- Published: 5 January 2022
- ISBN: 9781405948210
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $19.99
When They Find Her
The gripping new thriller that will take your breath away
Freya was sleeping. Her warm breath, fast and shallow, fluttered rhythmically against my skin as I clutched her to my chest. That’s just how babies breathe, the midwives told me.
Aiden’s hand rested on the small of my back and I nodded up at him in response. He lifted her out of my arms and strapped her into her seat. I was shocked by the instant keen sting of her absence. We walked through the ward, shuffling along at my slow pace until we finally emerged into the harsh white of outside. I tilted my neck, the back of my head pressing against the nape, and looked up at the expanse of world hanging heavily above us. It was too big. A butterfly leaving the suffocating safety of its cocoon.
Was I ready?
I blinked rapidly, pulling Freya that much closer, and looked down at my shoes. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time.
On the long drive home, I sat in the back of the car – in the middle seat, closest to her. I watched her, as the city disappeared and the countryside emerged, rolling out its green carpet to guide us to the horizon, and home. Fields whizzed by, dappled in sunlight. Trees hung over the road, kissed by the vibrant greens of summer. Animals grazed in paddocks. Soon we would be at the farm and we could finally start our life together. My little family. The three of us against the world.
She shifted in her seat, eyes opening slightly to take in the world before closing again.
I love you so much, I thought. I promise I’ll look after you. I promise I’ll never hurt you.
A foolish promise to make.
Sometimes we hurt people by accident.
Four years later . . .
They should be here soon.
The grandfather clock that ticks loudly in the hall seems to have slowed down. Each second feels an hour, and with each swing of the pendulum, the tingle of anxiety increases. Kneeling on the soft blue cushion of the window seat, I strain my neck to look out of the porthole window at the long stony drive: a dark grey ribbon under the overcast sky.
I paced the hall for half an hour before taking up my position in the window. A sentry, watching and waiting. I just have to make sure that he doesn’t see me peer out through the glass. I need to be calm when he arrives.
I glance at my watch. He’d said they would be here by ten . . .
I wish she didn’t live so far away. Aiden has sworn they won’t move further than London. But it still feels too distant.
My hands are clammy. I wipe them on my jeans and shake my head, trying to force myself to savour the excitement, which is peeking timidly out from behind my fear. I wasn’t sure when or whether this day would come. Now that it has, it needs to be perfect.
I glance down at my hands where my engagement and wedding rings still nestle against each other, comfortable in the pale white groove of my skin. Aiden has asked me to take them off, but the rings are stuck beneath the knuckle of my permanently swollen fingers – one of many side-effects of motherhood.
Gravel shifts on the drive and I stretch up again to see Aiden’s car manoeuvring in front of the house, taking up the position where it used to park permanently. I scramble off the seat, run to the door and pull it open. The old iron hinges creak and a gust of freezing air whistles into the house.
The door on the driver’s side swings open and my toes curl on the cold tiles. Aiden groans as he holds on to the rim of the door to pull himself out, his knees straining under the weight of his body. I can’t hear them, but they’ll have clicked – a remnant of his younger days when he used to play rugby. What a ridiculous car for a man so tall. He moves around to the back passenger seat and I push forwards on to my tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of her. A slam, and then–
There she is: running towards me, a huge smile plastered to her face, a large piece of paper flapping in her hands.
‘Freya!’ I shriek, my voice high with excitement.
My darling girl.
Freya Grace Williams. Four years old. Born on 16 August weighing seven pounds and two ounces. Twenty inches long; ten fingers; ten toes; green eyes like her father; raven-black hair like mine.
She slows down as she reaches the house, her feet scuffing and sending gravel skittering in all directions as she stops just short of the front door. She looks up at me, a small smile on her round face, the chubby cheeks she had as a baby yet to disappear. Her long, wavy dark hair is partially pulled back, so that it doesn’t fall into her eyes, and in the sunlight they almost look gold.
I crouch and pull her to me.
‘Mummy!’ she says, her breath tickling my ear as she turns her head to kiss my cheek.
Aiden approaches and stands behind Freya, grasping her shoulder. She breaks away from me and turns her head to look up at him. He smiles down at her, the skin around his eyes crinkling. It was his eyes I noticed the first time I saw him all those years ago. He had approached me and my friends, full of confidence. A heatwave had rolled over London and the rooftop bar was buzzing in the afternoon sun, but as I looked up from my drink, my thoughts interrupted by his ‘Excuse me?’, all I could see was him. The light shimmered brilliantly on the Thames behind him, but I was transfixed.
‘Show Mummy what you made her.’ His voice sounds husky, like it does when he hasn’t slept very well.
