This book is a psychological suspense thriller and has been written for adults, therefore it does contain mature themes. There are no graphic scenes in this extract.
HERS OR MINE
She could reach him, if she stuck out her arm. If she raised it high, swung it hard and fast, she could split his mouth wide open. Or worse.
The ropes stopped him retaliating. They stopped the chair tipping over, too, so he couldn’t smash off one of the legs and impale her with it. Was it the only thought that engulfed him at this moment – that he was powerless? That she could do anything and he wouldn’t be able to stop her?
Earthy odours of wet moss and the dusty stench of mould lingered in the room and tormented her nostrils. Other smells leeched out of the walls, too: ones of history and hatred. Who knew what had happened down here in years gone by? Who would ever know what was about to happen here, now?
She watched him attempt to open his mouth to try and make himself heard. A strangulated gurgle, like someone drowning on their own spit, dissipated into the filthy air. He could try as much as he liked but the gag left him voiceless. Everything held him tight; claustrophobic inside his own body, maybe. Did he want to know why?Why he was here? Why she was holding a knife – and what she was going to do with it?
A sliver of light sliced the gloom in half, leaving her arm visible like a ghostly bruise, her hand the eery image of a claw, the weapon deforming and glinting purple. Behind her, through the crack where the door had opened, that familiar voice oozed into every molecule of the cold air that clamped like vipers around her limbs. The words burned hot tendrils of temptation into her brain, until she stood there and recognised who she was, deep inside: a devil in a red dress.
‘Go on. You know you want to. Why don’t you kill him? After what happened. After everything. You know you want to. Go on. Dig deep and unleash the real you. After all, your husband killed you. Why not kill him right back?’
She ripped her hand on the letterbox. And it changed everything.
Anyone twitching their curtains wouldn’t have a clue that she’d hurt herself because Andy was right there, on the driveway, blocking the view. No one ever had a clue about what they did. Once, she would have been proud of that fact. Smug, even.
Every weekday, the neighbours saw Andy Griffin, about six feet in height, wearing a suit and carrying his overalls and boots in a bag, and holding his rucksack. They saw a woman, or at least the back of a woman, a bit shorter than him and almost always in jeans and a thin jumper. Lucy Griffin. The neighbours saw the pair of them kiss every morning, like any ordinary husband and wife, and he always waited until she went back inside, taking their little terrier with her, before he drove off to work in his pristine white car.
That was what the neighbours thought they saw: the typified, loving, suburban couple. Lucy knew different. And so did Andy, but he pretended to her that he didn’t. She was pretty sure that he pretended it to himself, too.
This was a nice neighbourhood, full of nice people. Everything was nice. Andy told her this at least once a week, as if he was trying to convince himself that everything was fine. Normal. But it hadn’t been ‘normal’ for years. The neighbours, if they were actually paying attention, would know that she always stood outside with her back to them. They’d have noticed that she only spoke – and only when Andy wasn’t around – to the new arrivals who were far too wrapped up in their own lives to pay much attention to who she was, what she looked like, or what she did. Or what happened now when she ripped open her hand on the stupid letterbox.
The blood filled her palm like a measuring cup catching milk for baking a cake. Only it wasn’t pure white but vivid, thick red; she wasn’t making something, she was watching the endless possibilities of what could go wrong pouring into her hand. She stood there, the pain barely registering, watching the blood drip down her flesh, staining all the creases and landing in a mesmerising drip, drip, drip on the doorstep.
Then began the intense agony of the anxiety. The paranoia. All those feelings that she’d never had until the last few years. They left her body rigid and mushroomed out into her head until she was sure it would explode across the doorstep. This was the only way she’d found to explain it to Andy which made him understand. It also made him treat her like a delicate butterfly that had broken its wing and would never be able to fend for itself again.
It was all more stuff that the neighbours didn’t spot because there was enough of a gap, and a lawn, and hedges between the detached houses that they couldn’t get too nosey without deliberately and overtly coming for a gawp.
Although they could use binoculars. Couldn’t they? Lucy’s insides leaped, but downwards, as if they’d dropped off a cliff. Did people really do that? She’d never done anything salacious or remotely binocular worthy since becoming Andy’s wife which would attract that kind of attention. She’d gone out of her way to make herself as ordinary as you could get.
A new injection of pain made her realise that Andy had grabbed her by the wrist.
‘Oh hell, Luce. Is it hurting?’
The throb of Andy’s pounding heart reverberated through his fingers and into her bones. If he squeezed any harder, he would snap her wrist. She winced.
‘No. You are.’ She glared at him.
She continued to watch the blood drip as he ripped off his tie and mummified her hand with it. The red seeped through the pale grey. All she could think of was the production of Macbeth she’d seen when she was at school, and the urge to shout, ‘Out, damn spot,’ was overwhelming and made her laugh. Loud. Almost hysterically.
