When Alex met Natalie she changed his life. After the tragic death of his first wife, which left him a single parent to teenage daughter Jade, he’s determined to build a happy family. But his new-found happiness is shattered when the family home is gutted by fire and his loyalties are unexpectedly tested. Jade insists she saw a man in the house on the night of the fire; Natalie denies any knowledge of such an intruder.
Alex is faced with an impossible choice: to believe his wife or his daughter? And as Natalie’s story unravels, Alex realises that his wife has a past he had no idea about, a past that might yet catch up with her. But this time, the past could be deadly…
Read on for an extract from The Second Wife by Rebecca Fleet!
The Second Wife
It’s past midnight and the lights along the pier are jumping points of static, reflected in silver glimmers on the sea. I’m walking fast, into the wind. Salt spray scatters across my mouth and filters between the buttons of my shirt. My shoes pound the promenade, the sound shuddering up into the silence. Out of season, at this time of night, the place is deserted.
An ache is spreading in my muscles and the beer I’ve drunk is making me unsteady, but I’m buzzing with satisfaction. A good night – the right mix of business and pleasure. Happy clients, down from London for the evening. And tonight it was easy: the barman seeing me straight away in the crowd, a table clearing as if by magic, the conversation quick-fire and slick because we were all on the same page. I can still feel it, that powerful sense of calm and fluidity – feel it shining around me as I walk like an aura, like star quality.
I turn the corner, away from the seafront and up the hill that will lead me home. Natalie is probably asleep on the sofa by now, with the television still on. I’m thinking about dropping to my knees, pushing the hair away from her neck and watching her eyes half opening, her lips moving silently in the tail end of a dream. That slight pretence of resistance as she turns her head, in that way I still find maddeningly exciting.
The last song I heard at the bar is repeating in my head, a needle scratching in the groove. Shadows curl out from the side roads and on the horizon dark clouds are stirring, lurking strangers. I start to hum the song under my breath and walk briskly in time to the beat, pushing away a faint flicker of unease. Another five minutes and I’ll be home.
Left, right, left again. I know this route by heart and I’m used to walking it blind: the streetlamps space out and fade away around this point, leaving me to travel the last few hundred metres in total darkness. But this time it’s different.
A light is coming from somewhere, strangely tinged, drifting around the corners of the streets and casting everything into surreal semi-brightness. And the smell is different too – the salt sea air cancelled out and compressed into something earthier, sharper. It is not until I reach the top of the hill and see the hollow of the streets below that I realize what it is. Something is burning.
I stand there without moving, looking down. A blaze of red and gold, shockingly vivid, rising into black coils of smoke. Fire engines circling, stick figures of people gravitating towards the centre and gathering in groups, watching and waiting. And then I’m running as fast as I can.
The taste of smoke is in my mouth. My eyes are smarting with it, aching in the wind, and when I wipe my hand across my face ash scatters on my skin like soft black snow. It’s so bright I can barely look. It’s ripping up the walls, guttering the windows, taking it all. And they’re inside. My child, my wife.
I’m running towards the gaping hole of the entrance, driven by instinct, but before I can reach it I feel a hand clutching at my arm. A voice is sobbing out my name, over and over again. It’s Natalie – her black hair wild and dirty, mascara streaked across her cheeks. ‘Alex,’ she’s crying. ‘Alex, you’re home.’
The house looms behind us, an angry, dangerous mass of light. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. Home is the last place we are.
I clutch her to me, feeling her body shaking with trauma, but the relief is only partial. I’m still searching, wildly scanning the faces in the crowd for Jade. ‘Where is she?’
Natalie draws breath shakily. ‘I don’t know,’ she whispers. ‘I – I couldn’t find her.’
For a moment it doesn’t compute. I’m waiting for something more, something that will make sense of what she’s saying. I look into her eyes and she looks back blankly. Tears are starting to trickle down her face.
‘Couldn’t find her?’ I repeat stupidly.
‘I looked everywhere,’ she says, her voice trembling. ‘Everywhere!’
I spin round and look again at the house – the flames luminous and cartoonish, rising up to the sky. And now it clicks. ‘So she’s still in there?’ I shout. ‘My daughter’s been fucking left to burn?’
