A taut and wickedly twisted psychological thriller by BBC Development Executive Michelle Frances. It’s a novel of subtle sabotage, retaliation, jealousy and fear, which pivots on an unforgivable lie, and examines the mother–son–daughter-in-law relationship in a chilling new light.
Laura Cavendish can’t wait to meet the woman who’s won her son’s affection. Despite a successful career in television and a long, prosperous marriage, Laura’s world revolves around her son, kind and talented Daniel. His new girlfriend, Cherry, is beautiful and amiable, but Laura can’t warm to her.
There’s something about the possessive way she touches Daniel, and the little lies Laura detects.
Then tragedy strikes, an unforgiveable lie is told, and the consequences of their choices will change all of their lives forever . . .
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What The Industry Is Saying About THE GIRLFRIEND:
"A compulsive page-turner!” —Tatum Fichthorn, Barrett Bookstore (Darien, CT)
“Francis keeps you on the edge of your seat.” —Sarah Rettger, Porter Square Books (Cambridge, MA)
“To read Michelle Frances' The Girlfriend is to immerse yourself in two British mindsets. One is the class system, so nuanced, so nevertheless powerful it denies entry to those not privileged to be raised in it. Money greases the social machinery, but it doesn't allow an outsider to become ‘one of us.’ Such is the barrier that young, resolute, ambitious Cherry is determined to overcome. The second is the convenient marriage, the reluctance to divorce no matter how sterile (or adulterous) it lives. How this plays out forms the plot with [a] deadly twist.” —Barbara Peters, The Poisoned Pen Bookstore (Scottsdale, AZ)
“A psychological roller-coaster…this debut novel will appeal to fans of fast-paced psychological thrillers led by deliciously vile female characters.” —Library Journal
Monday 2nd March
I love my son. That was all that counted. It didn’t matter that she was about to do something heinous. An opportunity had been granted to her, a beacon of light through the devastating last few months, and Laura knew she had to take that opportunity. She’d agonized over it for hours but now the decision was final she felt a wave of terror at what she had to say. The words that were going to break her into pieces. This was the first time. She briefly considered rehearsing it but the words -- the word -- wouldn’t form properly in her head; her instinct was to violently bat it away.
Crossing to the sink in the ensuite bathroom just off the private room at the hospital, she looked at herself in the mirror hanging above. A brief check that her soul was still intact through her worn blue eyes reassured her further. No flashing green irises, no demon-like pinhole pupils. She looked more tired though, and was shocked to see how much she’d aged. There were more lines around her eyes and mouth. There was also a sadness, a haunting despair that she had desperately tried to keep at bay with this new expensive hospital, the best doctors she could find and brittle hope. For a moment she forgot what she was about to do and thought only about what was soon to happen. The heartbreak was a physical force that made her double over, clutching the sink. After a few seconds, she stood. Nothing had changed.
Cherry was back today. Laura had checked and the flights from Mexico usually arrived at Heathrow early in the morning. She looked at her watch. Maybe she’d be back in her flat in Tooting by now.
A lump formed in her throat as she held her phone but she swallowed hard. She had to get this right. Any mother would do the same she reminded herself again and again, a mantra to get her through it.
She dialed the number carefully. She went cold then clammy in alternative waves, buffeted around by her agony. Her life was soon to end. The life that had meaning. Holding the phone with two hands to stop their shaking, she waited for the rings in her ear to be terminated.
Eight months earlier – Saturday 7th June
Laura had a good feeling about today. A delicious start-of-the-summer sensation had embraced her the minute she opened her eyes. She was up and dressed before it was even seven-thirty on an already hot Saturday in June. Walking along the landing to Daniel’s bedroom, she listened for sounds of him stirring but the room that they kept clean and welcoming while he was at medical school was silent. He was still asleep, hardly surprising seeing as he’d come home long after she’d gone to bed the last couple of nights. Daniel had been home from university for two whole days now, but she’d not yet seen him. Work was at a pressure point and she left early in the mornings and he was out when she came home. Catching up with old friends no doubt. She was envious for those conversations, hungry for information. She wanted to hear everything, soak it all up, enjoy the excitement she felt for him just starting out in his professional life and relish the summer with him before he went off to do his hospital training. Today was their day, no last-minute urgent changes to the drama series she was producing for ITV that kept her in an edit suite until nine o’clock at night, no meetings, just a day together, mother and son.