He dropped her wrist as if it had just injected fire into his fingers. ‘Shhh. For God’s sake. Don’t make a show of yourself.’ He looked at her with the same expression he always gave her when he thought she wasn’t looking. The one that made her desperate to do anything to stop the way he hated her so much. Because he did. And he had for seven years. She knew he wouldn’t talk about it because he thought it would make it all fine if he pretended the thing hadn’t happened. But it didn’t work like that.
She watched him get out his phone and dial.
‘Hi, Fiona, it’s Andy Griffin. Yes, the boss. Yes, it’s very early. No, I wouldn’t expect you to be in the office yet. Don’t be cheeky. I’ll be in the greenhouses later, planting with the best of them.’ He laughed. ‘You know I don’t mind getting down and dirty.’ He turned his back slightly. Was that colour in his cheeks? ‘I wanted to let the staff know that I might be late in today. The traffic is horrendous. Some sort of accident, I think. I could be stuck at a standstill for Christ knows how long.’ He glanced at Lucy. But he wouldn’t catch her eye. She knew that. ‘Or I might not be. Just thought I’d let you know.’
He hung up.
‘So it’s not only me who gets half-truths from you, then?’
He ignored the rise she tried to get out of him, if only to distract herself from the pain which was now searing through her hand. And then, before she could barely catch a breath, the speed and weight of his body pushed her back inside the house, the door once again blocking out the neighbours and the rest of the ‘dangerous world’. His words, not hers.
But sometimes, the danger is inside, not outdoors.
Her back was against the wall, where he put her. This time, she really felt it.
‘I’m going to clean you up. It’s important that the wound’s disinfected. It needs to heal properly. We don’t want any problems with your hand, do we? And for God’s sake, don’t let Jake lick it. Luce? Lucy, are you listening? No complications.’
‘No complications.’ She repeated it back at him in the hope that it would calm him down, but he was worse than ever, this time. His shoes were off; he was saying that he probably should stay at home. If he did that, he’d sit on her shoulder all day like a disgruntled, resentful parrot. It would be obligation only, she was sure; his mind would be elsewhere. Someone else’s house; someone else’s bed.
She thought about all those months that had drifted by when she’d wanted him here with her instead of going to that garden centre of his and chatting up the women who worked close by, or maybe arranging to meet one of them for a coffee, or maybe a drink after work. Why couldn’t he ask her for a drink, instead? He used to, once. Before that night. And everything that came after.
But no, he was here, getting inside her head, taking her hand and making this a massive issue instead of leaving her be, letting her focus on the business, and on the work he told her she needed to keep doing. Her imagination couldn’t roam. It was confined in a box and watched on as he controlled everything.
He forced her to talk him through all the steps to clean and dress a wound, as if they’d never been through the process before. It was as if she was a child, or some secret possession that needed to be hidden away and protected at all costs. She could never have predicted that what happened would have changed him so much. Made him scared. Or that she would be living in a prison, with Andy as the warden – and a grip of iron that no one else ever saw. Or felt.
‘It started. This morning. While you were in the shower.’ Her angry eyes focused between her thighs, then flicked back up to him.
His shoulders sank. ‘That’s something, at least.’
Another piece splintered off what was left of her heart and skewered her. This hadn’t been in her plan – watching that relief wash over him. Not just the relief, but the fear that clung to every glance he gave her, the one that betrayed his thoughts that it would have been so much easier, had they never met. She’d loved him from the moment he spoke to her. She was one of those people whose emotions were so intense that they seemed to have a life of their own. They were like that right now, as she watched him focusing solely on her wounded hand.
A forever hour went by before Andy finally left for work. She ran out of fingers to count the number of times he gripped her and forced her to agree to calling him, and only him, if there was a problem with her hand, if she started to get a temperature, if it wouldn’t stop bleeding, if…
There were nail marks in her arms. If she looked in the mirror, they were probably in her chin, too. Her entire torso was almost crushed into submission as he gripped hold of her. He was asserting his power, disguising it as concern. That was what he thought he was doing. It crept in, and now it was stamping marks all over her. He affirmed it as he rested his head against her hair. She shut her eyes. She knew exactly what was coming.
‘We have to protect you. We have to protect it. What do we have to protect?’ His hands wrapped around her back and pressed against her ribs until the shape of her bones must have been imprinted on his fingers. The pressure caused her head to drift, made her mind wander. Could a skeleton be identified by bone prints? Like finger prints, but the shape of your rib, or knee cap, or big toe? Would that ever be of any use to her, one day?
‘What do we have to protect, Luce? Lucy. Come on.’ The squeeze was tighter. She coughed. Pure defiance made her rally herself and look straight into his eyes.
‘Our secret. Our bloody secret.’
‘Together forever. Yes?’
Did he really mean that? Mean that he wanted it? Or was he hiding the resentment that they had no choice?
She nodded and turned her head away. In case he saw the truth. Because she couldn’t guarantee that she could hide what he might see if he looked too deeply into her eyes.
