After She's Gone
Rebecca looked up from her laptop as Matthew dashed into the kitchen, looking as deprived of sleep as when he'd fallen into bed late last night. Noting the dark shadows under his eyes, the perpetual worry that seemed etched into his brow, Rebecca really wished he wouldn't push himself so hard, as if he alone could make the streets safe. But then, throwing himself into his work was his way of coping with his demons, Rebecca knew.
'Have you had any more thoughts about Ashley?' she asked as he grabbed a coffee.
Now probably wasn't a good time; Matthew had already received an urgent call from his detective sergeant needing him to attend a crime scene on the outskirts of town, but they had to make their decision soon. It wouldn't be easy. They were both aware of what a profoundly life-changing commitment it would be, the emotional implications of taking on a child who was a stranger to them, despite the family ties. Matthew had only recently learned his sister had ever had a child. Kristen had dropped that bombshell when Matthew had last gone in search of her, hoping to convince her for a third time since he'd found her to go to a rehab centre. He was now blaming himself for not knowing, of course. As if he could have known. Kristen had gone off the rails years ago. Preferring the company of the dubious crowd she was with, she'd moved around, thwarting Matthew's attempts to find her and help her. They could help Ashley though, couldn't they? Together? She was older than Lily would have been, but the wounds of their daughter's loss, just six months ago, were still painfully raw. Might this go some way to helping them heal?
Matthew took a sip of his coffee. 'Some,' he said, glancing uncertainly at her, his velvet-brown eyes a kaleidoscope of emotion: his grief, which was always palpable, but which he worked hard at hiding.
Rebecca understood his hesitation. It was a huge decision for both of them. In her mind though, at thirteen years old, if his niece was going to survive her dysfunctional childhood and learn to cope with life, in care was not where she needed to be.
'You know I'm okay with it, don't you?' she reminded him, gently.
Matthew glanced at her again, that same curious expression Rebecca so often saw in his eyes. As if he couldn't quite grasp why she hadn't fallen apart after Lily and the subsequent miscarriage. God knew, there were times when Rebecca had felt close. So many times, when her mind played over that fateful second Lily's hand had slipped from her own; when she would hear the impact, dull, metallic, final. In the bleak, listless weeks that followed the accident, she'd simply ceased wanting to be. Black, empty nothingness was what she'd felt, what she'd craved. Not even wanting Matthew to comfort her, she'd just wanted to curl up on her own in the dark where life couldn't touch her. She hadn't let go though. She'd held on, by her fingernails it had seemed sometimes, because she'd realised that the baby growing inside her would need her. For Matthew, too, who had finally reached his own lowest ebb after she miscarried the baby. He'd broken down and wept in her arms. Only once though. He cried until Rebecca had thought his heart would break, but, after that night, when they'd lain together limbs entwined, grieving the loss of Lily and the baby that had given them new hope, it was as if Matthew had shut part of himself away. The part that was emotionally vulnerable.
Knowing that, knowing him, a man who drove himself to work harder when he was hurting, a man determined to fix the hurts of the world when he could never hope to, Rebecca had stayed strong. Aware that Matthew might be the one to fall, somehow, she'd survived. And now, she suspected, but didn't say for fear of swaying him unfairly, she would stay strong still, this time for Ashley, who clearly desperately needed someone to simply just love her. Rebecca could do that, she was sure.
Watching her studying him, seeing the determination in her eyes, Matthew despaired of himself, his own inability to be as positive as she was. How many women, he wondered, having gone through what Becky had, would still be standing, let alone considering taking on a child she didn't know? A child abandoned by her own mother, who preferred the company of the bottle. He still couldn't believe he'd had no inkling of his niece's existence. That she'd been in care for most of her life. He wanted to take Ashley. Who else was there, if not him? The truth was, though, he was scared. Scared for himself — how could he not see Lily every time his eyes fell on another young girl wandering around the house? More scared, though, for Becky. Could she cope? Truly? Seeing another child in Lily's place?
Instantly assaulted by the flashback he tried constantly to block out, Matthew closed his eyes, seeing again with absolute clarity the quiet pleading in Lily's. He should have been there. At home to take them to the cinema, as he'd promised, not poring over some case that would probably never be solved. Instead, even knowing in his gut that that bastard Patrick Sullivan might make good his threats, he'd been late.
How? he asked himself, swallowing back the pain and anger that burned steadily inside him. How could any God in heaven be so cruel as to snatch away the life of a child in front of her mother's eyes? Rebecca had never known about Sullivan. Thinking the knowledge that someone had deliberately run into her child might destroy her and with no evidence against the piece of scum, Matthew had kept the information from her. As far as Rebecca knew it was a hit-and-run, assailant unknown. Matthew knew, though, and he'd made himself a promise the day he'd watched his daughter's life slip away that one way or another Sullivan was going to pay.