She opened the door a crack, the smile ready on her face. The room was flooded with sunlight, the curtains wide and the bed made. She stopped there for a moment, confused, then realized he must have gone down to make breakfast. Glad that he was already up and about like her, she hurried excitedly down the stairs of her Kensington house and burst into the kitchen. It was empty. She looked around, a little lost, a pang of anxiety fluttering through her. Then she saw a piece of notepaper on the counter. Scrawled on it was a message. ‘In the basement. Will be HUNGRY!’ She smiled. He knew she hated it to be called the basement; the word rang with a false modesty. It was a huge addition that went vertical instead of horizontal and had cost her husband a fortune. Still it was no worse than what he called it. Howard had wanted a ‘den,’ he’d said and she’d almost laughed at the absurd understatement, except that she knew he wanted his den to get away from her. He’d suggested it quite casually one night and said it would be useful, somewhere for ‘either of them to get a little space,’ and she’d struggled to hold back the astonishment and hurt. They hardly saw each other anyway; he was always at the office or golf or tucked away in his study. He’d then employed some very skilled and expensive builders who had dug out the earth beneath their house and filled it with a games room, a wine cellar, a garage and a swimming pool. The neighbors had been upset with all the noise, the conveyor belts of rubble spewing out of the ground and the general disruptive blot on the landscape and she’d been left to apologize, but at least it had been temporary and nothing like the steel magnate’s four-storey subterranean bunker down the road that had caused his neighbors’ front pillars to crack.
Taking the elevator down to the pool, she waited for the hum of the motors to stop and then stepped into a twilight of lapis lazuli blue. Cutting a frothy swathe through the sub-lit water was Daniel and as usual the sight of him made her heart soar. She walked to the top of the deep end just as he was finishing his length and knelt down to the water’s edge.
He caught sight of her and stopped, water pouring off his strong shoulders as he hoisted himself effortlessly out of the water and threw his arms around her. She squealed in admonishment as he knew she would do, grinning and holding her tight and then unable to resist, she hugged him back.
Feeling the wet seep through, she pushed him away and brushed at the dark patches on her yellow shift dress.
‘That was not funny,’ she said, smiling.
‘Just giving my old mum a hug.’
‘Less of the old.’ In Laura’s head she was still twenty-five and often looked at other women, fascinated by their encroaching middle-age before realizing she was the same generation. It amused her she was stuck in some sort of age-amnesia; amused her still further when a look in the mirror confirmed that although she looked good for her age, she most definitely was not twenty-five.
‘Come on, all the boys fancy you and you know it.’
She smiled. It was true she enjoyed the flirtatious company of Daniel’s friends, the way they came around and leaned lazily on her breakfast bar, addressing her as Mrs. C and telling her how good her French toast was. It had been a while since she’d seen
‘How are Will and Jonny?’
‘Don’t know.’ Daniel started to dry himself with one of the plush towels that Mrs. Moore changed three times a week regardless of whether or not anyone had used them.
‘But didn’t you see them yesterday?’
‘They work,’ he said flippantly, disappearing around the side of a carved wooden screen, ‘already out there changing the world.’
‘In insurance? And I’m aware they work, I was talking about the evenings. Where have you been then the last couple of nights, if not with the boys?’
There was a silence from behind the screen and Laura didn’t see that Daniel was smiling, a secret smile of reflection. He’d meant to keep it to himself for a bit longer but suddenly felt the urge to tell someone. Little by little, he would let out some, not all of the details, enjoying reliving them as he did so.
‘Hey!’ he said, as Laura poked her head round.
She stood, arms crossed, waiting for him to answer her question. ‘You’re perfectly decent.’ She watched fondly as he pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, proud that her genes had produced such a good-looking young man. Of course Howard had had a part in it but their son took after his mother in looks. Same height, same thick wavy blond hair and strong bone structure. Instead of giving her the answer he knew she wanted, he smiled cheekily as he made his way to the elevator.
She took a sharp intake of breath. ‘Don’t you push that button.’
‘Are you coming?’
Laura followed and pretend pinched his earlobe. ‘I’m going to get it out of you.’
The lift started to rise. ‘Ow. Can I take you for brunch?’
She lifted her eyebrows. ‘It requires an announcement?’
