s daughter a few times, but she’d made an instant impression on her with her fair curly hair and gentle demeanour. She’d liked her, and she wonders whether it might be because she’s so much like Stephen.
‘Any boyfriends on the scene?’
Stephen frowns, and Teresa wonders if she’s been too nosy. After all, it’s none of her business.
‘No,’ he replies eventually. ‘Nothing like that.’
Teresa studies him, waiting to see if he’ll open up more, but he doesn’t. In all the years she’s known him, he’s preferred to keep his private life to himself. Maybe that’s why she’s never been invited to their clifftop house. Once, out of curiosity, and wanting a change of scene, she’d parked the car in the village where Stephen and Maya live and walked along the beach from the Heritage Centre to where the cliff folds in on itself before sweeping back towards the sea as if in greeting.
That day, as she’d climbed the barnacled rocks below the bluff, she’d been hoping to reach the small bay on the other side. But she hadn’t checked the tides. The waves were already hitting the rocks below her in a spray of foam and, in the little cove beyond, the stones and coarse shingle glistened with every lick and retreat of the sea’s white tongue.
Teresa hadn’t gone any further, it would have been foolish to do so. Instead, she’d turned back, stopping for a cup of tea at the little café next to the Heritage Centre. But not before she’d seen the house standing high on the coastal path, its gabled windows and large conservatory looking out onto the sea.
Then her eyes had strayed to the rocks at the cliff’s base and what interest she’d had in the house had quickly waned. For the one thing Stephen has never discussed since she started working at the clinic is the wife who had been swept away by the sea at the bottom of that very same cliff twelve years earlier. There’d been an inquest and accidental death had been the conclusion, but rumour had it that it had been suicide. Whatever it was, the result had been the same. A young child left without her mother.
She shakes her head. Crewl Point was where it had happened. Cruel more like.
‘Penny for them?’
‘Oh, it’s nothing that interesting,’ she lies.
Stephen raises his eyebrows at her, and immediately Teresa feels guilty. She looks away. The last thing she wants is for him to know that she read all about him in the paper all those years ago, that she’s spent hours wondering what happened: how a happily married couple could fall apart like that. How a mother could abandon her child. Trying to make sense of it all. Trying to work out why Stephen hadn’t reached out to her after it had happened. Why he never talks about it. Sometimes, he’ll take a day off work, blaming it on a migraine, but she wonders if it’s because looking after that big house and bringing up Maya single-handed for the last twelve years has taken its toll.
Several times, since she started working at the clinic, she’s found herself on the verge of asking him about it, but each time she’s stopped. If Stephen had wanted to talk he would, and she has to remind herself that time is the greatest healer. He’ll reach out in his own good time and, when he’s ready, she’ll be there for him, like he is for her.
And who is she to judge anyway? Her clients might see a well-adjusted professional when they come to her with their problems, but they’re not to know that behind the proficient demeanour she’s just as human as they are. One who’s worried sick about a mother who lives alone, fifty minutes away, and who’s becoming more forgetful by the day. One who finds it increasingly hard to face the thought of going home to her husband.
Stephen’s not the only one who’s good at keeping up appearances.
Today, though, he looks nervous, distracted, as though his thoughts are not on anything in this room and certainly not on her.
‘Want a quick coffee before we leave?’ she asks him. The thought of him leaving makes her heart sink.
He looks at his watch. ‘No, I’d better make a move.’
‘Yes, of course.’ She tries to think of something that might make him stay a little longer, wonders if saying something about Gary would be enough, but already he’s standing, slipping the pen back into his pocket. Preparing to leave before he’s said anything to her of any note. She’s used to it, but there’s something different about him today. She cocks her head to one side trying to work out what it is. Despite the distractedness, there’s a lightness to his actions. An extra warmth to his voice.
‘Going somewhere nice after work?’ It’s a guess, but there must be something that’s brought on this new mood of his.
He shakes his head, and the smile that had been hovering on his lips slips a little. ‘No, just home. I promised Maya we’d eat together tonight as her shifts don’t always make it possible.’
‘That’s nice.’ She knows Stephen and his daughter are close, and it must be a comfort to them both. On a couple of occasions when Maya was still at school, he’d brought her along to the clinic and Maya had sat in reception with Louise, helping her with the appointments. The first time it had been an Inset day, but the other occasion had been for work experience. At regular intervals, Stephen had come downstairs to check on his daughter, which Teresa had found sweet. And when she’d come out to consult Louise on something and had found Maya chatting to one of the clients, her calm and easy manner had made it less of a surprise when she’d confided in her that she was considering a career in medicine.
That had never happened though, and now she wonders why.
He laughs, his good mood returning. ‘Oh, Maya, of course.’ He raises his hands and waggles his fingers. ‘You know as well as I do that these hands are good for writing up notes and that’s about it.’