Tugging in a tight breath, Matthew buried the memory, which was the only way he knew how to cope with it, then smiled as Rebecca, ever intuitive of his mood, walked across to him.
'Did I ever tell you how much I love you, Detective Adams?' she said, hooking her arms around his neck and gazing knowingly up at him.
'Frequently.' Matthew swallowed. She did tell him, often, but he wasn't sure how she could still be in love with a man who hadn't been there when she'd needed him and then emotionally missing for months thereafter.
'So? What about Ashley?' she urged him.
Still, Matthew was hesitant. But then, what kind of a future would the girl have if they didn't take her? Chances were, coming out of care, she'd end up following in her mother's footsteps, abusing alcohol, homeless, spending her nights on canal embankments, in subways. Days begging funds to fuel her addiction ... No, he couldn't let that happen. Then there was Becky. She must feel so lonely, rattling around this place on her own. Finally moving into the barn conversion, renovated with a family in mind, only to lose their children, had been the cruellest twist of all. He'd thought he'd been doing the right thing investing some of his father's insurance pay-out in a pretty Buckinghamshire property not too far outside of London. It had been a mistake. The place was too isolated, half of it still a building site since the builders had gone bust, no neighbours — nor were there likely to be any in the foreseeable future, which could only exacerbate Becky's isolation.
'I'll make some calls today.' He finally made a decision and prayed it was the right one.
Rebecca blinked, surprised.
'Really?' she asked, her wide aquamarine eyes peppered with that same haunting vulnerability Matthew had seen when they'd lost Lily, when she'd miscarried the baby she'd so desperately wanted.
'As soon as I've attended this call-out, I promise.' Was it possible she really did want this? That in some 'God-moves-in-mysterious-ways' way it might help fill the void in their lives? Matthew hoped so. Hoped that they were sufficiently prepared to deal with the baggage that would surely come with a teenager starved of natural parental affection.
'Unless you get side-tracked, of course,' she said, giving him a reproachful look.
As she had every right to, because he did get side-tracked, often. Not this time he wouldn't. 'I'll make the calls,' Matthew assured her, notching her chin up with his forefinger and locking his gaze firmly on hers.
Raising her eyebrows, Rebecca smiled amusedly. 'Ooh, masterful,' she teased.
'I'll ring you as soon as I know anything.' Matthew circled her waist, drawing her closer. 'And if it's masterful you want, I think I can manage that too.'
'Oh, yes?' Rebecca held his gaze. 'Does this mean I'm on a promise, Detective Inspector?'
'Definitely.' Matthew's mouth curved into a smile. If there was anything to thank God for, he supposed it was that, after months of living in their own private hell, lying side by side yet poles apart in the bedroom — mainly because of the ghosts that relentlessly came to haunt him, the guilt — they'd at last found each other again.
'You need to go.' Rebecca stood on tiptoes, her infinitely kissable, pillow-soft lips brushing his, leaving Matthew wondering if he couldn't delay another five minutes, ten possibly? Closing his eyes, he leaned in to her kiss and cursed as his phone beeped again in his pocket.
'Sorry, I, er ...' Shrugging apologetically, he reached for it.
'Duty calls, I know.' Rebecca sighed pseudo-despairingly and rolled her eyes. 'Go,' she urged him, 'before I'm tempted to drag you upstairs and handcuff you to the headboard.'
'Now there's a thought.' Giving her a mischievous wink, Matthew planted a kiss on her forehead.
'You will remember to ring me, though, won't you?' Rebecca asked, reaching to straighten his askew tie.
'Scout's honour,' Matthew assured her as he checked his message. 'If the manager at the care home is agreeable and we're both still good with it, we could make an appointment and maybe bring Ashley home. How does that sound?'
'Like I might definitely be making good my promise with the handcuffs,' Rebecca assured him, messing up his tie again, as she tugged him towards her to press a firmer kiss on his lips.
'You're a manipulator, Mrs Adams.' Matthew gave her a mock scowl, wishing to God he had been able to be there for her, been able to give all of himself. Matthew wasn't sure he'd ever forgive himself for that. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the psychiatrist had labelled it. Selfish is what Matthew called it.
'I know.' Rebecca trailed a finger down his lapel. 'And don't you just love it, Detective Inspector?'
'Depends on what you have in mind.' Matthew smiled, glancing again at his beeping phone. His heart sank fast as he read the message from his DS, who'd now arrived at a possible murder scene. A young female, apparently. Possibly a known informant. Matthew's gut clenched in cold apprehension.
'Later,' he said, making sure to keep his smile in place as he turned to head through the open lounge to the front door.
