Would you risk it all to uncover the truth?
This secret is killing me.
It's only one line from her fifteen-year-old daughter's diary, but Susan knows it means everything. Charlotte is smart, popular, and beautiful. She is also in a coma following what looks like a desperate suicide attempt. What's more, Susan has no idea what compelled her daughter to step out in front of a city bus.
Did she really know her daughter at all? In her hunt for the truth, Susan begins to mistrust everyone close to Charlotte, and she's forced to look further, into the depths of her own past. The secrets hidden there may destroy them both.
"This fast, twisty psychological thriller has suspense on every page!"—Paula Daly, author of Just What Kind of Mother Are You?
"One of the best books I've read in ages...such a chilling read."—Mel Sherratt, author of Taunting the Dead
"Gripping, memorable, and tense...a delight."—Alex Marwood, author of The Wicked Girls
Previously published in the U.K.as The Accident
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Before I Wake
By C. L. Taylor
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2014 C. L. Taylor
All rights reserved.
April 22, 2012
Coma. There's something innocuous about the word, soothing almost in the way it conjures up the image of a dreamless sleep. Only Charlotte doesn't look to me as though she's sleeping. There's no soft heaviness to her closed eyelids. No curled fist pressed up against her temple. No warm breath escaping from her slightly parted lips. There is nothing peaceful at all about the way her body lies, prostrate, on the duvetless bed, a tracheostomy tube snaking its way out of her neck, her chest polka-dotted with multicolored electrodes.
The heart monitor in the corner of the room bleep-bleep-bleeps, marking the passage of time like a medical metronome, and I close my eyes. If I concentrate hard enough, I can transform the unnatural chirping into the reassuring tick-tick-tick of the grandfather clock in our living room. Fifteen years fall away in an instant, and I am twenty-eight again, cradling baby Charlotte to my shoulder, her slumbering face pressed into the nook of my neck, her tiny heart outbeating mine, even in sleep. Back then, it was so much easier to keep her safe.
"Sue?" There is a hand on my shoulder, heavy, dragging me back into the stark hospital room, and my arms are empty again, save the handbag I clutch to my chest. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
I shake my head, then instantly change my mind. "Actually, yes." I open my eyes. "Do you know what else would be nice?"
Brian shakes his head.
"One of those lovely tea cakes from M&S."
My husband looks confused. "I don't think they sell them in the canteen."
"Oh." I look away, feigning disappointment, and instantly hate myself. It isn't in my nature to be manipulative. At least I don't think it is. There's a lot I don't know anymore.
"It's okay." There's that hand again. This time it adds a reassuring squeeze to its repertoire. "I can pop into town." He smiles at Charlotte. "You don't mind if I leave you alone with your mum for a bit?"
If our daughter heard the question, she doesn't let on. I reply for her by forcing a smile.
"She'll be fine," I say.
Brian looks from me to Charlotte and back again. There's no mistaking the look on his face — it's the same wretched expression I've worn for the last six weeks whenever I've left Charlotte's side. Terror she might die the second we leave the room.
"She'll be fine," I repeat, more gently this time. "I'll be here."
Brian's rigid posture relaxes, ever so slightly, and he nods. "Back soon."
I watch as he crosses the room, gently shutting the door with a click as he leaves, then release my handbag from my chest and rest it on my lap. I keep my eyes fixed on the door for what seems like an eternity. Brian has never been able to leave the house without rushing back in seconds later to retrieve his keys, his phone, or his sunglasses or to ask a "quick question." When I am sure he has gone, I turn back to Charlotte. I half expect to see her eyelids flutter or her fingers twitch, some sign that she realizes what I am about to say, but nothing has changed. She is still "asleep." The doctors have no idea when, or even if, Charlotte will ever wake up. She's been subjected to a whole battery of tests — CAT scans, MRIs, the works — with more to come, and her brain function appears normal. There's no medical reason why she shouldn't come around.
"Darling." I take Charlotte's diary out of my handbag, fumble it open, and turn to the page I've already memorized. "Please don't be angry with me but ..." I glance at my daughter to monitor her expression. "I found your diary when I was tidying your room yesterday."
Nothing. Not a sound, not a flicker, not a tic or a twinge. And the heart monitor continues its relentless bleep-bleep-bleeping. It is a lie of course, the confession about finding her diary. I found it years ago when I was changing her sheets. She'd hidden it under her mattress, exactly where I'd hidden my own teenaged journal so many years before. I didn't read it though, back then; I had no reason to. Yesterday I did.
"In the last entry," I say, pausing to lick my lips, my mouth suddenly dry, "you mention a secret."
Charlotte says nothing.
"You said keeping it was killing you."
"Is that why ..."
"... you stepped in front of the bus?"
Brian calls what happened an accident and has invented several theories to support this belief: she saw a friend on the other side of the street and didn't look both ways as she ran across the road, she tried to help an injured animal, she stumbled and tripped when she was texting, or maybe she was just in her own little world and didn't look where she was walking.