The ornamental jug, paintbrushes included, went flying across the room. The brushes clattered in all directions and one got wedged in the printer. As she stared at it, sticking there like a broken limb, the smash of the jug against the wall sent shards of pottery splintering across the carpet.
‘Sod it. Shit. Bugger. Where’s my slippers?’
The last thing Lucy needed was pottery slicing up her foot. Having her hand wrapped up was bad enough. She couldn’t bear the commotion later on, when he got home, if Andy noticed a bloody great bandage. What did she mean, ‘if’? He’d notice a minuscule, round plaster.
She shoved her feet in a pair of hard soled clogs, glowered at the mess she’d made and stomped irreverently all over the paintbrushes. What the hell was the point in any of the equipment if she couldn’t make her brain whimper on one creative cylinder, never mind fire full throttle on all of them? If she could, she’d phone up the tax office and tell them she was done. The business was no more. Finished. But she was committed. If everything was to be okay, she had no choice but to resist that particular conversation.
Why was it that springtime was never quite warm enough, yet this room caught every scrap of sunshine and turned the place into a crab pot? She flung open the window and hung out in a bid not to be boiled alive.
If she fell out of the window now – or if someone gave her a shove – it was a toss-up whether she’d land in the rose bushes or manage to hit the paving slabs. The irony that they were her only two options didn’t escape her as she looked out onto the vast blanket of lawn, which probably might break her fall, if only it was directly below.
There was still dew on the ground and the air clamped fresh around her neck and face. Three gardens away, a man whose name she didn’t and wouldn’t ever know was trying to drive his sit-on lawnmower out of its home. Bloody disgrace. Families could live in sheds that size. Sod the lawnmower. He waved at her. Shit. Did he have cameras in his garden? Would they catch sight of her?
‘Stop thinking total crap. It’s illegal for him to have his cameras pointing over here.’
Still, that wouldn’t stop some people. She responded with an outstretched, waving arm as she sunk her head back inside. She wouldn’t mention it to Andy. This was a law-abiding area. And she didn’t need his obsessions. Going round to the house to suss it out. Sitting in the window and watching to see if the man was deliberately keeping an eye on their house. And what she might have to go through again. Instinct left her rubbing the ankle where the cable tie had dug in more than it should have done the last time.
A bag containing an unopened pack of pain au chocolates lay on a chair. Shoving one in her mouth, she dumped the rest on the desk, straight on top of her half-hearted doodles which were on the back of a leaflet about fly tipping. She picked up the shards of jug, wishing she never had to set foot in the boiled crab room ever again.
She had no choice, she knew that. Andy drummed it into her repeatedly that being cloistered in here until she went stir crazy was how it had to be – although that wasn’t how he described it. There had been the argument about her sending in work for a competition six months ago. It had been sitting in a drawer for years, and she’d just discovered it. That was a no-no; she might win, he’d said, and end up getting her photo taken, and be in the national press.
He explained it carefully, the way you do to a four-year-old, as he had when he’d ripped up the application form for an arts grant two years previously. She’d said it would be extra money; he’d replied that they might want her to do live demonstrations, and then where would she be? And she’d have to go to a funding panel and be given the third degree, he’d said. This kind of crap went on and on.
‘It was the deal. You know it was. Husband and wife. You stay in the house and let me concern myself with being out and about. You want to stay with me, don’t you? Not be taken away from me? Or me from you?’
Of course she did. The only driving force in her entire crappy world had been getting him and keeping him, for crying out loud. There had been nothing – nothing – else that mattered.
She went downstairs with the broken pottery and nearly fell over Jake as he snuffled about at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Bloody hell, dog, don’t go trip me over. The last thing I need is to be laid here when Andy gets back home.’
Jake gave her a blank look and disappeared to sniff something else, somewhere else.
The little succulent ornaments stretched out in a line on the hallway table. The ones she’d bought Andy years ago. The ones he’d said were realistic enough but not as good as real ones. It had irritated her then; now it left her feeling inadequate. He’d moved them again, so they were arranged by height. She manoeuvred them, like a conjurer with dice under pots, until they were arranged so the largest was in the centre and they shrunk outwards. The gaps were too big. She narrowed them. Fetched a tape measure. Made it perfect.
Things weren’t right in the kitchen, either. The condiments weren’t lined up properly. The containers for tea, coffee and sugar weren’t arranged in alphabetical order. She moved them around. Stood back. Measured the gaps. She never used to be like this. She’d started one day, and Andy had been concerned, loving, and now she found herself doing it without thinking.
The smashed pottery belonged in the dustbin, before she cut herself. Again.
She struck up a conversation with the bin.
‘I hope you don’t mind me taking your head off to rummage around in your shit. Am I permitted outside?’
‘Yes, as long as you don’t go too far, where the neighbours can see you.’
‘How kind. Would you mind if I picnicked in the nude? Or how about turning psycho and hacking off the limbs of the man at number twenty-three with his own sit-on bloody lawnmower?’
