Maddie Castle is broken. Ever since the tragedy that struck on her twins’ tenth birthday, she’s been trying to fit the pieces together, to get back to the life she led before. Maddie, her husband, Dom, and their children, Aidan and Annabel, lived in a comfortable home on a quiet street in a London suburb. Life was busy and satisfying. They were happy. Weren’t they?
Now, a disoriented and grieving Maddie floats like a ghost through each day, hardly sleeping, eating, or speaking. It’s easier to stay locked in her own head than to torment herself by reliving what happened. And yet, the harder Maddie tries to pin down her memories, the more they slip out of reach. Is her guilt and remorse justified? Is it Maddie’s fault that everything was ripped apart?
Or could it be that the real terror is still to come?
“A beautifully written, chilling psychological thriller. Taut, tense and very clever with twists I didn't see coming.” --Claire Douglas, Sunday Times bestselling author
“A completely gripping psychological suspense that had me glued to the pages and rushing through to the end. It's an edge-of-your-seat kind of read that you can't put down until it's done.”
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Three months later
My son's hair needs cutting. It hangs over his eyes and he peeps through it like a nervous actor scanning the audience through a chink in the curtains before daring to make an appearance on stage. It's only me he's hiding from, though. He turns his head when I walk into the room, twists his slim body away from me when I go to cuddle him. My fingertips tingle with longing for the almost forgotten feel of Aidan's milky-soft cheeks, and I wrap my arms around myself to stop them aching with the heavy emptiness of having no child to hug.
For thirty-six weeks I carried the twins inside me, our heartbeats a triple echo of each other's, first from the inside and then against my chest as I nurtured their tiny bodies, physically and emotionally, skin against skin. An invisible knot of mutual need and love bound us together; we were as one, and for the first ten years of their lives the knot tightened. Now it has been ripped apart, and my beautiful girl is gone.
Missing her somehow keeps Annabel's presence alive, and I cling desperately to that. I abandoned my daughter in that one dreadful moment; I will never let her go for all the moments hereafter. But the pain of loss is paralyzing — for me, for my husband Dom, and for my son who doesn't know how to be in this world without his twin.
Pressed into one corner of the sofa, eyes fixed on the Nintendo DS in his hands, Aidan looks like he wants to disappear into his surroundings. I notice he's wearing the jeans and shirt again, the ones I bought him to wear to their tenth birthday party, and I wonder how he can bear to — how the very fabric of them doesn't hurt his skin with painful reminders. Or maybe that's the point: wear the same clothes, remind Mum of what she did. It's working, and I know I deserve it, yet it feels ... unexpected.
I'm not quite sure what I did expect; just not this ... this void of silent recrimination. Aidan has never been a cruel boy; he's gentle and caring. I remember holding him for hours when our pet cat Disco was run over, stroking his hair, his three-year-old body shuddering beneath my hands, while Annabel patted his hand curiously, looking uncertainly at me with questions she didn't know how to ask. Eventually, his tears stopped and he cuddled her and she smiled again.
Aidan was the only one of us who could make Annabel smile when she didn't get picked for the lead role after a dance audition, or when she had to miss a swimming meet because of a cold. He adored her as much as he now clearly hates me. No, hate is too strong, too active. I simply don't exist for him any more, and he is barely existing. He was always Annabel's shadow, but now he's a shadow of himself, adrift without the twin who curled against him in the womb, wrapped herself around him as a baby and held on tight to him for the rest of her too-short life.
My precious, extraordinary twins.
They were always inseparable and I see Annabel's face every time I look at Aidan's. I would speak to him — I long to — but the words won't come, and I know he won't answer, anyway. Aidan, I'm so sorry, my love. The apology — so inadequate — fills my mind and vibrates through every nerve ending. It seems like the only thing I ever say these days, and I only say it in my head; the words never actually pass my lips.
I don't need a doctor to tell me that post-traumatic shock has stolen my voice. Selective mutism — the term floats towards me from university psychology lectures, oh, so many years ago. I know this explains my silence, and I understand that trauma has created an anxiety disorder that is suppressing my memory — along with my appetite, physical sensations, energy levels ...
I know all this but I'm powerless to change it. Every day I feel like I'm walking through clouds; everything is hazy, deadened. Everything except my emotions; they have never felt so raw. I keep mentally listing them on the imaginary whiteboard in my head — anything to keep some kind of grip on reality, to retain some sense of myself. I already feel like I've half vanished.
* * *
That whiteboard. It's in my mind most days now, with all kinds of notes, diagrams and commentary jotted across its gleaming surface. My own personal textbook. My eyes feel strained, myopic, but I have no trouble at all picturing my old uni whiteboard, complete with handsome failed-actor- turned-lecturer Seamus Jackson striking a pose in front of it. I suppose it's to be expected; I spent enough hours staring at them both.