I smile, and she holds out the piece of paper at arms’ length.
‘Did you draw this?’
A nod of confirmation as her cheeks flush and she looks down at her feet.
I take the piece of paper. On it is a horizontal, slightly wonky green line, shaded in. Through that expanse of green: a curvy blue wave. Brown trunks are topped with swirls of another shade of green and dotted with red spheres. Above that, a scratchy sea of blue. And, last, two figures: one small, with green dots for eyes; one tall with brown dots, holding
hands, both with U-shaped smiles in pink.
I look up at Freya and her face is furrowed. I grin at her. ‘I love it, darling.’ My voice cracks and I cough to clear it. ‘It’s perfect.’
Her face relaxes and she beams back at me.
‘Thanks, Freya.’ I lean forward and kiss her forehead. She smells fresh and clean, and I’m transported back to lying on the sofa with her on my chest. Soft skin underneath my fingers. Breathing in that new-born scent.
As I stand up, Aiden holds out her pink backpack, and our hands brush as I take it from him. My fingers flinch as if I’ve been stung. He meets my eye, his eyebrows raised. I smile and the tight cord of tension between us breaks. In return, he crosses his arms and steps back, away from the threshold of the door.
I turn my attention back to Freya, who is waiting at my side, but I can feel Aiden watching me through narrowed eyes. I look back up to his face and he holds my gaze. He wants to break me open so that he can understand me better. So that he can expose my insides and see exactly what is in my heart, pumping through my veins.
‘Okay, Freya.’ I break the silence, tearing my eyes away from Aiden to smile down at her. ‘Say goodbye to Daddy and then you can go inside, if you like – there’s a surprise for you in the snug.’
‘Books?’ she asks.
‘Maybe,’ I say, shrugging my shoulders playfully.
She grins at me, then rushes into Aiden’s arms. He kisses her on the side of the head and whispers something in her ear. She nods in response, shouts a final goodbye, scooting past me into the house. Sitting down on the stairs – the second step up – she pulls off her shoes, flinging them onto the floor below her, then runs towards the kitchen and through to the snug.
Holding onto the door, I turn back to Aiden, whose arms are still crossed – a barrier between us. I wait for him to say something else – goodbye, see you tomorrow, anything to end this awkward interaction – but he just stands there watching me.
‘Well . . . Thank you for letting me have her.’
I force my face to remain friendly, passive, but at my side, my hand clenches into a fist. ‘I really do appreciate it,’ I say.
‘Well, just make sure you look after her.’
‘Of course.’ I take care with my words, but they’re clipped. Dull.
‘You know what I mean, Naomi. You haven’t had her overnight for a reason. Remember?’
I bristle. ‘I know that. And it’s been a long time.’
He doesn’t respond and I can feel him assessing me in the silence. He wants to say something – I can feel it waiting in the space between us.
‘What is it?’
‘Promise me you’re not still taking those pills.’
‘I already have. But yes . . . I promise.’
He watches my face carefully, then glances into the hall behind me as Freya skids across the stone floor on her way to the kitchen.
‘You know what? Maybe I’ll just take her home. I’m not sure I’m ready –’
‘You won’t take her anywhere,’ I snap, as anger instantly bubbles in my stomach. ‘You agreed I could have her tonight. You promised. Remember?’ I echo his condescending word back at him.
His chin drops to his chest and he nods. ‘Just look after her. Okay?’
‘I’ll look after her, Aiden. I am her mother.’
He glares at me, shakes his head and opens his mouth, taking a deep breath in as if he is going to say something but then, for some reason, he doesn’t. He simply shakes his head again, decisively this time, and walks off without looking back.
As he drives away, I’m struck by a familiar pang deep in my stomach. Seeing him leave never seems to get easier. But then a small hand tugs on the hem of my cardigan, and I look down to find Freya, clutching a book in her small hands.
‘Mummy, can we read in the snug?’
‘Of course, darling.’ She trots off towards the back of the house, and I push the door firmly shut.
I stare down at the young man who stands below me ankle-deep in the mud of the banks of the Thames.
Could a building sweat? If someone were to ask him, Walter O’Brien would say no.
AnnieLee had been standing on the side of the road for an hour, thumbing a ride, when the rain started falling in earnest.
In a cramped hotel room high above the prayer-flag-strewn streets of Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, Nepal, Cecily snapped her laptop shut.
CARTER VON OEHSON MIXED himself a tall gin and tonic from behind the polished mahogany bar of his father’s billiard room, topping it off with a squeeze of lime.
The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.
Matthew Butler cocked his head to one side, considering the big-boned blonde in front of him.