Tuesday, 26 March 2019

The Hidden Wife by Amanda Reynolds - Extract


She was young and beautiful, married to a famous author. They were celebrating their anniversary at their stunning country estate. So did Julia Blake walk out of her perfect life, apparently leaving no trace?

Seren, a junior reporter for the local paper, can't believe her luck when she lands an exclusive with Julia's husband, Max. But as Seren spends more time at the couple's remote mansion, probing ever deeper into the case, dark questions await.

What was Julia really like, behind closed doors? Was her marriage to this brooding, secretive man as perfect as it seemed? And did she really mean to disappear that night - or was she murdered?

I am really excited to sharing an extract from The Hidden Wife. I have read this book and really enjoyed it's a brilliant read! So here is the first chapter ...

Nine Months Later 

 Chapter One 

 Don’t You Trust Me? 

 The number of hits on the Herald’s carefully curated website is particularly poor this afternoon, the digits on the large screen above our desks flicking from 373 to 375, then back again. It’s mesmeric, addictive if you’re not careful. Held to ransom by a random target we rarely, if ever, meet. Let alone exceed.‘Five hundred is unrealistic,’ Simon remarks, pausing to look up, his quick fingers temporarily suspended above his keyboard.‘Best to ignore it, Seren.’ Beneath the disappointing number, today’s stories are listed in descending popularity, Simon’s, about a spilt tanker of milk, the most popular by some way. Mine, a continuing saga of missed refuse collections, is much further down the ‘hit parade’ as our editor lamely refers to it;  Theo’s quip amusing him each time. ‘Yeah, totally unrealistic,’ I reply, closing my laptop. ‘We could do with a serial killer moving into the area.’   
Simon laughs, remarking that if I’d wanted a regular supply of murders and kidnappings I’ve chosen the wrong paper. It’s another recycled gag, but I smile as I get up, stretching out my back and shoulders and circling my neck to ease out the writer’s stoop I fear I’m developing.There was a time – only last summer in fact, when I joined the Herald as a junior reporter fresh out of university and full of idealistic nonsense – I’d have been shocked by the gallows humour of the news desk. Now I’m the one cracking the bad taste jokes.‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ I tell him, picking up my heavy shoulder bag and shoving my laptop inside. ‘Fingers crossed for some bad news,’ he says, typing again. ‘Serial killers beware, Seren’s on the case!’ I rush past our editor’s glass-fronted office, purposefully staring at my phone. Theo will hold me up by at least ten minutes, maybe more, and whilst his advice is always appreciated, I’m ready to call it a night. I’m within touching distance of the double doors when I hear, ‘Seren! Got a minute?’ I could swear he does it on purpose, counting to ten after he spots me dashing past. I catch our receptionist’s eye as I turn back and Lynda returns to her apparent absorption in last week’s print edition, fanning out copies on her desk. ‘Seren!’ Theo booms again. Simon hasn’t looked up, but I notice Fran, our deputy editor, has spotted my about-turn, watching as I open Theo’s office door. I swallow a catch in the back of my throat as the smoky air hits me. Our esteemed leader is seated behind his enormous and wildly messy desk, a stubby cigar held between his gritted teeth. ‘Ah, there you are, Seren! Glad I caught you.’  
‘You know you’re not allowed to smoke in the office.’ I point a finger at him and waggle it from side to side. ‘Apart from the fact it’s illegal, Fran will totally lose her shit if she catches you again. She’s not looking happy as it is.’ The threat of Fran’s disapproval is enough to prompt Theo to remove the cigar, although he doesn’t extinguish it, balancing the fat wodge of tobacco on the edge of an overflowing ashtray nestling amongst the scrunched sheaves of paper in an open drawer beside him. Smoke curls a thin line into the polluted air, a snake uncoiling from its basket as he mutters something about not giving a flying fuck what his deputy editor thinks, he’s in charge around here. ‘Looking for something?’ I ask as I take the seat opposite him. He’s squinting at the clutter on his desk. His refusal to adopt the paperless system Fran favours is also a cause of much contention. ‘I run a bloody newspaper, woman! Paper is my business.’ Trouble is, it isn’t a ‘paper’ any more, the weekly edition our only physical output since the Herald became a predominantly digital publication, much to Theo’s disgust. ‘I had it right here ’ he says, rummaging through the piles of files and printed documents. I retrieve his glasses from beneath a crumpled disposable napkin and hold out the silver-rimmed frames. ‘Try these.’ He frowns, snatching them out of my hand as he gestures towards the television on the wall, the sound switched off. ‘You been following this?’ he asks, sliding on his specs. ‘Terrible business.’ The five o’clock local news is on, a short segment after the
national headlines and before the weather, the rolling banner across the bottom of the screen captioning a familiar photo of a girl wearing the uniform of a nearby comprehensive school. I tell him how I really need to go now but Theo shushes me, turning up the volume to listen to the distraught parents’ appeal for any information about their adopted daughter, thirteen-year-old Emily Plant. I’ve seen the photo many times in the months since I joined the Herald, the details of her disappearance already well known to me. Another tragedy to absorb and compartmentalise as best as I can. If the last seven months have taught me anything it’s that despite all advice to the contrary, sometimes it’s best to look away. I start tapping on my phone, scrolling through social media for anything interesting to write about tomorrow. When I look up a female reporter is talking directly to camera, her red lips moving soundlessly as Theo mutes the programme again. ‘Poor bastards,’ he says, grimacing at me. ‘The parents, I mean.’ He roots around in his paperwork again as I fidget. ‘Ah, here it is.’ He holds up a printed sheet of A4. ‘I’ve had an email from Max Blake.’ Theo waits for some indication I know who he means, but I’ve never heard of the guy. ‘Bestselling author,’ he prompts, an upwards inflection in his voice as if he were asking me a question. ‘Local man, philanthropist, writes thrillers.Ring any bells?’ ‘Oh, actually,’ I say, holding up a pointed finger. ‘I think my dad reads his stuff.He’s a big deal, right?’ Theo sighs. ‘God, Seren, you’re so bloody young. Yes, he’s a very big deal.’ ‘Trashy stuff, badly written?’ 
‘I quite like his books myself.’ Theo takes off his glasses and rubs at his eyes, producing a squelching sound that turns my stomach. ‘The point is, his wife disappeared nine months ago.I assume you remember that? It was, as you say, a big deal.’ I shrug, and Theo rolls his eyes. ‘I know you’re relatively new to this, Seren, but he’s a big celebrity, and this story was only last May. When did you join us?’ ‘Two months after that.’ ‘And you didn’t have access to the internet in deepest Wales?’  The tease is an old favourite of his, but he knows I haven’t lived at home full-time for years. Not since I left for university. Although he has no concept why I’ve barely visited since I moved here, keeping my distance from the seaside town in South Wales where I grew up. I skimmed over my personal circumstances at my interview, concerned that the inevitable questions about triggers and overlaps, coupled with my age and lack of experience, might affect my application, although academically I was well qualified for the position of Junior Reporter. In truth my reticence was probably more to do with my obsessive need to keep my backstory private. The only person round here who knows everything is my flatmate, Izzy, and that was forced on me. ‘Seren? Are you listening?’ Theo passes across an old copy of the Herald, dated Monday, 29th May last year. It’s a thin volume, the paper printed daily back then. I read aloud Simon’s uninspired headline: ‘Local Author’s Wife Goes Missing’.‘Read it,’ Theo instructs me.‘All of it!’ 
‘“Julia Blake, twenty-eight, was reported missing from their Gloucestershire home by her husband, bestselling author Max Blake, forty-seven, yesterday morning.”’ I look up. ‘Wow, that’s a big age gap!’ Theo directs me back to the rest of the article and I scan it quickly.