The doors opened and he took her hand and led her out and through the hall into the expansive oak and granite kitchen. ‘Just want to treat my mum.’
‘You old charmer. But before we go, give me a clue. I couldn’t stand the anticipation.’ She stood firm.
He poured himself a voluminous glass of juice from the fridge. ‘I’ve been looking for an apartment. You know, for when I start the hospital training program.’
She sighed. ‘You’re sure I can’t persuade you to move back home?’
‘Ah, Mum... Apart from the holidays, and not all of those, I haven’t lived at home for five years.’ It wasn’t that Daniel led a louche social life, he just enjoyed his privacy as any 23-year-old male would and didn’t want to spend the next two years living under his childhood roof, basement pool or not.
‘Ok, ok. So, apartment hunting. At night?’
He grinned. ‘Just meeting with the agent.’
It took a moment and then it clicked. ‘A girl?’
‘She’s very thorough. Knows exactly what I like.’
‘You say it like I’ve never dated before.’
‘But this one’s special,’ she said decisively.
‘How do you know?’
‘Well, you’ve seen her the last two nights, haven’t you?’
‘And only just met! Come on, spill. What’s her name?’
He was amused by her enthusiasm. ‘Cherry.’
‘A fruit! Short season, select.’
‘She’s got dark hair…’ He held up a palm, shook his head. ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this.’
Laura clutched his hand. ‘No, don’t stop, really. I want to hear all about her. Where’s she from?’
‘She is exotic! Sorry! I was joking. I’ll be serious now.’ Laura kissed his hand contritely. ‘How old is she?’
‘And she’s a real estate agent?’
‘Yes. Well, she’s training at the moment. She’s only recently started.’
‘And she works here in Kensington?’
‘She wanted to sell nice houses.’ He heaved himself up onto the work surface. ‘She learned about the area by pretending to be moving here. Went to see twenty-seven flats with other agencies before going for the job. Found she could talk about the properties and the likely clientele with aplomb.’ He laughed. ‘That’s what I call enterprise. And then… quite audaciously, made up a resume. Or at least embellished it. Made herself sound like the “right kind of girl”.’
Laura smiled, although was a little taken aback by Cherry’s behavior. Which was silly as she had nothing to do with her work and wasn’t her employer. She tapped Daniel’s knee with the back of her hand. ‘Come on, I thought you were taking me out.’
He jumped down and held out a crooked elbow. ‘It will be my pleasure.’ He wanted to treat his mum, look after her, be the son that he knew she, somewhat embarrassingly, liked to show off. They’d sit in the brasserie and she’d bask in their mutual good-humor and he knew he’d enjoy himself too. He always made time for them to be together, especially as ever since he could remember, he’d been aware that the relationship between his parents had little warmth. There wasn’t even much in the way of companionship; his father was rarely around as his job as partner at a large accounting firm kept him fully occupied and Daniel wanted to make up for some of the loneliness that he knew his mum felt. It had been a while since he’d seen her, which added to the guilt, the prickly discomfort of another secret. He hadn’t yet told her he was cutting their day short. He was seeing Cherry again tonight.
Laura sat in her usual seat, at right angles to her husband and picked at her grilled chicken salad. All the windows in their large, airy dining room were open but it still felt oppressive. She’d spent a languorous afternoon in the garden, with Daniel sprawled out on a lounger, she under the giant umbrella, he answering her questions with eyes closed against the sun, laughing at her enthusiasm to know everything about Cherry, she taking advantage of the fact he couldn’t see her drink him in. Then just when she’d stood to go and start cooking, he’d opened his eyes and sat up, with an awkward look on his face.
‘I meant to say…’
She turned back, a smile on her face.
‘I sort of promised Cherry… it’s a concert. In the park... I’m sorry, I know I said I’d stay home with you and Dad…’
She quickly swallowed her disappointment and brushed off his apologies, telling him to go and enjoy himself.
Laura looked down the length of the empty gleaming formal table that seated ten with just her and Howard clutching the end as if it were a sinking ship and suddenly felt an overwhelming irritation with it and the bizarre way in which they sat, following some dead ritual for so long neither of them questioned it. She turned her gaze to him. He didn’t seem bothered by the table, the heat, the fact they’d stopped talking to each other. He was reading the day’s Telegraph, with his glasses pushed up onto his forehead, while filling his mouth with salad and new potatoes. He’d been out all afternoon -- she was used to that -- but now he was back and she wanted to talk. She heard the chink of his knife on the china plate, the Mozart playing in the background, and her voice intruding sounded alien.
