Arranging the playdate was easy. Child’s play. Preparing the house was more difficult. It was only now she realised how many photographs there were: the picture-perfect unit. Wife, husband, child. All of it a lie. I made a new friend at playgroup today. She’s different from the other mothers. She feels like someone I can trust. Someone I can confide in. But there are some things I can’t tell her. Things I can’t tell anyone. Because I have a secret that no one else knows. One that still haunts my dreams, wakes me up in a cold sweat at night. Even another mother would never understand. Unless, of course, she’s hiding something too… From the bestselling author of The Argument , this utterly addictive psychological thriller will have you hooked from the first page to the final, mind-blowing twist. Fans of Friend Request, The Silent Patient and The Girl on the Train won’t be able to put this down. Readers are loving The Playdate : ‘ OMG!!… Brilliant!… makes your heart skip a beat… will have the hairs on your head standing… OH BOY… This ending is explosive and will simply leave you breathless and gasping… This is a MUST READ! ’ The Secret Book Sleuth, 5 stars ‘ Fantastic, excellent… incredible… I could not put this one down for the life of me… loved, loved, loved this book… Wow, what a roller coaster ride of an ending that was. There were so many twists and turns that I never knew whether I was turning left or turning right. I love it when a book shocks the pants off of me… I would highly recommend this to a friend and would shout it from any roof top.’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars ‘ I loved this mind blowing, impulsive, crazy book! The ending will blow your mind! ’ @oh.happy.reading ‘Simply WOW… just jaw-dropping… hooked till the end… a brilliant and compelling read.’ NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars ‘ Excellent… keeps you on your toes… keeps you gripped until the end!’ @theinsomniacbookclub, 5 stars ‘ Difficult to put down… I never would have seen that ending coming… absolutely brilliant… I definitely will be adding Victoria Jenkins to my list for go to authors. I just wish I could give it more than five stars.’ Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
Release date: May 21, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The message had pinged onto her phone half an hour earlier, but she had only just had a chance to look at it. Getting Layla ready for playgroup was a time-consuming process – wrestling reluctant, rigid limbs into leggings and a T-shirt, trying to grapple a toothbrush past clenched teeth, dragging a hairbrush through a tangle of knots while Layla refused to sit still – and by the time her daughter was finally ready, Dani no longer felt like going anywhere. If it wasn’t for her mother’s burst of daily cleaning, she would have stayed at home. Caroline’s obsessive vacuuming had increased with the cat’s age, his hair moulting onto every available surface. There had been times Dani felt convinced her mother had some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, though Caroline would never have got rid of Dylan, who was as much a part of the family as the rest of them.
Dani hadn’t heard from Kelly Thompson in years, and if she hadn’t remembered the name, she would never have recognised her from the thumbnail photograph that sat alongside the message. Kelly wore a beanie hat that covered most of her head, but from the wisps that escaped it, her fringe windswept across her eyes, it looked as though she had dyed her hair silver blonde. Behind her loomed a mountain, and her arms were stretched out wide in a gesture that screamed, ‘Yes, I’m here… I’ve made it.’ Dani felt the twist of envy in her chest like a knot of indigestion and tried to swallow it down, reminding herself that social media didn’t always portray lives as they really were.
She and Kelly had been friends in primary school for a while, but during secondary school they had drifted apart in the way that many friendships distanced themselves over time, gradually and without either party seeming to notice. Dani had attached herself to Eve almost immediately upon meeting her, in awe of her confidence and the fact that she seemed so much older than everyone else in their year group. She had befriended Eve to the exclusion of all others, which had later proved to be a poor decision. She tried to remember the last time she had spoken to Kelly. Everything had ended in such a rush.
Hi Dani. Hope everything’s okay with you? You may have already heard about this, but I thought I should contact you in case you haven’t and you see it somewhere else. Big shock! Her poor parents x
Beneath the message there was a link. A report from a Bath newspaper. Young Woman Found Drowned in River, read the headline. Dani scanned the words repeatedly, getting caught on the name every time, its letters jumping at her from the screen.
The body of a young woman found drowned in the River Avon at the weekend has been identified as that of 22-year-old Eve Gardiner, who was last seen on Saturday evening after leaving a friend’s house. It is believed that Miss Gardiner, who was unable to swim, slipped and fell into the water.
She had always expected to see Eve’s name in print one day. She had imagined a tabloid article about a date with a famous footballer, a string of photographs capturing Eve toned and sun-kissed, just returned from a fortnight’s holiday somewhere exotic and expensive. Maybe she would read about her running for election as a local MP, or as the spokesperson for some charitable cause, her glossy hair and whitened teeth shining for the camera. Her name was always going to be known in some way or another. But never like this.
