The bright sunlight glistening through the leafy avenue gave promise of a beautiful day, but even though the warmth brushed her skin, Hannah Walker shivered as she walked up the path to her front door. She remembered the first time she’d walked up this path with Ben, full of excitement at the prospect of moving in with him. Was it really only seven months ago?
She opened the front door and pushed the pram over the threshold, her eyes skimming the pristine, luxuriously furnished flat conversion. It did nothing for her now; but then, why should it? She’d had no input into the décor. Ben had chosen it all. Her glance fell on the telephone sitting on the hall table. One phone call - that was all it would take…
Hardly aware of what she was doing, she started to walk towards it.
‘Is that you, Hannah?’
She stopped in her tracks.
‘Leave her out in the garden, the fresh air will do her good,’ Ben said, coming into the hall and eyeing her steadily. ‘Then you and I can make-up before I leave for my appointment.’
Was he serious? Hannah lifted her hand unconsciously to where clever makeup hid the bruise on her cheek. She wasn’t about to antagonise him further.
‘It’s okay,’ she said, avoiding his gaze as she parked the pram in the hallway. ‘She’s due a feed soon.’
‘I said put her outside – she’ll be fine in the back. You and I need to talk and I don’t want her interrupting things.’
He was testing her, showing her who was boss, and after their argument earlier she knew better than to aggravate him further. She despised herself as she backed wordlessly out of the flat and did as he said.
You’re a coward, Hannah Walker, why don’t you stand up to him?
She parked the pram beneath the apple tree and leaned in to kiss Sophie on the cheek, breathing in the soft warmth of peachy skin, the familiar sweet baby scent that never failed to soothe her.
‘You have a nice little snooze out here,’ she murmured, smiling at the droopy blue eyes, battling to stay open. ‘Mummy will come and get you very soon.’
She retraced her steps slowly. She didn’t want to make up. He’d gone too far this time.
Inside the flat, Ben was standing by the lounge window staring at Sophie through the glass. He turned as Hannah came in and walked towards her. Without saying a word, he lifted his hand to her cheek and traced the bruise lightly with his thumb. ‘I’m sorry for this, babe,’ he said finally, his expressive blue eyes contrite. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, and you did push me.’
She kept her own face expressionless as she tried to ease out of his hold, but his hands dropped to her shoulders, drawing her resisting body tighter into his arms. ‘Let’s go and make up,’ he whispered, nuzzling her neck. ‘It’s all this lack of sex, it’s getting to me.’
He began to edge her clumsily into the hall. She could feel his arousal and shrank from it.
‘The doctor said I should give things time to heal,’ she said quickly. ‘I don't feel ready yet.’
‘You’ll be fine. Come on, I'll be careful.’
His grip tightened as he backed her into the bedroom and her panic rose.
‘No, Ben, I don’t want to.’
She managed to shove him off, something snapping as she faced him. ‘I can’t just forget what you did, even if you can. There was no excuse for it.’
‘So, what…?’ His expression was ugly. ‘You’re going to punish me now by withholding sex? Is that what this is all about, Hannah? Well, like hell you will …’
Afterwards, she kept her eyes closed, imagining herself a million miles away. She wouldn’t look at him. Wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d hurt her.
‘You’re about as responsive as a bloody marble statue,’ he grumbled, throwing off the bed sheets and getting up. ‘I’d get more enjoyment from a blow-up doll.’
She didn’t answer.
‘Don’t ignore me, Hannah.’
She opened her eyes. ‘It hurts me,’ she said coldly. ‘You know what the doctor said …’
‘Oh, spare me all that six weeks bullshit. Dave and Laura were back in business after a fortnight. You just don’t want me touching you. Admit it. Well don’t blame me if I do what your father did and start looking around!’
He picked up his clothes and stalked off to the bathroom, leaving Hannah staring bleakly after him.
After a while, she rose and went into the lounge to check on Sophie through the window. She looked so peaceful and innocent sleeping there in her pram. It soothed Hannah’s heart just looking at her.
She moved back into the bedroom and sat on the bed, waiting for Ben to finish in the shower. Across the room the mirror on the dresser wasn’t kind to her. She stared hard at her reflection, comparing it to the smiling photo on the wall. She looked a mess. Her blonde hair hung lankly around her shoulders and she had huge dark circles under her eyes. The slim figure she’d always taken for granted had been replaced by lumps and bumps that still hadn’t diminished since giving birth. No wonder Ben had gone off her.
But there was more to it than that, she knew. Losing a bit of weight and glamming herself up wasn’t going to make any difference. He was jealous of Sophie, resentful of the way she’d disrupted their life and come between them. It was becoming so obvious.
When he’d hit her that morning his anger had seemed to burst from nowhere, his hand lashing out before she’d even known what was happening.
