Published by Headline (9 August 2018)
Available in ebook and paperback
| About the Book |
How can you hide your mistakes when you don’t know what they are?
Gemma Brogan needs a break from her life.
A work event looks the ideal chance to get away. And a friendly new client seems like the perfect gentleman when he joins Gemma for an innocent dinner . . .
But the next morning she has no memory of how the night ended and he has vanished into thin air.
Suddenly, Gemma is plunged into a twisted nightmare she can’t control. To protect her future, and her family, she will have to confront shocking secrets from her past – and the truth about the girl she used to be.
Completely gripping and full of page-turning twists, this is the perfect psychological thriller for fans of Erin Kelly’s HE SAID SHE SAID and Laura Marshall’s FRIEND REQUEST.
Fifteen years ago
Thursday, August 15
When I think of that night now, I remember the heat, clammy and intense on my skin, and the sense of feverish excitement in the air. I think of the taxi ride to the party with my friend Lauren, her body soft and scented against mine as we sat crushed into the back seat with her boyfriend Tom. The radio was on, the windows were open, and ‘London Calling’ started to play. I remember the surge of happiness I felt then; I’d just been accepted by London University and would be there within a month. Whenever I hear that song now, it takes me straight back to that taxi ride to Alex’s house. It’s as though I am that girl, the girl I used to be.
But I’m not.
I can feel the sandals I was wearing as though I’m wearing them now. I could hardly walk in them; I wore them that night for the first time and within an hour I had blisters. I can remember the feel of my dress, its soft cotton brushing my skin. When I close my eyes I can feel the breeze lifting my hair. I can smell the perfume I wore, taste the lip gloss on my mouth.
But always, always, when I think of that night, I think of Alex.
It was mid‑August, the summer we were eighteen, and over two hundred of us from school were going to celebrate our exam results at Alex Clarke’s party. Lauren and I had got ready together at her house, and I’d sneaked in the little pink dress that I’d bought with the money I was supposed to be saving for university. We were tanned from the summer sun; each day we worked until mid‑afternoon in the café in our local town, and then we’d strip off our sweaty nylon overalls, pull on our shorts, and spend the rest of the day down at the beach. That afternoon we’d spent an hour or so topping up our tans before going back to her house to get ready for the night ahead. This was the start of the rest of our lives, we told each other. We wanted to look different, like we were ready for our new lives away from home.
We had a few drinks before we went to the party. Lauren’s mum came into her room with a bottle of champagne to celebrate our results, and insisted on refilling our glasses whenever they were empty. We didn’t tell her we’d already had tequila shots. Lauren had more to drink than I did, but she always did back then. As soon as I was seventeen, I passed my driving test and my dad bought me a runaround so that I didn’t have to ask him for lifts. I loved driving and was happy to have soft drinks and ferry everyone about. I suppose that’s why it hit me so hard that night.
It was a Thursday in the middle of August and we had to go to the school office first thing that morning to get our results. We felt they were life or death; if they were what we needed, doors would be opened to the top universities, the best courses, and a life full of promise. Just a grade down and we’d be screwed. The lives we’d hoped for just wouldn’t happen. Or so we thought. And while we knew – we’d been told often enough – that everything would work out no matter what, that other universities were still good, we were young enough to believe that no, actually, things wouldn’t be okay. We all knew people who’d failed to get into their first‑choice university, who’d talked about it for years later.
But that wasn’t our fate that summer. It was a stellar year. Everyone seemed to get the results they needed to do what they wanted to do. It was exhilarating, the way we opened our envelopes and screamed, one after the other.
And I remember Alex and his friends, all of them bound for Oxford or Cambridge, trying to hide their elation behind cool exteriors. They were fooling no one. They’d seen them‑ selves as separate from the rest of us – they knew they were different – and now they were proven to be right. Or that was how I saw it then. I didn’t even know him; I’d only spoken to him once, but that was the impression he and his friends gave. Lauren and I were standing behind their group that morning in the queue for the exam results and overheard his friend Theo ask, ‘The party’s on then?’
Alex nodded. ‘Spread the word around. People from here only. No one else.’
I’d nudged Lauren and she’d giggled; we’d been looking forward to it for months and had everything planned, right down to the nail varnish we’d wear on our toes.
