‘Happy anniversary, Sarah.’
When I open my eyes, Patrick is next to the bed holding a gift-wrapped box. He’s already dressed and I glance at the clock – eight a.m. Oh, God – the kids, Patrick’s breakfast. I should have been up an hour ago.
‘Relax,’ he says, sitting down. He pushes my hair out of my face and bends to kiss my forehead, smiling into my eyes as he does so. ‘Mia and Joe have already left for school. You stay in bed.’ He holds out the box and I sit up, pulling the quilt to cover me.
I look at the gift. The paper is silver and shiny, creases sharp and perfect on the edges, curling silver ribbon tied on the top in an elaborate bow. ‘But it’s not . . .’
‘Not a real anniversary, no. This one is more important.’ He lifts my hand and kisses it. He turns it over, kisses my palm, then up to my wrist.
My mind is scrabbling for the date but then I remember and relax: 21 January, the date we first met.
‘Open it,’ he says, pushing the box into my hand. My fingers fumble over the ribbons and he laughs and helps me, tearing off the paper and lifting the lid of the box.
It’s a CD. I lift it out, frowning, then see what it is and the frown fades. That old Verve album I loved so much. On the track listing, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is right there at the top.
‘Do you remember?’
Of course I do. I close my eyes and I’m back at that student party: a dark, smoke-filled room, carpet sticky with cheap booze, all of us drunk, a tangle of teenagers sprawled on the floor, passing bottles. Then ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ comes on and this man, this ridiculously out-of-place man in a suit, comes over and asks me to dance. All that noise and all those people, no one else dancing, and he twirls me round like we’re in some grand ballroom.
‘I thought we could dance to it tonight,’ he says. ‘You can dust off your Doc Martens and I’ll soak the carpet with cheap rum.’
He kisses me again and this time he lingers. I can smell his aftershave, the spicy, heady scent he’s always worn. I can taste coffee on his lips, feel the rough brush of his cheek against mine. I’m half asleep and groggy and I can’t remember how long it’s been: weeks? Months even? How long since we had sleepy morning sex, slow and languid, quiet because of the children? I reach up to pull him closer but he moves away, letting the cold in.
‘Stay,’ I whisper.
‘I have to go to work. Tonight, though . . . we’ll go to dinner tonight – somewhere special. Just the two of us,’ he says, back to Patrick all grown-up, buttoned behind a suit, not the Patrick who lay on that booze-soaked carpet, laughing as I danced around him. But it’s all still there, isn’t it? That Patrick, that Sarah? In the curve of his smile, his soft laugh, the way he looks at me as the quilt slips down. All still there, just muffled by the day-to-day.
‘Stay,’ I say again, pulling him closer and sliding his jacket off his shoulders.
He laughs and begins nuzzling my neck. ‘You’re terrible, Mrs Walker . . .’
When he leaves the bedroom, I fall back onto the pillows, closing my eyes, a smile on my face. I could sleep, sneak another hour before facing the day. But Patrick’s calling me from downstairs. I get up and reach for the threadbare dressing-gown hanging on the back of the door. Patrick always teases me about this ratty old thing: he bought me a new, thick, luxurious one I never wear because my mother gave me this a million years ago when I left home. I’ve worn it ever since and I’ll wear it until it falls apart because I have so little left to remind me of her.
Patrick is in the hall, holding up an envelope. ‘When did this come?’
I feel a flash of guilt. I remember the letter. It arrived the other day, handwritten, addressed to Patrick. I picked it up off the mat but, instead of giving it to him, I stuffed it into the drawer because it’s handwritten, because the handwriting is feminine.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I must have put it in the drawer instead of on the top.’
I watch him stare down at the letter. I’m ready to apologize again as I go down the stairs, but when I see Patrick’s face, I stop. I recognize angry and he’s not angry. I don’t know what this is.
‘What?’ I ask, and when he looks at me, his eyes are burning and full, like he might cry, and there are spots of red on his cheeks.
He glances at the letter once more, then pushes it into his coat pocket. ‘It’s nothing. Nothing important.’