It wasn’t a case of it all seeming more real the more she read it, because in fact her thoughts just strayed further, as though she was clinging onto them by her fingertips, reeling them back in before they escaped her. She was taken back four years to a classroom she hadn’t spent enough time in and a life that already felt as though it belonged to someone else. Mrs Preston, the history teacher, was talking final exam preparations, but Dani wasn’t listening – she hadn’t really been listening for months – and instead was texting Eve, her phone hidden beneath the desk.
Send me a photo of the dress x
Her mother called her from the front room, and Dani was yanked back to the present. The vacuum cleaner was muted for a moment, Caroline standing with one hand pressed to her hip, the other clutching the handle of the Dyson as though she was about to film a TV advertisement for carpet cleaner.
‘You haven’t left yet then?’
‘Grab us some fags on the way back, love. There’s a tenner in the pot on the microwave.’
‘I thought you were giving up?’
‘I am,’ she snapped, then smiled apologetically, her head tilting into a look that aimed to win her daughter over. ‘But you know what they say… Rome wasn’t built in a day.’
‘You know what else they say? Smoking gives you lung cancer.’
Caroline pulled a face. ‘Thank you, my little ray of sunshine. Enjoy your morning.’
She turned the Dyson back on and Dani headed to the living room to fetch her daughter, who had lost interest in the television and was about to drag a red crayon across her grandmother’s silver wallpaper. They did a search of the living room for Layla’s trainers, the ones with the light-up heels that had cost Dani almost a full day’s pay. When Dani tried to put them on, Layla pushed her hands away, insisting she could do the Velcro straps by herself. She wailed with frustration when she couldn’t pull the shoe past her heel, and Dani grabbed it from her. ‘For God’s sake, Layla,’ she snapped. ‘Just let me do it.’
Layla looked at her and her lip quivered, and when she burst into tears, Dani felt like the worst mother in the world, which some days she thought she might be. She loved Layla with the kind of love that felt as though it might burst out of her chest – a love she didn’t think she could ever feel for anyone else – yet there were days when she felt like walking out of the house, catching the next train to the first destination that made itself available and never coming back. She never would – it was just a thought, like all the other thoughts about what her life might have been had she made different choices.
She put her arms around Layla for a hug. Her daughter resisted at first, but then allowed herself to be pulled into the embrace. Dani said sorry for shouting, which she was. It wasn’t Layla’s fault. It was that bloody link on her phone. What had happened to Eve was shocking, a tragedy, but she couldn’t let Layla see how it had affected her. Eve was a part of Dani’s past, and she knew she must keep her that way.
‘Come on,’ she said, and grabbed Layla’s coat from the back of one of the kitchen chairs. ‘Let’s go.’
In recent weeks, Layla had hit a phase of independence, getting frustrated with every simple task and bubbling over into anger when she couldn’t do something on the first attempt. Her tantrums were full-blown – no one else’s child seemed to lose control of their emotions on the same scale – and though she had only recently turned two, Dani was already counting down the days until she hit her third birthday, praying there would be an overnight change when her temper would just evaporate.
She zipped Layla into her coat before grabbing the tenner from the pot – her mother’s cigarette fund. Caroline was asthmatic, but that hadn’t stopped her smoking like a disposable barbecue since Dani’s dad died over nine years earlier. She had given up a little while before that, the fags replaced with chewing gum, but when their lives were upended by the accident, suddenly all bets were off.
‘Come on,’ Dani said to Layla, reaching for her hand. ‘We’ll be late.’
The church hall was just a short walk from their house, so they never bothered with the pushchair; Layla walked half the way and Dani carried her the rest. The little girl was getting heavy, but Dani figured her days of being allowed to carry her anywhere were numbered, so she should make the most of them while she could. The women at the playgroup – the grandmothers especially – were forever telling her to enjoy this time, that before she knew it Layla’s childhood would be over and she would be gone. Dani supposed they knew what they were talking about, though it was hard sometimes to feel grateful when Layla was crying at 3 a.m. for no apparent reason or throwing a strop because Dani had put her dinner on the wrong-coloured plate.
When they arrived, the group had already started, toys strewn across the floor, and one of the playgroup leaders was arranging biscuits on a plate and waiting for the kettle to boil. There was, as always, a clear divide within the group, though no one ever seemed to mention it – the women who sat at one side of the room, and those who gathered at the other. The two never really seemed to mix, as though some unspoken guidelines had been accepted by everyone, with no explanation ever offered.
Elaine was already there. Her grandson, Josh, was standing at the plastic kitchen in the corner, shoving as many toy plates and utensils as he could into the microwave. Layla wriggled down from Dani’s arms when she spotted him, and Dani made a grab for her, taking off her coat before Layla ran over to join him.