Teresa tuts. ‘You’re such a dinosaur, Stephen. It’s the twenty-first century you know. How did you manage after—’ She stops, reddening.
He’s looking at her, but she can’t meet his eyes. Instead, to cover her embarrassment, she takes a stem of alstroemeria that’s started to wilt from the vase on the coffee table, and drops it into the wastepaper bin.
‘Nothing. It doesn’t matter. Look, it’s time I went home myself or Gary will think I’ve forgotten I’m married. I just need to check on tomorrow’s client list.’ She gets up and busies herself at the computer, trying to regain her composure. How could she be so insensitive?
She feels Stephen’s eyes still on her, but when he speaks again, his voice is cordial. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow then.’
This time, she forces herself to look at him. ‘Yes. I hope you get a better night’s sleep.’
He stands with his hands in the pockets of his baggy cords. ‘That will depend.’
She raises her eyebrows. ‘On what?’
He sighs, a shadow passing across his face. ‘On what happens tonight.’
The trudge up the hill from the village seems longer than usual, every step exacerbating Maya’s tiredness. She looks down at her feet in their black tights and work trainers and wonders how they’ll ever take her the rest of the way.
As the houses on the track dwindle to nothing, replaced now by flat fields of cropped grass one side and the open sea on the other, she sees her house at last. Solid. Red-bricked. Its thin chimneys rising from a grey-tiled roof, the top of the glass conservatory just showing above the hedge that borders their windswept garden.
Crewl House. Her home for almost nineteen years. It’s far-reaching view of the sea her constant companion as she’s been growing up. The folded ribbon of chalky-white cliffs with its coastal path that stretches away from the house, the only scenery she’s known. The only place she’s wanted to be.
Home. It’s not a place but a feeling – conjuring up safety. Security. The world is a dangerous place, but she’s always felt that if she stays here, nothing bad can happen to her. More importantly… nothing will happen to her dad.
She’s nearly there, and Maya can now see the large bay windows and the long, gravelled drive. As she passes the gatepost, smiling at her dad’s car parked in its usual place, the stones crunch under her feet. She walks to the kitchen window as she always does, peering through the glass to see if her dad’s there. He isn’t. He’s probably upstairs, listening to his music – old bands from his heyday she’s never heard of and with good reason in her view. Instead of letting herself in through the front, Maya unlatches the side gate and walks around the side of the house. The back door is unlocked, and she steps into the small lobby with its tumble dryer and jumble of walking boots and wellingtons.
Maya closes the back door behind her and goes into the hall. She puts her bag down and feels the tension she’s been holding in her shoulders release as she walks into the kitchen and contemplates what she’ll cook them both for supper.
Shrugging off her coat and dropping it onto the kitchen chair, she thinks about the afternoon she’s just had – it’s been one of those days, as her dad would say. The two new admissions would have been taxing enough, but Alex had called in sick – she was always off with something or other – and was supposed to be training the new care assistant. She’d had to do it instead and, with everything else she had to do, she’d felt distracted, their questions going in one ear and out the other.
Then, just as she was about to leave, Olive King had blocked her way.
‘My husband will be here soon,’ she’d said. ‘To take me to Broadbrook House… for the dance.’ This was despite him having been dead for nearly five years. And by the time Maya had led the elderly woman from the front door back to the communal living area and settled her in her chair, it was already half an hour past the end of her shift.
The final refrain of ‘Love Shack’ reverberates through the ceiling, and Maya smiles as she hears her dad sing along to it. At least it’s going to be a good evening, she thinks. She’ll be able to forget about her sore feet and the endless beds she’s made. Deal with the headache she hasn’t been able to shift, brought on by the effort it’s taken to stay cheerful. Not every care assistant at the home smiles as they struggle to unravel a story or when it loses its flow midway, but she does. She wants each and every one of the residents of Three Elms to feel cared for. Valued and safe in the home that isn’t really their home. It’s the least she can do. It’s the way she feels at home, with her father. Even without her mother.
At the thought of her mother, a pang of longing hits her so hard that she leans forward and grips the edge of the kitchen table. Sometimes, it happens like that… the missing. Coming out of the blue, like a knife in her heart that gets twisted. Even after all this time.
Remembering what her father taught her all those years ago, Maya closes her eyes. She focuses on the inside of her eyelids and one by one the sounds in the room – the ticking of the clock, her dad’s music from the room above – recede, to be replaced by different ones. A picture forms, and she starts to relax. She imagines the sun on her face. The whisper of wind. The cry of a gull. As she pictures the sea foaming and hissing up the shingle, drawing back to leave a shiny arc of sand at the waterline, the ache starts to lessen and the tears that prickled and threatened the back of her eyes only moments ago, fail to materialise.