It is, though. I’ve never seen Patrick look like that before: fear chasing elation chasing . . . something. Or have I? I have, I think. Once.
Caroline’s text comes through half an hour after Patrick leaves, and she’s knocking at the door ten minutes later, two steaming paper cups in her hands and a stack of travel brochures under her arm. ‘Cappuccino delivery,’ she says.
‘You look disgustingly awake,’ I say, opening the door wider and pushing my hand through my tangled hair. It’s only nine thirty but Caroline looks like she’s been up for hours, fully made-up, hair sleek and shiny.
‘It’s a gorgeous day out there – cold, but gorgeous,’ she says, as she follows me through to the kitchen. ‘We’re going for a walk after I’ve fortified myself with sugar and caffeine.’
I put down the coffee cup and flip through the brochures. ‘Thanks for these – I’ve never even considered the Cayman Islands,’ I say, pausing on a page of turquoise sea and white sand.
‘Have you chosen where you’re going yet?’ Caroline asks, and I sigh.
‘You don’t have to keep doing this, you know.’
‘Doing what? Bringing you coffee?’
‘All of it, turning up every morning, this false-bright Caroline. Up until a few months ago, I don’t think you opened your eyes before midday. But now, you and Patrick, it’s like a relay. He goes, you arrive.’
Her smile fades. ‘Yeah, well, up until a few months ago, I never had to worry about you being alone in the house, did I?’
‘You don’t have to worry now.’
‘Don’t I?’ she says, going to the cupboard and helping herself to biscuits. I shake my head when she offers me one and sit down with my coffee.
I make a mental note to get rid of the coffee cups before Patrick comes home. He doesn’t know – can’t know – about Caroline’s end of the relay.
When my best friend moved into a bigger, better house around the corner from us, she announced it by turning up on our doorstep, a bottle of Prosecco in her hand, saying, ‘Surprise!’ Patrick thinks she did it deliberately to wind him up, and although I denied it, I’m sure Caroline took an extra bit of pleasure in the move, knowing how much it would upset him. She’s known him almost as long as I have and, given how much energy they devote to trying to stop me falling apart again, to keeping me focused on the future, they should be the best of friends. Instead, they’re constantly at one another’s throats.
But I know their concern comes from a place of love, even their petty squabbles, and if their cotton-wool comfort makes me a little claustrophobic, I won’t forget it got me through the bad times.
‘Are you going to Helen’s book club tonight?’
‘I can’t – Patrick’s taking me out.’
She raises her eyebrows and gets another biscuit out of the jar. ‘What’s the occasion?’
I smile. ‘It’s silly. The anniversary of when we met. He always says that’s our real anniversary because he knew he loved me right away.’
Caroline shakes her head and laughs, but I don’t. Do you remember? Patrick said, and his words brought it all back. I fell too, the moment we started dancing. Sometimes, now, I forget. Patrick’s right to make it an occasion, to remind us of who we were.
‘Is this Joe’s?’ Caroline asks, going over to a small framed pencil drawing I’ve propped up on the worktop, ready to go on the wall. Joe, at seventeen, is far more talented than I was at his age. He’s captured Mia in a few bold pencil strokes, sharp, clean edges and soft, smudgy curves. You have to stand back, sneak up on it, squint at it from the corner of your eye to recognize her, but once you see her, it couldn’t be anyone else. It’s like he did it deliberately, tucked his beloved little sister away, hidden on the paper, a constant game of hide and seek. He could have done it as a self-portrait.
‘It’s funny, isn’t it,’ Caroline says, her acrylic nails tapping on the glass, ‘how it’s Joe that’s turned out to be the artist?’
‘You know what I mean.’
I step closer to the drawing, trace the edges of Mia’s face. ‘It’s not about DNA. Mia is my natural daughter and we couldn’t be less alike.’
‘Nature versus nurture?’
Joe picked up a paintbrush all by himself. I never put it into his hand. But I encourage his talent, of course I do. I don’t need to have given birth to him to do that. I step to the side and the sketch of Mia seems to turn with me. I wonder how he would draw me. Or Patrick.
