Extract: The Wrong Sister by Claire Douglas
Looking for a new psychological suspense to sink your teeth into? We recommend the latest domestic thriller from Claire Douglas, acclaimed author of The Couple at No. 9, The Girls Who Disappeared, The Woman Who Lied, and many more.
Douglas’ latest book The Wrong Sister follows Tasha and Aaron as they go on a well-deserved holiday, leaving their toddlers in the care of Tasha’s sister Alice. But while they are away, Alice is attacked and put in intensive care. Tasha and Aaron rush home to be with their children and support Alice, but amid the chaos Tasha receives an anonymous note: It was supposed to be you. Who is after her, and how does this all relate to her family’s dark past?
The Wrong Sister is out on 14 March 2024, but below is an exclusive extract of the first chapter. Let us know what you think in the comments below.
The Wrong Sister
I’ve been watching you for a while now. I see you come and go from that grey-bricked house with the broken aerial on the roof and the tiles that have gone mossy. You’re always in such a hurry, always rushing, rushing, rushing, in your own little world. You stand out with your red hair that sometimes shines like polished copper, but mostly looks as dull and uninteresting as you. I bet you don’t appreciate your life, do you? Or your handsome husband or your house with the rose bush in the front garden that I’ve watched bloom and die? I bet you’re too busy thinking about what you haven’t got and taking for granted what you have.
That’s where I come in. Oh, I’m going to make you wish you’d cherished everything in your life. Treasured it.
Because I’m about to take it all away.
Saturday 12th October 2019
At the sound of a car I rush to the bay window that overlooks the street, but it’s not them. I stare with dismay at the overcast sky. Everything always looks so much nicer in the sunshine but today the modest cottages opposite are in shadow, making them look dingy. I wonder what Kyle will think of the village. There is graffiti on the wall around the corner, which is definitely no Banksy, and Eric, the man who likes to camp out in the entrance to the local park, is shouting obscenities. There are the lakes, of course, on the edges of the village, which is a tourist attraction in the summer, and the centre of Chew Norton is awash with beautiful listed buildings, cobbled pavements, expensive boutiques and a gastro pub, but the streets surrounding it, where we live, would once have been the workers’ cottages, although we do have beautiful views of a large pond and the Mendip hills from the rear even if they are shrouded in mist this time of year.
I resist the urge to dust the windowsill again. Instead I shake the cat’s hairs off the cushion on the armchair.
‘Tasha?’ I hear Aaron behind me and turn to see him standing in the middle of the room with a mug in each hand, still wearing his work overalls that smell of turps. ‘Relax. You’d think it was royalty coming to stay.’
‘Hardly.’ I take one of the mugs. It’s too-strong coffee. You’d think, after being together for nearly eighteen years, he’d remember that I like it weak and milky.
‘Alice has been here loads of times.’
Yes, but Kyle hasn’t. I think, but I don’t say. Aaron will only take the piss out of me for wanting to impress Alice’s relatively new husband. There’s nothing pretentious about Aaron. He never tries to be something he isn’t, which is admirable but also, on occasion, frustrating.
‘Just because she hasn’t lived in Chew Norton in nearly twenty years, she still grew up here,’ he says, as though I’ve somehow forgotten. ‘It’s not like your childhood home was any bigger than this one.’ He plonks himself down on the sofa and I try not to wince at the indents he’s making in my freshly plumped cushions. Our childhood home was the old vicarage, next to the Gothic graveyard that I always loved and where Alice and I used to play between the old, decrepit headstones. The house was twice the size of this one, but I don’t say it, or how their impressive detached in London is at least three times bigger than this one. ‘I don’t get why you’re so jittery about it. This was your idea.’
‘It was Alice’s actually.’
‘You didn’t have to say yes.’ He slurps his coffee. I can’t face mine and put the mug down on the coffee table. My feelings oscillate between dread at them arriving and excitement about seeing them.
‘Don’t you want to spend a week in their fancy Venetian apartment overlooking the Grand Canal?’ I tease.