He didn’t look up. ‘Just the golf.’
The golf. She felt a twitch of hurt. That was one of the few things he still got excited about. That and Marianne of course. She never knew which he was really doing
-- he’d always tell her it was the golf, every Saturday, Sunday and some weekday afternoons too, when he could get out of the office but she knew, knew by the way he came back a little happier, a private happiness he kept within himself, which days he’d seen her. It wasn’t that it was a surprise -- that had come twenty years ago when she’d first discovered the affair. Mrs. Moore had gone through his pockets before taking the suits to the dry cleaners and left the receipts on the kitchen worktop. She’d seen them at breakfast, after Howard had already left for work, and Laura knew in absolute certainty she’d not received those flowers, nor had she been taken to lunch the previous Saturday. He denied it at first of course but she knew and eventually he angrily admitted it -- as if it was her fault.
‘Alright, it’s true. Are you happy now?’
It was the wrong choice of words, of course she wasn’t happy, her world had just imploded and then she discovered it had been going on for two years and he was in love with her. She was married too though, with young children and wasn’t prepared to split up the family. Laura considered leaving him – she had some money so would’ve been all right but there was Daniel to think about. And Howard, in an emotional outburst, said he didn’t want to leave his son, who was barely out of toddlerhood, so he promised to finish it and she took him back. But things changed. Howard was miserable for weeks, working late and hardly saying a word and the irony was that he never saw Daniel anyway. They fell into a pattern. He went to work and she brought up their son. Laura was used to loneliness. Her childhood had been an endless string of nannies as her mother went to parties and her father was at work. She was an only child – it had been too inconvenient to have any more. Laura had longed for a relationship with her mother but it never came and both her parents were now long dead. Determined that Daniel wouldn’t feel as abandoned as she had, she buried the hurt over Howard’s affair into positive things for him: clubs, holidays, friends. Their relationship grew strong and Howard started to feel left out. He found it even harder to be at home and worked even longer hours and the resentment grew. Because he felt sidelined, he became crueller to Laura, criticized her parenting when Daniel cried on the weekends at this man that he didn’t recognize who picked him up.
Then one evening, after Daniel had started university, Laura was at home while Howard went out for a drink.
‘Just someone from the club,’ he said.
It had lampooned her unexpectedly, when she was filling the kettle with water, a sudden, swift plunge to the heart and she dumped the kettle in the sink while she fought to breathe again. For she suddenly knew who someone from the club was. Marianne was back, now that their respective children had grown. And then she remembered he’d been out with someone from the club the week before. Before that she couldn’t remember and panicked while she wracked her brains. After the revelation had subsided she felt exhausted, beaten and she knew it was because they were still in love. Gradually ‘golf’ had spread to whole weekends and she saw him less and less. Occasionally she considered whether she should ask him for a divorce but it didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. Even though she knew Howard was the cause of the loneliness, facing up to it, breaking them apart would only make the wound open and raw. She’d always preferred to concentrate on other things. Daniel had been at the center of her life for so long and now she was secretly thrilled with the notion that he’d found someone special, someone she might be able to be friends with.
‘Daniel’s out again tonight.’
‘I assumed as much.’
‘That’s the third night in a row.’
He still hadn’t looked up from the paper and let out a small laugh. ‘He’s a grown man.’
She suppressed her frustration. ‘Yes, of course. He’s with a girl.’
Finally, Howard looked at her. ‘Good for him.’
She smiled. ‘I think he’s smitten. They only met three days ago. And he’s seen her every night since.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘Oh come on, Howard. Don’t you want to know who this girl is who’s swept him off his feet?’
‘You obviously do.’
‘Maybe I’ll text him.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ he whip cracked.
Hurt, she paused the fork midway to her mouth. ‘I’m joking.’
‘Leave him alone. Just because for the first time in his life, you don’t know every detail. Don’t interfere.’
‘I’m not interfering,’ she said quietly and suddenly wanted to leave the room. She put her napkin down on the table and got up. She was about to take her plate to the kitchen when--
‘You’re obsessive’--it was sudden, blunt--‘possessive.’
She stopped dead.
Neither of them said anything for a moment then he got up from the table and left.