The local press was there in full force that morning, pre‑arranged by the school, and there were photos taken of us all, grouped into sets, our expressions happy and free. Our teachers stood with us, their faces so tanned and relaxed I could hardly recognize them. The relief among all of us was palpable.
Alex’s house was in the middle of the countryside, ten miles out of town. We’d guessed it would be bigger, more expensive, but the scale of it surprised us. It was a detached house set in pristine landscaped gardens on the edge of a village. There were no near neighbours; the garden was surrounded by fields, beyond which we caught glimpses of the river.
He and Theo were standing at the front door when we arrived, making sure that they knew us all. There’d been stories in the news that summer about parties where crowds had gatecrashed and the police had had to be called; it was obvious from the way he checked everyone as they walked up the driveway that he was on guard for that.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘Come on in!’
Behind Alex was Jack Howard, one of his friends, who was taking photos of everyone as they went into the house. We’d known for a long time that he’d had a crush on Lauren, and when he saw us, he blushed and busied himself with his camera. She slung her arms around Tom and me and we posed there on the doorstep, giddy and excited at the thought of the night ahead. After Tom went through the front door, she turned and blew a kiss at Jack and turned to wink at me. Whenever I think of Lauren, I think of us giggling. Just about anything could make us laugh. When Alex had greeted us, we giggled and nudged each other and went through the large hallway into the kitchen at the back of the house. It was full of food and alcohol. People had gone overboard and brought spirits and crates of beer and armfuls of wine bottles. I heard Jack say that Alex’s parents were away on holiday; they’d agreed that if he got top grades – which meant he’d be accepted by Oxford – and if he paid for a deep clean afterwards, he could have a party to celebrate. They would be back a few days later and didn’t want to see any sign there’d even been a party. That was a bit optimistic, I thought.
Everyone in our year was invited to that party and most were there. There were so many I only knew by sight, but we were all on such a high that pretty soon we were kissing everyone and anyone, congratulating people we barely knew, just grateful that we’d done well and were going to have our chance to get away.
You’d think we were living in some sort of hellhole, the way we carried on, as though our only chance of a good life was to leave behind the one we had.
Lauren and I had done well; Tom too. We were all off in a month’s time to different universities. She and I had been friends since nursery school, and it would be almost the first time Lauren and Tom would have spent more than twenty‑four hours apart in the two years she’d known him. I thought our friendship would last the separation, and guessed she’d stay with Tom, too; there was an ease about them that I envied. That night their arms were entwined and I noticed when she kissed a friend that she’d align herself with Tom, as though they were one person, so they embraced the friend together. I drank so much that night. All of us did. It was the first time we’d all been together like that and we knew it would be the last time, too. Despite that, people didn’t seem drunk. Not really. Nobody was staggering or falling, and apart from my friend Lizzie, who was sick into an ornamental bay tree on the patio before it was even dark, nobody was ill. We were all outside and then the music was turned up and everyone was dancing. I lost Lauren and Tom somewhere along the way. When I saw her later, her dress was buttoned up wrongly and she had a fresh love bite on her neck. She was telling someone she hadn’t ever spoken to before that she would always miss them.
Then all of a sudden, past midnight, it hit me. I realized I was more drunk than I’d ever been. I’d been drinking more and more as the night went on, and most of it was punch from a huge bowl that one of Alex’s friends had been in charge of. God knew what had been in it – there were bottles of every spirit and liqueur you could think of lying around, and I was sure that most had ended up in that bowl. Lauren and Tom were lying in a hammock nearby by then, and when I turned to them, clinging onto the back of a garden chair for support, she smiled lazily and closed her eyes. I knew she wouldn’t want to go home yet. I was staying at her house that night and we were sharing a taxi home. Her mum had promised to leave the money next to the front door and the key under the doormat, so that we didn’t have to take our handbags with us.
My heart sank. It could be hours before Lauren wanted to leave. I started to walk back towards the house and staggered, falling into a bush. I didn’t mind; I thought it was funny. One of the girls from school yanked me back up again and asked if I was all right. I nodded. I don’t think I could have spoken if I’d wanted to.
