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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Breakdown

I wake the next morning to find Matthew sitting on the edge of the bed, a mug of tea in his hand.

“What time is it?” I murmur, struggling to open my eyes against the sunshine streaming in through the window.

“Nine o’clock. I’ve been up since seven.” “How’s the migraine?”

“Gone.” In the sunlight his sandy hair looks golden and I reach up and run my hands through it, loving its thickness.

“Is that for me?” I ask, eyeing the mug hopefully. “Of course.”

I wriggle into a sitting position and sink my head back against the pillows. Lovely Day, my favourite feel-good song, is playing on the radio downstairs and with the prospect of six weeks’ holiday in front of me, life feels good.

“Thanks,” I say, taking the mug from him. “Did you manage to sleep?”

“Yes, like a log. I’m sorry I couldn’t wait up for you. How was your journey back?” “Fine. Lots of thunder and lightning though. And rain.”

“Well, at least the sun is back out this morning.” He nudges me gently. “Move over.” Careful not to spill my tea, I make way for him and he climbs in beside me. He lifts his arm and I

settle back into him, my head on his shoulder. “A woman has been found dead not far from here,” he says, so softly that I almost don’t hear him. “I just heard it on the news.”

“That’s awful.” I put my mug on the bedside table and turn to look at him. “When you say not far from here, where do you mean? In Browbury?”

He brushes a strand of hair from my forehead, his fingers soft on my skin. “No, nearer than that, somewhere along the road that goes through the woods between here and Castle Wells.”

“Which road?”

“You know, Blackwater Lane.” He bends to kiss me but I pull away from him.

“Stop it, Matthew.” I look at him, my heart fluttering behind my ribs like a bird trapped in a cage, waiting for him to smile, to tell me that he knows I came back that way last night and is just teasing. But he only frowns.

“I know. It’s horrible, isn’t it?”

I stare at him. “Are you serious?”

“Yes.” He looks genuinely puzzled. “I wouldn’t make something like that up.” “But…” My mind races and I feel suddenly sick. “How did she die? Did they give any details?”

He shakes his head. “No. But do you know the first thing that came into my mind when I heard? That it could have been you if you’d been stupid enough to take that road last night.”

I turn away from him so that he can’t see my face.  It can’t be the same woman, I tell myself, it can’t be.

“I have to get up,” I say as his arms come round me again. “I need to go shopping.” “What for?”

“Susie’s present. I still haven’t got her anything and it’s her party tonight.” I swing my legs from the bed and stand up.

“There’s no hurry, is there?” he protests. But I’ve already gone, taking my phone with me.

In the bathroom, I lock the door and turn on the shower, wanting to drown out the voice in my head telling me that the woman who’s been found dead is the one that I passed in my car last night. Feeling horribly panicky, I sit down on the edge of the bath and bring up the internet, looking for news. It’s Breaking News on the BBC but there are no details. All it says is that a woman has been found dead in her car near Browbury in Sussex. Found dead. Does that mean she committed suicide? The thought is appalling.

My mind races, trying to work it out. If it is the same woman, maybe she hadn’t broken down, maybe she had stopped in the layby on purpose, because it was isolated, so that she wouldn’t be disturbed. It would explain why she hadn’t flashed her lights, why she hadn’t asked for my help - why, when she’d looked back at me through the window, she hadn’t made any sign for me to stop, as she surely would have if she’d broken down. My stomach churns with unease. Now, with the sun streaming in through the bathroom window, it seems incredible that I hadn’t gone to check on her. If I had, things might have ended differently. She might have told me she was fine, she might have pretended that she’d broken down and that someone was coming to

help her. But if she had, I would have offered to wait with her until they arrived. And if she had insisted I leave, I would have become suspicious, I would have got her to talk to me – and she might still be alive. And what about the breakdown services? Wasn’t I meant to have called them? But distracted by Rachel’s text and the present I was meant to have bought for Susie, I’d forgotten all about the woman in the car.

“Are you going to be long in there, sweetheart?” Matthew’s voice comes through the bathroom door.

“I’ll be out in a minute!” I call over the sound of the water running wastefully down the drain.

“I’ll make a start on breakfast, then.”

I strip off my pyjamas and get into the shower. The water is hot but not hot enough to wash away the burning guilt I feel. I scrub my body fiercely, trying not to think about the woman unscrewing a bottle of pills and shaking them into her hand, lifting them to her mouth and swallowing them down with water. What horrors had she endured to make her want to take her life? And as she was dying, was there a point when she began to regret what she had done? Hating where my thoughts are going I turn off the water and get out of the shower. The sudden silence is unsettling so I locate Radio 2 on my phone, hoping to hear someone belting out a song full of hope and cheer, anything to stop me from thinking about the woman in the car.

‘…..a woman has been found dead in her car in Blackwater Lane in the early hours of the morning. Her death is being treated as suspicious. No further details have been given for the moment but the police are advising people living in the area to be vigilant.’

Shock takes my breath away. Her death is being treated as suspicious. The words resonate around the bathroom. Isn’t that what the police say when someone has been murdered? I feel suddenly frightened. I was there, in the same spot. Had the killer been there too, lurking in the bushes, waiting for the opportunity to kill someone? The thought that it could have been me, that I could have been the one to be murdered makes me suddenly dizzy. I grope for the towel rail, forcing myself to take deep breaths. I must have been mad to have gone that way last night.

