You live with her. You trust her. But you don’t know her…
Wanted: full-time, live-in help for expectant mother. Must be organised, friendly and willing to do anything.
Rachel is determined to be the perfect mother. She has a birth plan, with a playlist and a bag ready by the door. She’s chosen a lovely light cream paint for the nursery, and in wide-eyed, innocent Abbie she’s found the perfect person to help her with her baby.
Because every mother needs a bit of help, don’t they?
But Rachel needs a little more than most.
She still makes sure her bedroom door is locked before she goes to sleep. She still checks the cameras that are dotted throughout the house.
Rachel trusts Abbie.
She just knows better than to trust herself…
From the bestselling author of Her Husband’s Lover, this is a truly gripping story about how far people will go to find a family. Filled with tension and twists to keep you glued to every page, it is perfect for fans of Ruth Ware, Shari LaPena and The Girl on the Train.
See what readers are saying about Julia Crouch:
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Release date: October 12, 2021
Print pages: 350
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She can’t take her eyes off the screen, where a small white blob sits in a black circle surrounded by hazy white etched lines. It looks like a sort of abstract painting, but even without the tiny hand reaching up like it wants to wave at her, Abbie knows exactly what it is.
Her excitement overcomes even the exhaustion of the twelve-hour night shift she has just worked. RR is having a baby!
One eye on the screen, she fumbles with her key and lets herself in. Dumping her heavy rucksack on the floor, she shrugs off her fleece. Dealing with #RealLifeFirst, as RR often reminds her she should, she puts the phone down on her little dining table to say hello to Barney and open his cage. As soon as he is perched on his favourite spot – her head – she picks up the phone again and sinks carefully onto the landlord’s sofa, which despite her best efforts still looks ratty and stained.
Outside on City Road, an early-morning ambulance races past. Someone screams. Abbie barely registers the sounds, which go on all the time round here.
She taps the more… link and expands RR’s post. Her green eyes run over the lines, her breath picking up pace.
RR is reaching out!
Abbie’s stomach churns, like she has just fallen in love with someone. Picking up on her shift of mood, Barney has a word:
‘You look really lovely, Abbie.’
‘Aw, ta, Barns.’ She has taught him only to say beautiful things to her. No nasty swears here.
A Big Bang universe of possibility blooms in her brain. This could be her big opportunity!
She tells herself to calm down. She needs to breathe, get a grip. How many other people are reading this post right now? More than a million, probably.
But even so. Why not her?
She closes her eyes and whispers the RR mantra: Think positive. You can do this!
Excitement ripples through her belly. Perhaps she really could!
She levers off her work trainers and, phone in hand, bird on head, makes her way across the worn carpet to where her yoga mat is stashed between the rattling fridge and the cooker. Knowing this routine well, Barney flutters off and takes up his second-favourite perch, on top of the telly. He likes being there because he thinks she’s watching him instead of Pointless.
She rolls her mat out on the clear bit of carpet between the kitchen lino and the sofa and pulls up her favourite Racheletics five-minute unwind-after-work sequence. As Rachel takes her gently through the beginning of the flow – a sun salutation so beautifully explained that it feels new every time – Abbie pictures herself on her mat on the glossy oak studio floor in Honeyhill Barn, next to Rachel, in tight proper yoga gear rather than her baggy grey work tracksuit. Instead of the skunk weed stink from the hallway she shares with eight others in this house of bedsits in St Pauls, Bristol, she breathes in that upscale scented candle burning on the ledge behind Rachel. Because of the affiliate link below the video, Abbie knows the brand. And that she can’t afford even the travel size.
The sequence done, she sits cross-legged, closes her eyes and zones out the roar of traffic and inner-city fury outside her unwashed window. Instead, she fills her ears with imagined Honeyhill, Devon birdsong, a breeze riffling through trees.
‘Chill, babe.’ Barney returns to her head, her little guardian angel.
Despite having lived in cities since she was five years old, Abbie’s still a country girl at heart. At the grand old age of twenty-six, she would love to move back, to a life free from cleaning up after office workers who don’t give a moment’s thought or gratitude to the silent army who move in after they go home.
