The First Wife
"I loved this book! From the moment I started, I couldn't stop reading it… The author did an amazing job… Kept me guessing until the very end… I loved it!"Goodreads Reviewer
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I moved closer to the little girl, afraid that our voices would be caught by the monitor. "What happened to you, Lucy? Can you tell me?"
When Sophie ’s life falls apart, she accepts an invitation from a childhood friend, Caroline, to visit her family’s beautiful beach house, situated at the mouth of an isolated cove, miles from the nearest town. The silence is broken only by the rhythmic crash of the waves against the jagged black rocks below.
But when Sophie arrives, she finds her friend much changed. Caroline – who used to be so warm and confident – is secretive and on-edge, spending long, unexplained hours away from her family. And then there’s Caroline’s little daughter Lucy – who stopped speaking soon after they moved in. Caroline assures Sophie that it’s only a phase, but Sophie thinks Lucy looks a little uncared for, a little afraid…
Then one night Sophie is woken by a scream and runs to find Lucy, out of bed and at the attic window, staring in terror at the view below. When Sophie goes to look, her blood runs cold…
What secrets hide behind closed doors in this isolated house by the sea? A compelling domestic drama from the USA Today bestselling author of Gracie’s Secret. Perfect for fans of Big Little Lies and The Couple Next Door .
Release date: March 18, 2020
Print pages: 244
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The First Wife
I lie full-length on the wet, wiry grass in the darkness and strain to make out the shape of the rocks, the surging water, below. A salty wind scours my face. The boom of the waves rises to meet me, loud in the stillness of evening.
I can’t see the sea but, like death, I know it’s there, close now, waiting for me. A vast expanse of nothingness. The edge of the flat world.
Above, the clouds are thin and spare and between their ever-moving snatches, the moon struggles to repair itself.
Other people, different people, might take pleasure in it – ‘See, the moon. So beautiful. Always reminds me how lucky we are. How blessed.’
Maybe other people are.
I inch forward until my head hangs right over the drop. Foam flashes here and there as the sea surges against the rocks. The crashing waves echo, then fall back to silence.
I could jump.
My heart skips as I imagine it. I can almost feel myself leaping forward, into space. It feels like flying, those fractions of suspended time. Legs kicking at empty air, arms spread wide. And the rocks – crocodiles with open mouths – waiting below. I see myself lying on them, distant, body broken and crumpled, head split in two.
I ease back from the brink and rest my forehead squarely on folded arms, eyes squeezed shut. My ears pound with blood and I wait, focussing on my breathing, until slowly it settles and slows again. I’m still here, body and soul still bound together. It’s a relief. A revelation. But for how much longer?
And then it comes to me. There, lying on the coarse grass, my body weak and now starting to shiver, ideas come tumbling through my mind, one after another, and the plan forms, my plan. I will have revenge. There is a way. My breathing quickens a second time. My cheeks flush.
Soon, when my strength returns, I will crawl away from the cliff-edge and drive back to the house. I will pull off my wet clothes and wrap myself in a dressing gown and, when my hands have stopped shaking, I’ll power up my laptop and write a long, compelling email to my old friend, Sophie.
I will invite her to stay. I will urge her in the strongest terms. Not now. Not while her father is so frail. But as soon as possible, once her own private storm has passed.
Sophie, my dear friend, will you do this for me? Please?
I think, if the moment is right, that perhaps you will.
I roll onto my back and feel the cool air blow across my face, down my body. When I open my eyes, I stare up into brightness, so dazzled by the light that specks and strangely expanding shapes explode in front of my eyes – and when I blink, they float and spangle and it’s harder than ever to tell what is real and what is not.
On my last night at home, my last ever night in that small house where Mum and Dad and I lived for so many years, I had the murder dream again.
I woke with a start and lay rigidly, sweating, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, watching the thin patterns of shadow swim back and forth as the trees in the garden lifted and swayed in the wind. My heart pounded. For moments, lying there, the terror of the dream held onto me. The same dream as before. No violence. No blood. No enactment of the actual moment of death. Just the sickening knowledge that I’d somehow committed a terrible murder, the ultimate crime, and the creeping horror that someone knew what I’d done.
I lay, shaking, and forced myself to breathe deeply. Just a dream. I hadn’t committed a murder, not in real life. I wasn’t facing life behind prison bars. A dream.
I managed to twist onto my side and check my phone. Ten past four. I wriggled out of the sleeping bag and padded downstairs.
The kitchen floor tiles were cold. I went to pour myself a glass of water, half asleep, and opened the cupboard door to find an empty shell where glasses should have been. The surfaces, cleaned out and ready for the buyer, shone eerily in the darkness. Even the sounds were different now. Hollow. The rooms were barely familiar without the clutter of furniture, vanished from the places it had always stood. All packed up now and just a few pieces, keepsakes – nothing we had was worth very much – sent into storage for a future I still couldn’t imagine.
