"5 Brilliant Stars. Wow what an ending! This book pulled me in from the very first paragraph... I just finished this and I am still shock... fabulous from the first paragraph to last!' 5 starsAudio Killed the Bookmark
"Don’t take my baby."
Kirstie Rawlings is jolted awake by a child crying. Racing upstairs to check on her new-born, she is plunged into every parents’ worst nightmare. She hears an unknown voice in the baby monitor, saying: "Let’s take the child – and go."
Is someone trying to steal her little girl?
In the bedroom, her daughter is safe asleep in her cot. Is the voice coming from a nearby house? But there aren’t any other children living on her quiet country road…
The police don't believe her. And neither does her husband.
Kirstie knows something isn’t right. She thought she could trust her neighbours, now she isn’t sure. As she unravels the secrets of the people living on her street, Kirstie’s perfect life begins to fall apart.
Because someone is hiding a terrible lie. And they will do anything to stop Kirstie uncovering the truth. But is the danger closer to home than she thinks?
From the top ten bestselling author of The Secret Mother , this completely gripping psychological thriller will make you wonder what really goes on behind closed doors. And will keep you guessing from the first page until the final shocking twist.
Release date: March 29, 2018
Print pages: 284
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The Child Next Door
I’m jolted awake by a sharp cry.
I inhale and open my eyes wide, glancing around, trying to work out where I am. My legs are cramped, curled beneath me on the sofa. I must have fallen asleep. That cry. Was it…? No, it’s okay, nothing to get in a panic over. It’s just the Swedish crime drama I was supposed to be watching – I can’t even stay awake for my favourite programmes these days.
I stretch my legs and pause the TV, listening, just in case the noise didn’t come from the television. Outside, the sky is bruising, a purplish glow spreading above the horseshoe-shaped road that forms our little cul-de-sac of six houses. A stillness seems to settle over everything, and the sky darkens further.
Another sound makes me catch my breath. Not from the TV then… There it is again – this time there’s no mistake that it’s a tiny whimper from the baby monitor. My little girl Daisy does that a lot, those little short cries. I bet if I were to go upstairs now, she’d be fast asleep. I try to relax, smiling to myself at the thought of her round cheeks, and those tiny fists up around her ears like a miniature boxer. I count to ten in my head, wait a moment more, then exhale in relief at the continued silence. I pull my feet up under me once more and press rewind on the remote.
Daisy is already six months old and we moved her into her own room last week. But I don’t like her being so far away from us. It was comforting to have her next to me, and easier for the night feeds. Now that she’s in her own room, I have to drag myself out of bed and go to her when she cries instead of reaching across and bringing her into bed with me. Moving her was more for Dominic’s sake. My husband is a light sleeper and her little movements, cries and snuffles throughout the night kept him awake. He’s also training for a triathlon, so a good night’s sleep is important to him. That’s where he is this evening – out running. I don’t know how he can stand it in this heatwave, it must feel like running through treacle.
I frown at another cry, louder this time. With a sigh, I pause the TV, reach for the baby monitor and curl my hand around the chunky white plastic device, waiting to see if she wakes properly this time.
The monitor is suddenly full of static like an old radio, dots of red light flashing across its front. I wish we could invest in a new set of super-duper monitors with a video screen and thermometer and night vision and all the other extras, but money is tight at the moment. Mum got us this second-hand set from a car boot sale; they’re basic, with just sound and lights, but it’s better than nothing.
The static clears and the lights pulse again, and I hear a different sound through the speaker. Not a cry this time, but a cough. Not a baby’s cough. An adult cough. A man’s cough.
Fear clutches at my belly. Sweat breaks out on my upper lip and prickles my scalp. The thump, thump, thump of my heart beats in my ears. I must have been mistaken. Surely it can’t have been… but there… what’s that? Whispering. And then, clear as day, a man’s hushed voice:
‘Quick, let’s just take the baby now and go.’
Terror turns my blood to ice and freezes my brain. There is someone in my house.
Daisy! Someone’s trying to take Daisy!
My legs are concrete, but I have to move. I have to stop whoever is trying to steal my child. I lurch to my feet, a scream forming in my throat, but I press my lips together to stop it escaping.
