(Have you read The Prologue yet? Read it here first.)
Eighteen Months Later
The sound of a door closing upstairs should have given Natalie Gray sufficient warning that she wasn’t going to be alone for much longer, but her eyes were locked on to the computer screen and her heart was pounding.
‘Oh God,’ she whispered as she stared at the images in front of her. ‘Please tell me this is work-related.’
Her words were barely audible, but finally Ed’s cheerful whistling penetrated her consciousness as it grew ever closer and she quickly and silently closed the lid of his laptop and hurried across to the kettle, snatching it off its base and thrusting it under the cold tap, as if she had been standing by the sink all the time.
She shouldn’t have been looking at Ed’s computer, but she had wanted to check the weather for the day. She had gone to his browser history to see if the forecast site was there, and it probably was. But she hadn’t made it that far.
‘Do you want a cup of tea, Ed?’ she asked. Trying for bright and cheerful, her voice sounded brittle to her own ears, but she needed to think about what she had seen before she made any rash judgements. Their relationship was so new, and any accusation right now could fracture it into a million shattered pieces.
‘That would be lovely. Yes please, darling.’
As she composed her face and turned towards Ed she was surprised to see him in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. He was a big man with a broad, muscular frame, and he carried all his clothes well – from today’s attire to his formal police uniform.
‘I thought you were on duty this morning,’ she said, pulling a mug from the rack and adding a teabag, trying desperately to be her normal chatty self. Usually she loved working in this kitchen with its shiny white units and black granite worktop, but right now she would have given anything to be miles away.
‘I should have been, but I told one of the lads I’d do his nights this week. His wife’s just had their third, and he’s volunteered for the midnight feed to give her a bit of sleep. You don’t mind, do you, Nat?’ He gave her a worried glance.
‘I know it means you’ll be on your own at night, but I couldn’t refuse him.’
Natalie gave him a smile and hoped it didn’t look as shaky as she felt. A small voice in her head told her she was being stupid, overreacting. There was bound to be an explanation.
‘I don’t mind at all, but you’ll have Scarlett under your feet during the day. If she’s got friends round or she’s playing her music too loud when you’re trying to sleep, feel free to ask her to keep it down. It’s your house, and she needs to respect that.’
‘No, it’s our house. I love having Scarlett here, and her friends are always welcome. I love having you both here.’
Ed moved around the kitchen island. ‘Come here, Nat.’ He smiled and pulled her gently towards him.
She put her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. Ed’s hugs had seen her through the darkest times, and his broad shoulders had been cried on more often than she could count. There was something about being held in these strong arms that had always made her feel she had reached a place of safety. But not today.
It was eighteen months now since Natalie’s husband Bernie had died when a stolen car of joyriders had ploughed into him and their beautiful chocolate-brown Labrador puppy, killing them both. During months of crippling grief for the man she had been in love with since she was seventeen, Ed had been her saviour in so many ways. He had been hurting almost as much as she had, because Bernie and Ed – different as they were – had been best friends since they were five years old.
She would never forget the dreadful moment when Megan, Bernie’s friend and colleague, had arrived to give her the shocking news. Biting her cheek to prevent her emotion from showing and quieter than Natalie had ever known her, Megan had moved discreetly around the house, answering the phone, calling friends and family to save Natalie that painful process.
From the start, though, Natalie had felt that nobody could comfort her the way Ed could. He had rushed to be with her as soon as he heard, and since then had been there for her every step of the way. But right now, with his arms holding her close, she could feel her body stiffen with tension as alarm bells rang at the back of her mind. What she had seen on Ed’s laptop had left her questioning everything she knew about him.
Why had he never married? His slightly olive skin and high cheekbones gave him an exotic look, and he was a kind and thoughtful man. He would have been a catch for anyone, so why had every relationship he’d ever had ended within weeks, or at best months?
Putting her hands on Ed’s hips, she pushed him gently away.
‘Is there something the matter, Nat?’ he asked, bending slightly so that his eyes looked into hers. At five feet ten inches herself, he didn’t have to bend too far, but Natalie couldn’t meet his probing gaze, and she turned her back on him to reach for a tea towel to wipe her already dry hands.
‘No, it’s nothing. Just thinking about work.’
‘Okay. Well I’ll pop upstairs and have a word with Scarlett, see if there’s anything she’d like to do today. I thought I might treat her to lunch, or maybe there’s something she’d like to see at the pictures if she’s not planning to meet up with her friends. We could make a day of it. I’ll be back for my cup of tea in a minute.’
Ed walked towards the door, and Natalie felt a rising tide of panic.
Ed turned, a puzzled expression on his face. ‘What’s up?’
‘Nothing. Nothing. I just remembered that I said Scarlett could come with me today. A bit of work experience, you know.
Look, can you get the eggs on and I’ll go and wake her up? Thanks, love.’
Natalie pushed past Ed and scurried towards the stairs. She couldn’t look at him. He would be wondering what on earth was the matter, and the truth was she wasn’t sure she knew.
As she ran up the stairs, Natalie could feel her heart thudding.
‘Calm down,’ she whispered under her breath. She didn’t want Scarlett to see her like this. She would know something was wrong.
She reached the wide landing and turned left towards her daughter’s room. Ed’s house was so much bigger and more solid-feeling than their modern semi, and she had been glad to move here. Since Bernie died, their house had felt cold and empty, and night after night, unable to sleep and missing the warmth of her husband’s body next to hers in their bed, she had paced the floor until the early hours, wondering what the future would hold for herself and her daughter. She worried that she wouldn’t be enough for Scarlett on her own. How could she hope to provide the same amount of love as two parents?