‘As long as the neighbours can’t see, then all of that should be fine.’
She lifted the rubbish bags to find one of the ones with tie handles. She’d already watched Andy check the contents of this bag. It took her a while, picking at the knots, but the handles came loose and she shoved the broken jug in it. This. This was what Andy had driven her to.
When they’d first met, she’d been convinced that she would fit seamlessly into his life. And she never got this kind of thing wrong, usually. All she’d ever wanted was to be his everything – all he thought about from dawn until dusk, and beyond. For him to love her. To love her in the way that she’d loved him from the second he’d walked into that late-night café.
She rehearsed the words in her head: she was scared that they didn’t fit seamlessly together anymore. He was trying to be everything, have an identity for both of them, even when no one was watching, and where no one knew about the secret that bound them here to one another.
And they could keep it that way, couldn’t they? Maybe, if she could have a break from trying to be what everyone expected – those customers who didn’t know her, and never would – then she could prove to him that she couldn’t do any harm, would be fine if he allowed her some space, or allowed her out of the house once in a while. Trusted her. Even though she knew, deep down in the black, twisted ball of her gut, that she couldn’t trust him.
Maybe she’d leave that last part out. She wasn’t looking for an argument. She’d tell him that their secret would still be safe, but she needed to get away, before it was all too much. Before the claustrophobia of this life drove her to something much worse than the skeleton in their proverbial cupboard that Andy was so desperate to protect. Before she killed him, right there in the kitchen. She’d leave that bit out, too. Besides, it wasn’t like her. She would never do that. Unless there was no choice.
Hardly anyone knew what Andy was really like. She’d known, deep down, when she’d first met him.
Seven years ago
There was something about being in a late-night café. The music was mellow and the food was always better than in the daytime, probably because the staff weren’t rushed off their feet.
It was dark outside. The kind of darkness that consumes everything. So it wasn’t until he closed the door behind him and stood there, blinking to accustom his eyes to the muted light, that she saw him.
He was one of those men who wore a shirt when he went out at night. He’d had a clean, perfect shirt every night that she’d watched him sit on a bar stool. She followed the pristine crispness of it all the way to the bar. There you go. Same pattern as usual. He must have felt her eyes in his back because he turned sideways. Should she keep staring? Would he hold her gaze?
He swallowed his drink. She watched his neck move in an elegant wave. Her eyes drifted down his body – skin hiding beneath the veil of shirt, taut shoulder blades, hip bone. She’d always had a thing for hip bones. A frisson of electricity rippled its way across her skin, leaving a trail of goosebumps on her bare arms. They travelled up into her hair and tantalised the follicles as he smiled at her. It was an even smile which left a dimple on either side of his mouth. His eyes lit up. From this distance, she couldn’t tell what colour they were. But she had every intention of finding out.
The conversation in her head was lively:
‘You could cross your legs. Pull your skirt up.’
‘Don’t be so crass. Ever heard of feminism?’
‘Wink at him. Go on. He’ll respond.’
‘He might think I’m a prostitute.’
‘Who cares? You want him to come over, don’t you?’
‘I could catch his eye. Hold his attention. Smile. Do it often enough and he’ll want to know more.’
‘For Christ’s sake, take the bull by his horny parts and talk to him.’
He smelled good. She leant on the bar, head tilted in his direction.
‘I hope you don’t mind, but I felt obliged to come and rescue that glass from the depths of despair. Maybe give it a friend to play with.’ She nodded over at the barman, who refilled the man’s glass and slid one over to her.
She went and sat back down to where she’d left her half-finished drink and toasted cheese sandwich. And waited.
Here he comes. He was never going to resist that.
He indicated the seat opposite hers. She nodded at him to sit down.
That feeling grew in her core. The one that had caused her all the heartache, the one that had led to, well, all the difficulties she’d had to deal with in her life. And the passion. Oh yes, the passion – of sultry nights and hot, desperate bodies, of those lips on her flesh, and the way being alone with a man had made her feel – she could never forget the way all of it had made her more alive than she’d ever believed was possible.
His eyes caught hers. He smiled again. The flame stopped smouldering and burned inside until it scorched her. In that moment, she noticed how he had longer eyelashes than any man she’d ever met.
‘So.’ He held her gaze. The intensity grew with this one word alone, that glided from his lips. With it, the room fell into soft focus, and the barista who saw everything and said nothing became just another piece of the furniture. ‘I’m Andy Griffin. What do I have the pleasure of calling you?’
And she knew. There was no questioning it, no stopping it. He was going to love her. Even if he didn’t know it yet. If no one else existed and they had to spend eternity hidden away like this, together, then he’d never be able to take his eyes off her and his words would melt into her senses and she’d never want them to stop. She didn’t care who he was; what he was. This man would be her obsession, until the day she died.
That felt like forever ago: when she’d called herself Katie, and Sophie… in her head, there was no going back. Sophie was already dead.
