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‘Shocked and delighted to hear from you, honey – that’s how I am!’
Estelle imagined Autumn sat at the large dining room table, a cigarette smouldering in her ancient black-marble ashtray, her expensive gold necklace nestled in her cleavage, the light outside the vast windows behind her catching on her blonde hair.
‘It’s so good to hear your voice, Stel,’ Autumn continued. ‘We’ve missed you; all of us have.’
‘I’m sorry it’s been so long.’ That was a lie. She would never have got in touch with them all again if it weren’t for what had happened.
‘We’re so proud of you, darling, what a life you’ve made for yourself!’
So they’d been following her progress? That thought made Estelle’s heart clench. ‘Thank you. Look, Autumn, the reason I’m getting in touch is I need to talk to Aiden.’
‘I just—’ She peered at the photo of Poppy again. ‘I’m having a launch party for my book. I thought Aiden might want to perform there.’
She heard Autumn sigh. ‘Sorry, sweetheart, but Aiden’s musician days are way behind him. He’s a rock climber now, helps tourists climb the cliffs here.’
Estelle frowned. She was so sure he would have ended up becoming a singer or a songwriter, he was so ambitious back then. ‘Okay,’ Estelle said, trying to think on her feet. ‘That’s good enough, he works with cliffs, doesn’t he? My next book’s on coastal food,’ Estelle lied. ‘Maybe he can help with that.’
‘I see,’ Autumn said, not sounding convinced. She always had a knack of seeing right through to the truth. ‘Well, here’s the number.’ Autumn reeled off Aiden’s mobile number. ‘He might not answer, he doesn’t always answer when working.’ She paused. ‘You okay honey? You sound anxious.’
‘I’m fine!’ Estelle said in a faux happy voice. ‘Just busy.’
‘We’d love you to come visit some time. I’ve missed you, darling.’ Autumn’s voice was full of emotion. Estelle wouldn’t be surprised if her green eyes were full of tears. She had so much love in her, so much intense emotion. Max always said that’s why they fostered, Autumn had so much compassion to give out.
‘I will visit,’ Estelle said, knowing she wouldn’t. But as she thought that, a tiny voice whispered, Why not? Years have passed. Would it really be so bad to be back in the place where you spent some of your best years?
‘Promise?’ Autumn asked.
Estelle squeezed her eyes shut. ‘Promise. Take care.’ Then she put the phone down, staying still and quiet for a few moments as she thought of Autumn, of her kind green eyes, her warm arms.
Estelle snapped herself out of it, looking at Aiden’s number. Emotions whirled inside as she remembered the time she broke things off with him. It had been just after the secretive scan Autumn arranged for her to have. She’d had to call in a favour with an old nurse friend. But it had confirmed she was indeed pregnant, too late to do anything but have the child. Estelle had lied, told Aiden she didn’t love him, pushed him away. In the weeks that followed, she’d had to watch him angrily go from one girl to the next before being packed off by Autumn and Max to a boarding school to try to focus his mind on his studies. He’d never got on at the local school, getting in the odd fight, missing lessons. But Estelle also suspected part of the reason his parents wanted him away from Lillysands was so he wasn’t touched by any scandal that might occur when Estelle had her baby. So there he was, completely in the dark about his child growing within Estelle.
But now, fifteen years later, he was going to find out.
Estelle took a deep breath and dialled his number, keeping her breath held while it rang and rang. Then it abruptly cut off. She tried it again but the same happened. ‘Damn it.’ She thought about texting him. But it would seem weird, after all these years, and she certainly couldn’t tell him about the child she gave up in a text.
Estelle closed her eyes, exhausted from it all. Then she heard the front door click open. She sat up straight, heart thumping.
How would she explain all this to Seb?
Tell him the truth. Something she should have done a long time ago.
He appeared at the door to the kitchen, face hard. ‘How did it go?’
‘Sit down,’ she said, gesturing to the stool next to her. ‘I have something to tell you.’
‘Yes, something else,’ she said with a sigh.
When he walked over, she could smell beer on his breath. He’d clearly popped to the pub. That didn’t bode well. Seb could get angry when he was drunk lately. He’d never hurt Estelle, but he liked to shout, to rant. That’s what the injury had done to him, made him feel like a caged animal. She remembered the phone call she’d got from his trainer after Seb had been rushed to hospital in agony during a training session three months before. There had been a collision with another boat and he’d seriously damaged his leg as a result. He’d even seen the muscle hanging from the bone. After an operation, it was a waiting game, one that was looking increasingly worrying with each consultation, delaying his return to practice more and more, the bone too weak.