‘Why haven’t you told him yet? About . . .’ she hesitates ‘. . . about him not being yours.’ Caroline’s husband is a social worker, and ever since Joe reached adolescence she keeps advising me on how best to deal with telling him and I keep shying away from it. ‘Why not just tell him, Sarah? It won’t matter to him, not really. You’re the only mum he’s known. And Patrick is still his father. He’d understand.’
My stomach lurches and I look round, as I always do, to check Joe isn’t lurking and hearing those forbidden words.
Caroline sighs. ‘I can’t believe you’ve got away with it for so long.’
Me neither. The knot of anxiety grows. What happens if at some point he asks for his birth certificate? Is that what I’m waiting for? For the issue to be forced?
I touch the glass of the framed drawing. Joe has always been my boy. Mia and I clash all the time, she’s always been Patrick’s little princess, but me and Joe . . . Caroline’s saying the things that nag at me in the middle of the night. More so since my own mother died and I was reshaped into this new, broken Sarah with a raw wound that just won’t heal. If I tell Joe the truth, I’ll be taking two mothers from him, me and the long-dead Eve. My own loss broke me – what would it do to Joe?
‘I know . . . I know we have to tell him, I should have before now, but it seemed like the wrong time when he started getting into so much trouble in secondary school,’ I say. ‘All those fights, the bullying . . . all those bloody teacher–parent meetings where they talked about him seeing some kind of child psychologist. God, Patrick was furious with them. Our sweet little boy was being bullied and they were trying to make out it was Joe’s problem . . . I couldn’t throw this on him as well. So I kept up the lie until it became impossible to tell the truth. And it’s not just Joe, is it? How do we explain it to Mia?’
‘Oh, God, Sarah . . .’
My throat tightens at the familiar worry in her voice and I swallow to clear it. ‘Look, his birth mother is dead. She’s not going to come knocking on the door. We will tell him. But not now. I mean, the accident . . . he’s not ready.’
‘I could ask Sean to see if any of Eve’s family are on record,’ Caroline says. ‘So when you do tell him, you have the information in case he wants to find them.’
‘No. Don’t. Please don’t. I’m sure if I ever need it, Patrick can give me any information about her.’
‘You’ve always said it’s Patrick doing the stalling but I’ve always wondered if it’s you who’s more unwilling. Afraid of losing your boy.’
‘Of course I’m afraid. Yes, we’ve both lied, but when it comes down to it, Patrick’s still his father. I’m just the wicked bloody stepmother.’
‘Hardly wicked,’ she says, putting her hand over mine and smiling.
My own hand curls into a fist under hers and I frown. ‘But is Joe going to see that?’
‘Is he still seeing the therapist?’ she asks.
I shake my head. Patrick ended the sessions. He said they were a waste of time. I argued until Joe stepped up and told me he agreed with his dad. I’ve kept the therapist’s number, though.
‘Is he getting on any better with Patrick?’
I sigh. ‘Not really. Not since he crashed the car.’
Caroline nods, then touches the drawing again. ‘He’s good.’
‘He wants to go to art college.’
She looks at me. ‘Does Patrick know?’
‘Remind me not to be here when that discussion takes place.’
We go to the park for our walk, coats buttoned to our necks, sunglasses shielding our eyes, Caroline badgering me about where we’re going on our grand family adventure. My answer is, I don’t know. There’s too much else going on, and I can’t quite focus. I think that’s why she keeps asking me, to give me something to hope for.
The park around us is full of dog-walkers and mums pushing prams, eager to be out on the first bright day of the year, pale-faced after being shut up indoors through weeks of rain.
‘Patrick got a letter,’ I say to Caroline, when we stop to rest by the lake. Our breath puffs out in white clouds, and I wrap my scarf tighter around my neck. I didn’t realize the letter was still in my head until I spoke. But I can’t shake that sight – the look on his face.
‘It frightened him,’ I say. ‘Whatever the letter was, it scared him. And there was something else . . .’
‘It scared him?’ She frowns and I can see she’s thinking the same as I did. Nothing scares Patrick. That’s why the disquiet’s growing.