Without any kind of plan, I race up the stairs, my mind projecting forward. I’m already imagining my scream as I discover my baby has gone. I’m already feeling the anguish and heartbreak. I’m even imagining Dominic and me on TV giving a press conference – him stoic, me in tears. I’m already imagining that my life as I know it is over. This can’t be happening…
As my bare feet hit the carpeted stairs, I dismiss the fact that I’m a small, slight, thirty-five-year-old woman in a cotton sundress with no self-defence skills and no weapon to use against a dangerous intruder. I’ll do whatever is necessary. I won’t let them take my child! They’ll have to kill me first.
The most awful thoughts crowd my mind: kidnappers, child slavery, illegal adoption, sickos… Maybe I should have called the police immediately, but there’s no time, and anyway, it’s too late now. I’m already approaching Daisy’s bedroom, ready to tear and lunge at whoever is there. Ready to stop whoever is trying to snatch my baby. I shove open the door to the room, panting like an animal, terror clawing at my skin. I’m not scared of the intruder. I’m scared that they might harm my child. That they might take her. That I might be too late to save her.
Tensed to attack, I take in the scene.
There’s no one here. The room is empty.
With a sob, I race over to my daughter’s white cot. My heart jolts and lifts. She’s here. My baby is here, sleeping. I drop the monitor onto her mattress and scoop her familiar shape up in my arms, stroke her dark hair with trembling fingers, drop grateful kisses onto her soft forehead, the milky scent of her helping to quell my panic. I glance over at the window, heart still knocking against my ribs. The light from a violet sunset stains the closed curtains. I draw them apart and stare out of the open window, convinced I will see two figures making their escape across the garden or the playing fields beyond. But the hazy August evening is muggy and still. Silent, apart from a slight sighing breeze through the trees and the distant growl of a car engine. As I pull the double-glazed window shut with a scrape and a thud, I notice a new blanket of windfall apples strewn by the back gate.
I stare down at Daisy’s face, reassuring myself that she really is okay, she’s safe. The thump of my heartbeat gradually slows, my skin cools, my breathing steadies. Did I imagine that voice in the monitor? No. I heard it clear as a bell. With a new sense of dread, I check behind the bedroom door, then fling open the wardrobe doors.
No one there.
But then I hear the unmistakable mewling cry again. The sound of my baby. Only it can’t be her – my daughter is in my arms and she is quiet. The sound is coming from the monitor which I dropped in the crib. It’s not the sound of my baby. I realise it must be someone else’s child. The baby monitor must be picking up another signal.
And now I can hear the voices again – a hushed, frantic whispering, broken up by static. Are the voices coming from a neighbour’s house? With a racing mind, I think about the other five houses in my cul-de-sac. There are no other babies in the road as far as I’m aware. I would know about them. Unless someone is visiting one of my neighbours. Which would mean that another child is in danger. Heart hammering, I know I have to warn my neighbours.
Daisy is a warm weight against my chest. Still sleeping, unconcerned by the drama unfolding, unaffected by my racing heartbeat. I reach into her crib and pick up the discarded monitor. Noiseless now. I turn up the volume, but there’s nothing, no static, no voices or cries. Am I too late to save the other child?
I rush downstairs with Daisy in my arms and locate my phone on the arm of the sofa. One-handed, I dial 999 with my thumb before flinging open my front door and scanning the cul-de-sac. Everything looks normal: front doors shut, familiar cars parked neatly in their driveways, no visitors’ cars that I can see. The ring tone in my ear stops abruptly. A woman’s voice:
‘Hello, emergency services, which service do you require? Fire, police, or ambulance?’
‘Police,’ I say, my voice sounding thin and hysterical. ‘Please hurry.’
‘Connecting you now.’
A man’s voice comes on the line. Composed and assured. ‘Hello, can I take your name please?’
‘Where are you calling from, Kirstie?’
‘Magnolia Close, number four,’ I pant. I repeat the address in case he didn’t get it the first time. ‘Four. Magnolia Close. Wimborne. Dorset.’
‘What’s the nature of the emergency?’ the operator asks.
‘There are intruders trying to snatch a baby.’
‘Are the intruders in your house right now?’
‘No, not my house. They’re in someone else’s house. A neighbour’s house.’
‘What’s their address?’