‘Ah, well now, I didn’t say that, did I?’ He crosses his ankles like he’s settled in for the afternoon. No concept of time, his mother, Viv, always chuckles, as though it’s something to be proud of. Yet the longer we’ve been together, the less funny it is. ‘Who wouldn’t want a slice of your sister’s lifestyle? And we’ve never been to Italy.’
A few months ago I was offloading to Alice on the phone about how Aaron and I never get any time to ourselves since our twin girls, Elsie and Flossie, were born and how our wedding anniversary was coming up and, as usual, we had nothing planned, when she suggested we stay for a week in her and Kyle’s holiday apartment in Venice. Aaron had jumped at the chance, not least because it won’t cost him a penny and my husband likes a bargain.
And I found myself thinking that, yes, I could be the type of person who whiles away hours in bijou canal-side cafes, quaffing cocktails, or wandering carefree and childfree through high-ceilinged galleries marvelling over the sculptures. I pictured myself and Aaron, tanned and relaxed, kissing on the Rialto bridge, the years peeled back to reveal the people we were when we first fell in love as teenagers: rebellious, fun and besotted with each other. But even though the thought of walking in Alice and Kyle’s glamorous footsteps for a week massively appealed, now that it’s actually time to go I’m having doubts. For one thing I’ve never left our nearly three-year-old twins for longer than a night. And another, I just can’t imagine Alice and Kyle living our provincial life for a week. Will they judge us, snigger to each other as they slide between our bobbled sheets? No. I’m being unfair. Despite my sister’s success and wealth, she’s still the same Alice.
“Although,’ Aaron casts an eye around the room and nods approvingly, ‘the place scrubs up alright, doesn’t it?’
It does. Our house has never looked as tidy. At least, not since we’ve had Elsie and Flossie. Even so, I glance around with a critical eye – with Alice’s eyes – at the internal doors that need a repaint, the wooden floor that could do with oiling, the grubby fingerprints on the pale grey walls and the rug that’s been clawed by our cream Persian rescue cat, Princess Sofia.
I assess Aaron sitting there in his dirty overalls. ‘Are you going to jump in the shower before they get here?’ Aaron has been at work this morning at the local garage where he’s been a mechanic for the last fifteen years. He has a streak of oil on his cheek and his fingernails are filthy.
‘Fine. But I’m not standing on ceremony for them – I don’t care how much money they have.’ He gets up and stretches his long legs before downing the remainder of his coffee.
Aaron and I met when we were seventeen. He was doing his apprenticeship and I was at a college in Bristol learning Teeline shorthand and how to touch type. Alice, only thirteen months older than me, was about to go off to university. The first one in our family to do so. The only one. And Oxford no less. Aaron has never been particularly impressed with Alice’s high IQ, or wealth. He’s never felt less than good enough and I admire him for that. I just wish I felt the same.
He opens his mouth to say something else when we hear the slam of a car door and we both turn automatically towards the window. Alice is stepping out of the passenger side of a bright orange sports car, looking stunning in a low-cut jumpsuit, her red hair lying in perfect waves around her shoulders.
Aaron emits a low whistle as he moves to the window. At first I think he’s whistling at Alice – who is, after all, a glamorised version of myself – and I’m just about to tell him off for being a sexist pig, when he says, ‘Fuck me, that’s a McLaren!’
I have no idea what that is but it looks expensive, not that I’ve ever cared less about cars as long as they get me from A to B. I notice it only has two seats. Nice and impractical when you’ve come to look after two children. Good job I got Alice insured on my old Honda. Before I can react, Aaron has dumped his mug on the windowsill and is hot-footing it out the front door. He looks comical in his overalls which are slightly too short for his 6ft 2in frame. I watch, rooted to the spot, as he hugs Alice and then, emerging from the driver’s side, is Kyle.
I first met Kyle just over four years ago. Alice had introduced him to me and Aaron over sushi in some swanky Covent Garden restaurant. He was like a Greek God. A Greek God in trendy jeans and an expensive Tom Ford shirt (I only knew it was Tom Ford because Aaron had later asked him where he’d bought it from). Three months later Alice married him in a Las Vegas ceremony while on holiday without any of her friends or family in attendance – something Mum has never quite forgiven her for.