When I reached the house I was suddenly desperate for the toilet. There were several portable toilets at the bottom of the garden but I didn’t think there was a chance I’d reach them in time. I searched for a cloakroom inside the house and found a door under the stairs, which I thought was probably what I wanted. When I tried to open it, I heard a boy laugh and a girl say ‘Shh!’ and I realized what was going on. I gave a deep sigh, knowing there was no point in waiting, and went further into the house. I could hardly see by then and was smiling at just about everyone. The mood was high, voices were loud, everyone was happy.
At the foot of the stairs there were a couple of chairs, with a note telling people to keep out. I couldn’t wait by then, though, so I squeezed past them and found a bathroom just at the top of the stairs. I stumbled in and sat down so fast I nearly dislodged the toilet seat. I found that funny, and wondered just what was in that punch. I wasn’t so drunk that I didn’t wash my hands, though, and saw that my face was flushed in the bathroom mirror, my eyes bleary and half closed. I knew I’d suffer the next day; I would have even if I’d stopped after the champagne and the tequila shots at Lauren’s house. I remember grimacing as I thought of the headache I’d have. The following afternoon I was going on holiday to France for two weeks with my family, and already I was dreading the long car journey with a hangover.
As I turned from the basin, I slipped on a towel someone had left on the bathroom floor. I probably should have picked it up, but I realized pretty quickly that if I bent down, I would fall. I doubted I’d be able to get myself back up if that happened, so I kicked the towel to one side and opened the bathroom door. It was quiet upstairs, though I could hear the sounds of the party continuing downstairs and out in the garden. I tripped at the top of the stairs and grabbed the handrail. I didn’t think I’d make it down without falling. My head was spinning by then and I had a sudden vision of myself hurtling head first down the stairs.
I backed away from the staircase and stumbled back into a door. It opened behind me. A lamp was lit next to a double bed. From the hockey stick propped up against the wall, I realized it must be Alex’s room. He played for the school team; the only time I’d spoken to him was when he dropped his kit when he was hurrying to get to a match. Posters from the Glastonbury music festival he’d gone to that summer were on his bedroom wall. I’d known he was going to it, just after the exams ended. Lauren had heard him talking to Theo about it when they were all queuing up to leave the hall after their last exam. A local band, The Coral, were playing at Glastonbury that year, and Alex was wearing their T‑shirt at the party. A drum kit was in the corner of the room next to a guitar and a huge amp. I remember wondering whether he was any good and thinking he wouldn’t play if he wasn’t.
I sat down on the bed. Suddenly I was so weary, I just wanted to sleep. My head was spinning and everything was blurred. I couldn’t summon up the energy to go back downstairs, and I knew that when I did, Lauren would want to stay longer and wouldn’t want to spend time with me. Only that night she’d said that she and Tom had just three weeks left and they were going to spend every single minute together.
So I lay down. The bed was so soft, its covers clean and fragrant. It smelled like my own bed when the linen had just been changed. I loved the scent of clean sheets. And I knew Alex wouldn’t know I’d been here – he was a party boy; he’d be outside until dawn.
My head relaxed onto his pillow. I had a fleeting thought that my make‑up would be all over the pillowcase, but I couldn’t care about that then. The door was half open and I knew that Lauren would come to find me. She’d know I hadn’t gone home; how could I? I had no money on me and I wasn’t going to go back to my own house as drunk as this. The bedside lamp cast a soft glow over the room and the light from the landing flooded the entrance to the room. She’ll see me here, I thought. She’ll tell me when it’s time to go home.
I turned to face away from the lamp. I’ve never liked to sleep with a light shining on my face. As I turned, I felt my dress ride up and I made a half‑hearted attempt to pull it down. The scent of the pillow and the alcohol in my blood‑ stream and the lateness of the hour and the fact that I’d been awake until dawn that morning, worrying about my exam results, meant that when I turned back, my head buried in the pillow, I relaxed completely. I remember sighing as I slipped into sleep.
It had been a great night. A really great night.
My thanks to Headline for providing the extract and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invitation.
| Author Bio |
Mary Torjussen grew up in Stoke-on-Trent. There was no television in her family home so books have always been her escape – she spent hours reading and writing stories as a child. Mary has an MA in Creative Writing from Liverpool John Moores University, and worked as a teacher in Liverpool before becoming a full-time writer. She has two adult children and lives on the Wirral, where her debut novel, GONE WITHOUT A TRACE, is set.