Laura stood there, her plate in her hand. Tears pricked at her eyes, not just at the shock of the accusation but because of the look he’d given her as he left. It was a look of deep resentment. She sat for a moment and then as if to stop his words settling on her somehow, stood again quickly and walked into the kitchen. She knew better than to follow him; he’d gone to the den and anyway she didn’t feel like confronting him, wasn’t in the mood for an argument.
The plate clattered on the counter and then the anger and indignation at what he’d said came out. He was the one who had made himself absent all those years. What did he know about the mammoth job of bringing up a child? The all-encompassing care when they were tiny, the lack of sleep, the wiping of cheeks, hands, bums, tables, highchairs, wipe, wipe, wipe. The inability to go to the bathroom by yourself, the absolute knowledge that one hug from you would soothe the bumps and bruises and those hugs had to be always available, the constant reverse psychology / humor / diversion tactics required to get through an average day with a toddler. He’d never had to deal with, or suffer, the heart-rending tears when they didn’t want to go to nursery school or try to work out why, when their four-year-old reasoning couldn’t explain they found it difficult to have the confidence to make friends. He hadn’t had to make the decisions over sports, clubs, parties, or work out how to strike the balance between encouraging independence without making their son feel he was unsupported or how to solve the night-terrors after the sudden death of his grandfather from a heart attack. What did he know about any of this? She felt a rage at his appalling short-sightedness and then with a glass of wine, the anger subsided. Nobody knew any of this, nobody but a mother.
She picked up her wine and found her book by the fridge and took them into the darkening garden. The jasmine was beautifully pungent, its hundreds of tiny white star- like flowers just breaking out now June had arrived. She lit the citronella candles and soon the moths came to investigate. As she sat in the swing-seat she let her mind drift. It was funny thinking back--it had been practically just the two of them for years, and now Daniel was on the verge of moving out permanently. She was suddenly reminded of something he used to say when he was three. He’d pretend to be a puppy and bound around her.
‘Woof!’ he’d say. ‘Do you like him?’
‘You can keep him if you want.’
‘You can keep him forever.’ And he’d throw his arms around her neck tightly.
The cat came mewing pitifully, his tail like a toilet brush and she saw a fox sniffing around the large opaque window in the middle of the lawn that formed part of the ceiling of the subterranean pool room. Moses jumped onto her lap and stood there, still meowing and waiting for salvation. She’d originally got him for Daniel when he was nine, to teach him about looking after pets. He was a small silver-grey Burmese and she’d ended up growing quite fond of him. Picking up a small stone, she threw it in the direction of the fox; she disliked them, was wary of their capabilities and lack of boundaries. Recently she’d heard a distraught, incredulous woman call into a radio breakfast show talking about how a fox had brazenly walked in through the open back door and climbed into her baby’s cot in the middle of the day. She shuddered. If that had been Daniel when he was small, she would have probably smashed its head against the patio. Three nights in a row, she thought with a smile. Who sees someone three nights in a row right off? What did this girl have that was so special? As she mused about Cherry, she thought about another girl, a girl a tiny bit older than Daniel. Rose was Laura’s first born. She’d been the perfect baby, eating and sleeping right on schedule from day one. Which was why it had been so unusual when at only a few days old, Laura had had difficulty waking her to nurse. When it happened again three hours later, Laura was worried enough to take her to the doctor. He took one look at her and she was rushed to hospital. She was diagnosed with group B Streptococcus, contracted from undetected bacteria in the birth canal. After twenty-four hours, the doctors told them Rose was going to die and two hours later she did, in Laura’s arms. She was exactly seven days old.
The guilt had almost broken her, and their marriage. Laura was consumed with the thought of whether Rose would have survived if she’d gone to the doctors when she’d slept through her first feeding. The thing that saved them both was her getting pregnant again. Ten months later, when Daniel was born, Laura had vowed to whichever presence might be listening that she’d devote her life to this tiny creature and never let anything happen to him. And in return, could he be kept safe.
The cat lowered itself onto her soft thighs, half-closing his eyes in relief at the fox’s disappearance and Laura stroked his fur. He watched the demented moths with occasional darting eyes but was either too lazy or tired to actually do anything about them. As Laura swung gently in the seat, she thought fondly of this girl she’d not yet met, this girl who was the same age her own daughter would have been.
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