In the bedroom, I dress quickly in a black cotton dress, pulling it from a pile of clothes left on the chair. Downstairs, the smell of grilled sausages turns my stomach before I’ve even opened the kitchen door.

“I thought we’d celebrate the start of your holidays with a slap-up breakfast,” Matthew says.  He looks so happy that I force a smile onto my face, not wanting to spoil it for him.

“Lovely.” I want to tell him about last night, I want to tell him that I could have been murdered, I want to share my horror with him because it seems too big a thing to keep to myself. But if I tell him that I came back through the woods, especially after he told me not to, he’ll be furious. It won’t matter that I’m here, sitting in the kitchen unharmed, not lying murdered in my car. He’ll feel like I do, scared at what could have happened, appalled that I put myself in danger.

“So what time are you going shopping?” he asks. He’s wearing a grey t-shirt and thin cotton shorts and at any other time I’d be thinking how lucky I was that he was mine. But I can barely look his way. It feels as if my secret is burnt on my skin.

“As soon as I’ve finished breakfast.” I look through the window to the back garden, trying to concentrate on how lovely it looks but my mind keeps tripping over last night, over the memory of me driving away. She had been alive at that point, the woman in the car.

“Is Rachel going with you?” Matthew interrupts my thoughts.

“No.” Suddenly, it seems like the best idea in the world because maybe I could tell her about last night, share the devastation I feel. “Actually, that’s a good idea. I’ll phone and ask her.”

“Don’t be long,” he says. “It’s almost ready.” “I’ll only be a minute.

I go into the hall, take the house phone and dial Rachel’s number. It takes her a while to answer and when she does her voice is heavy with sleep.

“I’ve woken you,” I say, feeling bad.

“It feels like the middle of the night,” she says grumpily. “What time is it?” “Nine-thirty.”

“So it is the middle of the night. Did you get my text?”

The question throws me and I pause, a headache building behind my eyes. “Yes, but I haven’t bought anything for Susie yet.”

“Oh.”

“I’ve been really busy,” I say quickly, remembering that for some reason, Rachel thinks we’re buying something together. “I thought I’d wait until today in case we changed our minds about what to get her,” I add, hoping to prompt her into revealing what we’d decided.

“Why would we? Everybody agreed yours was the best idea. Plus the party’s tonight, Cass!”

The word ‘everybody’ throws me. “Well, you never know,” I say evasively. “I don’t suppose you want to come with me, do you?”

“You’re joking, I hope.”

“It’ll be great for your jet-lag,” I try. “No, sorry, I can’t.”

“Not even if I buy you lunch?” There’s a pause. “At Costello’s?”

“Done. Let’s meet in the café in Fentons at eleven, then I can buy you a coffee as well.” I hear her yawning and then a rustle. “Can I think about it?”

“No, you can’t,” I tell her firmly. “Come on, out of bed. I’ll see you there.”

I hang up feeling a little lighter, pushing Susie’s present from my mind. After the news this morning, it feels a small worry in comparison.

I go back to the kitchen and sit down at the table.

“How does that look?” Matthew asks, swooping a plate of sausages, bacon and eggs in front of me.

It looks like I could never eat it but I smile enthusiastically. “Great! Thanks.” He sits down next to me and picks up his knife and fork. “How’s Rachel?”

“Fine. She’s going to come with me.” I look at my plate, wondering how I’m going to do it justice. I take a couple of mouthfuls but my stomach rebels so I push the rest around for a bit, then give up. “I’m really sorry,” I say, putting my knife and fork down. “I’m still full after the meal last night.”

He reaches over with his fork and spears a sausage. “It’s a shame to let it go to waste,” he says, grinning;

“Help yourself.”

His blue eyes hold my gaze, not letting it shift away. “Are you ok? You seem a bit quiet.”

I blink quickly a couple of times, sending the tears that are threatening my eyes back to where they came from. “I can’t stop thinking about that woman,” I say. It’s such a relief to be able to talk about it that my words come out in a rush. “They said on the radio that the police are treating her death as suspicious.”

He takes a bite of sausage. “That means she was murdered, then.” “Does it?” I ask, even though I know that it does.

“That’s usually what they say until all the forensics have been done. God, how awful. I just don’t understand why she would put herself at risk, taking that road at night. I know she couldn’t have known that she’d be murdered, but still.”

“Maybe she broke down,” I say, clenching my hands together under the table.

“Well, she must have. Why else would anyone stop along such a deserted road? Poor thing, she must have been terrified. There’s no phone signal in the woods so she must have been praying that someone would come along to help her - and look what happened when they did.”

I draw in my breath, a silent gasp of shock. It’s as if a bucket of ice cold water has been thrown over me, waking me up, making me face up to the enormity of what I did. I had told myself that she had already phoned for help - yet I knew there was no signal in the woods. Why had I done that? Because I’d forgotten? Or because it had allowed me to leave with a clear conscience? Well, my conscience isn’t clear now. I had left her to her fate, I had left her to be murdered.

The Breakdown
by by B.A. Paris