The car shuddered to a halt in its designated space. It left Andy alone with the oppressive silence that came from nowhere and filled the vehicle. His forehead thudded onto the silver circle in the centre of the steering wheel, and he head butted it several times. It set off the car horn, leaving his heart pounding and having the after effect of a stream of muttered profanities.
How much longer could they carry on like this? There had been a change in Lucy in recent months. Nothing he could put his finger on exactly, but it was there: a discontent. More than that. Something… else. And it bothered him. A lot. Hence the stack of cigarette packets in the glove compartment, and the one that was sitting on the passenger seat right now. He hadn’t smoked for years. He told Lucy he hadn’t. But, God, he felt like it again now. He sat there, staring at the packet. He wanted to remember what it was like, once. To go back…
A tap on the car window left his breakfast almost touching his tonsils. Inside his head, the words screamed to get out: I don’t know anything. It was nothing to do with me. His body wanted to crawl inside itself, his own skin hating the cowardice that went on in his brain.
He watched Michaela’s exaggerated movements, miming drinking coffee, tapping of the watch, and pointing to the café in the foyer of the shopping precinct adjacent to his garden centre. He tried to lip read the words that accompanied the actions – ‘Why give the boss any extra of our time? My turn to buy. Or is it yours? Or will the moths fly out of your wallet? I’ll have a look round and see if anyone else is early to work. You can buy them a drink, too.’
The words didn’t matter. The pretence of dragging colleagues along, or of that insult, despite him actually being her boss, didn’t matter, either. What mattered were those peach lips, those stunningly made-up grey eyes that were deep pools of temptation. He nodded towards the café. She knew what to do.
By the time he sat down at the table, a large latte was already there. Michaela sat with her cappuccino, waiting for him.
He tried to make small talk, if only for the ears of the young man who was singing to himself as he took two halves of a breakfast muffin out of the toaster and squashed slices of bacon between them. Clearly a perk of the job. Why were his own ‘perks’ so much more complicated?
The peach lips went straight for the jugular.
‘Why don’t you just leave her? You don’t love her, do you?’
‘Good morning, Miss Travis. I’m very bloody stressed this morning. How are you?’ His effort at sarcasm seemed to wash straight over her. She was on a mission; she’d been on it since he’d taken the first mouthful of non-alcoholic beer the other evening. ‘Mission Be Honest with Me’ she’d called it.
‘Or is that it – you do love her? What am I, then? Some bit on the side that you can have or not have, as the fancy takes you?’
‘You’re not that. And keep your voice down. Please.’
Michaela looked all around her, at the almost empty space where the two people mulling over the menu in the window were about as far away from them as anyone could get. She pulled a face at him as she nodded in the direction of the young man whose head was bobbing around to whatever was coming through his headphones as he stacked up the day’s clean cups.
‘Bloody hell, you’re paranoid. Who’s going to hear? I repeat – you don’t love her. Do you?’
‘It’s not as simple as that.’
‘It’s exactly as simple as that. You leave. Or you tell her to sod off. Doesn’t really matter, does it?’
‘Why do you have to be so desperate for me to “start again”? What difference does it make?’
She offered up a sad smile which vanished quickly. ‘You know precisely what difference it makes. Would you want to be someone else’s grubby little secret, waiting for your life to actually start? Properly?’ Peach fingernails, rounded to a sensible but flattering length, ventured across the table to cover his fingers.
‘Waiting for…?’ The penny wasn’t just dropping; it was sharpened and cutting in as it hit him. ‘Michaela, I – I think a lot of you, you know that. But you can’t pin your hopes on me.’
‘You think a lot of me? Is that the best you’ve got?’
‘I know you’ve set your sights on me, but…’ His eyes grew wide. What could he tell her? Not the truth. Not ever. His inability to articulate fell into a pathetic shrug.
‘What sort of stupid phrase is that? How old do you think you are? A hundred and forty? Don’t you care what I want? I wish you’d act your age, and—’
‘And I bloody wish you’d act yours.’ Regret followed his snap of frustration, but he saw the look on her face. His insides sank like a rock in wet concrete.
‘I could go round and tell her, you know. Bang on the door and let her open it, and tell her.’ She gave him a sideways look. ‘If I haven’t already.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean? Tell her what? What precisely are you going to tell her?’
‘About us. You and me.’
Her hand was hot against his knee.
‘What about you and me? Did you delete those messages from the other day?’
‘Of course I did.’
She grabbed her cup. Was she hiding her face?
‘My phone’s in the office. I’ve already been in, you know, to make it look like there’s a reason I’m hanging around already. The phone’s locked, so don’t look at me like that. And you’re not really in any position to make demands of me to do anything with my phone. You do know that, don’t you?’
‘What do you mean?’ Andy’s throat constricted. Threats, however subtle, were a thing of his past. He’d been there; he wasn’t going there again.