Natalie opens her mouth to reply but I don’t want to hear it, and I back away from her reaching hands, shoving her violently to the side. I run up to the black hole where our front door used to be, but I know it’s useless. Even from several feet away, the smoke chokes me and makes me splutter, bending over double, my eyes streaming and smarting. It’s too late. Trying to go farther now is a suicide mission, nothing more. A shout is ripped from my throat – the sound ridiculous and impotent. Panic is flooding me like poison. This can’t be it. There has to be some way I can get in there.
I strain my eyes to peer inside the house and this time I see the shadow of a man in what looks like a bulky uniform jacket and helmet, struggling against the flames. I catch my breath, staring at the indistinct shape. It feels like hours, but it’s probably only a few seconds before I see that he’s carrying something in his arms. I see the shape of a pale arm hanging down, the fall of fair hair. It’s her. There’s a crushing sensation in my chest, a physical pain I wouldn’t have thought possible.
The man is emerging from the fire, his head ducked down, and he’s holding my daughter – I see her face in profile as he stumbles out into the air, a vivid slash of red across her hairline. Her cheek is miraculously and perfectly clear, but her eyes are closed and her lips are white, and she isn’t moving.
‘Please stand back, sir.’ I’ve lurched forward again, fighting my way to her side, but the voice is authoritative and firm and it gives me pause. I swing round and see a paramedic in uniform, gesturing towards his colleagues, who are swarming around Jade at speed, blocking her from my view. ‘Let them do their job.’
‘She’s my daughter.’ I can barely get the words out. My eyes are sore and despite the strange heat of the air I’m shivering violently.
The man places a hand on my shoulder and grips it. ‘They got her out,’ he says.
I nod, looking into this stranger’s eyes, feeling an odd moment of connection. Still gripping me, he steers me carefully around the group, then holds me back at arm’s length as he bends in and speaks quietly to one of his colleagues. A moment later he beckons me forward. ‘She’s unconscious, but breathing,’ he says.
His words give me a sick, dizzy swoop of relief. I have no idea if it’s really warranted or not, and by the looks of it, nor does he. Good news, bad news. Neither of us knows the difference.
‘What are they doing?’ I manage to ask. A man is bent over Jade, performing what looks like a quick succession of compressions on her chest. Another is checking her pulse. I have no idea what these actions add up to. Whether they’re futile, or whether they’re going to save her life.
The paramedic squeezes my arm, a brief unspoken moment of solidarity. ‘They’ll do whatever they can. You can come with us in the ambulance to the hospital, along with your wife. She was in there for a while – they’ll want to check her out too.’
I glance round and see Natalie being guided towards the ambulance, tears streaming down her face. Guilt and anger rush up through me, too tightly bound together to unravel. I nod, following the men as they lift Jade carefully on to a stretcher and carry her to the vehicle. I slide into the seat at the back, clasping my hands tightly together as I stare at her motionless face. I know I shouldn’t touch her, but I’ve never wanted to hold her so badly in my life.
The ambulance lurches forward and all at once we’re whizzing through the streets, faster than I’d expected. Here in the back it’s hot and windowless, and I close my eyes, feeling a lurch of nausea. I can smell Natalie’s perfume in the air, the cool, seductive scent she always wears. Something about it acts as a trigger, forcing my eyes open again. She’s staring at me, mutely appealing for forgiveness. I can’t quite give it yet, but I reach out my hand and touch the back of hers, briefly stroking the skin.
‘What happened?’ I ask quietly, but she just shakes her head and raises her hands in a strange, useless gesture, grasping at nothing as if she is looking for the answer in the air around us.
‘What happened?’ I say again, my tone rougher this time. ‘I don’t know,’ she says at last. ‘I don’t know how it happened.’
The ambulance weaves on and above our heads the strip lights are flickering, brightness ebbing and flowing like the aftermath of a camera flash. Next to me, Natalie shifts in her seat, leans forward and clasps her hands together, blinking fast, whispering to herself. I look at her profile, her clenched jaw. This woman with the trembling hands and the tears drying in streaks… My wife, but not the mother of my child. Not he one who would have found her, no matter where she was.
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