Elaine was sitting with another woman, someone who had started coming to the group a couple of weeks before. Dani wasn’t sure of her name – it might have been mentioned, but she didn’t remember – and the woman had kept herself to herself, sitting on her own near the door while her daughter played on one of the mats at her feet. Dani smiled at them both as she took off her jacket and slipped it over the back of a chair.
‘All right, love?’ Elaine greeted her. ‘This is Adele. You two met already?’
Adele shook her head. She was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved sweater that was loose around her narrow shoulders, and she was older than Dani had thought her from a distance; close up, the fine lines around her eyes were visible and there were the slightest flecks of grey at her temples. The thought that she seemed a bit old to be the mum of a toddler crossed Dani’s mind, but she reminded herself that people often looked at her and thought she was too young.
‘What’s your daughter’s name?’ she asked. The little girl was sitting nearby, playing with a wooden tractor.
‘Shall I get you a cuppa?’ Elaine offered.
‘Thanks,’ Dani said.
‘You had a cup yet?’ Elaine turned to Adele. ‘Have one now while you’ve got the chance. I didn’t get to finish a cup of tea while it was still hot until my youngest started school.’
She got up to fetch two cups of tea, then went back for a plate of biscuits. Adele took a rich tea, which Dani thought a strange choice when there were chocolate digestives right next to it.
‘Thanks. I shouldn’t really,’ she added, moving her hand self-consciously to her waist.
‘Christ,’ Elaine said, ‘there’s nothing of you.’
She was right; Adele was pencil thin. Perhaps that was why she looked older – being skinny did that to some people. She was just one of those types it was hard to put an age to: anywhere between thirty and fifty depending on the lighting.
‘What’s your daughter called?’ she asked Dani.
‘That’s lovely.’ Adele put the biscuit on the table beside her. ‘How old is she?’
‘Turned two last month… Layla!’ Dani made a grab for the biscuit Layla had just taken from the table, but it was bitten into before she could reach it. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said to Adele, rolling her eyes. ‘I’ll get you another one.’
‘She’s fine. And no, thanks though.’
Adele smiled at Layla, watching as the little girl’s mouth stretched into a biscuit-coated yawn.
‘She didn’t sleep well last night,’ Dani explained. ‘She’s not a fan of sleep. I mean, it’s quite easy to get her off, but it’s the staying asleep that’s the problem. Is Ivy good?’
She wondered why she used the word ‘good’, when Layla being a terrible sleeper didn’t make her bad. But that was how people seemed to talk about children, especially when they were babies. Is she a good baby? people would ask her when Layla was newborn, and she was sometimes tempted to ask them what a bad baby looked like.
Adele nodded. ‘She’s pretty easy-going at night.’
She meant nothing by it – it was only an honest answer to the question – but Dani felt the words like a sharp elbow dug into her side, as though they suggested that she had gone wrong somewhere.
‘I’ve tried everything with Layla. Crying it out, comforters, co-sleeping… nothing seems to work.’
Elaine rolled her eyes.
‘What?’ Dani asked with a small smile, knowing her admissions were about to be met with scepticism.
‘There’s too much pressure now for everything to be a certain way. As though there’s some sort of one-size-fits-all solution to everything. I’ve got three boys, and they all survived without Google telling me how long they should be sleeping, or where they should be doing it. I reckon that’s the problem these days, you know – there’s too much pressure on parents to be everything. Especially mothers. You should be doing this in this way, you should be doing that in that way… it’s all crap, as far as I’m concerned. Every kid is different. No one knows a child the way its mother does.’ She stopped and turned her head, giving a not-so-subtle nod to the women at the other side of the room. ‘Too many experts in everything these days. I blame the internet.’
She concluded her speech with a celebratory sip of tea, and Dani cast a glance at Adele. This was what she loved about Elaine. She was the sort of woman she wished her mother was: honest and surprise-free.
‘How old is Ivy?’ she asked.
‘She’s so pretty.’
And she really was – it wasn’t said just to be nice, in the way that people often did when there was a child involved. The little girl was genuinely beautiful. Big blue eyes and a mass of white-blonde curls, the kind of face used to advertise no-tears shampoo.
‘Do you live local then?’ Elaine asked Adele.
‘Not too far, but there don’t seem to be many groups for toddlers over our way.’
They chatted a while longer, and then it was time for art and crafts, which involved a ten-minute break from the toys and a chance for the children to cause as much chaos and mess as possible. At the end of the session, after they’d helped pack everything away, Dani collected their jackets and retrieved Layla’s personalised drink bottle from underneath a chair. She was zipping Layla into her coat when Adele came over to say goodbye. Ivy was wrapped up snugly in a thick winter jacket that looked as though it had cost more than Dani’s entire outfit.