I watch from the window as Aaron gets behind the wheel, Kyle leaning in to show him the gadgets. I can’t help but cringe at this excessive token of wealth on our unpretentious street. What will the neighbours think?
I take a deep breath and leave the room just in time to see Alice tripping into the hallway in heels. ‘There you are!’ she exclaims, pulling me into her arms and engulfing me in a cloud of perfume. Then she stands back, holding onto me so that I’m at arm’s length, assessing me, and I immediately feel underdressed in my old Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and ripped jeans. ‘You look great. It’s been too long.’ It’s been over six months.
I want to say, ‘Well if you didn’t spend all your time galivanting around the globe,’ but I don’t as it would sound churlish and I don’t want to ruin this moment. Despite our differences, Alice and I have always been close. Less so since Kyle came on the scene, but that’s only because their lives are so busy we don’t get the chance to spend so much time together. ‘It’s lovely to see you. I love your jumpsuit,’ I say instead.
‘Bella Freud,’ she replies and I nod and pretend I know who she’s talking about. She follows me down the hallway to the kitchen at the back of the house and sits at the wooden table encrusted with dried paint courtesy of the twins. The kitchen is long but quite narrow, with just enough space for a dining table against one wall. Near the patio doors we’ve managed to squeeze in a two-seater sofa next to the twins’ toy chest, but it’s already covered in Princess Sofia’s fur despite me hoovering it earlier.
‘Oh yes please. I’m parched. So, where’s Elsie Else and the Flossmyster? I’m desperate to see them.’ She’s always got special names for everyone, as though we are DJs or in a metal band. I was The Tashatron for years.
I click the kettle on. ‘Aaron’s mum, Viv took them to the park this morning.’ I don’t say it was so I could thoroughly clean the house. ‘They’ll be back in a bit.’
‘I bet they’ve grown loads.’ Alice has always been great with them although she’s adamant she doesn’t want any of her own. ‘I’ve missed the little munchkins. I bought them a gift.’ Alice’s gifts are always too expensive, purchased at posh little Hampstead boutiques and handed over in fancy gift bags and trussed up in tissue paper. ‘Kyle will bring them in from the car.’
I make her a strong cup of tea and place it on the table in front of her.
‘So,’ she says, as I pull out the chair opposite and sit down. ‘Are you excited? We were at the apartment last week and it is such a lovely time of year to go. Quieter than August, but the weather still warm…mostly! And the views. So romantic.’
Alice and Kyle only bought the apartment last year, their first holiday home. At first I was surprised they bought in Venice as Alice always said she’d love a second home in Cornwall, until Alice explained Venice was special to them as that’s where Kyle proposed.
‘Yes, of course…’
Alice must hear the apprehension in my voice because she says, ‘I know this is the first time you’ve left the girls but Kyle and I will take excellent care of them. And we have Viv down the road if there are any problems. Which,’ she reaches out and brushes my fingers, ‘there won’t be!’ The implication being if Alice can hold down a job as a biochemist at a top biotech firm then she can look after two little girls. ‘You need this. You and Aaron. I know it’s not been easy, especially when the twins were babies…’
‘Don’t even get me started on the terrible twos,’ I laugh to hide my anxiety. Something I’m good at. It had been hard, those early months juggling two babies. Aaron couldn’t afford to take more than a fortnight of paternity leave but Viv was a Godsend, coming over every day to help me. I don’t know how I would have coped without her, especially with Mum so far away. For financial reasons I had to return to work when the girls turned one despite not really wanting to, but, in hindsight, my receptionist role at the dental surgery has been good for me. Viv looked after the girls until recently when they started at a lovely little pre-school within walking distance and I could extend my hours to five mornings a week. It finally feels like we are emerging through the all-consuming fug of those early years.
‘I’ve put the schedule on the fridge,’ I say. ‘What time nursery starts, what time to pick them up, I’ve left some of their favourite meals in the freezer…’ I trail off at the look on my sister’s face. ‘What?’
‘Stop worrying. I won’t let them out of my sight.’
My eyes well up and it’s there, suspended in the air between us, always unvoiced but ever present. Our Family Tragedy. I blink away the tears, embarrassed. ‘You promise,’ I say, my voice sounding small.