'Have a good day; keep safe.' Rebecca followed him. 'Have you got your inhaler?' she asked, checking up on him, as she always did. Matthew hated the thing, but he tried not to mind. A radiographer by profession and a worrier by nature, she was bound to remind him, he supposed.
'Yes, I've got my inhaler.' He pulled open the front door and patted his jacket pocket, indicating it was where it should be. 'See you later.'
'I'll be here. Love —' you, Rebecca finished, as the door closed behind him.
Rebecca felt it immediately. It was almost palpable, the deafening silence of a house without children. A beautiful house, three-quarters of a mile from the village school, a couple of miles from High Wycombe and access to the motorway, tastefully decorated with rescued pieces and white walls; it was perfect, and empty.
Her bare feet sounded loud on the natural wood floor as she padded across the lounge, debating what she should do before she went to work. She had too much time on her hands. That was the trouble. Time she didn't particularly want to fill with housework. Perhaps she should consider going full time at the hospital? They could certainly use her with one radiographer off on maternity leave. But then, she'd need to be part-time to make space in her life now for Ashley.
Swallowing, Rebecca hugged her arms about herself and walked across to her laptop. Selecting her photo album, she found the photo they'd requested the care home to send them. Please, please let it work out, she prayed, looking back at the young girl looking yearningly out at her. She wasn't Lily. Nothing could ever replace their little girl in their hearts. Sometimes, when she was alone, Rebecca was sure she could hear her laughing. Or worse, crying. Heartbreakingly, sometimes she could hear her singing and imagine her gyrating along to some X Factor girl band pop song. Matthew had suggested they move, but Rebecca wasn't ready to, not yet. She wanted to be reminded, to hold the memories. She also wanted to hold onto the feel of Lily — something she wasn't quite sure Matthew would understand — the smell of her, that special smell that bonds mother and child together, and which seemed to permeate every pore of the house.
Ashley had never had that bond as far as Rebecca knew. She was alone, on her own in a world she was ill-equipped to ever function in. She was also family. With her ebony hair, brushed to a silken sheen, and almond-shaped eyes the colour of rich cognac, she could almost be Matthew's child. She was beautiful. Fragile, yet from the set of her jaw, strong, Rebecca sensed. Heaviness settling in her chest, she found herself physically hurting for the girl, who must feel so alone. Poor thing, thirteen years old and already she'd been abandoned, abused and neglected, starved of affection; how heart-breaking was that?
More so for Matthew, who'd tried so hard to find his sister, searching for her in places that most people wouldn't feel safe. Finally locating her, he'd persuaded her home twice, securing places for her in rehab. Twice she'd left again, her craving for alcohol driving her. Why had she waited until now to tell Matthew she had a daughter, Rebecca wondered? An attempt to shock him into not caring for her possibly, so she would be free to do what she liked? Or was it because Kristen too was hurting from the loss of a child and was somehow trying to reach out to Matthew? They would never know, Rebecca supposed. Most of the time she made little sense, Matthew said. And even having told him that much of her painful past life, Kristen refused to try and change it.
Yet still, Matthew tried, attempting to check up on her, though he, above most people, knew she could only be helped if she wanted to help herself. He was a good man, a man hurting. Rebecca wished he'd share that hurt more with her instead of channelling it into his work. She swallowed back another tight lump in her throat. Then almost shot out of her skin as Matthew, who'd obviously realised there was something he'd forgotten before driving off, shouted, 'Ditto, always,' through the letterbox.
Matthew pulled in a tense breath, as he climbed out of his car. 'Is it Brianna?' he asked his detective sergeant, who walked towards him from the short alley that led from the back of the Thai restaurant.
'No official ID yet, but ...' DS Steve Ingram hesitated. 'It looks like it, yes.'
'Fuck!' Matthew grated, knowing what no official ID meant. 'Right.' He blew out a sigh and steeled himself to walk back with Steve to see for himself.
Brianna Phillips? Matthew couldn't believe it. He'd only spoken to her yesterday. Scared witless and refusing to say why, she'd come to him and asked him outright if he could offer her protection in exchange for certain information. Videos, she'd hinted, directed by Patrick scum-of-the-earth Sullivan, Matthew was willing to bet. He'd been out of prison, what, five months? And he was as free as a bird to do what he liked, to whoever he liked, peddling his crap, coercing underage kids to star in those videos. For what he'd done to Lily, the bastard should have been banged up forever. Or, better still, met an excruciatingly painful demise while he was in there.
Parasitic scum. Matthew's jaw tensed, his lungs tightened, as he tried, and failed, to still the images that played over and over, his child, the light in her eyes fading, his world disintegrating. Again, he recalled the evil intent in Sullivan's eyes when he'd informed him of his equally sadistic brother's demise. Heard the words that spilled from the disgusting piece of scum's mouth. 'How's that pretty young wife of yours, DI Adams?'