Opening her eyes again, Maya picks up the hessian shopping bag she’d dumped on the floor when she came in and puts it on the worktop. She’d popped into the Co-op on her way home and bought some things for their supper: an aubergine, a courgette and some brightly coloured peppers. She’ll make vegetable lasagne and, over a glass of red, she and her dad will compare their days. Of course, due to client confidentiality, he won’t be able to tell her much, but he always manages to find a few anecdotes to amuse her with, like the time he got his appointments muddled up and was surprised when the young woman he’d been expecting for relationship counselling had turned out to be a sixty-year-old man with a drink problem. Her own offerings will be a recount of a conversation she’s had with one of her favourite residents or a poignant memory dredged up from the cobwebs of a ninety-year-old mind. Perhaps what happened with Olive.
Maya smiles, shakes her head at the memory, which has already become less of a burden, and slides a chopping board from its place between the microwave and the fridge. Placing a pepper onto it, she smooths its shiny surface with her fingers.
‘Dad?’ she calls again.
She can hear him in his study above the kitchen, the wheels of his office chair running over the wooden floorboards as he moves from computer to printer then back again. He always likes to keep busy. Looking into current research. Keeping up to date.
She’s the same. It wouldn’t have been so bad today if her manager, Sandra, pulled her weight, but over the last few months she’s been leaving more and more to her. Shutting herself in her office off the reception area or disappearing out for meetings that haven’t been scheduled in the appointments book. Sometimes, Maya wonders who it is that runs the care home.
Drawing a knife from the wooden block, Maya works the tip of it around the top of the pepper, pulling on the stalk to remove the core. It comes away and a shower of white seeds covers the chopping board. She’s just slicing it in half when the music stops. The floorboards above her head creak, and she hears her dad’s footfall on the stairs. Out of habit, she watches the door for the first sight of his face.
But she needn’t have worried. His glasses are perched on top of his head and, despite looking tired, he’s smiling, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners.
Maya lets out the breath she’s holding. ‘You look happy, Dad.’
‘That’s because I am.’ Going over to her, he places a hand either side of her face and kisses the top of her head. ‘It’s been a tiring but good day. What about you? How was work?’
He pulls out a chair from beneath the kitchen table, the legs scraping on the tiled floor, then sits, tugging at the knees of his jeans as he does so. Maya watches him, the simple action filling her with a strange sadness. She knows why it is; it’s because the elderly gentlemen at the care home do the same thing, and she doesn’t want to think of her dad getting old. Not that sixty-four is old. Not really.
Narrowing her eyes, Maya studies him. It’s his beard that’s the problem. Not a close-cropped stubble or five o’clock shadow; if it was, it wouldn’t be so bad, but just plain scruffy. Too long to be cool but not long enough to be eccentric. No woman would look twice at him looking like that, but she doesn’t care. She loves him, and that’s all that matters.
Maya flicks the switch on the kettle. ‘Tea?’
‘No, you’re all right.’ He smooths his beard as though aware she’s been assessing it. ‘As you didn’t answer my question, I take it you didn’t.’
Maya pulls herself out of her thoughts.
‘Have a good day.’
‘What? Oh, no. It was fine. Just the usual really. As I was leaving, Olive decided Den was taking her to a dance. It makes a change I suppose, it’s usually the cinema.’
‘Is that the Den who passed away?’ Leaning back in his chair, her dad places one hand on top of the other on his stomach, and Maya’s pleased to see that the blue check shirt he’s wearing is the one she bought him the previous Christmas.
‘That’s the one.’
Maya pulls her eyes away from her father’s rounded belly. The shirt had fitted him perfectly when she’d got it for him. Now, if he isn’t careful, he’ll end up with a sizeable paunch by the time next Christmas comes around. She’ll have to keep an eye on him; make sure he doesn’t let himself go. Even if she isn’t able to control what he eats when he’s at the clinic, she can limit the number of biscuits he takes from the tin when he’s home.
The kitchen table is full of clutter: old photographs Maya has been sorting out of her and her father. Ones she hasn’t got around to putting in albums. House and garden magazines she buys with a view to turning their rather ramshackle clifftop house into a show home but whose covers have not been opened. An assortment of pens and pencils.
Her dad picks up a red pen and clicks it absentmindedly. He looked wistful. ‘In an odd way, I’m rather envious of Olive.’
Maya looks up sharply, the tip of the knife embedded in the red flesh of the pepper. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing really. Just that it keeps him with her. It must be a comfort.’
His brown eyes are on her, and Maya feels as though he’s trying to communicate some sort of message, though she can’t think what.
‘Any new clients?’ she says, changing the subject.
‘Just one this morning. The rest were regulars. Anxiety, relationship problems… the usual. Nothing earth-moving, but we made headway.’ He sighs. ‘And it keeps the wolf from t. . .
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