A breathtaking and tumultuous love story of the secrets, hidden passions and loyalties that bind us together. THE SECRETS BETWEEN US is the latest mesmerising tale of drama and intrigue from Judith Lennox, the author of HIDDEN LIVES and THE JEWELLER'S WIFE. Not to be missed by readers of Rachel Hore and Kate Morton.
'I have fallen completely in love with Judith Lennox's writing - she's a fantastic storyteller!' Jill Mansell
It is Christmas 1937 when sisters Rowan and Thea travel from London to Scotland to visit their dying father. Having lost their mother in a tragic sailing accident when they were young, the two women are accustomed to grief. But they have no idea that their father's death will expose a terrible deception...
For back in London is his wife Sophie and their two sons. Neither family knows of the other's existence, and when news reaches Sophie of Hugh's death her whole world is turned upside down.
Meanwhile, Rowan's marriage is crumbling, and Thea reluctantly finds herself acting as a go-between for her sister and her lover. But, with the onslaught of World War II, the lives of all three women will change for ever. And they must confront the secrets between them before they can seize their chance of happiness...
(P)2020 Headline Publishing Group Ltd
Release date: May 14, 2020
Print pages: 352
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Secrets Between Us
Rowan Scott’s husband, Patrick, had not wanted to come to the Manninghams’ cocktail party. Resentfully, she had put his refusal down to the quarrel they had had that morning over the breakfast boiled eggs and toast, he suggesting they travel on Christmas Eve to his father’s house in Guildford, she preferring to put it off as long as possible and motor there on Christmas morning. In Patrick’s absence, Rowan had come out with her usual set, the Charlburys, the Wiltons and the Vaughans – and Nicky Olivier, on good form tonight, making fun of their hosts as he sat in an armchair surrounded by half a dozen acolytes.
To one side of the large, crimson-papered drawing room, Davey Manningham’s manservant was mixing fiercely alcoholic cocktails that were decorated with a scratchy sprig of holly to mark the season. A piano murmured arrangements of Christmas carols and the air was perfumed with the scents of cloves and oranges. Boughs of apple-wood smouldered in the fireplace. The women’s frocks were a delicious froth of emerald, eau de nil, turquoise, orange and baby pink.
A voice said, ‘Mrs Scott, how delightful!’ and Rowan, seated on one of the Manninghams’ plump sofas, looked up and saw Simon Pemberton. Simon was a cousin of Artemis Wilton, who was Rowan’s especial friend. She had come across him before at dances and concerts. She murmured a greeting.
‘I’ve been out of circulation,’ he told her as he leaned against the sofa arm. ‘A relative of mine has been ill and required my company. I’ve been staying in the countryside for the past three weeks. Such a relief to return to civilisation.’
His shudder was theatrical; it pleased her that he should try to capture her attention. Caught in his gaze, she felt a thrill of excitement, an intimation of a possibility of solace and adventure. Simon Pemberton was tall and had close-cropped chestnut hair and navy-blue eyes. He had the profile of a handsome Roman senator: an aquiline nose, a slightly cruel curve to his lips.
She said, ‘Do you dislike the countryside?’
A downward flexing of the corners of his mouth. ‘I find little amusement in country sports, and really, what else is there to do? There are no reputable art galleries in Suffolk, where my uncle lives, and little opportunity to hear music of any but the most amateurish standard. As for the people one meets, what is it about fields and woodland that erases the capacity for conversation? Or perhaps those who have no conversation choose to bury themselves in the countryside.’
‘I miss the countryside when I’m in town too long,’ Rowan said. ‘I feel stifled.’
‘Yet you live in town.’
‘We must, for Patrick’s work.’ Her husband was a barrister.
He sat down beside her. ‘I’ve never been tempted by the institution of marriage. What does it offer but a narrowing of outlook and opportunity?’
Though her own marriage had proved to be a severe disappointment, and though she had for some time felt Patrick to be in every way indifferent to her, she still bridled at Simon’s judgement.
‘It offers security,’ she said. Though, looking back, she wondered whether she, in marrying Patrick, had confused security with love.
‘I’ve been fortunate enough never to lack financial security,’ he said. ‘It’s different for women, you are dependent on men. As for love, is it to be found only in marriage? In all truth, is it ever, after the first blissful months, to be found in marriage?’
‘How fashionably cynical of you.’
‘Forgive me. Cynicism is a slippery and unattractive quality. You’re right, optimism’s harder work, particularly at the present time.’
