Lost Child: A Gripping Psychological Thriller
Two years ago, three-year-old Jenna vanished. Now Beth is about to find out who took her.
She only turned her back for a moment but that was all it took.
Two years ago, Beth Farrow turned her back on her three-year-old niece, Jenna, for just a few seconds. She disappeared without a trace.
How does a three-year-old go missing from a crowded summer fete without anyone noticing?
When Beth leaves the country to try and escape her guilt, someone sends her a photograph from an anonymous number. It's a photograph of Jenna. She's older, but Beth is sure it's her niece. She is determined to do what the police cannot: Find Jenna and bring her home.
But someone isn't pleased when Beth returns, and they will do what ever it takes to get rid of her. This time, for good.
This dark and gripping psychological thriller is a page-turner you will not be able to put down.
What readers are saying:
"What a twist at the end!"
"Couldn't put it down, gripping from start to finish"
"Absolutely one of the most riveting books I've read in a while"
Release date: August 1, 2017
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Print pages: 440
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Lost Child: A Gripping Psychological Thriller
I think about the day I lost Jenna all the time. It’s always with me.
People say the pain lessens over time, but I’m not sure that’s true. Every time I remember, my stomach twists as I’m reminded of how I let everyone down, my sister most of all. I only took my eyes off Jenna for a second. But a second was all it took to lose her.
The day it happened, the twenty-fifth of May, was a bank holiday. The weather was sunny and warm in the small market town of Woodstock, in Oxfordshire, a hint that summer was finally on its way after a cold and rainy spring. I had grown up in Woodstock. The town seemed so ordinary and safe. Perhaps, that was why I’d let my guard down. Nothing bad happened in Woodstock. It was a quintessentially English town, a safe haven.
My father had died suddenly five years ago, shortly before my sister, Kate, had fallen pregnant with Jenna. As Mum wasn’t keen on rattling around the big house on her own, and Kate and her partner, Daniel Creswell, were living in a one-bedroom flat, it seemed logical for them to move in with Mum for a while.
Kate and Daniel married the year after Jenna was born, and Daniel progressed well in his career as a graphic designer. I was sure they could have afforded to buy their own place after the first year, but there was no need. The arrangement worked well for everyone. The house was large enough for Mum to have her own sitting room, and she was tolerant, easy to live with and adored Jenna.
Kate liked to joke she had a live-in babysitter. When I look back at that time now, I wish I had appreciated it more. We had so many happy memories.
Although I’d moved away from Woodstock, I hadn’t gone far. I had a one-bedroom flat in Oxford, near the train station. I enjoyed living in the hustle and bustle of the city, but I came back to Woodstock every weekend. Sunday lunch at my mother’s house was a ritual I didn’t want to miss.
It was a good job Mum was easy-going because I’m sure living with Daniel Creswell would have driven most people to distraction. It wasn’t that he was a nasty man, and he didn’t treat my sister or Jenna badly, but he could be condescending and always wanted to be the subject of the conversation.
If you told him you had a pet elephant, Daniel would have a bigger one and the box to put it in. The constant one-upmanship irritated me, but Mum and Kate didn’t seem to notice. The simple truth was they were nicer than me.
On the day it happened, my patience was already wearing thin with Daniel. He’d dominated the conversation yesterday over Sunday lunch, droning on about how successful he was and describing his recent business trip to Barcelona. When I asked whether he’d gone to see any sights, he informed me he wasn’t there as a tourist and was far too busy to explore the city. I hadn’t done anything more than roll my eyes, but that was enough for Mum to send a chastising look in my direction. I was very familiar with that look.
One day a week in Daniel’s presence, I could tolerate, but because today was a bank holiday and it was the Wood- stock spring fête, I was in his company for the second day in a row, and he was starting to grate on my nerves.
The fête was held in Woodstock primary school’s playing field. There weren’t a huge number of attractions, but I’d been doing a pretty good job of avoiding him, slowly walking around the make-shift stalls that sold homemade jam, fragrant candles, tea and small cakes.
The smell of freshly-cut grass carried on the breeze, and the sun was warm on my skin. Children’s excited laughter came from the stocks where they were pelting one of the female teachers with sopping wet sponges. Her once wavy hair hung in lank, dripping strands.
She caught me watching and grimaced. “Do you want a turn?”
I shook my head, grinning. “No, thanks!”
