Now I’m half relieved, half annoyed when I hear the insistent knocking on the front door. Poppy has only just settled after the third reading of The Wonky Donkey. I’ve promised her repeatedly that Daddy will definitely be home to give her a goodnight kiss. It’s gone eight, two hours past her usual bedtime. ‘Daddy’s here,’ she says, her aquamarine eyes springing back open, all sleepiness evaporating. ‘And it seems he can’t be bothered to use his key,’ I sigh, rising up from the Disney Princess bed. ‘You close your eyes again, my Poppy poppet, and I’ll send him up in a minut e.’ I run my index finger from the bridge of her tiny button nose to the tip. I dash down the stairs, unconsciously bobbing under the low oak beam, ready to fling the door open and shout at Tom for his lateness and lack of consideration. But at the same time, I want to throw my arms around him: he’s never late back from work and I’ve been winding myself up thinking something bad must’ve happened to him. I’ve tried convincing myself his train was delayed, or he’s been caught up in traffic on the way back from Banbury station – having to commute from Lower Tew to central London and back every day isn’t the quickest of journeys – but if that’d been the case, he’d have called to let me know he was running late. He wouldn’t let his little Poppy down – he loves hearing her delighted squeals when he does the daft voices. It’s something I clearly haven’t mastered, given the number of times she made me ‘try again’ to get it right. I unlock the solid wooden door and take a steadying breath. There’s no need for me to be mad at him. He’s late, that’s all. Doesn’t matter if he’s woken Poppy up; he’ll happily settle her while I reheat his dinner. Don’t shout at him. I swing the door open. ‘Why haven’t you got your key?’ The scolding words are out of my mouth before I even realise. It’s not Tom. ‘Oh, erm … sorry, I was expecting …’ My sentence trails off. My heart tumbles in my chest. ‘Good evening. Mrs Hardcastle, is it?’ one of the two men says. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder at my small doorway, obscuring the view outside. I can’t see the vehicle they’ve arrived in but given their smart, suited appearance and the fact they know my name, I instinctively know they’re police. ‘Y–yes,’ I stutter. My limbs tremble. I was right. Tom’s had an accident. I grasp hold of the edge of the door frame, closing my eyes tight. My breaths are coming fast and shallow as I wait for the inevitable. ‘We need to speak with Mr Thomas Hardcastle, please.’ The man, who looks to be in his early fifties, with hair greying at the temples and thinning on the top, opens a leather wallet and flashes a badge at me. ‘I’m Detective Inspector Manning from the Metropolitan Police and this is a colleague from Thames Valley, Detective Sergeant Walters.’ His words fly over my head as relief floods through me. If they’re asking to see him, they’re not here to tell me he’s been killed. ‘He’s not here. He’s late back from work. I thought you were him, actually,’ I say, my voice now more controlled. ‘What’s it in connection with?’ I frown, suddenly aware DI Manning is encroaching on the threshold of my cottage. The other detective, whose name I’ve already forgotten, has stepped back and is now strolling around my front garden. Manning doesn’t respond. ‘Can I help?’ Irritation is creeping in now. What do they want? ‘We’ll come in and wait,’ he says. He turns to the detective, who’s now back by his side. ‘Walters – check the back first,’ he demands, in his gruff voice. I log his name in my memory this time. I don’t feel I have a choice about letting them in to wait, despite my apprehension at allowing two men inside my home at this hour when I’m on my own. As if sensing my unease, DI Manning asks if I want to call the station to confirm they’re official. I give a nervous laugh, say it’s fine, and open the door wider. I hear Poppy calling from her bedroom and shout ‘I’ll be up in a minute, sweetie,’ up the stairs. ‘Go on in there,’ I point towards the kitchen and follow behind DI Manning as he walks. His stride is long, purposeful. I check my mobile. No missed calls. No texts from Tom. Where the hell are you? I slip the phone into my trouser pocket. ‘Can I offer you a cup of coffee, or tea?’ ‘Yes, thank you. Tea. Black, no sugar.’ My mind works overtime as I put the kettle on and take two mugs from the kitchen dresser hooks. ‘You didn’t answer me. What is this about?’ I attempt to keep my voice light – a curious tone, not a demanding one. ‘Just a few questions at this stage,’ he says, sitting heavily at my large oak farmhouse table. It was one of my favourite buys when we first moved here two years ago. I’d wanted to embrace the change, so we’d gone from modern, London furniture to the rustic Cotswold cottage look. My pulse quickens at DI Manning’s choice of words. At this stage. ‘Oh? Questions relating to …?’ Before he can answer me, the back door into the kitchen rattles. I open the upper part of the barn-style door. DS Walters is there. He’s obviously been checking the perimeter of the cottage. Do they think Tom is hiding? That I’m hiding him? Something close to panic rises inside me as my imagination begins to run wild. I swallow hard, trying to push it back down. I let Walters in and ask if he wants a drink. He doesn’t speak, just shakes his head – a piece of sandy-brown hair flopping over his forehead with the motion, which he silently brushes aside with his forefinger. If they’re trying to put me on edge, they’re doing a great job. ‘You say your husband is late home from work. Do you have any idea where he is?’ ‘He commutes to London Monday to Friday. He works in banking … for Moore & Wells.’ I can’t think of what else to say, so I stop talking. ‘Have you tried calling him?’ ‘I did earlier, just before putting our daughter to bed. But not since, no.’ ‘Could you try again now, please?’ My fingertips shake as I attempt to press Tom’s name on the ‘last numbers dialled’ display. I accidentally press Lucy’s in instead and have to quickly cancel the call. On the second try, I hit the right contact. It rings twice, then goes to voicemail. Christ, he must’ve diverted it. I’m about to try again when I hear the front door. It’s Tom. Thank God. Now whatever this is can be sorted out. ‘Tom! Where’ve you been?’ I rush up to him, pulling him towards me tightly, taking in a slightly sour smell. He isn’t wearing his suit jacket; he must’ve left it in the car. I whisper in his ear. ‘Some detectives are here and they want to talk to you.’ I pull away from him in time to see his face go pale. His peacock-blue eyes flicker – with what looks to me like fear. Anxiety gnaws at my stomach. ‘Mr Thomas Hardcastle?’ DI Manning is standing now as we walk back into the kitchen, his badge outstretched as he apapproaches Tom. ‘Detective Inspector Manning, Metropolitan Police.’ I see Tom’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. ‘Yes. How can I help?’ Tom says, glancing at me before returning his attention to the detective. Did I catch a tremor in his voice? ‘We believe you might be able to assist us with a murder enquiry.’
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