He was referring to the news, Rowan assumed, to the horrors of civil war in Spain and the ominous grip of fascism in Germany and Italy.
‘One is almost afraid to open a newspaper,’ she agreed.
Swiftly, skilfully, he redirected their conversation. They spoke of contemporary art – he admired Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer but despised Henry Moore.
Art done with, they moved on to the theatre as the pianist thumped out ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Simon claimed to have seen every worthwhile play in London. ‘Not that there are more than a handful,’ he added. ‘Theatre is a burned-out shadow of its Edwardian heyday. The West End is full of perfectly dreadful revues and vulgar musicals.’
‘Don’t you enjoy musicals?’
‘Does anyone with a modicum of intelligence?’
‘I adore them. And the cinema? Do you go to the cinema?’
‘Never. I went once and I loathed it.’
She smiled. ‘Perhaps you chose the wrong film.’
‘I don’t believe so. Warm, foetid air perfumed by penny cigarettes and cheap scent . . . the massed hordes, with their popcorn and ices. And then, the banality of the story unfolding on the screen. It was unendurable.’
‘I like to go on my own, in the afternoons.’ Simon was so confident in his opinions Rowan found it impossible not to challenge him. ‘It feels so wonderfully decadent.’
‘Do you admire decadence? I despise those who pursue decadence for the sake of it, who claim to revel in a seedy nightclub or screeching jazz band because they believe it will make them more interesting.’
‘Dear me.’ She gave him a mocking glance. ‘Must I add jazz music and nightclubs to the list of things you don’t care for?’
‘How can such idiocies compare with an aria from The Magic Flute . . . or a painting by Velázquez? Or the scene in Giselle when the ballerina appears to float across the stage like the spirit she’s pretending to be?’
Rowan had felt her own breath catch at such moments. She, too, admired intensity and passion and despised the vapid and half-hearted. That he had spoken with true feeling made her like him more.
‘What you speak of is sublime,’ she said. ‘But it’s rare and it’s fleeting. And in the meantime, we have to keep our spirits up.’
‘Yet you must surely agree that the cheap and shallow degrades us. It blunts our capacity to appreciate beauty, and what are we without that?’ Amusement sparked his dark-blue eyes. ‘I admit it, I can never resist beauty. Why do you think I’m here, talking to you, my dear Mrs Scott, though we appear to have little in common?’
A racing of the heart. ‘You’re very flattering,’ she said.
He shook his head. ‘I never flatter. When it comes to beauty, I always tell the truth. For instance, you shouldn’t wear that colour. That shade of blue takes the fire from your hair. You should wear red. Auburn-haired women always shy away from red. They’re afraid it will clash, but they’re mistaken. You would look glorious in just the right shade of Venetian red. Like a flame, a tall, shimmering flame. Ah, I see you think me impudent.’ His tone betrayed no hint of regret.
‘Not at all,’ she said, adding flippantly, ‘practical advice about one’s dress is always useful.’
They talked for a little longer and then he invited her to dinner. Leaving the Manninghams’ house and her friends, Rowan knew she was taking a step down a treacherous road, but went anyway.
At Simpson’s in the Strand, they were enclosed by dark panelled walls beneath an ornate plastered ceiling. As they dined on sirloin of beef, Rowan asked Simon about his plans for Christmas.
‘I shall stay in my rooms,’ he said. ‘I never go away for Christmas. As for family Christmases, I find noisy infants and shrieking children unendurable. A few close friends will come to lunch, fellow dissidents from family life. I’ll spend the evening in the company of Samuel Johnson’s essays and a fine vintage port. I’m looking forward to it enormously. And you, Rowan?’ They had slipped easily into using each other’s Christian names.
‘We always spend Christmas Day with Patrick’s father and his sister, Elaine, in Guildford.’ She was already dreading it: the infirm and querulous old man, the resentfulness and bitterness of Patrick’s unmarried sister, who looked after him. Heavy food and hot rooms and boredom. She went on, ‘My younger sister, Thea, will be with us.’ Thea, who was sixteen, always joined them for the festive season. Their father was a widower. He disliked Christmas and chose to spend it fishing or hill-walking with an old friend called Malcolm Reid, a recluse who lived in the remote Scottish Highlands and whom none of them had ever met. Rowan added, ‘Then the three of us will go to Glasgow, for Hogmanay.’
‘I’ve heard that in Scotland, the New Year is often celebrated more than Christmas.’
‘Yes, that’s so. Do you have family, Simon? Oh yes, the uncle in Suffolk.’