‘I don’t know. I heard them through my baby monitor. I don’t know where they are, but they said they were going to take the baby. They could be taking it right now.’
‘Please try to stay calm. We’re sending someone to your address immediately. They’ll be with you within a few minutes.’
‘Okay, please hurry.’ I squeeze my eyes shut, praying they get here in time. I can’t bear to think about what will happen to that child if they don’t.
I’m unable to relax. Instead of pacing inside, chewing my nails, waiting for the police to arrive, I walk down the driveway carrying Daisy, with the intention of knocking on my neighbours’ doors. I have to do something. I wish I could call Dominic to let him know what’s going on. To tell him to come back home right now. But he never takes his phone when he’s out running. Please let him be back soon.
It’s still warm out despite the darkening sky. It’s been the kind of summer you don’t usually get in Britain – with a heavy, damp heat that hangs in the air even after the sun goes down. I decide to go to the house next door first. But before my feet get as far as the pavement, a police car pulls into the cul-de-sac and cruises my way.
I lift my free hand and wave them over. Daisy has woken and is staring up at me, transfixed by my face, quiet for now. Content to be in my arms. The vehicle pulls up at the bottom of my driveway and two uniformed male officers get out. I walk down to meet them.
‘Kirstie Rawlings?’ the taller officer asks with a warm Dorset drawl, an indulgent smile on his lips as he sees Daisy in my arms.
‘Yes,’ I reply shakily.
‘Can we come inside?’ he asks. ‘Talk to you about what you heard?’
‘Can you check the neighbours first?’ I say. ‘See if there are any babies missing.’
‘We’d like to hear from you what happened.’ The officer gestures to my front door, trying to guide me up the driveway, but I don’t want them wasting time inside. The kidnappers could be escaping out the back of someone else’s house as we speak.
‘Didn’t the operator tell you?’ I plant myself on the driveway, ‘I heard voices through my baby monitor, saying they were going to take the baby.’
‘That’s the thing, I don’t know. Please. We need to ask the neighbours. Check they don’t have any babies staying with them.’
‘What did the voice say?’ the other officer asks. ‘Can you remember?’
‘It was something like, quick, let’s take the baby.’
‘Was the voice male or female?’
‘Male. Definitely male.’
‘Can we see the monitor?’ the tall one asks.
I sigh and stride back up the driveway with the officers behind me. I don’t feel any sense of urgency from them. Surely they should be searching the area? Don’t people say that the first few minutes are vital when children go missing? These two are wasting valuable time, missing their opportunity to save a child. The thought gives me chills. What if the kidnappers had come to my house instead of a neighbour’s? Daisy’s window has been open all evening, they could easily have climbed in and taken her. The thought makes me momentarily dizzy. I stop walking and take a breath, the scent of next door’s honeysuckle hanging in the air, thick and strong. Too sweet.
‘You okay?’ one of them asks, putting a hand on my shoulder.
‘We need to hurry,’ I say, pulling myself together and continuing up the driveway. We go in. The monitor is on the sofa where I left it, but it’s silent now.
‘So this monitor links to the one in your baby’s room?’ the shorter officer asks, taking it from me and holding it to his ear. He gives it a shake and twiddles the volume control.
‘Yes. I heard a man’s voice telling someone else that they should take the baby. At first I thought they were in Daisy’s room trying to snatch her. I ran upstairs but there was no one there. Then I heard the voices again in the monitor. It must have somehow picked up the signal from somewhere else. But I don’t know where. None of my neighbours has a baby.’
The officers both look at one another and then the taller one clears his throat. ‘Right, we’ll start knocking on doors, see if anyone else has a monitor which could have somehow picked up your signal.’
‘Thank you,’ I say, relieved they’re finally going to do something. ‘Do you want me to come and help? Save you some time? I know all my neighbours so I could—’
‘No, you stay here. Look after your baby. She’s a sweetheart, isn’t she? I remember when mine were that age. Don’t miss the sleepless nights, though.’
I don’t reply. I just want them to stop talking and go and find those people. I want them caught.
‘Okay, then,’ he says. ‘We’ll stop by on our way back, let you know if we find anything.’
The officers leave. While they’re out there, knocking on doors, I watch out of the lounge window, jiggling Daisy in my arms. She’s becoming restless so I sing a lullaby to sooth her. ‘Hush Little Baby Don’t You Cry’. I can’t remember all the words, but the tune seems to soothe her.