She wants to be valued, to have someone be grateful for her, to not be taken for granted.
It’s not much to ask, is it?
And here is the potential answer to all that. And the best part is that it’s with Rachel Rodrigues!
At the very least, she has the experience and the loveliness Rachel is looking for.
This is her moment! She swipes across her phone screen to look up Posh June, who she shared a room with a few years ago and who has since helped out on the odd occasion.
‘Any time you need anything,’ PJ said back then. ‘Remember I owe you.’
As she taps out a text asking for advice, Barney nibbles at her bleached and straightened hair.
The message sent, she tears a page out of her empty gratitude journal and writes the first item for a five-point plan:
1. Buy a nice interview suit and get your hair done.
‘Who’s a lovely girl then?’ Barney tweets in her ear.
Rachel sits back on her haunches, leans on the toilet bowl with one hand and wipes her mouth with the back of the other.
‘Still,’ she says to her reflection as she rinses her mouth in front of the mirror. ‘At least you’re not going to get fat.’ Instantly she chides herself for entertaining unhealthy body-image thoughts.
Would all this be useful to share? It is, after all, a universal experience, encountered by seventy per cent of pregnant women. She laughs as she washes her hands. Throwing up is hardly on-brand, even in such a moodily lit bathroom. @rachelhoneyhill doesn’t vomit. Plus, @rachelhoneyhill has been using MamaBliss Calm Tum, the anti-emetic lemon-and-peppermint herbal spray sent by the manufacturer as soon as she announced her news. As far as her followers know, this stuff really works, and she can’t afford to give them any evidence to the contrary. Particularly not her new baby- and pregnancy-oriented followers.
And anyway – she eyes herself in the flattering light of the mirror – who knows how bad things would have got without MamaBliss?
Shoulders back, lovely smile, tiny breath-freshening mint and a smidge of almost invisible glow brushed on the cheeks, and she is ready to rejoin Fran to see in the next interviewee on this, the third and final day of the search for her mother’s helper.
‘Poor babe,’ Fran says, as Rachel flops down next to her on the orange velvet sofa.
Outside the window of their suite, London rumbles. The buses are packed, overheated crowds swarm out of the Tube station across the road. It’s all too much noise, too many memories of dark times, and the air here makes her want to choke. After so long in the countryside, she doesn’t think she’ll ever get used to being in crowds again. She itches to get back to her Honeyhill sanctuary.
But Blues offered the suite for free in exchange for a story. And it could be worse. This room, with its matt petrol-blue walls and earthy accent colours, is a perfect refuge. A little aspirational for most of her followers, but entirely on-brand. If only she didn’t have to ever step outside.
‘Isn’t the throwing-up supposed to have stopped by now?’ she says.
Fran puts a sympathetic hand on her knee. ‘Some of us vom a bit longer than others. Sorry, babe.’ Fran’s done this pregnancy thing three times, so, as well as being Rachel’s best friend, she is, in every way, her baby mentor. Rachel feels bad leaning on her too much, though, after what happened a little over a year ago with the twins. While Mila survived, poor little Noud only lived for two hours, and the catastrophe of the birth meant that they were the last babies Fran would ever have. You wouldn’t know any of this to look at her today, though. She is as groomed, proud and beautiful as ever. Like nothing ever happened.
‘So,’ Fran goes on, ‘we’ve got twenty minutes until the next one. Wanna recap today’s lot?’ She places her MacBook on the coffee table. In her hyper-organised, legal-wizard way, she has created spreadsheets for the mother’s helper applicants, with headings such as experience, qualifications, hopes and dreams and, most importantly, response to the Big Ask. There is also a full-length photograph for each applicant. These snaps not only act as an aide-memoire for Fran and Rachel, but the process of taking them is secretly part of the interview, gauging, as it does, each applicant’s response to that Big Ask.
Three who look awkward and uncomfortable in front of a camera are rejected without discussion. The remaining two are marked yellow, for maybe. One, Janine, beams white teeth at the camera and angles herself three quarters on.