They were raising money for a good cause, maintaining the communal gardens. I stopped to watch for a while, laughing when one small boy grew sick of his poor aim and rushed up to squeeze water from his sponge onto the teacher instead.
When a few sharp words rose above the general chatter around me, I turned to see Daniel had his hand on my sister’s arm. The rigid way my sister stood next to her husband made me think they were arguing. Her body was tense, and she held Jenna’s hand tightly.
My niece, Jenna, like most three-year-olds, didn’t like to stand still. She was tugging Kate’s hand and bouncing on the balls of her feet, eager to participate in the fun.
There were children running everywhere, laughing with delight. The fête was set up for young children. Face paint- ing, a bouncy castle, balloons, an ice-cream van, and for the older children, there was tinny music blaring out from one of the stalls with a minor local celebrity, Robin Vaughan, holding court.
Robin Vaughan wore a garishly-bright Hawaiian shirt and dark skinny jeans. Not a good look for a man in his fifties. I didn’t understand the attraction, but the kids seemed to love him.
I dragged my gaze away from Robin and his cringe-worthy attempts to impress the youngsters gathered around him and turned back to my sister. I didn’t want to listen in on their private conversation, so I waited until Daniel turned and stalked off before walking towards her.
“Is everything all right?” I put my hand on her shoulder.
Kate blinked and smiled brightly. “Of course, everything is fine. Isn’t the weather amazing? I can’t believe the sun is shining on a bank holiday. Wonders will never cease.”
She was babbling and talking about the weather, so I knew something was wrong, but whatever it was, she didn’t want to confide in me. At the time, I thought it was only a minor tiff between husband and wife.
I smiled down at Jenna who had progressed to whining and yanking on her mother’s arm. “I want the bouncy castle.”
I ruffled her soft blonde hair and looked at where she pointed to the inflatable, red bouncy castle and frowned. It looked very big, and I worried it might be a bit too rough for a child Jenna’s size.
“I think that’s for bigger boys and girls, Jenna,” I said and watched her small face crumple. I should have used the distraction technique.
“We’ll see what Mummy thinks,” I said, turning back to Kate, but she wasn’t paying attention. She was looking over my shoulder, watching her husband, Daniel, talking to one of our friends, Pippa Clarkson. Pippa was in charge of a stall selling handmade candles. She’d been in Kate’s year at school and was a couple of years older than me. She’d made quite a success of her candle business, even managing to employ Kate part-time to help fulfil orders. Pippa’s husband, Mark, was nowhere to be seen.
Next to Pippa stood Phil Bowman. He was supposed to be helping but he looked blankly down at the table, his arms hanging by his sides.
“God, he looks awful,” I muttered.
“Hmm?” Kate sounded distracted and kept her gaze on Pippa and Daniel.
“Phil Bowman,” I said and felt my chest tighten. “How long has it been now?”
Kate sighed. “Eight months.” “Poor bloke.”
Phil had lost his wife and daughter in a car accident on the A44. He’d been driving but survived without a scratch. His wife and daughter hadn’t been so lucky. Today, he looked grey, worn out and out of place. The people surrounding him were smiling, joking and laughing, but Phil looked like he was using up all his energy just to stay upright.
He was only a few years older than us. I’d dated his younger brother, Luke, for a while. It was years ago, but I could remember how I’d been so impressed by Phil. He went to music gigs, wore a leather jacket and seemed so mature and exciting. When I was sixteen, he’d bought Luke a bottle of Strawberry 20/20, and we’d sipped it while sitting on the bench behind the cemetery. I’d been slightly easier to impress when I was sixteen. These days, I preferred wine to fruit-flavoured alcohol.
Phil had been one of life’s successes. He’d had it all. After studying Chemistry at Oxford, he had settled into domestic bliss with his wife and daughter. That all ended eight months ago.
He kept his gaze lowered, avoiding all the curious glances from locals. It was hard to keep things private in a small town where everyone knew each other’s business. It was to be expected, I supposed, but I found it claustrophobic and stifling at times. I looked around, wondering where Luke was. He’d been his brother’s almost constant companion since the accident, but today he was nowhere to be seen.
Kate’s face tightened and she reached down to stroke Jenna’s hair, as though reassuring herself her daughter was still safe. “I can’t imagine how you can get past something like that,” Kate murmured.
Frustrated at her mother and aunt, Jenna stamped her foot. “Mummy,” she said, drawing out the word to pronounce every syllable.
“Just a minute, Jenna. Mummy is talking,” Kate replied. Her voice was calm as it always was when she spoke to her daughter.