Alice squeezes my hand. ‘On my life.’
I believe her and my anxiety ebbs away a little. I know really that the twins will be safe with Alice. She’s the only person that truly understands. I often wonder if the real reason my sister has never wanted children of her own is because of Holly.
Just then Aaron strides into the kitchen closely followed by Kyle who’s clutching two pink gift bags, still talking about cars and mileage and top speeds. Alice releases my hand as Kyle squeezes in on the bench seat next to her and she smiles up at him as he tenderly reaches for her thigh under the table. They are always touching. Even in public their fingers find each other, or they sit so close their legs are pressed together. ‘You can tell they haven’t been married long,’ Aaron had said the last time we stayed with them, back in March and there had been a bitterness to his tone, something accusatory, and I’d instigated sex that night as a way of proving to myself, and him, that things between us haven’t gone stale. That we could still be spontaneous and sexy.
Will they still be so touchy-feely when they’ve been married as long as Aaron and me? Probably.
Kyle catches my eye and jumps up from the table, remembering his manners. ‘Tasha. So lovely to see you again.’ He crosses the room to give me a brotherly hug. God, he smells good. Then he steps back. ‘Love this location. Chew Valley is such a stunning area. All the green space and beautiful lakes, and the river of course. It’s nice to be back.’
He’s never been to stay with us before. ‘Do you know this area then?’
‘Yes, a bit. I had a girlfriend who was from Chew Magna. A long time ago. We were at Bristol uni and used to come to Chew Norton sometimes.’ Chew Magna is only a few miles away.
I realise there is still so much I don’t know about Kyle. I’m not sure what else to say so I ask him if he wants a coffee.
‘I’d love one, thanks. Black, no sugar.’
Aaron is leaning against the doorframe, watching us with an amused expression on his face. I catch his eye and he raises one of his dark brows. ‘Right, well I’d better jump in the shower. I still haven’t finished packing.’
‘Typical man,’ quips Alice. ‘Always leaving things until the last minute.’
Aaron grins and flicks her a finger in response. She pokes her tongue out at him and then rolls her eyes at me in mock exasperation as he leaves the room.
Just then Viv bustles through the back door, all cheery hellos, her short white hair windswept. She ushers Elsie and Flossie into the kitchen where they kick off their wellies and run over to me, burying their faces into my legs, while bashfully glancing up at Alice and Kyle.
‘Hello my gorgeous girls,’ says Alice, jumping up from the table, delight on her face to see the nieces she adores. Kyle hands the gift bags over to his wife. Elsie, always the braver one, twirls a copper curl around her finger and then moves away from me first and is lured onto her aunt’s lap by the gift – a floppy cloth bunny in a pretty dress. After a few seconds Flossie does the same. Within minutes they are acting like they only saw their aunt and uncle yesterday. Flossie is sitting on Kyle’s lap and with her mop of fair hair and big blue eyes she’s just how I imagine Holly would have turned out. A dark feeling settles inside of me as I watch them, and I can’t push it away. It’s the spectre of my baby sister and what happened to her. It’s always in the back of my mind. Aaron knew about Holly, of course, even before we started going out. The Holly Harper case had been all over the national news at the time, and sporadically since. A few years ago, after Dad died and just before I got pregnant with the twins, my mum could no longer cope with being branded tragic Jeanette Harper and moved to a rural village in France.
‘Do you want me to stay a bit, duck?’ asks Viv. She’s standing by the back door, already looking surplus to requirements.
‘Thanks Viv, I think it’s all okay but I’ve given Alice your number just in case there are any problems.’
‘Not that there will be,’ Alice says looking up and smiling, but I notice the determined set of her chin at the suggestion she might not be able to cope. Alice never fails. At anything.
* * *
As we are leaving the house two hours later, Aaron dragging the suitcases to the taxi and me trying not to cry at the thought of being away from my daughters for a week, I notice the drawing on the pavement outside our front gate. A small asterisk in blue chalk.
I don’t think much of it, putting it down to kids or workmen. It’s not until later that I realise its significance.
If only it had occurred to me before.
Because if it had, I might have been able to save them.
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