‘Denzil prefers to spend Christmas Day on his own, too, at his home, Ashleigh Place. It is perhaps the finest small manor house in England.’
‘Ah, beauty again.’
‘I’m a slave to it.’ His gaze latched on to hers. A clumsier man might have added some tiresome compliment. That he did not left her tense and on edge, wanting more.
She asked him whether Ashleigh Place had been in his family for a long time.
‘Not at all. Denzil bought the house when he was twenty-five years old. It had been owned by a madman, an exhibitionist who liked to put on theatrical performances. Before that it belonged to an old Suffolk family, the Gardiners, who allowed it to fall into disrepair. Denzil restored Ashleigh Place. It was a huge undertaking, his life’s work. You wouldn’t think it now because his health is poor, but when he was younger he was capable of great energy and vigour.’
‘You’re fond of him, aren’t you?’
He smiled. ‘I am, yes. Apart from Denzil, there are not many of my family with whom I would choose to spend my time. I have a sister, Anne, who’s married to a bore called Edwin. She has two children. Henry is a solid little chap. I shall send him a Fullers’ walnut cake for his tuck box. My niece, Zorah, is featherbrained and insipid. What Christmas present should I buy her, do you think?’
‘How old is she?’
‘I forget. Five or six.’
Rowan considered. ‘A box of paints, perhaps? I used to adore painting when I was a little girl.’
‘Do you still paint?’
‘Scarcely at all, now. Our house is very small and there’s nowhere to put things down. Oh dear, I’m making excuses, aren’t I?’ She sighed. ‘I can’t think of anything to paint any more, and that’s the truth of it. Do you think one runs out of ideas, when one gets old?’
‘You’re hardly old.’
‘I’m twenty-three. Sometimes I feel old.’ Twenty-three felt ancient to her. She had been almost nineteen when she had moved from Glasgow to London. It seemed an age ago. She remembered how excited she had felt, how full of enthusiasm she had been for the new possibilities ahead of her, and how she had adored exploring the city.
‘I’m thirty-six,’ Simon said. ‘I feel no older than the day I left school.’
From the brief conversation Rowan had had with Artemis while collecting her coat, her friend had confirmed that Simon was unmarried and that he had no need to work. ‘You’re fortunate,’ she said. ‘You can just amuse yourself.’
‘Do you disapprove of that or envy it?’
‘Neither. At least, I don’t think so.’
He laughed. ‘What was that? A flash of Scottish Presbyterian censure?’
‘Doesn’t it feel rather . . . aimless, disorientating even, to have nothing to do but to please oneself?’
‘No, it’s quite delightful. Why don’t you try it?’ She began to speak, but he silenced her, placing his fingertips on her wrist. ‘You’re not going to be so dull as to remind me that you have a house to run and a husband to look after, are you, Rowan? How very disappointing that would be.’
Though he withdrew his hand, it seemed to have left an imprint on her, like an impression in clay. She should walk away now, she thought, tell him that she had an appointment or that Patrick would be waiting for her – anything.
But she remained where she was. ‘Everyone has duties,’ she said. ‘Even you must have some.’
‘Everyone gives the appearance of having duties but most people are like me, they do only what pleases them. I speak of my own class, naturally. The lives of the lower orders are bound by necessity. One may play a long game, of course. I have my reasons for enduring the rigours of the Suffolk countryside.’
‘Yes.’ He studied her. ‘And I presume that you, Rowan, you tolerate your domestic duties and social routine because . . . because they satisfy you.’
Marrying Patrick three years ago, she had assumed that because so much of what was involved in running a home was both piffling and tedious, it must also be easy. It was piffling and tedious, and yet it had turned out to be time-consuming and arduous as well. She had learned to organise the grocer and greengrocer, the butcher and fishmonger, the laundry delivery and daily woman. She had become a passable cook: their cook-general, Gwen, had taught her how to prepare several supper dishes which Rowan made for herself and Patrick on Gwen’s evening off. She was considered by her friends to be an amusing and original hostess. Yet increasingly she found herself thinking – and now what? What outlet could she find for the energy that seethed and bubbled inside her, for the restlessness that made it impossible for her to sit quietly indoors in the evening, reading or sewing? More grocer’s lists, more dinner parties, for another twenty or thirty years?
‘Hardly,’ she said, with a small laugh.
He lit two cigarettes and passed one to her. He said softly, ‘Or you endure it for the sake of your husband, whom you adore.’