...investigation into the circumstances of Mrs Blake’s disappearance from Brooke House late on Saturday night...  police tape everywhere, and dogs ... Detective Sergeant Katherine Ingles  ...‘At this difficult time, we ask that the family’s privacy be respected ....painstaking work.’ Julia was wearing a long ‘floaty’ dress in bright colours ...no coat or jacket 
I finish and push the newspaper towards him. ‘And they still haven’t found her, the author’s wife?’ ‘No body and no developments for months,’ Theo replies. ‘Early on they found evidence of foul play in an outbuilding, but I—’ ‘Oooh, what evidence?’ I ask, leaning forward so my elbows rest on the edge of his desk.‘Julia’s blood,’ he says.‘But before you jump to any conclusions, there was nothing to pin it directly to Max, and that’s off the record about the blood.’ Theo taps the side of his nose, protective of his sources, although I know he’s good mates with the DI, a fellow golfer. Personally, I don’t see the point unless you can use the information, but Theo loves the fact he’s ‘in the know’.
‘The investigation ground to a halt after a few weeks,’ he tells me as he crushes the lit end of his cigar into the ashtray. 'The official line was the investigation was ongoing, but I think the police just hit a wall.No new leads, plenty of cul-de-sacs, and a million other demands on their time. Or maybe there’s something I don’t know.’ ‘But he killed her, surely?’ I say. ‘Her blood was found. Seems pretty damning evidence.’ ‘He was arrested, but never charged.’ Theo sighs and points the remote at the television, switching off the silent weather report. ‘OK, full disclosure; Max is sort of an acquaintance of mine. Well, to be honest we go way back.’ I nod, knowing this means nothing. Theo’s been the editor of the Herald for over a decade and a reporter for almost twenty years before that. He keeps everyone on his radar, mentally logging details he might one day need, an inside track to possible future exclusives. It’s a tragedy his talents are largely wasted in this genteel, relatively crime-free town, especially now the paper is reliant on the whims of the click-bait generation. We haven’t spoken about it much but I know he’s worried about his future, as well as the prospects for his beloved Herald. ‘I met Max when his first book came out,’ Theo explains. ‘Must have been, gosh maybe eighteen, nineteen years ago.’ His tired eyes skim the ceiling as he tries to recall the date. ‘Back then he was happy with a review in the Herald. How times change.’ He sighs. ‘We’ve always covered his attendances at any local functions, first as a single man then later with Julia, of course. She was much younger than him, as you spotted. You can imagine the comments when he first introduced her to everyone, she was barely eighteen.’ He shakes his head at the thought of Mrs Max Blake. I look at the blank television screen and then back to Theo, wondering where this is going and how long it might take. Theo loves to tell a story and normally I don’t mind, but I’m starving and my feet ache. ‘Sounds like you knew her pretty well.’ ‘No, not really. Max was more our friend. Although my wife did have a soft spot for Julia.’ He stops talking and pulls a corner of his shirt free of his waistband and wipes his glasses. ‘We were sometimes on the same table as the Blakes for charity dinners, and we were at their house the night Julia went missing.’ ‘Shit!’ Now he has my attention. ‘Yes, quite.’ Max raises an eyebrow. ‘We were invited for dinner along with two other couples to celebrate the Blakes’ tenth wedding anniversary. It was a bit awkward, to be honest, especially for Jonny, Max’s book editor; they still had to work together, after all.’ ‘Why was it so awkward?’ ‘Julia was goading Max, as usual, drinking too much and saying she was bored. Then two of her friends turned up from London. Max didn’t seem to know they were coming. Their celebrations normally went on into the early hours, but Max made it obvious he wanted the rest of us to leave, so we did. Nicky was worried, said she had a bad feeling about it all, but what can you do?’ Theo looks up as if he’s just recalled I’m here.
