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‘Calm down, Miss Forster,’ Detective Jones said, interrupting her. ‘We’re confident Poppy just ran away, she’s done it before.’
Estelle frowned. ‘So she’s unhappy?’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ PC Thorburn said gently. ‘You’d be surprised at the number of well-adjusted happy kids who run away. I guarantee she’ll be back in the next couple of days, always the way.’
Estelle fell silent. She thought of the tiny baby she’d given up, the aching she’d felt as she’d handed her over. She’d hoped in the days, months, years afterwards she might one day see that child again. But with age came acceptance. She probably wouldn’t and that was a good thing. The life she would have given the child would have been a shadow of the life a couple desperate for children could have given her. And looking at the happy family photos she’d seen, maybe she was right.
But if Poppy was so happy, why would she run away? She wasn’t sure about PC Thorburn’s statement, it felt like she was appeasing her.
‘But in the meantime,’ Detective Jones said, interrupting her thoughts, ‘if Poppy turns up here—’
‘Turns up here?’ Estelle asked him in alarm. She hadn’t even considered that. How would she begin to explain it to Seb?
‘If she is your biological daughter and she found out who you were, it makes sense she might try to seek you out.’
‘But how on earth would she know? Other than the authorities, only two people know I gave a baby up for adoption.’
‘So the father and—’
‘No, the father doesn’t know.’ Estelle swallowed.
The police officers exchanged surprised looks.
‘Just Autumn and Max Garland, my foster parents,’ Estelle said. ‘I – I never told the father.’
Guilt threaded through her. It felt cruel now, with hindsight. But it had felt like the right thing to do at the time. She could barely admit the pregnancy to herself back then, let alone him. It had come as such a shock – she was only fifteen. She’d thought she’d finally found her place in the world, there in the beautiful tourist town of Lillysands with the Garlands. And then suddenly there was a child growing inside her, a threat to it all … and to his future as well, on a cusp of exciting things. That’s why she’d kept everything from him, including the fact she’d given their baby up for adoption.
‘Can you tell us the father’s name?’ the detective asked her.
‘Why do you need to know?’ Estelle replied, heart thumping.
‘Same reason,’ the detective said. ‘If the girl is indeed yours, she might have run away with the intention of tracking her parents down.’
Estelle took in a deep breath. ‘Aiden. Aiden Garland,’ she said reluctantly.
The detective’s eyebrow shot up. ‘Garland?’
Estelle swallowed, looking down at her hands, cheeks burning with shame. ‘He was my foster brother.’
‘I see. And the Garlands knew he was the father?’
Estelle shook her head. ‘No.’
Autumn and Max had no idea her and Aiden had slept together – that they even had any attraction to one another. As far as they were concerned, the father could have been one of several boys, from what Estelle had allowed them to think. She’d hated that, them thinking she’d slept around. But what choice had she had? Better that than know their son was the father.
‘Will you be talking to Aiden?’ Estelle asked.
Panic took hold of Estelle. ‘Can I talk to him first if you do?’
‘You’re welcome to call him. Right,’ the detective said, snapping his notepad shut and standing up. ‘I think that’s everything. Do keep us posted if you receive any more of these,’ he said, gesturing towards the photo, which PC Thorburn was zipping up into a plastic bag.
‘So what’s next?’ Estelle asked. ‘Will you do tests on the Polaroid photo, see if there’s any DNA on them?’
‘Well, I doubt that—’ the detective said.
‘But Poppy’s missing!’
‘She ran away, Miss Forster. Right now, it’s a waiting game. The last time Poppy ran away, she was back within twenty-four hours. We’re hopeful that she’ll be back before long. We’ll be in touch if we need any more information.’ He looked her in the eye. ‘Try not to worry, Miss Forster. Usually runaways return within a few days, a bit hungry and tired, but fine otherwise.’
‘But their birth mothers – if I am her birth mother – didn’t receive Polaroid photos like I did.’