‘A bit suspiciously professional,’ Fran says, pointing at the pose. ‘Not sure if she’s going to be natural enough.’
‘And she wasn’t massively experienced,’ Rachel adds.
‘How experienced can you be at eighteen?’
‘Perhaps we need someone older? I can’t be doing with having to look after a teenager.’
‘Not yet!’ Fran taps Rachel’s belly.
‘Beansprout will be the best-trained teenager in the universe.’
The other interviewee, Susie, smiles sweetly in her photograph, and holds up two fingers in a peace sign. Cute, Rachel thinks, but she got rather overexcited when she walked in, to the point of tears and slight hyperventilation.
‘I can’t believe it’s actually you,’ she had gasped, between gulps for air.
‘She’d get used to you,’ Fran says as she swigs from her metal water bottle.
‘She’s a bit small and pretty,’ Rachel says.
Fran gives her such a side-eye at this. But while Rachel needs someone to look after Beansprout when she’s born, she also needs a team member, and ideally someone who doesn’t make her look and feel, at five foot ten, like a great galumphing giant. It’s a sad, shallow fact that appearance counts for a lot in her world.
‘I still think that Caro from yesterday is perfect,’ Fran says. She brings up Caro’s sheet. Her photo shows her to be relaxed in front of the camera – not too pretty, not too plain, and average height. She has au pair experience, a degree in art history and is keen on running and dance.
‘But remember she didn’t know that much about me,’ Rachel says.
‘She was so sweet about the money being so good.’
‘Well, it is! Nah. I’m not that keen. She’s not got any edges to work with.’
‘Do you really want edges, though?’
‘She looks all finished, like an after photo. Think about it. Where’s the potential in that?’
‘You’d really sacrifice the perfect girl for a before-and-after?’
‘I need stories, Fran.’
Fran gives her another of her looks.
‘What?’ Rachel says.
They are disturbed by a waiter, who knocks and opens the door before waiting to be told to enter. The Blues uniform of unstructured linen shirt and trousers that almost blend into the walls fits him very nicely, setting off his blocky arm tats and blonde white-boy dreads.
‘Can I get you drinks, guys?’ he asks in broad Kiwi.
Fran looks at her watch. ‘Five p.m., so a martini for me,’ she says.
‘Just a sparkling water for me,’ Rachel says. She would murder a martini if she weren’t pregnant, vomiting and officially ten years sober. But even after all this time, the tiny act of ordering soft still gives her a sense of victory, signalling that she’s in control.
‘Coming up. Your next one’s outside,’ the waiter adds, just before he closes the door. While his face betrays nothing, there’s something just on the edge of snark in his voice that makes Rachel press her tongue against the back of her teeth. Is he aiming this at her? Or is it something to do with the next applicant? Or is she, as she has learned the hard way, just overcompensating for her inability to read what other people are saying?
As so often when she thinks about what the doctors call her ‘neural deficit’, she runs her finger through her hair and along the ridge of the six-inch scar where they had to open up her skull after The Event.
‘We’ll bring her in when we’re ready,’ Fran says to the waiter.
‘Have you got baby-care experience?’ Rachel asks him.
He frowns and leaves, perhaps a bit too quickly.
‘Inappropriate, Rach,’ Fran says.
‘Nice arse, though.’
Rachel’s assistant Wanda snippily ushers in the next interviewee, who walks straight up to them and shakes their hands. She smiles briefly, showing crooked teeth. Of average height and a little overweight, she is plainly but neatly dressed in a cheap skirt suit that has to be from Primark or Peacocks. Her shoulder-length bob is a little too stiff, and the bleach job so newly applied that her skin is still red at the hairline. Her make-up is the wrong shade for her colouring, with poorly applied contouring, and sitting above a pair of striking green eyes – her most appealing feature – her caterpillar eyebrows seriously need attention.
If yesterday’s Caro was too much of an ‘after’, this young woman standing in front of Rachel and Fran, blushing and not quite making eye contact, is pure ‘before’.