‘I wonder why Max stayed with her, she sounds a right—’ I stop myself before I say any more. The woman is probably dead. ‘Look them up, the Blakes, I mean,’ Theo tells me. I nod, but only to keep him happy, my stomach grumbling. ‘There’s loads of coverage,’ he says, oblivious to my waning interest. ‘We ran the story until it was bled dry, which as you can imagine didn’t do much for my friendship with Max.’ ‘No, I don’t suppose it did,’ I reply, glancing at the door. ‘Am I keeping you, Seren?’ he asks, regarding me over his glasses. ‘Sorry, no. You were saying you’d lost touch?’ ‘Yes, but it wasn’t just me. Max has retreated from all public life.’ ‘You think he killed her?’ ‘No, I don't. He completely adored her.’ ‘And she loved him back?’ I ask, a spark of curiosity flaring as I imagine Max’s tragic and troubled trophy wife. Theo shrugs. ‘I can’t imagine Max was easy to live with.’ ‘I should get going,’ I say, standing up. The mint gathering dust in the bottom of my bag is calling to me. ‘He’s asked to meet you, Seren,’ Theo announces as I reach the door. ‘First time he’s agreed to speak publicly since Julia went missing.’ I spin back. ‘Me? I don’t understand.’ ‘I know. It’s unbelievable. Ah, here it is!’ He passes a printed email across his desk. ‘Read it for yourself.’ The message is carefully worded, a little pretentious and verbose, but undeniably articulate. I pause after the first paragraph and sink into the chair again. ‘How would he even know I exist?’ Theo leans over and taps the sheet of paper. ‘No bloody attention span, you millennials.I blame smartphones.’ I read to the end and look up, still confused. ‘He liked the article I wrote about missing persons? Is that true? That was nothing, a few paragraphs. I barely scratched the surface.’ ‘I’ve asked him much the same thing, although not in so many words, but the truth is, Seren, I don’t want to overly question Max’s choice. He’s outright refused to be interviewed by me, or anyone since Julia vanished, but whatever his motives, he’s changed his mind and feels he can talk. I’m not going to say no, unless ’ ‘Unless what?’ ‘Unless you tell me it’s not for you. But we need this story, Seren. You understand that, don’t you?’ ‘I’m going to interview a murderer!’ I reply, sitting up and grinning manically at Theo. ‘Um, hang on a minute. Let’s not jump to any conclusions here. Max was devoted to Julia.’ He catches my eye, and apparently my train of thought. ‘And don’t tell me that makes it even more likely he was involved. I know the stats, but I also know Max.’ I start listing high-profile cases where relatives have made emotional pleas for loved ones they know have come to harm, often at their own hands. Who knows why – maybe to deflect attention, or to appease detectives who suspect them of wrongdoing. It’s a common phenomenon.Love, rage, jealousy; all powerful motivators.
‘Yes, that is of course sadly true,’ Theo concedes. ‘And if you’d rather not interview him, I completely understand.’ Something in Theo’s tone sets off alarm bells. I study him more closely, setting aside my excitement to work out what’s going on here that I don’t understand. ‘Don’t you trust me to do this?’ ‘Of course I do,’ he replies, waving away my doubts with a flick of his hand. ‘But if it makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, then so be it.’ ‘I’ve said I’ll do it,’ I reply, still puzzled by Theo’s reticence. He’s probably worried it’s too much responsibility on my young shoulders, or maybe he’s nervous in case he’s misjudged his former friend. Either way, there’s no way I’m refusing. ‘I can’t believe Max asked for me by name,’ I add, keen to move on. ‘No, neither can I,’ Theo says. ‘But it was a good piece, Seren.It truly was.’ I poured my broken heart into the article I wrote for the printed edition, my first proper opinion piece and a subject still so raw I’d wondered why I pushed for the opportunity once it was finally granted to me. The reaction to it had been good, but fleeting. I’d thought all my hard work had been for nothing, my words about the tragic and often unresolved cases of missing persons and the devastating fall-out for those left behind quickly forgotten. Tomorrow’s chip paper, as they say. But now this. Theo picks up the email from Max to quote a line aloud. ‘Seren’s beautiful articulation of the pain of unresolved loss resonated with me.’ He takes off his glasses and sighs. ‘Now, the practicalities. The house is extremely remote.I tried to persuade him out, suggested you meet him for coffee or lunch in town, but he claims he’s far too busy. I can go with you if you’d like, just for the first meeting?’ ‘No, there’s clearly a difficult history between you.’ ‘Max and I aren’t sworn enemies, Seren. He understands that I had a job to do; nothing personal.’ ‘I’ll be fine.It’s not like he’s a serial killer! Not that I’d say no to that, either.’ I stop talking, giddy now with anticipation. ‘He really asked for me? This is amazing.’ I spot Simon walking towards Theo’s office, his brow furrowed as he mouths at me, ‘I thought you’d gone home?’ Theo raises a hand to stop him and Simon turns back at the door. ‘I don’t want to upset anyone,’ I say, watching as he walks off. Simon is senior to me, with many years of experience, and Fran, as she often reminds me, is Theo’s second-in-command. ‘You’re going to have to toughen up, Seren,’ he tells me. ‘This is a cut-throat business.You think Fran or Simon would hesitate if Max asked for them?’ Theo turns his chair to the shelf behind him and studies the piles of books and magazines, extracting a thick hardback and passing it to me. The book jacket is black and red, a flame licking up from the bottom of the glossy cover. I read the blurb on the back, something about an anti-government plot and the one man who can foil it, despite insurmountable odds. Inside, the middle-aged author looks out from a posed headshot, his gaze caught by something in the middle-distance. He’s trying a bit too hard in his trendy leather jacket and open-collar shirt, but there’s a handsomeness to his smooth-skinned expression, and the blue eyes are startling in their colour and intensity.
‘Homework,’ Theo tells me, waving the book away when I try to return it. ‘Read it! And everything else you can before you meet him tomorrow.’ ‘Tomorrow?’ ‘Yes, eleven a.m. sharp! Max suggested after five-thirty, but I said no, you were only available in the day. It’s a bugger of a place to find, even in the light. Fine once you know it, but there’s no house sign or any landmarks to speak of.’ He scribbles the address on a Post-it note and talks me through an indecipherable map he fashions on the reverse side, sticking it on Max’s book. ‘And do your research on his backlist too, Seren. These literary types love to be flattered.’ I reassure him I can do this, it’s my job after all, but Theo is in full flow, warning me not to be intimidated by Max Blake’s celebrity. ‘Remember you’re there to do your job. Impress him with your professionalism, but it’s a delicate matter, it will take skill and time to draw him out; long as you need. And if you have any concerns at all—’ ‘I’ll be fine.’ I tuck the book under my elbow, the note fluttering to the carpet. ‘Like I said,’ I tell him, bobbing down to retrieve the bright blue slip of paper, ‘it’s my job.’ ‘I mean it, Seren.’ He clears his throat. ‘You have to set the right tone, from the start. Don’t let him—’ ‘Let him what?’ ‘No, it’s fine.’ He smiles again. ‘I trust you.’ His words would be more encouraging if his focus wasn’t directed to the news desk where Fran is chatting to Simon. Theo takes out his heavy silver lighter to balance it between the fingers and thumb of his left hand. The wrinkled skin pouches around his old-fashioned signet ring as he lights the cut end of a fresh cigar, a fizz and hiss as the tobacco crisps and curls. Theo is impossible at times, and not just the cigars. His private education informs both his views and his accent so he can appear pompous and overbearing, but he’s been good to me, taking me under his wing and treating me more like a daughter than a junior. I’m not sure how I’d have coped without his kindness. ‘Don’t worry about those two,’ Theo says. ‘I’ll buy Simon a pint and explain to him. He’s a decent chap, bound to see sense once I put him straight. The story comes first, remember, and this is a bloody big deal for the Herald, not just you.’ ‘And Fran?’ ‘She’s not in charge!’ Theo balusters. ‘I am!’ His outburst sends me to the door, but he stops me again before I leave. ‘No one knows what happened to Julia that night,’ he says, serious now. ‘Go to Brooke House with an open mind, Seren, but take care of yourself, OK?’

About The Author

Amanda Reynolds lives in the Cotswolds with her family where she writes full-time. Her debut novel, Close To Me, is a #1 e-book best-seller. The Hidden Wife is her third book. 

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