Seamus Jackson. I haven't thought of him in years, but now his dulcet Scottish tones have become the voice in my head. In today's imaginary lecture, my memory has dredged up the image of Seamus-call-me-Shay-guys in his usual spread-legged stance, theatrically squiggling a drawing of a brain after severe trauma — scattered neurotransmitters, the lot. Hands on hips, Shay carves a dramatic tale from a dry explanation of how, after trauma, an overstimulated amygdala can become "jammed in fight-or-flight mode, guys, often completely freezing a person's capacity for speech." A dramatic pause, then he continues: "Excessive anxiety, or trauma, can crank up the amygdala's sense of danger to such a heightened extent that it effectively, like, short-circuits, creating an ever-present sense of danger that, put bluntly, causes the sufferer simply to clam up!"
Yes, I understand my silence, but I hate it. I hate that I can recall lectures I attended when I was barely out of my teens, but I cannot remember what happened in my own back garden on the morning of the twins' tenth birthday, a day that changed all our lives completely and for ever. I remember Shay's piercing blue eyes yet the exact details of my daughter's murder — the last moments of her precious life — are a complete blank. Such is the paradox of the mind; and people always think it's the heart that's so complicated.
I hadn't even realized I was paying that much attention to Shay. We'd shared just one illicit week together (Dating a student is a lecturer's self- destruct button), yet I remember every word he taught me. It's only now that I recall them, though: at the lowest point of my life. I have lost my darling daughter — worse than that, I gave her up — and it is unfathomable to me.
Choose one, bitch.
Why would anyone want to force me to make such a choice? It's like something out of that old Meryl Streep film my flatmate and I used to weep buckets over on rainy Sunday afternoons. Sophie's Choice — that was it. But this isn't a movie; this is my life. How dare anyone do this to me — to my daughter?
Anger. Here it comes again. I've learned not to resist it. Instead, I jot it conscientiously on my mental whiteboard, allowing the wisdom of Shay to surface once more: "Rage can grip many a bereaved person, guys. Don't make the mistake of thinking loss is a passive experience."
Instinctively I know my mind is protecting itself by blotting out everything the police must have told me about the gunman; the trauma of losing Annabel has brought down a shutter in my mind, and no matter how many times I try to recall that awful day, those appalling moments, all that emerges is jumbled, fractured memories. But in truth, it isn't agonizing over who did this or even why that has stolen my voice along with my capacity to sleep, think or even move very far. What keeps me frozen in shock is not his guilt, but mine.
I try for the thousandth time to make sense of it. Did it mean I love Aidan more because I saved him? Or that I loved Annabel more because I chose her? They were twins; I always vowed to love them equally, to show no favoritism. So what was I thinking? Did I sacrifice Annabel for her brother's sake? Or did I save her from the torment of existing in this dark place where the three of us drift like shadows, tiptoeing silently around the gaping hole in our lives, together but no longer a family?
No answer comes; my mind is a closed book.
Dom has been a glacier of impassive calm, and I know I've left it to him to speak to the police, the lawyers, the journalists, the neighbors ... He's never blamed me — and he's never, in my hearing at least, told Aidan that I'm to blame. I know he won't turn our son against me; he won't force him to choose between his parents in the way that I was forced to choose between my children. We disagreed passionately about the twins' school, but those arguments are long forgotten.
Life simply drifts on — the same, yet totally changed. We live in the same comfortable home, on the same quiet street in Hampton village; the usual domestic routine ebbs and flows: school, clubs, homework, playdates with Aidan's friend Jasper. But I don't leave the house any more. I spend my time now watching my son and my husband prowl restlessly through each room, unable to settle. They stare right through me, pretending they're busy just getting on with everyday things, while I glide like a ghost on the periphery of their lives. I can't speak, I barely sleep, and I don't know how to look forward; all I seem able to do is look back and wonder: How did I get here? Why did this terrible thing happen?
Dom hasn't looked up from his laptop, and Aidan's eyes are still glued to his DS. They're oblivious to my presence. So I look at Dom, really look at him, at the man I have loved so much but who can no longer bring himself to look at me. His face is creased in a frown. Didn't he used to be bigger? Has he lost weight? These last weeks and months will have taken as much of a toll on him as they have on me, I know. His face is leaner and he looks desperately tired, his blue eyes glazed over.
And then I notice the little crinkle at the corner of his eyes and it takes me back, all the way back to the first time I met him.CHAPTER 2
"If your eyes get any wider, they'll pop right out of your head."
"Excuse me?" I blushed as I noticed the tall, good-looking guy leaning against the A-to-C bookshelf of the serial killer section, his own blue eyes fixed on me. I had the sense he'd been watching me for some time.
"You haven't blinked for at least three minutes. Are you trying to break some kind of record? Or maybe you're just a beautiful freak of nature. I'm Dom, by the way. Dominic Castle. And you are ... ?"
"Deeply offended. Freak? Gee, thanks." I made a show of checking my watch even though there was a clock on the wall right in front of us. "Library closes soon. I'd best make a move."
"Without even telling me your name? But how can I spread the word about this extraordinary talent of yours, if I don't know who you are? And I said beautiful, in case you didn't notice. So don't run away. I won't bite. Unless you ask me to."
He strode towards the desk where I'd been camped out for the last two hours, staring at my psychology textbooks but really spying on Shay. Then he pulled out a chair and sat down next to me, grinning as he folded his arms behind his head. His black T-shirt strained across his broad chest and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.