Plausible, all of them. Apart from the fact the bus driver told the police she caught his eye and then deliberately stepped into the road, straight into his path. Brian thinks he's lying, covering his own back because he'll lose his job if he gets convicted of dangerous driving. I don't.
Yesterday, when Brian was at work and I was on bed watch, I asked the doctor if she had carried out a pregnancy test on Charlotte. She looked at me suspiciously and asked why, did I have any reason to think she might be? I replied that I didn't know but I thought it might explain a thing or two. I waited as she checked the notes. No, she said, she wasn't.
"Charlotte." I shuffle my chair forward so it's pressed up against the bed and wrap my fingers around my daughter's. "Nothing you say or do could ever stop me from loving you. You can tell me anything. Anything at all."
Charlotte says nothing.
"It doesn't matter if it's about you, one of your friends, me, or your dad." I pause. "Is the secret something to do with your dad? Squeeze my fingers if it is."
I hold my breath, praying she doesn't.
Friday, September 7, 1990
It's 5:41 a.m. and I'm sitting in the living room, a glass of red wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other, wondering if the last eight hours of my life really happened.
I finally rang James on Wednesday evening, after an hour's worth of abortive attempts and several glasses of wine. The phone rang and rang, and I started to think that maybe he was out when it suddenly stopped.
I could barely say hello back, I was so nervous but then ...
"Susan, is that you? Gosh. You actually called."
His voice sounded different, thinner, breathy, like he was nervous too, and I joked that he sounded relieved to hear from me.
"Of course," he replied. "I thought there was no way you'd call after what I did. Sorry, I'm not normally such a twat, but I was so pleased to run into you alone backstage that I ... Anyway, sorry. It was a stupid thing to do. I should have just asked you out like a normal person ..."
He tailed off, embarrassed.
"Actually," I said, feeling a sudden rush of affection toward him, "I thought it was funny. No one's ever thrown a business card at me and shouted 'call me' before. I was almost flattered."
"Flattered? I'm the one who should be flattered. You called! Oh god," he paused, "you are calling to arrange a drink, aren't you? You're not ringing to tell me I'm an absolute jerk?"
"I did consider that option," I laughed, "but no, I happen to be unusually thirsty today, so if you'd like to take me out for a drink, that could be arranged."
"God, of course. Whenever and wherever you want to go. All drinks on me, even the expensive ones." He laughed. "I want to prove to you that I'm not ... well, I'll let you make your own mind up. When are you free?"
I was tempted to say NOW but played it cool instead, as Hels had ordered me to do, and suggested Friday (tonight). James immediately agreed, and we arranged to meet in the Dublin Castle.
I tried on dozens of different outfits before I went out, immediately discarding anything that made me look, or feel, fat and frumpy, but I needn't have worried. The second I was within grabbing distance, James pulled me against him and whispered, "You look beautiful," in my ear. I was just about to reply when he abruptly released me, grabbed my hand, and said, "I've got something amazing to show you," and led me out of the pub, through the throng of Camden revelers, down a side street, and into a kebab shop. I gave him a questioning look, but he said, "Trust me," and shepherded me through the shop and out a door at the back. I expected to end up in the kitchen or the toilets. Instead I stumbled into a cacophony of sound and blinked as my eyes adjusted to the smoky darkness. James pointed out a four-piece jazz band in the corner of the room and shouted, "They're the Grey Notes — London's best kept secret," then led me to a table in the corner and held out a battered wooden chair for me to sit down.
"Whiskey," he said. "I can't listen to jazz without it. You want one?"
I nodded, even though I'm not a fan, then lit up a cigarette as James made his way to the bar. There was something so self-assured and masculine about the way he moved, it was almost hypnotic. I'd noticed it the first time I'd seen him on stage.
James couldn't be more different from my ex Nathan. While Nathan was slight, baby-faced, and only a couple of inches taller than me, James was six-foot-four with a solidity to him that made me feel small and delicate. He had a cleft in his chin like Kirk Douglas, but his nose was too large to make him classically good-looking. His dirty blond hair continually flopped into his eyes, but there was something mercurial about them that reminded me of Ralph Fiennes; one minute they were cool and detached, the next they were crinkled at the corners, dancing with excitement.
I knew something was wrong the second James returned from the bar. He didn't say anything, but as he set the whiskey tumblers down on the table, his eyes flicked toward the cigarette in my hand and I instantly understood.
"You don't smoke."
He shook his head. "My father died of lung cancer."
He tried to object, to tell me that whether I smoked or not was none of his business, but his frown evaporated the second I put my cigarette out, and the atmosphere immediately lightened. The band was so loud it was hard to hear each other over the squeal of the trumpet and the scatting of the lead singer, so James moved his chair closer to mine so we could whisper into each other's ears. Whenever he leaned in, his leg rested against mine, and I'd feel his breath against my ear and neck. It was torturous, feeling his body against mine and smelling the warm spiciness of his aftershave and not touching him. When I didn't think I could bear it a second longer, James cupped his hand over mine.