I stood there at the sink and ran the tap, cupped my hands and drank from them, starting to shiver. I slurped noisily, feeling like a naughty child, then found myself turning quickly, feeling rather than seeing the silent, watching figure of my mother there by the far counter. I blinked at the emptiness. Nothing after all but dust and shadows.
Later, I crept back upstairs and crawled again into the sleeping bag, trying to curl as tightly as I could inside. My bare feet were frozen. My head ached and I wanted to fall back into sleep but I was awake now, my stomach knotted, trying to hold onto my final moments here, trying to commit it all to memory. Every creaking floorboard, every lopsided doorway, every fading pattern on the wallpaper.
I squeezed my eyes shut and let the darkness spangle and shimmer and waited for the day to start.
I clambered down from the train and struggled out of the unfamiliar station, dishevelled and sweating, trying to pull two suitcases on wheels and weighed down by a rucksack and the bag slung across my front.
I hesitated on the forecourt, wondering what to do. No sign of Caroline.
I checked my phone. She still hadn’t answered the text I’d sent from the train, letting her know my arrival time. I sighed, feeling suddenly foolish. I should have called yesterday to confirm. The last few weeks had just been such a blur of solicitors and removal men and estate agents.
Besides, Caroline had sounded so insistent last time she wrote.
Just get yourself down here, please, she’d emailed. Jump on the first train you can. I’ll be here. I’ll meet you at the station.
I called her mobile and listened to it ring out. No answer. I sent another text, less hopeful now: Hi Caroline, I’m here! OK to come and get me?
I looked round for somewhere to sit while I decided what to do. There was a café a little further along, on the rim of the station drop-off zone. I staggered inside and dumped my luggage in a corner. It was a soulless place, old-fashioned and spare. A blowsy waitress leaned her elbows on the counter and stared sightlessly into space, as if she’d seen it all before.
I sipped a cup of bad coffee and stared at my phone. There was still no reply to my message or missed call. I trawled back through my emails from Caroline. We hadn’t been in touch for the last few months, not since Dad was rushed into hospital, but I was sure she’d sent me a landline number when she moved into the new house earlier in the year, along with the address.
When I finally found the number, she picked up after a few rings. It was strange to hear her disembodied voice after so long.
‘Who’s speaking please?’ She sounded formal and slightly breathless, as if she’d hurried from another part of the house and her mind was still there.
‘It’s me! Sophie! I’m at the station. Didn’t you get my text?’
A pause. ‘What, Billingslow station?’ A sudden squeal. ‘Oh, my goodness! Sophie!’
I smiled. That squeal. It took me straight back to being girls again, giggling together at school. Thirty years disappeared in a moment.
‘You texted?’ she rattled on. ‘On the new number or the old one?’
‘The one you sent me in March. Have you changed it? Anyway, I’m here.’
I looked out at the dull sky, leaden with rain. A bus drew up outside the station and sat for a while, its engine ticking over.
‘I’m in a café, near the bus stop.’
‘Oh, no! Not that dump!’ Her laughter was infectious. ‘Sit tight, I’m on my way!’
The phone went down with a crash.
I settled to wait, my mood lighter now, looking forward to seeing her. I was here partly because in Caroline’s last email – the one she sent when my father was in and out of hospital, still struggling to hang on to life – she sounded so desperate to see me. And partly because I felt a sudden need to see her too, now he’d gone. I wanted to be with someone who’d remember him from when we were both children. Someone who, despite how many years had passed since we actually met, might just understand.
I watched the idling bus and let my mind drift. A young woman emerged from the station, hurrying, hand in hand with a four- or five-year-old girl. The fur-trimmed hood of the child’s anorak fell back as she was dragged across the forecourt towards the bus. Her hair was scraped into two thin plaits which trailed down her back.
I imagined the young woman combing out the hair and plaiting it with deft movements. I wondered if the comb had tugged, if the girl had screamed or pulled away and been scolded, if she was that kind of mother. Or if she’d been slow and gentle and kissed the top of the girl’s head when she finished, as my mother used to do. As I’d once hoped to do, with my own little girl. I shook my head. I shifted in my seat, stretching out the sudden hard knot in my chest.
I hadn’t believed my mother when she’d tried to warn me.
‘Oh Sophie, don’t waste your time,’ she’d said, when I’d finally told her about Andrew. ‘Even if he does leave his wife, what kind of man would that make him? How could you trust him?’