Jenna could be headstrong and was prone to tantrums, but it all washed over Kate. She patiently dealt with every one of Jenna’s outbursts, calmly explaining to Jenna why she couldn’t do all the things she wanted to.
I’d tried the logical conversations Kate was so fond of with Jenna but found they didn’t suit me. I preferred the distraction technique when it came to dealing with my three- year-old niece.
But today, it was Kate who seemed distracted and impatient. It was very unlike her. I reached out for Jenna’s hand. “Why don’t I take Jenna to the bouncy castle?”
Kate smiled gratefully at me. “Thanks. You’re an angel.” Jenna bounced along beside me, her tiny hand warm in mine. She had so much energy she found it impossible to walk in a straight line. She swung our arms, giggling and skipping beside me.
I’ve replayed that moment in my mind a thousand times since then, wondering if someone was watching us, waiting for the perfect time to strike.
I can remember every detail of what Jenna wore that day. The long pinafore dress in her favourite pink swirled around her small legs as she walked. She’d decorated the dress with butterfly stickers, which were her current obsession. Over the top, she wore a cream cardigan, hand-knitted by Granny, and interwoven with pearlescent pink ribbons. Her shoes were practical rather than pretty. Velcro sandals, built for comfort over style. Even they had to be pink, though.
As she looked up at me, excited and already bouncing, her round cheeks dimpled in a smile, and her big blue eyes were bright as she looked up. She was so trusting. She feared nothing.
We were almost at the bouncy castle when another child stepped in front of us. I guessed she must have been about five years old. Her curly hair was scooped back in a pony- tail. Her face was vividly painted with pink and white in the shape of a butterfly, and I knew before Jenna even opened her mouth she would demand a butterfly of her own.
Jenna stopped dead, staring at the bigger girl in front of us.
The child looked vaguely familiar, and I smiled at her and her parents, who were following close behind.
“You look very pretty,” I said, which earned me a shy smile. Jenna tugged at my hand. “I want a butterfly.”
“Please,” I corrected automatically. “I want a butterfly, please.”
“Please, Auntie Beth?” She looked up at me, thrilled at the thought of getting her very own butterfly, and I turned back to the stall. A crowd of children had gathered around the face painting station.
But then I saw the woman in charge and shivered.
It was Dawn Parsons. I felt a prickle over my skin and held Jenna’s hand a little tighter. It was hard to explain my aver- sion to Dawn. It started when I was a child. Dawn had always been a big, lumbering girl. She wasn’t fat, but every- thing about her was thick and solid. She wasn’t ugly, either, just lifeless. Her face lacked all animation, and I don’t think I’d ever seen her smile.
Her clumsy, slow movements made her a prime target for bullies, and at one time, when I was in year seven or eight, I’d felt sorry for her. That only lasted until the age-old adage became true. Individuals who are bullied often become bullies themselves.
I had been walking home after school when a group of older boys from our school decided to torment Dawn. They called her names, pulled on her schoolbag and poked her with their fingers, running away before she could react. They never crossed the line to violence, but it was cruel, and it made me feel sick.
With an older sister and her friends to stick up for me, I’d never had to worry about bullies. But that day, Kate was off school with tonsillitis, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted the boys to stop, but I wasn’t brave enough to speak up.
Trying to ignore the bullying, I’d crossed to the other side of the road, which in retrospect, wasn’t a good idea because that side of the road didn’t have a pavement and the grass verge was perilously close to the small brook that snaked along the same path as the road.
When the boys were tired of their game, they shouted one last volley of abuse at Dawn and ran.
I saw Dawn’s shoulders shaking. I thought she was crying and paused to ask if she was okay. But when she saw me looking at her, the words dried in my throat.
Her normally dull eyes flashed angrily at me, and she stomped her way across the road towards me.
I took half a step back, too afraid to run. Dawn had always been much larger than me.
“What are you looking at?” she demanded, spittle flying from the edges of her lips.
I was too scared to reply and shook my head.
Dawn loomed over me and then a look of spite distorted her features as she lifted both hands and shoved me firmly on the chest.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the brook hadn’t been behind me, but I lost my footing and fell heavily on my side, hitting the water with a splash, soaking myself and getting covered with mud in the process.
Dawn stood there, silently chuckling to herself.