Of course, Estelle understood how demoralising it must be. But other times she found his attitude towards her, the person trying her best to help and support him, hard to tolerate.
‘What is it?’ he asked roughly.
‘I had a baby fifteen years ago.’ There. Better done quick, like a plaster being pulled off.
His eyes widened with shock. ‘A baby?’
‘I was fifteen. It was a mistake, of course. I gave her up for adoption.’
Seb raked his fingers through his dark hair. ‘Jesus, Estelle.’
‘I know it’s a shock.’
‘A shock? That’s an understatement. This is huge.’
‘It’s in the past, Seb. I’m not that girl anymore.’
‘But people won’t see it like that. Your readers. The press. Our friends.’
Estelle frowned, surprised by the venom in his voice. ‘Friends? If they’re true friends, they’d understand. I thought you’d understand. You do, don’t you?’ She looked into his eyes but he avoided her gaze.
‘How’s this all connected with the police?’ Seb said. ‘And the photo you got?’ That was when she saw it dawn on him. ‘The runaway girl. Is she your …?’ Estelle nodded and his face paled. ‘This is even worse than I thought.’
‘You mustn’t tell anyone.’ She thought of Detective Jones’s plea for her not to tell anyone. But how could she continue withholding information from her own boyfriend? It wasn’t fair.
‘Too bloody right,’ he said. ‘This could be disastrous for us.’
‘Us? I’m more concerned about Poppy!’ Estelle said, biting her fingernails as she looked out of the window over London’s rooftops, imagining Poppy out there alone.
‘Concerned for the girl? You don’t know her!’ Seb exclaimed.
Estelle looked back at him in shock. ‘She’s my daughter; I gave birth to her.’
‘Yeah but …’ He sighed. ‘Look, all I’m saying is if this gets out, especially this close to the launch of your book, it won’t look great. We’ve worked so hard for it.’
‘We? I wrote the book, Seb. And this isn’t about my image.’
He laughed. ‘You think people would watch your YouTube videos if they knew you were once a pregnant teenager? It’s all about image, Estelle. Why do you think they offered you that six-figure deal in the first place? Image, image, image. Especially the fact you’re the girlfriend of an Olympic rower.’
Estelle resisted the urge to slap him. ‘Oh, so it had nothing to do with my cooking and writing skills, did it?’
He crossed his arms, looking her up and down. ‘Be realistic, Estelle, come on.’
Estelle shook her head. That was the problem with Seb, he could be so shallow sometimes. But then he’d go and do something kind and true – like leave pink petals stuck to the wall leading to a gift in their bedroom. Or cook her (admittedly terrible) chicken soup when she was ill – and she’d forget how unfeeling he could sometimes be. But the petals and chicken soup were starting to wane, especially since he’d had to take a break from rowing. He seemed to be more and more reliant on her growing success – on her money too. She sometimes wondered if he truly loved her for who she was, or for what she was becoming: a published writer able to support him in the lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to.
And this conversation was bringing that right home.
Estelle sighed, standing up. ‘I’m going upstairs. Let’s talk again when we’ve both calmed down.’
She went to walk past him but he grabbed her wrist, stopping her. ‘Don’t you dare let that kid ruin everything, Estelle. I can see it in your eyes. It’s got to you.’
She yanked her wrist away. ‘That kid is my fucking daughter.’ Then she stormed out of the kitchen.
‘Let me guess,’ he called out after her. ‘You’re going to go up to your secret junk food stash to stuff your face like you always do when you’re stressed?’
She paused, turning around to look at him. ‘Says the man who’s done nothing but drink since he got his injury?’
His face exploded with anger. ‘Don’t play the holier than thou act with me, not you: the daughter of a junkie who got knocked up as a teenager just like her mother.’ Estelle looked at him, shocked. She’d only told him about her parents after he’d forced it out of her a few months ago, moaning she never talked about her past. Now he was using the information she’d been so desperate to keep to herself against her. He stood up, pointing his finger at her. ‘Clearly history likes to repeat itself with your family. Be careful, Estelle, or your dreams could come collapsing on top of your head like a pack of cards and you might well find yourself back in that scummy council estate you grew up in.’
Estelle opened her mouth to retort but found she couldn’t. As Seb looked her up and down in disgust, she suddenly felt like that pregnant girl again, huddled in the corner of her room, the shame of her situation washing over her in dark ugly waves.
‘That was cruel,’ she finally said, finding her voice.
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