Caroline leans back on the bench. ‘Did you see what it was?’
I shake my head. ‘The envelope was handwritten, that’s all.’ I look at her. ‘I was wondering if he was ill. Or if he’s had bad news.’
‘Was it from a woman?’
‘I was stupid. It arrived days ago and I hid it. I don’t know why. It’s not like I’m worried he’s cheating on me.’
‘Don’t be daft.’
Patrick wouldn’t. He just wouldn’t.
Caroline stares at me. She has a strange expression on her face and I can see my face reflected in her sunglasses, pale and worried. ‘Look, I’m sure it’s nothing. But maybe you should see if you can find out what was in that letter. Can’t hurt, can it?’
Patrick’s edgy when he comes home. Joe and Mia are gone. Freed by the knowledge their parents will be out for the evening, they’ve scattered. I’ve already changed into his favourite skirt, the one he bought me for my last birthday. I came back from my walk to find he’d sent flowers that fragranced the whole house, so I’ve dressed up for him.
‘You look beautiful,’ he says, leaning down to kiss me. ‘But where are the Doc Martens?’
I laugh and follow him into the kitchen. There’s a tense energy hovering around him, an electric something I can’t work out as he pours wine for me, water for him. ‘A toast,’ he says. ‘To James Tucker.’
I clink my glass against his. ‘To James Tucker.’
James Tucker – the boy who stood me up a million years ago. If he’d turned up for our date, I’d never have gone to that party, never have met Patrick. He even mentioned him at our wedding, getting all the guests to stand and toast James Tucker, a boy he’d never met.
He takes off his jacket and goes through to the sitting room, pulling the curtain open and staring out at the street. It’s not late. The Sawyer boys from across the road are still out on their bikes, bumping up and down the pavement kerb. It hasn’t been so very long since Joe and Mia were that age, but I don’t think Patrick’s watching the boys with the same wistful pang I am.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Do you ever feel . . . claustrophobic?’ he says quietly.
‘This house, this street, everything so dull and hemmed in. Not enough space, not enough air.’
I don’t know what to say. That odd energy is still there, humming in the air, and it makes me uneasy. It’s me, not Patrick, who says things like that, who longs for adventure. It’s never Patrick with restless feet and airless lungs.
‘Are you sure you still want to go out?’ I ask. ‘You sound . . . Are you ill?’
He turns from the window and smiles at me, dispelling my unease. ‘I’m fine – just tired,’ he says. ‘Of course we’re still going out. We’ll have dinner and find some seedy club that plays all those songs you used to listen to.’ He pulls me into his arms. ‘Give me twenty minutes to shower and change.’
The last time I saw my mother, I could see she was thinner, paler. She was quiet, distracted, just like Patrick. Are you okay?Are you ill? I said to her and she wouldn’t look at me. I’m fine. Just tired, she said. I turned away and didn’t ask again. I found the letters from the hospital only after she’d died. A stack of them, unopened, hidden away. Maybe she thought that if she hid the letters the cancer wouldn’t be real.
Is that what I was doing, in keeping the letter from Patrick? Hiding from whatever truth is inside that envelope? But that doesn’t work, does it? The cancer spreads and grows, however much you hide from it.
I go back out to the hall and listen for the sound of the shower coming on. His coat’s right there, hung up. I can see the corner of the envelope still poking out of the top pocket. It’s open, edges torn. I go over and reach for it, pausing to check the bathroom door is closed, the shower still running.
My heart is hammering as I slide the envelope out of his pocket, trying to pull the letter out without tearing it further.
‘What are you doing?’
I spin round, fumbling behind me to stuff the letter back into his coat, but I can’t find the pocket without looking so I shove it down the waistband of my skirt, pull my top loose to cover it. Did he see? He’s standing in shadow at the top of the stairs, still wet from the shower, a towel round his waist.
‘Nothing – I was just . . .’
I can feel the envelope pressing against my back. Why didn’t I just bloody ask him? It’s Caroline’s fault, making me suspicious, hinting Patrick’s up to something, when I know he wouldn’t be. I cling to the banister as I climb the stairs. He pulls me close when I get to the top, burying his face in my hair. His hand is on my waist and he slides it around to rest on the small of my back. His fingers trace the shape of the envelope through the silk of my shirt.
‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper. ‘I was worried. I . . .’
‘Sssh.’ He reaches under my shirt, pulls out the envelope, his damp fingers brushing my skin so I shiver.
‘I saw your face. I could see you were scared and I was worried . . .’ I’m babbling but I can’t stop.
His frown fades and he laughs instead. ‘Scared? God, Sarah, I wasn’t scared. I was thrilled. Excited.’
No, that wasn’t excitement.
‘What is it?’ I ask him again. This time he opens the envelope and hands me the folded letter inside.
‘I sometimes drive past it,’ he says, rushing the words out as I read the letter. ‘If I’m out on client visits, I sometimes take a detour and drive past it.’
At first, all I feel is relief. It’s not bad news – it’s not some love note from another woman. But then I focus on the letter and my heart starts pounding again. Patrick takes the estate agent’s details that accompany the letter and stares at the photo of the house on the front.
Dear Mr Walker, the letter says. You asked us to let you know if this property ever came up for sale . . . How many times has he taken that detour? ‘When did you contact them?’ I ask, holding up the letter.
‘A few years ago.’
A few years ago. I swallow bile, bitter in my throat. How many years? Two? Ten? Fifteen? Fifteen years ago is when the family living in that house were stabbed to death by a madman. That was when Patrick started having the nightmares that made him wake screaming in the night.
‘You just rang them up and . . .?’
‘All of them. All of the estate agents in the area. I asked them all to let me know if it ever came up for sale.’ He looks down at the photo again and I see his hand is shaking. ‘I never thought it would.’
He puts the letter into the envelope and looks at me again, a mix of fear and excitement back in his eyes. ‘It should still be mine. It should always have been mine.’
I shiver and hug myself.
‘I’ve arranged to see it on Wednesday. Will you come with me?’
God, all that wistful hope in his voice . . . I don’t want to step inside that house, but Patrick doesn’t see what I see when I look at the pictures. He sees the beautiful Victorian house he grew up in, with its pitched roof and gabled ends – a fairytale house before it became the county House of Horrors. He sees happy memories of a childhood lived by the sea. He doesn’t imagine blood on the walls or whispering ghosts. He doesn’t see the Murder House, but I do.
The Woman in the Dark – Out Now in Paperback audio and ebook.
Don't miss the spellbinding new thriller from Vanessa Savage. THE WOODS is out on 23rd January 2020.
There's a stranger in the house . . .
But what if the stranger is your husband?
'Kept us utterly spooked and utterly hooked' HEAT
'Claustrophobic and compelling' GOOD HOUSEKEEPING
'Unputdownable' LAURA MARSHALL
'A vivid portrait of buried tensions' DAILY MAIL
'An intense tale of deceit, treachery and loss' THE SUN
'Scary, pacy and compelling' CLAIRE DOUGLAS
'Creepy and atmospheric' AMANDA JENNINGS
For Sarah and Patrick, life has always been easy. Then they move to Patrick's childhood home and everything changes.
Fifteen years ago, another family was murdered there. Patrick says they can make it perfect again, but their children are plagued by nightmares and Sarah swears someone is watching the house.
Worse still, the longer they live in their 'dream' home, the more different her loving husband becomes . . .
A chilling psychological thriller about dark family dysfunction and the secrets that haunt us, The Woman in the Dark will captivate fans of Shari Lapena, Louise Candlish and THE INNOCENT WIFE by Amy Lloyd.
What readers are saying about THE WOMAN IN THE DARK:
'I can honestly say that this book will be next years must read psychological thriller of 2019'
'A deeply disturbing psychological thriller which always stays on the right side of horror'
'What a cracker of a book. Unputdownable and well written'
'I loved this book and stayed up half the night to finish it'
'A real page-turner . . . I thoroughly enjoyed it'
'A dark and many layered book. Hooked from the very first page'
Brilliant . . . a fantastic ending with a twist that I did not see coming