‘Don’t defy me, Hannah. It’s about time you realised who’s running the show here … who’s paying for the food on our table. I don’t give a toss that she’s only three weeks old. I need you at this client’s dinner tonight – and my needs come first. Always. Is that clear?’
He’d hit her before but this was the first time he’d done it when he was sober. It was a shocking awakening – stripping away the pathetic excuses she’d previously clung to that he didn’t know what he was doing until she couldn’t deny the unpalatable truth any longer. She, who’d been so condemning of her own mother’s weakness in taking her father back, was no better a judge of character herself.
Tears filled her eyes and she rubbed at them fiercely. She was so tired; she didn’t have the energy to cope with all this now.
But you need to cope with it, Hannah. You need to think of Sophie.
She looked up as Ben strode back into the room.
‘So, I’ll meet you at Green Park tube at seven-thirty,’ he said, reaching for his tie and executing a perfect knot in the mirror.
Hannah’s eyes met his reflection stormily. ‘I don’t know who you expect me to get to baby-sit at such short notice. Your mum’s made it obvious that she’s not interested and I haven’t seen any of my friends in ages. I can’t just randomly phone someone up and expect them to…’
‘I’m not interested in how you do it. Just do it. Phone an agency if you have to.’
He picked up his jacket and eyed her coldly. ‘You’d better be there or I’ll be seriously pissed off, I’m warning you. I’ll see you later.’
And he was gone, swinging away without a backward glance. The kitchen door slammed as he went out into the back garden, and she felt a slight easing of the tension in her stomach. Across the hall and through the lounge window she could see him stopping to bend over the pram. Not a single hair on his gleaming blond head was out of place – his lean face, still tanned from his recent business trip to Cannes, was eye-catchingly perfect. He looked every inch what he was – the suave, up and coming City stockbroker.
She looked at him in his impeccably cut Armani suit and realised how easily she’d been duped; how cleverly his outward perfection concealed the imperfections that lay beneath.
‘That’s fantastic Han,’ he’d said when she’d broken down in shock and told him she was pregnant. ‘No more talk about gap-years with your friends after uni now, eh? You’ll be too busy bringing up our child. You’d better move in with me so I can make sure you’re looked after properly.’
But being looked after properly had somehow turned into, ‘where I can control you’, and as his job had got more sociable, so his drinking had increased, until she realised she’d become trapped in a nightmare of her own making.
But not anymore, she resolved, jumping up from the bed and turning away from the sight of him in the garden. This time he really had gone too far – and it wasn’t just about her any more.
She crossed to the wardrobe, hauled out her jeans and a tee-shirt and headed for the bathroom. Her heart raced at the enormity of what she was about to do. It wouldn’t be easy. She hadn’t seen her mother since her father’s death five months ago and their parting had been bitter. But she’d understand – wouldn’t she?
She hesitated, her glance falling on the phone again. Should she call her mother? Explain?
She rejected the idea. Easier to do it face-to-face. However upset her mother was. She wouldn’t throw her back out on the street.
Ten minutes later she was dressed and headed for the garden. A quick look around confirmed that Ben’s car had gone. Now she’d made up her mind, she just wanted to be gone. She’d feed Sophie, then leave, and by the time Ben got back that evening, there’d be nothing he could do about it.
Slipping the brake off the pram she leaned in.
‘Come on poppet, time to...’
She broke off, staring blankly at the little dent in the mattress where her daughter should have been. Her heart jolted.
She jerked her head up and looked around. The sunny garden with its flowering spring bulbs looked pretty as a picture but there was no sign of her daughter anywhere. And the peaceful silence felt suddenly hostile.
Panic gripped her. She felt disorientated, remembering with a rush of relief seeing Ben leaning over the pram, before realising in the next breath that he had a meeting in London and would never have taken Sophie with him.
Where was she? Her mind was muddled. Had she already taken her in?
But it seemed the more she tried to remember, the more jumbled up her thoughts became.
She started to run back towards the flat.
No, no – the road.
She changed direction, her feet flying over the short tufts of grass, her breath coming in suffocating gasps as she raced out through the back gate onto the pavement.
The long, leafy street was deserted.
The scent of baby lotion clawed at her senses, squeezing her heart.
‘Are you all right, Hannah?’
It was her neighbour’s voice, coming from a million miles away.
Hannah spun round. ‘Sophie’s gone. She’s gone.’
‘What do you mean…?’
But already Hannah was swinging away, choking on the sobs as she raced down the path into the quiet, deserted flat. She knew it was pointless, knew she hadn’t brought her in, but still she checked every room, flinging open each door before rushing back out into the sunshine to check the pram one final time.
And it was only as her blurred vision locked on the little indentation in the mattress – the only proof her daughter had ever been there – that she finally gave vent to the scream lodged in her throat, the shrill sound echoing through the quiet neighbourhood as the full horror of what had happened washed over her.
Someone had taken her baby...
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