"Let's go somewhere else. I know the most magical place."
I barely had a chance to say "okay" when he bounced out of his seat and crossed the room to the bar. A second later, he was back, a bottle of champagne in one hand and two glasses and a threadbare rug in the other. I raised an eyebrow, but he just laughed and said, "You'll see."
We walked for what felt like forever, weaving our way through the Camden crowds until we passed Chalk Farm. I kept asking where we were going, but James, striding alongside me, only laughed in reply. Finally we stopped walking at an entrance to a park, and he laid a hand on my shoulder. I thought he was going to kiss me. Instead he told me to shut my eyes because he had a surprise for me.
I wasn't sure what could be quite so astonishing in a dark park at silly o'clock in the morning, but I closed my eyes anyway. Then I felt something heavy and woolen being draped over my shoulders, and warm spiciness enveloped me. James had noticed I was shivering and lent me his coat. I let him lead me through the entrance and up the hill. It was scary, putting my trust in someone I barely knew, but it was exhilarating too and strangely sensual. When we finally stopped walking, he told me to stand still and wait. A couple of seconds later, I felt the softness of the worn cotton rug under my fingers as he helped me to sit down.
"Ready?" I felt him move so he was crouched behind me, then his fingers touched my face, lightly brushing my cheekbones as they moved to cover my eyes. A tingle ran down my spine and I shivered, despite the coat.
"I'm ready," I said.
James removed his fingers and I opened my eyes. "Isn't it beautiful?"
I could only nod. At the base of the hill, the park was a checkerboard of black squares of unlit grass and illuminated pools of yellow-green light cast by glowing street lamps. It was like a magical patchwork of light and dark. Beyond the park stretched the city, windows twinkling and buildings sparkling. The sky above was the darkest navy, shot with dirty orange clouds. It was the most breathtaking vista I'd ever seen.
"Your reaction when you opened your eyes ..." James was staring at me. "I've never seen anything so beautiful."
"Stop it!" I tried to laugh but it caught in my throat.
"You looked so young, Suzy, so enchanted — like a child on Christmas day." He shook his head. "How is someone like you single? How is that even possible?"
I opened my mouth to reply, but he wasn't finished.
"You're the most amazing woman I've ever met." He reached for my hand. "You're funny, kind, intelligent, and beautiful. What on earth are you doing here with me?"
I wanted to make a joke, to ask if he was so drunk he didn't remember leading me up the hill, but I found I couldn't.
"I wanted to be here," I said. "And I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
James's face lit up as though I'd just given him the most wonderful compliment, and he cupped my face with his hands. He looked at me for the longest time and then he kissed me.
I'm not sure how long we kissed for, lying there on a rug on the top of Primrose Hill, our bodies entwined, our hands everywhere, grasping, pulling, clutching. We didn't remove our clothes and we didn't have sex, yet it was still the single most erotic moment of my life. I couldn't let go of James for more than a second without pulling him toward me again.
It grew darker and colder, and I suggested we leave the park and go back to his flat.
James shook his head. "Let me put you in a taxi home instead."
He pulled his coat tighter around my shoulders. "There's time for that, Suzy. Plenty of time."CHAPTER 2
I wait until Brian leaves for work the next day before I go through his things. It's nippy in the cloakroom, the tiled floor cold under my bare feet, the windowed walls damp with condensation, but I don't pause to grab a pair of socks from the radiator in the hall. Instead I thrust my hands into the pockets of Brian's favorite jacket. The coat stand rocks violently as I move from pocket to pocket, pulling out the contents and dropping them to the floor in my haste to find evidence.
I've finished with the jacket and have just plunged both hands into the pockets of a hooded sweatshirt when there's a loud CRASH from the kitchen.
My mind goes blank — turns off — as though a switch has been thrown in my brain and I'm as rigid as the coat stand I'm standing beside, breathing shallowly, listening, waiting. I know I should move. I should take my hands out of Brian's fleece. I should kick the contents of his wax jacket into the corner of the room and hide the evidence that I am a terrible, mistrusting wife, but I can't.
My heart is beating so violently the sound seems to fill the room, and in an instant, I'm catapulted twenty years into the past. I'm twenty-three, living in North London, and I'm crouching in the wardrobe, a backpack stuffed with clothes in my left hand, a set of keys I stole from someone else's jacket in my right. If I don't breathe, he won't hear me. If I don't breathe, he won't know that I'm about to ...
"Brian?" The sense of déjà vu falls away as the faintest scraping sound reaches my ears. "Brian, is that you?"
I frown, straining to make out anything other than the rhythmic thump-thump-thump of my heart, but the house has fallen silent again.
I jolt back to life, as though the switch in my brain has been flicked the other way, and I pull my hands out of his sweatshirt.
Excerpted from Before I Wake by C. L. Taylor. Copyright © 2014 C. L. Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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