The police are heading over to number six – I should have told them no one’s living there at the moment. It’s a building site; the new owners are having work done before they move in. I contemplate going out to tell them, but they’ll figure it out soon enough, what with all the scaffolding and the huge metal skip in the driveway.
I watch them knock on the door, wait a moment, peer through a window and then move on to our immediate neighbour, Martin. A moving flash of colour catches my eye. A figure at the entrance to the cul-de-sac. Running. My breath catches in my throat before I exhale again in relief. It’s Dominic back from his run, his tall, athletic figure strong and capable. Reassuring. As he approaches, he stares at the police car parked at the bottom of the drive, then he notices the officers standing on Martin’s doorstep.
I rush to the front door. Open it and wave as he jogs up the drive.
‘What are the police doing next door?’ he asks, only ever-so-slightly out of breath.
‘Come in. I’ll tell you.’
Dominic plants a kiss on Daisy’s forehead and then another on my lips. Even when he’s tired, hot and sweaty, my husband has the power to make my heart beat faster. We’ve known each other since we were five years old, and started going out when we were fifteen. He’s my best friend. We tell each other everything.
‘I need to stretch,’ he says, pulling his right leg up behind him, ‘and then I need a shower.’
As he stretches out his hamstrings in the lounge, I sit on the sofa with Daisy in my arms and begin explaining what happened while he was out. When I get to the part about hearing a man’s voice in the monitor, Dom stops stretching, his eyes widen.
‘Wait, what?’ he says. ‘Someone was trying to take Daisy?’
‘I thought they were, but I must have heard someone else’s monitor, because when I got up there, Daisy was fine. There was no one in the room.’
Dom comes over to the sofa, sits by my side and puts his arm around us. ‘That must have been terrifying. Are you okay?’
‘It was awful. I really thought they were trying to take her.’
He straightens up and runs a hand through his short, dark hair. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’
‘It was weird. I felt like I was in a movie or something. I was so scared for Daisy.’ My voice wobbles. ‘I thought we were going to be like those parents you see on TV. You know, the ones who have to put out an appeal to find their missing child.’
‘Hey.’ Dom comes and sits next to me on the sofa. ‘It’s okay. Nothing happened. Our baby is here. She’s safe. No one’s going to take Daisy. Okay? Are you sure you heard it through the monitor?’ he asks. ‘Couldn’t it have been on the telly?’
I shake my head. ‘No, definitely not. I paused the TV and I had the monitor in my hand. The voices came from the monitor. I could see the monitor’s lights flashing while they spoke.’
Dom nods thoughtfully. ‘What did the police say?’
‘They’re going round to all the neighbours, asking if anyone has a baby staying with them.’
‘What if those people are still out there?’ As I voice my concerns, new worries begin to seep into my mind. ‘You hear about these things, don’t you? Baby-smuggling rings where they take young children and sell them to rich couples abroad. It happens.’
‘Kirstie, we live in Wimborne. It’s not exactly rife with international crime. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any baby-smuggling rings in Dorset.’ A sympathetic smile creeps onto his lips, but there’s absolutely no part of this that is amusing to me.
‘How do you know?’ I reply. ‘Maybe it would be the perfect place – a sleepy little town in England where no one suspects that anything bad could happen.’
‘Let’s wait and see what the police say.’ He puts an arm around me and kisses the side of my head. ‘I know what happened must’ve been scary, but try not to worry.’
I murmur agreement, but my brain is still racing with all the awful possibilities. I shudder at the thought of those whispered voices and what they were discussing. That they could have chosen my house and my baby. I’m going to have to be more careful. I’m going to have to make the house more secure. The idea of someone taking Daisy – it doesn’t bear thinking about. My stomach gives a sudden lurch, and I have the sensation that something has irrevocably shifted.
That nothing in our lives will ever be quite the same again.
Twenty minutes later, I’m sitting on the sofa once more, having just fed Daisy. Normally it’s a quiet moment, a time for us to bond, but this evening I’m on autopilot while my mind jumps back and forth from I need to keep my baby safe to It’ll be okay, don’t panic. Dominic strolls back into the lounge dressed in clean shorts and a T-shirt, his hair damp from the shower. I give a start as the doorbell rings.