Rachel and Fran introduce themselves.
‘Abbie James,’ the girl says, the burr in her voice instantly recognisable. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘You’re from the West Country?’ Rachel says.
‘I was actually born in Westbourne Parva,’ Abbie says. ‘Though we moved away when I was five.’
‘Small world!’ Rachel says. ‘That’s just three miles away from Honeyhill.’
‘I know,’ Abbie says. She swallows audibly, then says, ‘I’m sorry. I’m a bit nervous.’
‘You’ve got lovely eyes,’ Rachel says.
‘Thank you.’ Abbie blushes. ‘They’re the same colour as yours.’
‘Ha!’ Rachel says.
‘Do take a seat, Abbie.’ Fran indicates the small armchair on the other side of the coffee table. Rachel knows this interruption is an attempt to stop her getting too pally, which, is, as Fran has already pointed out five times today, poor equal-ops practice.
‘We’ll touch first on the more unique aspects of this job,’ Fran goes on. ‘So if you don’t like it, we won’t be wasting each other’s time.’
‘OK.’ Abbie folds her hands tidily in her lap.
Fran leans back and hooks one arm casually over the back of the sofa. ‘We call it the Big Ask. We need to know that you are happy to be part of Rachel’s story. This will mean that you agree to photographs and videos that contain or feature you being posted across all of Rachel’s platforms – currently Instagram, YouTube and the merch website – and that you understand that you have no ownership of these images, nor any editorial control over words that may feature or mention you.’
‘That’s fine by me.’ Abbie smiles again. ‘Yeah.’
‘This is reflected in the generous remuneration package,’ Fran goes on. ‘You won’t be getting bonuses for appearances on any of the platforms. No royalties, repeat fees, et cetera, et cetera.’
‘I’m good with that.’
‘And you would have to hand over any existing social media presence to our control, which means that we may delete it.’
‘I only use it to follow people,’ Abbie says. ‘I never post anything.’
‘Nothing?’ Rachel asks.
Rachel can’t quite imagine this is true. Surely everyone posts something?
Fran runs over more of the legal points, including the permanent non-disclosure agreement the successful candidate will need to sign in addition to the temporary one she has already agreed to for this interview. ‘This means that you will never be able to discuss anything that you have seen or heard while you are in Rachel’s employment, even after you leave the post.’
‘Fine by me.’ Abbie nods. She hands over her paperwork.
She is twenty-six, which seems the perfect age. Twelve years younger than Rachel, which allows for the distance of seniority without being so young that she would need looking after. And she has masses of experience as a mother’s helper and nanny, all excellently documented, with glowing references. She also has a current clean DBA check. It’s clear from the way she talks about her former charges that she loves babies. And going by her previous employers’ testimonials, her ‘ladies’ appear to have greatly valued her.
In all, she looks like she would be a lot less challenging than certain of Rachel’s previous employees.
Abbie settles back in the armchair, her capable hands folded again in her lap, her sturdy ankles crossed. She appears to be perfect in every way.
But still. But still. Rachel can’t get over the social media thing. And she certainly doesn’t ever want to be referred to as one of Abbie’s ‘ladies’.
She tells herself to stop being such a snob.
To make amends, she leans forward and gives Abbie one of her best glowing smiles. ‘What are you up to at the moment?’ she asks her. ‘The last childcare job on your CV finished six months ago.’
‘Agency work. I like to wait for a job that suits me. Not just go for the next offer.’
‘And you realise that this post may last longer than the usual mother’s helper job?’ Fran says. ‘If all went well, you could become part of Rachel’s story for a long time.’
Abbie nods vigorously. ‘More than happy with that.’
‘And you’re fine to uproot yourself and move to the countryside?’ Fran asks.
‘I dream of getting back there,’ Abbie says. ‘I’ve had enough of Bristol.’
‘A lovely city,’ Fran says.
‘Some parts, yes.’
Indeed, when they move on to the next section of the interview, Abbie defines her hopes and dreams as a desire to live back in the countryside, to be of service and to be in close contact with animals and children.
‘How did you hear about the job?’ Fran asks.