I finally managed to scramble out and ran all the way home. The brook was only a couple of inches deep, and other than a few bruises, I was unhurt. I never told anyone what had happened. Mum scolded me when I got home dripping wet and splattered with mud, assuming I’d been messing about in the brook, and I didn’t correct her.
After that day, I no longer felt sorry for Dawn Parsons.
Jenna reached up to tap me on the hip, demanding my attention.
“We’ll do the face-painting after the bouncy castle,” I said, hoping that Jenna would have forgotten about it by then.
I didn’t like the thought of Dawn’s thick, stubby fingers applying greasy makeup to Jenna’s face.
Dawn hadn’t changed as she’d grown up. If anything, she became more insular and less sociable. She still lived at home in the old thatched cottage with her mother, and as far as I knew, she hadn’t held down a full-time job for more than a couple of months.
Jenna looked at me and then at the face-painting stall, and I could tell she was deciding whether to make a fuss. Time to use the trusted distraction method again.
“Come on, I’ll race you,” I said.
I kept hold of her hand and pretended to let her drag me along, protesting she was going too fast. Jenna laughed in delight. She had a competitive spirit and liked to win at everything.
Kate would tell me off when I let Jenna win the games we played. She insisted Jenna had to learn she wouldn’t always win at everything. But I figured that was my prerogative as her aunt. I didn’t have to make sure Jenna was a good loser. I was just there to help her have fun.
Her cheeks were glowing when we made it to the bouncy castle. I slid a couple of pound coins out of my pocket to pay the grey-haired man, who stood beside the discarded shoes at the front of the inflatable castle.
A group of Chinese tourists gathered on the edge of the street. Most of them snapped photos on their phones. I supposed an English fête was quaint and charming to them. One man, a little taller than the others, snapped away using a fancy camera with a long lens.
Jenna was in such a rush to get on I had to physically grab her and remind her she needed to remove her shoes first. Luckily her pink suede sandals were fastened with Velcro straps. I set them to one side before lifting her onto the bouncy castle.
She lost her footing almost straightaway, falling and landing on her backside, and she giggled with glee as the bouncing from the other children jostled her.
“Go on,” I said, encouraging her. “Try to bounce,”
It had taken a little while for Jenna to regain her footing, and each time she fell it made her giggle even harder.
A woman was standing on the opposite side of the bouncy castle. I guessed she was a mother watching one of the other children, except she wasn’t really watching. She was tapping out something on her smartphone.
I turned my attention back to Jenna. She’d found her footing and actually managed a couple of jumps before she fell down again.
Her cheeks were flushed, and I started to worry that I should have taken off her cardigan. It was unusually warm today.
“Are you too hot?” I called out. “Come over here and let me take your cardigan off.”
She shook her head, and I knew she suspected me of trying to lure her off the bouncy castle before she was ready. Jenna was wise to the ploys of adults.
I exchanged a look with the woman beside me.
“She knows her own mind, that one,” the woman commented dryly.
“She certainly does.”
It didn’t really matter, though. I could take her cardigan off as soon as she was finished.
I saw a larger boy jumping exuberantly, bouncing closer to Jenna, but before I could call out a warning, the boy stumbled and fell against Jenna. I bit my lip, barely holding myself back from climbing onto the castle myself and picking her up.
The tumble had shocked her, and she landed with a bump. The happy expression left her face in an instant. She sat there for a moment, eyes wide, as the older boy picked himself up, said sorry and then carried on bouncing.
Jenna’s lip wobbled, and if I didn’t intervene, it wouldn’t be long before she started to cry.
I opened up my arms, and she scrambled forward on her hands and knees towards me. I gathered her up, kissed her on the forehead and told her what a brave girl she was.
“Was that fun? Did you bounce very high?”
Jenna nodded, torn between wanting to cry and listen to me praise her jumping skills.
“How high did you jump?” I asked.
She pointed up to the sky, and I grinned. “That’s amazing.”
When I was sure tears had been averted, I put her back down, slipped her shoes on and then tugged at her cardigan. “Let’s take this off, shall we? It’s a bit hot today.”
I took her hand again, and we set off back towards Kate and the rest of the family. Halfway back across the field, I groaned. I was an amateur. I should have brought Jenna back the other way so she didn’t see the face painting again.
The mishap on the bouncy castle was now completely forgotten, as Jenna grinned gleefully and pointed at the face-painting station.
“Can I have a butterfly now?”
I glanced over. Dawn was still there. She looked up and made eye contact, staring blankly at me. I shuddered.
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