"Sorry?" I said, even though I'd heard him perfectly.
"I said pleased to meet you, Madeleine Hartley." He thrust a big hand towards me.
Heat surged through my body, already flushed from the balmy evening. London was collectively sweltering in the sultry oppressiveness of a late- summer heatwave, and I longed for the cool, crisp autumn days that surely lay ahead. I wanted to swap my jeweled flip-flops for soft suede boots, lacy vest tops for cozy cardigans; I wanted summer to end and my university days to be over.
"How do you ...? Oh."
He abandoned the handshake offer I'd ignored and held up my Child Psychology binder, rubbing his thumb slowly over the name label. His fingers were lean and tanned; I wondered what it would feel like to be touched by them.
"Are you a Madeleine, Maddie or, uh, just Mad?" he said, grinning again as he swiveled his body so that his legs were spread either side of mine, trapping me in my seat.
Distracted by sudden movement in my peripheral vision, I glanced towards Shay. He hadn't spoken to me for three whole days now, and revision tutorials for the exam resits started on Monday. It was going to be cringingly awkward sitting in the small lecture theater with just him and the two other students who, like me, needed to retake our final paper. I wished for the hundredth time that I'd spent less time daydreaming about my lecturer and more time concentrating on studying for my finals, then I could have graduated and moved on to my teacher training course and —
"Depends on ...?" Dom queried, reaching out to pinch my chin lightly with hot, rasping fingertips, turning my head back to face him.
I deliberately closed my eyes, resisting his command to make me look at him, but the image of his dark brows and sharp cheekbones remained imprinted behind my eyelids. He was far too cocky; he was probably laughing at my gawky shyness. Damn. With a huge effort I forced myself to open my eyes. I wasn't going to let him see that his nearness flustered me.
"Well, my mum used to call me Madeleine. Mostly when she was telling me off. My flatmate calls me Mads. Otherwise I'm just plain old Maddie."
"Nothing plain about you, Maddie."
"I wasn't fishing for compliments." I bravely held eye contact with him, despite feeling myself blush.
"And what does he call you? Your man there?" He nodded abruptly at Shay.
"He's not my man. He's my psychology lecturer, if you must know. Not that it's any business of yours."
"Ah, I see." His deep voice softened, and his big hands were surprisingly gentle as they took hold of mine and squeezed.
"What do you see?"
"Oh, nothing in particular. Just that it's his loss. Definitely my gain."
There was the tiniest, sexiest crinkle around his blue eyes when he grinned. For some reason, that irritated me; I didn't want to be charmed by this big, overconfident man invading my space uninvited. I pulled my hands away.
"I'm not anybody's to lose. Or gain. I'm not an object to be passed from one man to another. In case you hadn't noticed, this is a university library. You know, for borrowing books? Not, uh, girlfriends."
I was being snippy, but mostly because I was annoyed with myself for finding the hint of possessiveness about him perversely exciting. I'd seen my dad lay down the law for most of my parents' married life, and after his death I'd watched my mum flounder helplessly without the husband who had defined her. Bossy, controlling men held no appeal for me, and Dom struck me as exactly the kind of guy who liked to be in charge. I wasn't sure why his arrogance was giving me butterflies; it was making me uncharacteristically prickly.
"Not even on short-term loan? Shame. I'd better check out some textbooks instead, then. Nowhere near as fascinating or pretty to look at, though." He cocked his head and quirked an eyebrow.
"You do that. Since you're so obviously here to study." I glanced pointedly at the empty desk in front of him, then back to my own books.
"You have amazing hair, by the way." He lifted a strand and stroked it.
I pulled back sharply. "Did no one ever teach you to ask nicely before you touch?"
"Are you a natural redhead?" he said, ignoring my prickliness.
"Strawberry blonde, actually. Anyway, I'm thinking of getting it cut." I twirled a long strand around my finger, telling myself that I wasn't flirting, just being friendly. Polite. Nothing more than that.
"Don't. It suits you long."
"I'm not asking for your permission," I said, lifting my chin. "I go running a lot, as it happens, and it just gets in the way. And it's too thick. Makes me hot. That's all."
"You keep in shape. I can see that. Which means we have even more in common than where we choose to hang out on a Friday night."
My cheeks burned fiercely as his eyes wandered brazenly over my white gypsy skirt and sleeveless turquoise blouse. I wanted to hug myself to cover my pale arms that never seemed to tan, no matter how many hours my friend Gabrielle and I propped ourselves on the tiny balcony of our rented first-floor flat in Kew, bodies angled to catch every last ray of sun, yearning for our fair skin to turn golden brown. Her long, skinny legs had at least been toasted a more toffee-colored shade of pale, but all I'd achieved after spending almost my entire summer break sunbathing while pretending to revise was a freckled nose and sore, pink knees. At least running kept me reasonably trim, I thought, pulling self-consciously at the hem of my skirt as I saw Dom check out my legs.
"Don't you have something useful you need to be doing? Maybe a few sit-ups, checking your abs in the mirror ..." I huffed and rolled my eyes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Perfect Family"
Copyright © 2017 Samantha King.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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