‘I’ll get it,’ Dominic says.
‘It’s probably the police,’ I call after him, retying the strap of my dress and running a hand over my dark curls, making sure I look half-presentable. I glance out of the window, get to my feet and place Daisy over my shoulder, patting her back and waiting for her to burp, hoping she doesn’t throw up on me – I forgot to put a cloth over my shoulder.
I hear my husband introduce himself. Seconds later he comes back into the lounge accompanied by the two officers. ‘Can I make you a tea or coffee?’ Dominic asks them. ‘Or something cold?’
‘No thanks,’ the taller one says, wiping a sheen of sweat from his forehead with his fingertips. ‘Just checking – you weren’t in the house when your wife heard the voices in the monitor?’
‘No, I was out for a run,’ Dominic replies, ‘but she filled me in on what happened.’
‘Good. Well, we spoke to all your neighbours, and none of them have a baby in their house. It’s just you with a little one. And there aren’t any other residential roads close by. You’re surrounded by fields.’
‘Could the monitor have picked up a signal from further away?’ I ask.
‘It’s doubtful,’ he replies, ‘but we’ll look into it.’
‘Because someone, somewhere, has taken a baby – or at least they’ve tried to.’
‘If there’s an abduction or attempted abduction, I’m sure the parents will get in touch with us.’
‘But what if they don’t know yet?’ I say, the horror of the situation dawning on me. ‘What if they’re sitting in their lounge watching TV thinking their baby is fast asleep upstairs, but, in reality, it’s already been taken by someone? They might not check on their child for hours.’ I glance out of the window once more, putting my fingers to the glass, half-expecting to see someone making off down the road with a child.
‘Kirstie,’ Dom says gently. ‘They’ve spoken to all our neighbours. No one has a baby. I’m sure the monitor wouldn’t pick up a signal from miles away. Could it have been someone else’s TV programme you heard through the monitor?’
‘I don’t think so. No. It sounded like Daisy’s cry and then someone clearly saying they wanted to take the baby. It sounded real. Not like something on TV.’
‘Look,’ the taller officer says with a sympathetic expression. ‘Whatever you heard, it gave you a shock, understandably. But if anyone has abducted a child, we’ll find out about it, and we’ll act on it, okay? And, in the meantime, if you hear or see anything else that worries you, then please give us a call.’
‘Thanks, Officer.’ Dominic shakes his hand and the policemen turn to leave.
Is that it? I think. Is that all they’re going to do? I could’ve done that myself. I could’ve walked around and asked the neighbours if they had any babies staying with them. Maybe they think I’m a crackpot. I know I probably look dishevelled and out of it, but I’m the mother of a six-month-old baby, for goodness sake. I turn to look at myself in the mirror above the mantelpiece. My usually glossy curls are both greasy and frizzy, and my face is pale as the moon. I bend my head to sniff my shoulder – a waft of baby milk, sweat and recent fear makes me wrinkle my nose.
Dominic sees the officers out and comes back in, his arms open wide. I step into them, still cradling Daisy. I haven’t put her down since I heard the voices. Dominic smells of citrus shower gel. Of home. I feel safe in his arms. He kisses the top of my head.
‘How about I make my Thai curry tonight?’ he says. ‘I’ll put Daisy back to bed first. You go and have a shower, then sit down and put your feet up.’
‘Thai curry sounds good,’ I say, not really feeling at all hungry. ‘But I’d rather keep Daisy down here with us after what’s happened.’
Dominic steps back and stares at me. ‘You’re really shaken up, Kirst. You’re white as a ghost.’
‘I thought they’d taken her,’ I say. ‘It’s just a shock, that’s all. I’ll be okay in a minute.’
‘Why don’t I bring Daisy’s old Moses basket downstairs?’ he suggests. ‘It’s in the spare room, isn’t it? She can stay down here with us this evening.’
‘Will she still fit in it?’ I ask hopefully.
‘She’ll be fine.’
‘Okay.’ My shoulders relax a little. As long as we keep her with us, I’ll feel better. Safer.
Half an hour later, I’m sitting at the kitchen table sipping a glass of water and Daisy is fast asleep in her old basket – her mop of dark hair pressing against . . .
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