I’d just shrugged and turned away. I thought she didn’t understand, that Andrew – clever, funny Andrew – wasn’t like that. But she was right, of course. I’d waited all those years, hanging on promises, and he never did leave his wife and children. By the time I’d found the strength to break it off, I was marooned, well into my thirties and living at home again, caring for Dad. Now what did I have, as I faced the prospect of approaching forty, all alone?
The café door jangled open, letting in a rush of cold air.
A loud voice, confident and strident. I turned to look. Caroline? She lifted her sunglasses to peer at me as she strode across to my table. Only Caroline would wear designer sunglasses on a dark September day. Her eyes swept across my mousy hair, windswept and tangled after the journey down. My old anorak and jeans, creased and baggy from over-use. My sturdy lace-up shoes.
I hesitated, uncertain. ‘Sorry. Is it—?’
She broke into a smile, opened her arms to hug me. ‘Sorry? Why? I just can’t believe you’re here.’
She took charge of the pile of luggage at my feet, slinging the rucksack on her shoulder, then picking up a suitcase.
‘Come on! Let’s go!’
I found myself grinning as I picked up the rest and followed her out. I was ten years old again, the socially awkward one, the last to be picked for the team, wondering why pretty, wealthy Caroline had grabbed my hand and pulled me down to sit beside her on the school bus.
She drove fast and with confidence. Her car was low and sporty and I felt awkward beside her, all knees and elbows, tilted back too far in the passenger seat, too close to the speeding road. She didn’t speak and I didn’t have the nerve to break the silence, just watched the scenery slowly change from suburban stone to fields and then, finally, the open countryside. It was a raw landscape, windswept, with wiry grass and gorse and buffeted, gnarled trees.
When I found the courage, I shuffled to sit as upright in my seat as I could and took stealthy glances at her. I wasn’t sure I’d even have recognised her, after all these years. She was still imperious, still attractive, but in a different way. The slim young girl had thickened and strengthened. Her arms, grasping the steering wheel, were more muscular. Her hair was still blonde but a less vivid shade as if she’d started adding artificial colour, perhaps to mask some early strands of grey. The bright blue of her eyes was muddied by specks of grey.
Her cheeks were fuller too. Her whole face had broadened as if her bones had stretched sideways as she aged. I thought of her mother, always so elfin in features and so elegant. I’d assumed Caroline would end up the same.
She gave me a sideways glance. ‘All right?’
I blushed, embarrassed to be caught staring, and focussed forward at the road. It was steadily narrowing, the verge giving way to a mud ditch.
She went on: ‘I was trying to think how long it’s been.’
I nodded. ‘Me too. Twenty-five years?’ I made it a question but I’d already worked it out. We were just turning eleven when we finished school together. I went on to the local secondary school and Caroline’s family moved to Singapore. Then it was New York. Then Hong Kong.
All those years, especially through our teens, I’d feasted on her letters and then, in recent years, on her emails. They came erratically. The pauses between them could be months or even years. Her life sounded exotic. I wasn’t jealous, I was proud. It was like having a film star for a friend. Her family just wasn’t like mine. I knew that. It wasn’t just money. They were made of different stuff.
‘Blimey! A quarter of a century! That makes me feel so old!’
She laughed. Her eyes were on the road as she took a sharp bend at speed, then had to brake hard to regain control and bring us back to our side of the road. Her lips, bright red with lipstick, pursed.
It felt odd, seeing her again. She seemed such a stranger, even though I’d thought so much about her, over the years. I remembered the long email she sent me after her wedding. She had sounded so happy, it seemed the perfect end to her fairy tale romance out there in Hong Kong.
I had called Mum and let it all spill out of me, with all the details Caroline had described. How beautiful she must have looked, how effortlessly stylish and poised. Afterwards, they had the reception on The Peak, overlooking Hong Kong harbour with ice-cold champagne to offset the heat.
My mother said, ‘She didn’t invite you though, did she?’
I hesitated. She never did like Caroline, not even when we were children. You make too much of her, she used to say, her lip curled. She’s only friends when it suits her.
‘I didn’t expect her to. She knows I couldn’t go.’
Her sniff was audible down the phone line. ‘She could have paid your fare, if she really wanted you there. She’s got the money. How long have you two been friends?’
I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to. I knew what she was thinking.
After a while she said, more thoughtfully: ‘Anyway, who knows? It mightn’t be the fairy tale you think.’
Barely a month after that, my mother was gone, killed by a drunk driver who mounted the pavement as she headed for the bus stop after her shift at the hospital. And I was heading home to look after Dad. Just for a while, I told myself, just until he finds his feet.
Now I said, ‘I can’t believe you came back.’
Caroline shrugged, eyes on the road. ‘It’s Lucy, really. I love Hong Kong but it’s not great for kids.’
She navigated another tight bend. The road was barely wide enough now for two cars to pass and the light was thickening as dusk grew. A salty tang reached me. We must be nearing the sea.