She stopped and rested a hand on a chest of drawers, taking a deep breath to steady herself. Had it all been a huge mistake? Should they have stayed in their own house?
The relationship with Ed had sneaked up on Natalie. Three months after the anniversary of Bernie’s death Ed had called in, as he often did, to check she and Scarlett were all right, and as he was leaving his farewell hug had turned into something more. Natalie hadn’t wanted to let go of him, and gradually his arms had tightened around her. She had become conscious of every inch of his body, from the feel of his thighs pressed against hers to the warmth of his chest through the thin fabric of her T-shirt.
Ed had given a low groan and eased back.
‘Natalie,’ he’d said, and for a moment she thought she’d made a mistake. But his eyes were dark with longing and she reached up to kiss him gently on the mouth. It felt as if she had surfaced from the depths of despair into a bright and exciting new world – a safe one too, because that was how he made her feel. Steady Eddie, Bernie had called him. But even though he lacked her husband’s spontaneity, Ed made her feel cherished and brought warmth back into her heart.
They began to spend every spare moment together, but she’d had to admit to Ed that she didn’t feel comfortable with him staying at her house, sleeping on Bernie’s side of the bed.
‘I know what you mean,’ Ed had said when she told him of her reservations. ‘This is Bernie’s house – and yours and Scarlett’s, obviously. Look, this might be a big step, but when you feel the time’s right, why don’t you both come and live with me? My house has more space, and if you’re not ready to sleep next to me every night you can have your own bedroom. I don’t want to rush you.’
Natalie had known Ed for as long as she had known Bernie, so it had seemed an easy decision, and two months later she and Scarlett had moved in.
Megan had cautioned her against the move.
‘Are you certain it’s not too soon, Nat? I know it’s difficult adjusting to being alone, but please make sure you’re ready for this.’
Natalie had ignored her advice. But had Megan been right?
She heard Ed in the hall below. She hadn’t had time to process what she had seen – to decide what she should do – but if he found her here, leaning against the furniture and staring into thin air, he would know something was wrong.
At the far end of the landing Scarlett’s door was ajar, and as Natalie hurried towards it she could see her daughter’s red wavy hair spread over the pillow. Just her nose was poking above the bedclothes, the freckles that she hated so much showing against the pale cream of her skin. Natalie’s breath caught in her throat. Scarlett was so beautiful, even if she couldn’t see it herself. She blamed Natalie for the red hair and her father for skin that couldn’t bear too much sun.
As if sensing that she was being watched, Scarlett’s eyes slowly opened. She stretched her arms above her head and yawned.
‘What are you doing lurking in the doorway, Mum?’
Natalie painted a smile on her face and walked over to the bed. She sat on the edge and reached out a hand to gently push the hair away from Scarlet’s forehead.
‘You need to get up, sweetheart. You’re coming into work with me today.’
Scarlett’s look of horror said it all. ‘What? Why?’
‘Because Ed will have things to do, and besides, I like having you with me.’
‘But I’m on holiday! Why can’t I stay at home and chill? I’m fifteen, Mum. I am old enough to be left alone, you know, or I could go to Gracie’s. I said I’d call her when I was up.’
Natalie knew she had probably been overprotective of Scarlett recently and she didn’t want to stifle the girl. But this was different. She stood up and moved away from the bed.
‘Well, you can have a look round the shops, and if there are any tops you like I’ll come out with you at lunchtime and we’ll see if there’s anything worth buying. You need some things for the summer anyway. Does that make it sound any more enticing?’
Scarlett shrugged. ‘A bit, I suppose.’
Natalie hated what she was doing and turned away before Scarlett could sense her confusion. ‘Just get up, love. We’re out of here in thirty minutes. Okay?’
She didn’t wait for her daughter’s reply. She made her way downstairs to get on with the breakfast, forcing the images she had seen on Ed’s computer from her mind.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she was surprised to see him walking towards her, jangling his car keys.
‘Are you going out?’
‘Sorry, Nat. I’ve bollocksed things up a bit. I was supposed to pick Joe up on my way to shift this morning, and when I agreed to swap to nights I forgot to tell him. His wife’s gone off in his car, so now he’s stuck.’
That was typical of Ed. He took on everyone else’s problems and never let anyone down. So why couldn’t she just trust him?
‘Don’t look like that, darling,’ he said. ‘It’s my fault, so I’d better sort it. I’ll only be about forty minutes, but you’ll probably have gone by the time I get back.’
Ed leaned down and gave her a gentle kiss on the lips. ‘I’ll see you tonight, and I’ll cook before I go to work. I’ll make you my famous lasagne.’ He gave Natalie a smile, and when hers was less cheerful than normal he looked puzzled. ‘Don’t be cross – it’s only breakfast I’m missing.’
Natalie shook her head and tried to widen her smile as he opened the front door. With one last grin he was gone.
The smile dropping from her face, Natalie quickly walked through to the kitchen, leaving the door open so she would be able to hear Scarlett coming downstairs. She strode across to the table and lifted the lid of the laptop. The screen sprang to life and Natalie took a deep breath. She shouldn’t be doing this. She had never spied on Bernie in all their time together – she had never felt the need – and this felt so wrong. But she hadn’t been spying that morning. She had never intended to scrutinise Ed’s browser history, but this time there was no excuse. She was actively checking it out.
Her hands were shaking so much that she clicked the wrong option and silently cursed herself. Scarlett would be down soon – she needed to be quick.
She took a breath to calm herself and this time managed to steer the mouse to the history button. She clicked and the list of recent sites was displayed. There were ten items, but the site she had been looking at earlier had gone.
Ed had deleted it.
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