‘He doesn’t adore me,’ she said, but immediately regretted the confidence. Knowing she was undesired, he might want her less.
But he raised his eyebrows. ‘Then he’s a fool.’
‘No,’ she said bitterly. ‘Patrick is anything but a fool.’
She gave a tight little shake of the head. She did not know why Patrick did not want her. Their conversations skirted round the subject. She was afraid to ask him in case she was to blame. She was cold. She was getting older. She lacked sex appeal. Beauty and desirability were not necessarily the same thing. More and more often, it crept into her mind that she was simply unloveable.
A kerfuffle in the corner of the restaurant, a patron who had had too much to drink knocking over wine glasses, provided a distraction that was a relief to her. Waiters rushed around with cloths and dustpans.
‘You look sad,’ Simon said gently. ‘Tell me.’
The waiter came to clear away their plates. When he had gone, she said, ‘When I first met Patrick, I was living on my own in London. I was rather low . . . there was a love affair that hadn’t worked out. With Patrick, I felt I had something solid to hold on to. I needed that. Have you ever felt cast adrift, with no idea which direction to take?’
In those early days, she had been attracted to Patrick’s goodness and calmness. She found it difficult to be calm and did not think of herself as especially good. But after three years of marriage, three years in which their physical intimacy, never frequent, had diminished to nothing, the silences Patrick took refuge in reduced her to anguish and fury.
Simon gave a gentle smile. ‘But then, though I pretend to be an aesthete and a city dweller, scratch away and you’ll find that a couple of generations back I come from a long line of stolid Hertfordshire yeomen. I should probably be tending my swine just now.’
She laughed. ‘Simon, you would spoil your clothes.’ His evening dress was immaculately tailored.
‘So I would.’ He patted her hand and it was all she could do not to grip his hard, to clutch it like a lifeline. She shivered as he ran his thumb across her palm. His voice low, he said, ‘Rowan, my dear, I’ve admired your fire and splendour for some time now. I’ve only stood back for fear of being scorched.’
What response could a woman possibly make to such a declaration? She was relieved when the waiter came with the pudding menu, breaking the moment. Neither of them wanted pudding; she had lost her appetite and Simon told her that he never ate it. Over coffee and petits fours they spoke of this and that, but Rowan knew that a bridge had been crossed, and that they were edging towards danger – no, there was no danger to him, a man and a bachelor, only to her.
Her anxiety fought against an intense longing. It seemed a long time since she had desired a man, since her senses and emotions had been stirred and caution had battled with urgency. A half-light was peeling away. She had mislaid the person she was capable of being and yet suddenly, here she was, back again, shaking off the ashes of her marriage, colour shining through the grey. That he wanted her, that he made no secret of wanting her, made her feel alive again.
They finished their coffee and left the restaurant. Out in the street, a pale, misty corona shimmered round the gas-lamps. She put up a hand to hail a taxi but it sped by. On such events your life turns, she later thought – had the taxi stopped, he would not have had the opportunity to kiss her. His kiss was passionate and shocking; helpless with pleasure and desire, she returned it.
In the early hours of the morning, travelling through the wintry London streets, she looked out of the window of the taxi and saw how the mist bled the advertising hoardings into a yellow blur. The faces of the people on the pavements became frozen, white and distorted, open-mouthed and sliced by shadows. A tramp, sleeping in a doorway, became a heap of rags and old blankets with nothing inside. The darkened shops and offices appeared hollowed out and empty.
Rowan ran the tip of her tongue over her upper lip, which felt bruised. Her euphoria had drained away, replaced not yet by remorse, but by melancholy. She dreaded returning home to Mallord Street. She had chosen the house on a whim, attracted by the raffish artiness of the Chelsea area, but had come to dislike it for its claustrophobic flimsiness. Formerly an artist’s studio, it was small and narrow. Downstairs, there was a kitchen and scullery, drawing room and dining room; upstairs, three bedrooms. The attic room was all sloping, inconvenient angles and used for the storage of the ornaments and furniture they had inherited on Patrick’s grandmother’s death. The guest bedroom, in which Thea always slept when she visited, was at the back of the house, overlooking the basement area. Rowan and Patrick’s room was at the front. A bow window, installed by the builder who had carried out the conversion, leaked whenever it rained heavily.
When she crept into their bedroom, Patrick would pretend to be asleep. He wouldn’t ask her where she had been and she wouldn’t tell him. Neither of them would break the pact they had mutually and silently constructed, a pact which she increasingly felt imprisoned her. They tiptoed round confrontation, much as she herself would shortly tiptoe round the bedroom, quietly undressing and taking off her make-up, conspiring in the pretence that he was asleep.