‘I mean that—’
Oh God, why were her eyes so fascinating?
‘—you don’t actually have any proper reason to order me about. To make me do what you want.’ She squeezed his knee. ‘But you could make me do what you want, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t mind some role-playing.’
‘I could sack you.’ His neck had become unseasonably hot.
‘But you won’t, will you? I’m too good.’ Her hand slid over his. ‘I’m exceptional all round. And you know it.’ She pulled his hand towards her breast.
He yanked his hand back and held his cup with both hands. ‘Jesus, pack it in. What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Trying to provoke a reaction. To get a rise, if you know what I mean.’ She gave a small smirk and those eyes glinted like Christmas tree lights. ‘For Christ’s sake, to get you to do something.’
‘I can’t…’ He gripped the cup until his knuckles went white. ‘It’s not something that’s going to happen, me leaving my wife.’
‘But you don’t love her.’
‘You don’t understand.’ No one would, he knew that. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure he understood everything that had happened. But there was no way out of it. Ever.
‘I understand that you didn’t love her while you were round at my place the other evening.’
‘It wasn’t… We didn’t…’ His voice changed into a hiss. ‘You know I stopped myself.’
‘But you could have, couldn’t you? You wanted to, didn’t you?’
What he wanted, so much, was to feel the same about the woman who laid beside him every night as he had when they’d first met. He wasn’t even sure how she felt anymore. Not about the way he treated her, that was for certain. Lucy looked at him sometimes as if she could kill him. Like this morning. And, worse, occasionally he caught her looking in a way he’d never seen before: like she was desperate, as if their relationship – all of it – was too much for her. He couldn’t risk losing her to, well, anything, anyone. He just… couldn’t.
He didn’t know what he should do, apart from make sure the only person who knew her inside out was him. And he did, didn’t he? And she knew him. They knew so much that it made him want to curl up in hibernation and never surface again. Sometimes, he wished he could be her, but it was Lucy who stayed in hibernation while he hid in plain sight. So he needed something to take his mind off the dead body that haunted his nightmares.
The thoughts that were like revolving doors in his head had left him temporarily oblivious to the peach nails that scratched against the fabric of his suit trousers.
‘What I wanted the other night doesn’t matter.’
‘Of course it does. It’s simple. You don’t love her. Then leave her, and be happy.’ The longing in Michaela’s face was painful. He was causing it and the guilt of that alone spread like a filthy icing on the already unpalatable cake that he’d once wanted to have and eat.
‘Back where we started, now, aren’t we?’ He let out a long sigh. ‘Lucy was… she was amazing when I first met her. She was funny, intelligent, knew all sorts of strange stuff. It was because of her fascination with plants that I got interested, got good at them. And her encouragement led to my garden centre. But my wife… now… we look at each other and we know there’s no escape. Sometimes I want to cry and not stop. Or… or to… I don’t know…’
‘Or to what?’
He didn’t answer.
‘You talk about her like your plants.’ Michaela’s pert body leant forward. ‘Like you’ve put her in different boxes. Her head’s in one part, her body’s somewhere else, the things she does in another compartment. Even your feelings for her are in different boxes. Do you think of me like that?’
‘Like I’m not one whole person. One whole woman.’
Those peach lips were inches from his. He tried not to look at her eyes, but he couldn’t help it. The grey of her irises was as dusky as her eyeshadow. She was truly desirable, completely what he wanted right now. And absolutely someone who could save his miserable life, if only he didn’t think she would be lethal to it.
‘We have to get to work. I’ll go first. Give it five minutes before you arrive.’
He heard her sigh as he walked away.
He still had a full day of work to face. Perfume and nails and beautiful eyes met him around every corner on the way to his office. He couldn’t bear it. A lump formed in his throat and wouldn’t go away. His whole life was out of control. Yet it felt like he was in a prison. One foot wrong and that’s precisely where he would be.
He found an isolated spot in the specialised plant nursery and lost himself in the only obsession he had that didn’t involve women. And the only one he had that was safe to talk about.
He almost chopped his thumb with the trowel as his phone rang. The flaming thing would give him a coronary if he kept leaving it in his shirt pocket. His stomach curdled at the ringtone. He fumbled with his gloves, unable to answer the phone fast enough.
‘What’s wrong? Do you need me to come home? Is that cut okay?’
The voice was quiet and eerily calm the other end. ‘You’re not in your office, then? I tried there first. Someone else answered.’
Andy’s insides squirmed.
‘Oh, really? No, I’m in the nursery. There’s a new project I’ve started. I’m lathered in composting soil.’
The nonchalance didn’t work. He’d tried, he had, but not hard enough.
‘Yes, really. Some woman called Michaela. We had quite a long chat, actually. I don’t think I’ve spoken to her in the office before.’
The emphasis wasn’t lost on him. His stomach knotted. ‘I’ll be having words. She’s not meant to be in my office.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll sort her out. Especially if she’s doing things that she’s not meant to do.’