‘How old is she now?’ I was nervous about seeing her. I’d saved every photograph Caroline sent me over the years. There hadn’t been many. The scrunched-faced baby, swaddled in white linen. The toddler, beaming, face smeared with chocolate. The two and a half year old in shorts and T-shirt, shoulder-length hair in bunches, eyes wide as she laughed. The sight of her stirred something in me, a longing I’d now shut away. ‘Three?’
‘Three and a half.’ She kept her eyes on the road.
I nodded, thinking about that and wondering where she was. How could Caroline have a pre-school child and still manage to appear so glamorous, so free? ‘Is she in nursery?’
‘No, we’ve got a live-in nanny. Tanya. Bulgarian. She’s not ideal but, you know, needs must.’
I tried to imagine what it must be like for Lucy, brought back from the luxury of expat life in Hong Kong to a wild corner of a country she barely knows. ‘Has she settled OK?’
‘I guess so.’
We lapsed back into silence for a while and I only realised that she was still thinking about Hong Kong when she suddenly said, ‘Shame you never came out to see us. You missed a trick.’
I didn’t answer. She seemed to skim effortlessly over the fact that I’d have struggled to afford it. Even if I could have, she’d never really invited me. Just vague lines at the end of her lengthy emails which hinted at a visit but never seemed to mean it.
She swung off down a bumpy track, setting the car jolting and lurching.
‘Hold on to your hat!’
I gripped the door strap as the car threw me to this side and that. I opened my mouth to say something, a way of asking her to slow down that might sound like an ironic joke, ‘Steady on, old girl!’ or something similar. But her eyes were gleaming, thrilled, and I shut it again.
‘Eyes front! Any minute now!’
I hung on grimly and peered forward through the gathering gloom. She took another bend, navigating the rough drive through a copse of wind-battered trees. They arched sideways, bending gracefully away from the coast.
A moment later, we drove through a pair of open iron gates, set in a high boundary wall. At once, the wild scrubland outside gave way to more tended grounds: a small wood with oaks and beeches and rows of bushes between the conifers. The drive turned from mud to gravel. She opened her window a crack and cold, salted air flew in, with the gunfire crunch of the wheels flying over loose stones.
‘I keep telling Dom to make this a proper road,’ she said. ‘And cut down these trees. It’s such a jungle.’ Something shifted in her mood as she drove. She seemed lighter, happy to be home. ‘You know Dom. Airs and graces. He thinks he’s the country squire out here. You can imagine.’
I couldn’t. I’d never met Dominic. I wondered what he’d make of me. From everything Caroline had told me, we had very little in common.
I shivered. She swung the car to the left, spraying stones, and drew to a halt in front of the house. I sat and stared. It loomed dark and imposing against the fading sky. It wasn’t big enough to be a mansion, but it had the presence of one, with a turret to one side and a single high chimney. Sloping, uneven stretches of roof, gleaming in the last rays of sunlight, reached tiled arms protectively across the top of the façade. Large sash windows and, high above, attic windows striped with bars. The porch stood out proudly from the centre of the house, waiting for us.
Caroline had already unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed out, slamming the door carelessly behind her, letting in another sweep of cold sea air. I couldn’t bring myself to move. I didn’t know why, but I was suddenly afraid. I didn’t want to leave the safety of the car. I didn’t belong in their world. I wouldn’t fit. I couldn’t pretend to be like them when I wasn’t. The weight of the day pressed down on me. Just this morning, I’d woken at home, the family home I would never see again. For a moment, I felt utterly bereft and bit my lip to stop my mouth from crumpling.
Caroline opened my door, my rucksack on her shoulder. The raw salt breeze hit me again as the door opened. It carried the beat and scrape of the sea, of waves crashing distantly on a pebbled beach. I shivered.
‘Well, come on. You can’t sit here all night.’ Caroline nodded back towards the boot. ‘Just bring the bag. Dom can get the cases.’
She led me inside in a flurry of keys and locks. I stood there in the broad hall, breathing in the smell of the house. Fresh paint layered over an underlying mustiness that spoke of old brickwork and a hint of salty damp.
She gestured up the stairs. ‘That’s the guest room. First floor, right ahead. There’s an en suite if you want to freshen up. Hope it’s OK. Tea?’
I heaved the rucksack onto my shoulder, picked up the bag from the hall floor and set off up the stairs. It was a sweeping staircase, designed to impress, which turned back on itself at the first half landing and continued upwards towards the main body of the house. I stepped forward through the first door, dropped my bags and found the lights.
It was a generously proportioned guest room, freshly painted in light green. Large windows ran down the far side. In the centre, against the right-hand wall, a king-siz. . .
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