Detective Jones nodded. ‘True. But then most birth mothers aren’t internet stars. For all we know, other celebrities might be receiving similar Polaroid photos. You’d be surprised at the things people do for kicks.’
‘That would be quite a coincidence, I’m not that well known. Will you keep me informed?’ Estelle asked as she followed them down the hallway. ‘I know you can’t divulge much information. But—’ She took in a deep shuddery breath. ‘If she really is my daughter, I have a right to know, don’t I?’
‘I’m afraid you relinquished all your rights when you gave her up for adoption,’ the detective said matter-of-factly. Estelle flinched and the detective’s face softened. ‘Sorry, that sounded harsh. I was just stating the facts. I’ll do what I can. Obviously, if we can ask you to keep this to yourself, that would be good.’
He gave her a pointed look. ‘It benefits both of us, not saying anything, especially with your book coming out soon.’
Estelle frowned. How did he know about her book?
‘Your boyfriend told us,’ the PC added, sensing her confusion.
‘All that matters is Poppy returning safe,’ Estelle said.
After they left, Estelle stayed where she was for a few moments, taking in some deep breaths. After all these years, today, that moment, she knew who her child was. Knew what she looked like. Knew what had become of her.
Knew that she had run away from her seemingly perfect family.
She blinked away tears and strode into the kitchen, getting her laptop out and searching for information on Poppy and her new family. They clearly had money: her father a TV presenter, her mother an interior designer. She learned they lived in a huge house overlooking Richmond Park. My God, they’d been living less than a half-hour train ride from each other! Poppy attended one of the UK’s top schools and was a keen hockey player. There were photos of Poppy with her father. A beach shot. Another of them walking through muddy puddles as they laughed. There was the dog again too, a golden Labrador puppy.
Poppy had a good life with a well-off family who could provide her with everything she needed. If anything came out of this, Estelle reassured herself, it was that she’d done the right thing giving her up for adoption. There was no way a fifteen-year-old Estelle could have offered the kind of perfect life the O’Farrells had.
But, then, why had Poppy run away if it was all so perfect?
She was a teenager, Estelle reasoned. Teenagers rebelled. Estelle knew that more than anyone. She’d return safe and sound soon, just like the police officers said.
But why the Polaroid photos, the messages? And there must have been an inkling of concern if the police had decided to talk to her, and maybe speak to Aiden too.
Oh God, Aiden.
He had to hear it from Estelle first. It wouldn’t be fair to find out from a stranger. She thought of the teenager she once knew. He’d be a man now. What would it do to him to know he had a child out there somewhere … and that Estelle hadn’t given him the chance to know that child? Her stomach dropped. Aiden was a good person, kind, caring. She felt terrible. And she’d feel even worse if he found out from the police.
She googled his name but nothing came up. Then she googled the Garlands, finding a website for their property business. Images of Lillysands flashed on screen: the vast cliffs, the white beaches, its distinctive pastel-coloured houses dotting the coastline. So beautiful, just like she remembered.
She clicked on the contact page, finding a number and grabbing her phone. She hesitated a moment. She never dreamed she’d need to speak to the Garlands again, though there had been many times she wanted to pick up the phone. Like when she’d received a cheque from them for five thousand pounds via her social worker. A little something to help you in your new home, the note had read. Please call us, Stel darling, we so desperately miss you. Autumn, Max and Aiden x But she hadn’t called them, instead she’d stuck to her guns, and left her life in Lillysands far behind her.
But this phone call was different. She owed Aiden this.
So she took a deep breath then dialled the number with shaky fingers.
‘Hello?’ a familiar husky voice answered.
Estelle found herself mute when she heard her foster mother, a plethora of memories hitting her.
‘Autumn?’ she eventually said, finding her voice.
‘Jesus Christ, is that Stel?’
Estelle couldn’t help but smile. After all these years, Autumn remembered her voice. Maybe that was part of the talent with foster carers like Autumn and Max, remembering each and every child they welcomed into their home.
‘It is,’ she said, trying to keep her voice normal. ‘How are you?’
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