‘On Rachel’s channel. I check in every day,’ Abbie says. ‘I do the yoga and workouts, and all the food stuff. And the meditations are great. I’m pretty calm, but they keep me proper grounded.’
‘Ah! A fan!’ Rachel says.
Abbie nods and smiles. ‘A big fan! Working for you is my dream job.’
‘It’s more than just childcare, you know,’ Fran says. ‘You’ll be expected to help out generally around the house and cook some meals for Rachel, and for baby when they turn up.’
‘Beansprout,’ Rachel adds.
‘I’d love to do that,’ Abbie says. It turns out that she has the vegan chef diploma from Ethical Eats Org, which, fittingly, she discovered when Rachel ran some partnership posts with them. As real knowledge of vegan food preparation is such a rarity, this is a massive bonus, although Rachel doesn’t want to talk about it in too much detail because of her delicate pregnancy vom situation.
Finally they take a photo of Abbie for Fran’s spreadsheet. The confidence she shows by standing straight, her shoulders pulled back, is undercut by those hard-working hands – Rachel noticed the clipped nails and roughened palms when they shook hands – which she holds awkwardly clasped in front of her, against her cheap skirt, like she isn’t quite as sure about herself as she makes out.
It’s exactly what Rachel is looking for. She has just one issue.
‘Is it me, or is her face a bit blank?’ she asks Fran.
‘It’s just you, my love,’ Fran says, putting a kind hand on her knee.
They see one more candidate – a definite no-no. Then Juno arrives for the photo shoot for the @bluespiccadilly story for Rachel’s Instagram.
And then it’s decision time.
Fran’s eyes blur over the less interesting parts of Belgium as they pass the window of the 18.10 Eurostar St Pancras to Rotterdam.
Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. Because of what happened to them when they were teenagers – The Event – they are so bound up together, it’s sometimes hard to know where the space is between them.
It wasn’t so much falling in love with Wim that made Fran move to the Netherlands. A typical down-to-earth, laid-back cloggie, he would be happy to live anywhere, and their respective jobs mean that location really isn’t an issue. More important was the physical space the shift put between her and her old school friend.
It’s not that she doesn’t love Rachel. It’s just that, on top of work and the children, the subtle but constant support she has to provide drains Fran right out. At least giving it mostly over Zoom and text means that it now occupies a purely Rachel area, which she can fence off when it’s not being used.
It’s been a long haul, getting Rachel pregnant, and she’s delighted that they’ve been successful at last. This baby will give her friend a chance to focus on someone other than herself. Which is important, because however lucrative it is, however much Rachel professes it is simply her job, Fran fears that all that selfie-taking is leading Rachel to an excessively inward focus, and that this will further isolate her. This idea – Fran’s, of course – of a live-in helper/placeholder for her own presence, a halfway house between friend and employee, was a stroke of genius.
She hopes this one doesn’t go the way of the other staff who have passed through Rachel’s hands. Fran has had it with policing post-resignation gagging orders. She has had to keep her eye on all three of Wanda’s predecessors, a photographer, a gardener and, of all things, a window cleaner.
It’s hard work being employed by Rachel. She hopes this Abbie survives. She’ll need a thick skin, possibly literally as well as metaphorically. She wonders also if Rachel’s insistence on having her start so early is such a good idea, whether ‘getting to know each other’ might not be more of a negative than a positive. She doesn’t want to lose Abbie before there’s even a baby to look after.
Fran rummages in her backpack and pulls out her lipstick. Using her phone as a mirror, she slides it on, then leans in and examines the crinkles around her eyes. What’s that down to? Three children in five years? Four, she silently corrects herself, discounting the possibility of adding grief to the list. The human rights lawyer work? Or Rachel?
It’s all such a responsibility, her shoulders hurt.
Shut up, she tells herself. You treat a thirty-eight-year-old woman like she’s one of your children.
‘Well, she is, kinda sorta,’ she says out loud to her image in her phone, forgetting about the middle-aged businessman across the aisle from her, who shifts in his seat and – at last – removes his gaze from her.