Patrick could not easily be quarrelled with. If she shouted or wept he became more passive and distant from her. Their arguments were about minor matters – that she had forgotten a social occasion with his lawyer friends, that he had not yet found a tradesman to mend the dripping scullery tap. The gulf between them, those canyons of hurt and resentment, yawned too wide to be spoken of.
Patrick was slight, with fairish hair, small blue eyes and finely drawn features, handsome in a restrained English way. He was a good provider, a stalwart friend, an excellent host. To upbraid him for his absence of desire would, Rowan knew, hurt him terribly. Sometimes, before he turned away from her in bed, she glimpsed in his eyes both guilt and shame, naked and humiliated. Yet it was not only pity that prevented her from confronting him about the emptiness of their marriage. To talk about it must open barriers. All sorts of emotions and accusations might rush in.
This situation can’t go on for ever. The words sprang into her head as the taxi drove through the streets of Chelsea. She and Patrick teetered on the edge of a chasm. Tonight she felt herself falling. Simon had reminded her of desire and its power, which overcame logic, sense and duty. Bitterly, she regretted the time she had wasted, the dry, desiccated years of her marriage.
The taxi reached Mallord Street. As she let herself into the house, she felt herself shrinking, as if to fit into the small rooms and the constraints of her marriage. In the hall mirror, she checked that her lipstick was not smudged. Patrick’s papers were scattered across the dining table. The Christmas tree she had chosen was, she thought, too large for the drawing room. Rowan slipped off her shoes and went upstairs.
She slept for a few hours. Patrick woke her at seven o’clock in the morning to tell her that her sister was on the telephone.
So it was Thea who broke the news to her that their father was dangerously ill with pneumonia. Thea had come home to Glasgow from her boarding school in Yorkshire at the end of term, on 17th December. Their father had returned from a business trip in the south to the family home the following day. He had been unwell, feverish and coughing, yet had refused to allow Thea to send for the doctor, but his condition had taken a turn for the worse and Thea had placed the call the next day. Dr Waring had diagnosed pneumonia. Their father was not responding to treatment. He had suffered from weak lungs since the Great War, the consequence of exposure to mustard gas.
Patrick called for a taxi to take Rowan to Euston Station to catch the Glasgow train. Folding blouses and skirts, putting jars of cream and lotion into a sponge bag, Rowan’s hands fumbled as she was overwhelmed by fear. At the back of her mind hovered a suspicion that her father’s illness was her fault, that it was some punitive consequence of her passionate encounter with Simon.
A horn sounded. She glanced out of the window; the taxi was at the door. Clasping her suitcase shut, she hurried downstairs.
It wasn’t the first time that Hugh Craxton had been away from his family over Christmas. Some years ago, urgent business had taken him to Glasgow just before Christmas Eve (he worked so hard, poor Hugh) and had prevented him from getting home in time. And, on more than one occasion, when on a hiking holiday just before Christmas to see his reclusive friend, Malcolm Reid, in the Highlands, snowstorms and bad weather had closed in, blocking roads and railway lines, making it impossible for him to travel home. This year, it had been very cold in early December, with heavy snowfalls in the south of England, but during the week before Christmas the weather had become milder. His wife, Sophie, had listened intently to the forecasts but the announcer hadn’t mention blizzards in Scotland, or anything like that.
Every other time he had been delayed, Hugh had phoned or sent a telegram to let her know that he was all right. He had always been good about that. Whenever he went away he telephoned home regularly. But not this time. That the phone did not ring cast a shadow over Christmas Day, making it a subdued and prickly affair. Though anxious herself, Sophie tried to reassure her sons about their father’s absence. He would be home soon, something must have come up. Even so, Stuart, aged fifteen, was upset, while her elder son, Duncan, was resentful and angry.
During the past year, Duncan and his father had often clashed. He was eighteen, a difficult age, Sophie reasoned, no longer a boy nor yet quite a man. He was to go to university to study engineering the coming September. Hugh had insisted he stay at school in the meantime, a cause of friction between them. Wary of provoking another quarrel, Sophie had backed her husband up, though in retrospect she questioned whether she should have tried harder to persuade him to allow Duncan to do what he wanted, which was to leave school and find a job. Hugh might have found him a temporary position in the factory or the offices, to occupy him in the months before he started at university. The experience of earning money and taking part in the world of work might be just what Duncan needed. She had suggested this but Hugh had demurred.