‘See you next week?’ Adele asked, tightening her grip on her daughter’s hand as Ivy tried to pull her towards the door.
‘Yeah, we’ll be here.’
Adele put her free hand in her pocket, then let go of Ivy’s hand to drop her bag down her shoulder. ‘Ivy, wait a minute, please.’ She crouched to unzip the bag before rummaging through its contents. ‘Not again,’ she mumbled.
‘Everything okay?’ Dani asked.
‘I can’t find my phone. I’m always doing this. Well, I say I…’ She gestured to Ivy, who was now amusing herself by trying to pull a sticker from the back of one of the chairs. ‘She’s fascinated with the thing. I should keep it out of reach.’
‘Have you had it since you got here?’
‘I don’t know. I used it on the bus, but…’ Adele stood as she gave up her search. ‘Great. I’ve probably left it there.’
‘Do you want me to call it for you?’ Dani offered. ‘Just in case?’
‘Would you mind?’ Adele waited for Dani to retrieve her phone, then recited her mobile number. A moment later they heard ringing from somewhere at the back of the room. The phone was behind one of the chairs, underneath a radiator.
‘Must have fallen out of your pocket,’ Dani said. ‘Panic over.’
‘Thank you so much. I’m sorry… we’ve held you up now.’
‘It’s no problem.’
‘It was nice to meet you. Say bye, Ivy.’
The little girl waved, and Dani prompted Layla to wave back.
After leaving the church, Dani managed to get her daughter to walk most of the way home. It was only as they turned onto their street that she realised she had forgotten to pick up her mother’s cigarettes. She would say nothing and wait for her to mention it. Perhaps Caroline would realise Dani’s forgetfulness had inadvertently done her a favour.
She set Layla down on the doorstep as she searched in her jacket pocket for her key. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s get you some dinner.’
Adele left the playgroup feeling better than she had in weeks, possibly months. She knew she should have done this a long time ago, and she felt a sadness for the time she had wasted, just a little more to be added to all the time in her life that had been lost to the worry of everything that might go wrong. Simply being out of the house and around people had made her feel as though anything was possible. She had grown too set in her ways, fearing the unknown and dreading the uncertainty of change, but the world seemed less frightening when she was in it, amid people. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to hide herself away any more. This feeling of possibility had been unfamiliar to her for quite some time, and she wanted to hold onto it, to embrace all the what-ifs the future might hold.
On the bus on their way home, Ivy reached for her hand. It felt warm and comforting pressed against her own, the child’s skin offering safety, as though transferring to Adele a reassurance that everything was going to be all right. For a moment, she allowed herself to believe the silent promise. Maybe it wouldn’t happen yet, but yes, everything was going to be all right.
They got off at the bus stop nearest home and walked through the village, along a high street characterised by Victorian buildings and independent shops that sold hand-stitched clothing and locally produced cheese, a small block of which cost more than some people earned in an hour. Coxton was fifteen miles east of Cardiff, popular with wealthy city workers who didn’t want to live amid the noise and bustle of the capital, and families who sought a slice of rural living without being too remote. The high street was lined with bunting, though Adele wasn’t sure why: there had been no street party, no festival; it was a permanent decoration, as though the community was in a constant state of celebration. She supposed that living in such an affluent area merited this level of optimism for some, but the feeling had yet to reach her. This place would never be home.
Ivy wriggled in her pushchair, pulling it to the left, distracted by something in one of the shop windows. The shop was called Katie’s Keepsakes, and the item that had caught her attention was a beautiful hand-made rag doll wearing a patchwork dress, its brown hair gathered in plaits at either side of its head and tied in little red bows. Adele would usually have pushed the pram onwards, but something about the doll made her stop, and for a moment she was oblivious to Ivy’s increasingly fractious desire to free herself from the straps.
She was tempted to buy the doll for Ivy to take home with her, tucking it into her cot with her before she went to sleep that night, but she knew that doing so would mean having to explain to Callum that they had been out that morning. She might be able to keep the doll hidden for a while, but Ivy would slip up sooner or later and mention it. Though it was beautiful, it wasn’t worth the risk of being caught out. Adele placed a hand to the window, her fingertips resting lightly against the glass. A moment later she noticed the shopkeeper watching her, and she hurried away, grateful when Ivy didn’t kick up a fuss about going home empty-handed.
Three roads from the high street, she stopped on the pavement a few doors down from the house, tilting the pushchair’s front wheels from the ground slightly as Ivy lunged forward to try to free herself from the buckles locking her in. Callum’s car was parked outside. He was never usually home early on a Friday – if anything, she could count on it being the day he would be late home – and she knew that when she and Ivy got into the house, he would be there waiting for her, wondering where they had been. She wished she could turn around, take Ivy to the park or to a café for ice cream – . . .
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