It’s the sense of duty she feels towards Rachel that’s the worst part. If she were supporting her purely out of choice, then it wouldn’t be so hard. But she’s also doing it because she owes her. Big time. Twenty-two years is quite long enough, though. She loves Rachel, but surely there must be a limit to feeling beholden to someone. Even if that person not only saved your life, but also shoulders the heavier part of your shared secret.
She scrolls on to Instagram, noting with mild alarm that Rachel has put up a new post. She pulls it up, but is pleased to see that her wayward friend hasn’t got overexcited and broken their mutually agreed embargo. It’s a relief, because Wanda needs the time to follow up references and let the other applicants down gently.
Fran winces at Rachel’s breathless ‘I’m on the train’ post. She hates the name Beansprout. And all those exclamation marks. But then Rachel’s whole shtick is so anti-cool it is cool. It’s why young women like her so much, and God knows, if there’s one thing Rachel gets, it’s what her audience likes.
Fran really needs to stop feeling so proprietorial about that baby. Let it go.
The thought alone stings the scar where her belly was ripped open.
Have they made the right decision about who will look after this precious new life?
‘Abbie’s the one, then,’ Rachel had said as they took their seats in the restaurant across the road from Blues.
They had both decided that a change of scene would be a good idea for the end-of-day decision-making. Plus, after the waiter brought Fran a second martini, and a first for Juno, who was clearing up after the photo shoot, Fran knew she wouldn’t be able to put up with his flirting one moment longer. Rachel had given him an inch and he clearly thought the mile was his for the taking.
‘Really?’ Fran said. ‘She’s sweet. But don’t you think she’s a bit dull, a bit puddingy?’
Rachel looked a little green round the gills as she read the menu.
‘Let’s just get you some plain pasta with a bit of cream sauce,’ Fran told her. ‘That used to be my morning-sickness go-to.’
‘But carbs,’ Rachel said.
‘You need them right now. You should be putting on weight, not losing it.’
‘If you say so, Mama. What do you mean about dull, then?’
‘What do the two of you have in common, for example?’
‘Is that important?’
‘Are you compatible? You’re going to be spending a lot of time together.’
‘It’s a big house.’
‘What about that Caro? Have we completely discounted her?’
‘Once the baby comes, she’d be running rings round me,’ Rachel said. ‘I’m too competitive for that. It’d be exhausting.’
‘Perhaps we should reach out again?’ Fran said.
‘Wanda and I went through over a thousand applications. We shortlisted down to fifty for the first-round questionnaire, and this thirty we’ve just spent three days seeing in person are the final lot. We’re not going to find someone better than Abbie.’ Rachel sipped her fizzy water. ‘And anyway, I don’t have to make her my best friend.’
‘Absolutely not! That post is already filled.’
‘And just think of the content I can make about improving her fitness and appearance. My followers will love her – she is literally one of them.’
‘But is that a good enough reason—’
‘And she comes from just round the corner. It’s a good omen! I mean, she’s not some city girl who’s going to be all scared or bored stuck out in the countryside.’
‘That would be a nightmare. No. She’s perfect.’
And that was it. There was no telling Rachel once she’d decided on something. After the meal, they returned to the Blues suite and phoned the numbers of the two past employers Abbie had given as references.
‘Wanda should be doing this,’ Rachel said. ‘Where is she?’
‘You sent her home, remember? Said you wanted to travel back on your own?’
‘Oh yeah.’ She nodded. But she had clearly forgotten. This worries Fran. Is this blackout thing getting worse?
As the train pulls out of Antwerp, Fran looks back over the notes she took when they spoke to Abbie’s former ‘ladies’. The first, a hair salon owner, sounded as one would expect. But the second sounded more like some sort of gangland matriarch than the businesswoman she claimed to be.
Remember, Fran tells herself, it takes all sorts. And Abbie’s references, whoever they come from, are madly, wildly glowing.
But something inside her, some over-honed lawyer’s bullshit detector, makes her spend the next twenty minutes searching online. The only relevant hits am. . .
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