He ignored the digging she was trying to do. ‘Anyway, enough of my employees. What did you ring for, Luce? Are you okay? Did you want me for something? Do you need me?’
‘I’ve wanted you from the first moment I saw you. But you know that.’ He noted that she made no comment about needing him. ‘No, I don’t want anything, except some inspiration. I’m bored, Andy. I need something… I dunno. An extra arm to this business I’m supposed to be running, maybe. Possibly a long-legged secretary to answer my phone and listen to all my secrets.’
‘I’ve never had a secretary, long-legged or otherwise, who has listened to all my secrets. You know that. And you know why.’
‘One to have a heart-to-heart with, then. In the office. Or some little secluded restaurant. Or a flat that no one knows you go to.’
‘Jesus, Lucy. Do we have to have this conversation now, while I’m covered in dirt?’ Had she been out? Had she been following him?
‘But darling, that’s you all over, isn’t it? The dirtier the better.’
‘Luce, if you don’t want anything but to have a go at me, I’d like to get on with this planting, so I can get back to you sooner rather than later. Listen, would you like me to get one of those massive takeaway meals? We can have a night in.’
‘What I’d really like is a meal out. It’s been seven years, Andy. Do you realise that? Seven. Do you know what it’s like to never go out with the one person who’s in your thoughts, morning, noon and night? Although, I guess that depends on who’s in your thoughts, doesn’t it?’
This was happening more and more. And this – groin-wrenching as it was – was why he knew he’d made the right decision about Michaela. He couldn’t go through it all again. He literally couldn’t. He and Lucy were bound together, right until the end. He’d made his bed, and now he had no choice but to lie on it. Or lie while he was in it, if necessary. But very, very carefully. Because it was way too dangerous to let Lucy go.
She has no idea I’m watching. If she did, she’d probably behave differently. Wouldn’t you, if you realised someone was watching you?
She wanders around the room, flinging her arms in the air like she wants to punch the nearest available living thing. But the only thing alive in there is the dog. No human company. She’s completely alone.
Sometimes she’s clutching her hair or hurling paper balls across the room. Occasionally, she’s close to the window. She leans on the sill and breathes on the glass until the steam obscures my view of her and the irritation of it burrows into my skin.
Okay, maybe she does know I’m here, watching. Maybe she’s doing it deliberately, to taunt me. Or maybe I’m winding myself up, standing here, with last night’s rain leeching into the sides of my shoes. I never used to wear shoes like these. Stupid, flimsy, silent things, like padding about in cat’s paws with laces. I won’t wear them when I get back home. Correction – when I get back to the place where I live.
The light’s dropping fast now. This time of year it’s that nasty, glaring white light one minute, then it feels like you’re being chased by a cloak that gets bigger, murkier, as every second passes. And you don’t even notice how malign it is until it’s too late and suddenly you’re caught in it, suffocated by impenetrable darkness.
Dark. Can’t move. Get me out. I feel sick. Give me a minute, until the vision of it fades.
I’m imagining that she can see me, aren’t I? I know I’m completely invisible here. It’s not only the mossy fence that’s preventing her getting a glimpse of me. It isn’t the kind of street where anyone really notices anything or anyone. Self-absorption and self-preservation lingers in the air like rotting vegetation. I’ve a good mind to grab a chalky stone and write it on the wall: Narcissist Street. I know it’s true. I’m an experienced voyeur. I can spot a narcissist a mile away.
I’m looking at you. It’s in every movement you make.
Now where has she gone? Is she sat at the desk? No. What are the chances of that? Remember, I’ve been watching.
A coffee. Could be tea, I guess. Yet another one. How many can one person drink in a day? If she spent as much time running her business as she does making drinks, she’d earn millions. The steam creeps up the window in an upside down teardrop as she leans against the glass. It condenses and runs down the pane in droplets as the glass saps its energy and gives it no chance of escape into the air. Move away from the window, you cow. I can’t bear to watch misery run down it like that.
I mustn’t get angry. I’m not here to do that.
She’s vanished again. So has that horrible afternoon glare. It’s going to rain. My hood is up. It’s been up since I got here. The fake fur around the edge makes me feel like a witch’s moggy. Time to use these rubber and fabric cat’s paw shoes to slip across the road, unheard. I don’t want anyone knowing what I’m doing. I don’t want her knowing. In truth, I’m almost enjoying myself. I’d better be careful. I’m not here to do that, either. Stick to your job. Get in; get out. Simple.
I can’t see her shape through the obscure glass in the door. I can’t see anything clearly. Everything inside is mixed up; warped. I want to laugh. The cardboard cutout neighbours don’t know the half of it.
Appearances have to be maintained in a place like this, thankfully. The letterbox has no creak or squeak. I wonder if it’s his own personal snake oil that makes sure of that? Anyway, it helps me, so who cares?