It was the day after Boxing Day. Duncan and Stuart had gone out to see their friends, Michael and Thomas Foster. In their absence the house, which was in a cul-de-sac in South Kensington, seemed unnaturally quiet. The only sounds were the distant murmur of traffic, along with a faint soughing as air seeped through a leaky kitchen window. From a pot on the stove came a bubbling as bones from the roast chicken they had eaten on Christmas Day simmered for stock.
Sophie washed and dried the cake tin. Stuart, who was perpetually hungry, had polished off almost the entire Christmas cake last night, which meant that Hugh hadn’t had a single slice. Your Christmas cake is the best in the world, my darling Sophie. At the memory of his words, the sense of dread, of wrongness, that she was trying to suppress, flooded through her.
It came to her as she went through the house, mechanically tidying and putting things away, that the rooms felt dead. Sophie shivered and scolded herself for being morbid. The weather had delayed him. Or his work had.
But these comforting phrases no longer provided solace. Face facts, Sophie. Hugh had left London a week before Christmas. He’d been feeling under the weather throughout December and had developed a nasty cough, but there had been a problem at the factory in Glasgow that required his immediate attention so he had had to dash up north to sort things out. Kissing her before he left, he had promised to be home by Christmas Eve at the latest.
On the second night, they had had a brief phone call. Hugh had told her that he had reached Glasgow. His cough had worsened and he had thought he might be running a temperature. He had promised to go to bed and take care of himself. Since then, she had not heard from him and the ache of anxiety she carried inside her intensified hourly.
She smoothed out a sheet of wrapping paper lurking behind the sofa and put it away to use next year. Before Hugh had left, he had looked so pale and strained she had urged him to stay at home and cancel his meetings, but he had refused. Like so many men, he hated to admit weakness and was reluctant to consult a doctor. Had he gone down with bronchitis or influenza? Was he lying in a hotel bedroom, untended and alone? Or might he be in hospital, febrile and desperately ill, in danger of his life?
And yet none of these horrible imaginings made sense. He could have phoned from his hotel. Even if he had been delirious and taken to hospital, someone would surely have phoned or sent a telegram. They might have posted one of those messages one heard on the wireless: Would the family of Mr Hugh Craxton contact such and such a hospital, where Mr Craxton is dangerously ill.
Hugh had his demons. He was a drinker. The times of day for Hugh were marked out by snifters and noggins and jiggers and chasers and one for the road, sweetie. Drink was Hugh’s bulwark against the world, the rituals of making drinks almost as important as the alcohol itself. Mixing an elegant cocktail took his mind off business difficulties; opening a bottle of champagne blurred a black mood. Had he had one drink too many before he had climbed back in the car? Had he gone on one of his occasional but spectacular benders and was he now lying in a stupor in some grim room in a roadhouse on the Great North Road?
She and Hugh were never very sociable over the festive season. Church on Christmas Day morning was about the limit of their mixing with other people. Hugh always preferred it to be just the four of them, regardless of the occasion. Why would I choose to spend my time with other people when I have everyone I want here? His words, spoken to her when Duncan and Stuart were little, had warmed her heart and made her love him all the more. Now it occurred to her that though the lack of social contact isolated her, it had this Christmas been a relief, because she had not been required to make awkward explanations for Hugh’s absence.
In the drawing room, dry brown needles, shed from the Christmas tree, clogged the gaps between the floorboards. The candles on the angel chimes had burned down to stumps. Glancing out of the window, Sophie saw that snow was falling, tiny flakes that dissolved as soon as they touched the pavement. The motor cars and vans had slowed and switched on their headlamps, around which a ghostly greenish aura glimmered. It had just turned three in the afternoon, but night came early during this, the dregs of the year. A crepuscular gloom was settling over London and soon the day would come to an end.
With shocking clamour the telephone rang; Sophie dashed to answer it. It must be him! Hope flared as she grasped the receiver.
‘Hello?’ she gasped.
‘Sophie? It’s Viola.’ Viola Foster was a friend and neighbour of Sophie and the mother of her sons’ friends, Michael and Thomas. ‘I wondered whether you would mind if Duncan and Stuart stayed to tea?’
‘Not at all,’ Sophie managed as disappointment flooded through her. There was an exchange of pleasantries and she put down the phone. The silence returned, sour and unyielding.
She opened the door to Hugh’s small study. She rarely went into this room, which was dusted and vacuumed once a week by Mrs Leon
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...