I don’t want her to notice the brochure yet. I wish I knew where exactly she is. It’s more personal pride than anything: not getting seen unless I want to be, keeping control, directing the action – even when they don’t know that’s what I’m doing. I’m good at my job.
There’s no movement. Hmm. Then I shall leave. And watch.
That drop in light has scared the street lamps into flicker mode. There’s no light over by the fence. I’m not stupid. Not anymore. I protect myself. Bloody rain. Fantastic for the garden, not for the voyeur. It’s running through this artificial and useless fur and slapping me in the eyes like someone has thrown tears in my face, purely to piss me off.
I really, really wish I’d got my proper boots on. But they got left behind years ago. It doesn’t matter. The rain can’t touch me, not when I retreat into my memories.
The rain was lashing down. It fell in white stripes and blurred the dingy mustard street lights. Not that there were many of them here.
My clothes stuck to my skin but the air was still oppressive. Despite that, I shivered as I stood there, close enough to see in the window. The barman was polishing glasses and spinning them on his finger end, showing off for an invisible audience, clearly, because no one was watching. Barely anyone was even there. I’d watched the same performance every night for the last three weeks.
I’d watched the couple in the back corner, too. And I was doing it again. The rain drowned me where I stood. There he was, his forehead pressed against hers. And she couldn’t take her eyes off him.
I told my brain I needed to go. Leave, and not come back each night to torture myself. But my feet glued themselves to the concrete, as if it was obligatory to stand there and watch my husband pushing that strand of hair behind her ear; brushing his fingers over her hand; grabbing her chin and pulling her mouth to his. Or later, when I watched them in the car. Heard them.
I stood out in the oppressive heat, a shiver grabbing me, mauling me until I couldn’t stop shaking. The rain had become indistinguishable from the sting of tears that scalded my eyelids. Blurred them. Warped them. I cuffed the wet away.
And then, through the window, her eyes caught mine.
Sod you, memories. Get back in Pandora’s Box where you came from. Back to the job in hand.
What’s she doing now, in that bricks and mortar safety deposit box, like all the other boxes down the street? That’s what they are, aren’t they? You put money in, sell it and take money out, hope it doesn’t get robbed and have someone take your prize possessions. Or your secrets. And there are plenty behind this front door, aren’t there? Look into the darkest recesses and the places you hate going the most, and there they are. No one knows what they are. Except the two who live there.
And me. I know. One of you will wish I didn’t.
Where is she? Reading what I put through the door, over and over? Waiting for her partner in crime to come home from work? It doesn’t matter. I know what will be going on inside her head. It’s all part of the game, see?
It’s dark now. Cold. I’d be glad of my false fur hood if it wasn’t still dripping. Bloody thing. How long have I been standing here? I hate peeing in an alleyway. Wish I had my boots. My feet are freezing.
A plethora of car head lamps flit by, eye-squintingly white, then a flare of red brake lights as they pull up and park in various driveways. The curtains are still open in the house across the street. Finally, there she is, silhouetted against the coffee table lamp. Pressed against the window, waiting for the car that should be home already. What’s going to happen once he gets home? Let’s find out. The car’s coming.
The engine dies; the door opens. Out comes the right leg, one half of a suit, a whole man. Him. He locks the car; goes indoors.
Shadows play against the obscure glass, becoming lighter and darker in turns against the stained glass panels. My imagination plays a little with the possibilities of what they might be thinking right now and reimagines them as a conversation. Well, I have to keep myself entertained while I’m standing in this ever-growing puddle:
‘Where have you been?’
‘I’ve been shacked up with my latest bit on the side but I’m not telling you that.’
‘I want you dead.’
‘I want you to stop being such a pain in the arse.’
‘Look at what came through the door.’
‘The answer is no.’
‘It’s yes. You’re getting no choice.’
‘I hate you.’
‘I hate you.’
That’s enough fun for me. I’ll find out what’s really happening behind that door. Eventually. The game has begun. Only it’s not a game for me. I’m playing for my life. And so are you – Lucy Griffin.
Like what you’ve read?
Read more about Hers or Mine here here.
You can grab your copy of the book here.
Selected reviews for Hers or Mine:
A DARK, TWISTY READ, SURE TO KEEP YOU GUESSING!
I received an Advance Reader Copy of Hers or Mine and this is my honest review of the book.
A fantastically dark, twisty suspense novel that kept me guessing at every turn! You think you know where you’re going, and where your loyalties lie with certain characters, and then, in the very next breath, the author has managed to turn that on its head, and you’re left gasping for air, caught up in the chase!
At first, I thought I knew what was coming. I trusted one specific character, but very quickly realised that things are not what they seem to be on the surface, in a very big way!
If you’re a fan of secrets, lies, and dark, deceptive games, then this is for you! Even towards the end, I thought I knew what had happened, and then the rug was pulled from beneath my feet and I was swept up in the madness again!
Well-written, brilliant pacing, and what a reveal! This was a joy to read and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Claire Ladds!