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"OH MY darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Benjy-mine You are mucky, oh, so mucky, so it's Benjy's bathy-time."
Lizzy chirruped away, pushing the laden buggy along the narrow country lane as dusk gathered in the hedgerows. Crows were cawing overhead in the trees near the top of the hill, and the last light of day dwindled in the west, towards the sea, half a mile back down the coombe. It was still only late spring, and primroses gleamed palely in the verges and clustered in the long grass of the lower part of the hedge. The upper part was made of stunted beech, its branches slanted by the pre-vailing west wind off the Atlantic, which, even now, was combing along the lane and whipping her hair into yet more of a frizzthough she'd fastened it back as tightly as she could. But what did she care about her awful hair, charity shop clothes and total lack of looks? Ben didn't, and he was all she cared about in the world.
"Not mucky, Mummy. Sandy," Ben corrected her, craning his head round reprovingly in the buggy. "Mucky with sand," compromised Lizzy. "Keep singing," instructed Ben.
She obeyed.At least Ben was an uncritical audience. She had no singing voice at all, she knew, but for her four-year-old son that was not a problem. Nor was it a problem that everything he wore, and all his toyssuch as they werecame from jumble sales or from charity shops in the local Cornish seaside town.
Nor was it a problem that he had no daddy, like most other children seemed to have.
He's got me, and that's all he needs, Lizzy thought fiercely, her hands gripping the buggy handles as she pushed it along up the steepening road,hastening her pace slightly. It was growing late, and therefore dark, but Ben had been enjoying himself so much on the beach, even though it was far too cold yet to swim, that she had stayed later than she had intended.
But its proximity to the beach had been the chief reason that Lizzy had bought the tiny cottage, despite its run-down condition, eleven months ago, after selling her flat in the London suburbs. It was much better to bring a child up in the country.
Her face softened.
That was what his name meant, and it was trueoh, so true! He had been blessed with life against all the odds, and she had been blessed with him. No mother, she knew, could love her child more than she did.
Not even a birth mother.
Grief stabbed at her with a familiar pain. Maria had been so young. Far too young to leave home, far too young to be a model, far too young to get pregnant and far too young to die. To be smashed to pieces in a hideous pile-up on a French motorway before she was twenty.
Lizzy's eyes were pierced with sorrow. Mariaso lovely, so pretty. The original golden girl. Her long blonde hair, her wide-set blue eyes and angelic smile. Her slender beauty had been the kind of beauty that turned heads.
And sold clothes.
Their parents had been aghast when Maria had bounded in from school, still in her uniform, and told them that she'd been spotted by a scout for a model-ling agency. Lizzy had been despatched to chaperon the eighteen-year-old Maria when she went up to the West End for her try-out shoot. The two girls had reacted very differently to the experience, Lizzy recalled. Maria had been ecstatic, instantly looking completely at home in the fashionable milieu, while Lizzy couldn't have felt more out of place or more awkwardas if she were contaminated by some dreadful disease.
Lizzy knew what that disease was. She'd known it ever since her blue-eyed, golden-haired sister had been born, two years after her, when, overnight, she had become supremely unimportant to her parents. Her sole function had been to look out for Maria. And that was what she'd done. Walked Maria to school, stayed late at clubs Maria had belonged to, helped her with her homework and then, later, with exam revision. Although Maria, being naturally clever, had not, so her parents had often reminded her, needed much help from herespecially as Lizzy's own exam results had hardly been dazzling. But then, who had expected them to be dazzling? No one. Just as no one had expected her to make any kind of mark in the world at all. And because of that, and because going to college cost money, Lizzy had not gone to college. The pennies had been put by to see Maria through university.
But all their hopes had been ruinedMaria had been offered a modelling contract. She'd been over the moon, telling her parents that she could always go to university later, and pay for it herself out of her earnings. Her parents had not been pleased, they had looked forward to spending their money on Maria.
"Well, now you can pay for Lizzy to go to college instead," Maria had said. "You know she always wanted to go."
But it had been ridiculous to think of that. At twenty, Lizzy had been too old to be a student, and not nearly bright enough. Besides, they'd needed Lizzy to work in the corner shop that her father owned, in one of London's outer suburbs.
"Lizzy, leave home,'Maria had urged, the first time she'd come back after starting her new career. "They treat you like a drudge like some kind of lesser mortal.
Come up to London and flat with me. It's a hoot, honestly. Loads of fun and parties. I'll get you glammed up, and we can"
"No." Lizzy's voice had been sharp.
Maria had meant it kindly. For all her parents' at-tention to her she had never been spoilt, and her warm, sunny nature had been as genuine as her golden looks. But what she'd suggested would have been unbear-able. The thought of being the plain, lumpy older sister dumped in a flat full of teenage models who all looked as beautiful as Maria had been hideous.
But she should have gone, she knew. Had known as soon as that terrible, terrible call had come, sum-moning her to the hospital in France where Maria had been taken.
If she'd been living with Maria surely she'd have found out about the affair she'd started? Perhaps even been able to stop it? Guilt stabbed her. At least she'd have known who Maria was having an affair with.
Which would have meantshe glanced down at Ben's fair headshe would have known who had got her pregnant.
But she did not know and now she would never know. She paused in her tuneless singing. Further back down the lane she could hear the sound of a car engine. Instinctively she tucked the buggy closer to the verge. There was a passing place further along, but she doubted she could reach it before the approach-ing vehicle did. Wishing it weren't quite so dusky, she paused, half lifting one set of buggy wheels on to the verge, and warning Ben that a car was coming along.
Headlights cut through the gathering gloom and swept up the lane, followed by a powerful vehicle. It slowed as the lights picked her out, and for a moment Lizzy thought it was going to stop. Then it was past them, and accelerating forward. As it did so, she frowned slightly. The lane she was walking along led inland, whereas the road back to the seaside town ran parallel to the coast. Little traffic came along this lane. Well, maybe the occupants were staying at a farm or a holiday cottage inland. Or maybe they were just lost. She went on pushing the buggy up the final part of the slope, and then around the bend to where her cottage was.
As she finally rounded the curve she saw, to her surprise, that the big four-by-four had parked outside her cottage.
A shiver of apprehension flickered through her. This was a very safe part of the world, compared to the city, but crime wasn't unknown. She slid her hand inside her jacket and flicked her mobile phone on, ready to dial 999 if she had to. As she approached her garden gate she saw two tall figures get out of the car and come towards her. She paused, right by her gate, one hand in her pocket, her finger hovering over the emergency number.
"Are you lost?" she asked politely.
They didn't answer, just closed in on her. Every of them spoke.
His voice was deep, and accented. She didn't know what accent. Something foreign, that was all. She looked at him, still with every nerve firing. His face was shadowed in the deepening dusk; she just got an impression of height, of dark eyesand something else. Something she couldn't put a name to.
Except that it made her say slowly, "Yes. Why do you want to know?"
Instinctively she moved closer to the buggy, putting herself between it and the strangers.
"Who are those men?" Ben piped up. His little head craned around as he tried to see, because she'd pointed the buggy straight at the gate to the garden.
She heard the man give a rasp in his throat. Then he was speaking again. "We need to speak to you, Miss Mitchell. About the boy." There was a frown across his brow, a deep frown, as he looked at her.
"Who are you?" Lizzy's voice was shrill suddenly, infected with fear.
Then the other man, more slightly built, and older, spoke.
"There is no cause for alarm, Miss Mitchell. I am a police officer, and you are perfectly safe. Be assured."
A police officer? Lizzy stared at him. His voice had the same accent as the taller, younger man, whose gaze had gone back fixedly to Ben. "You're not English."
The first man's eyebrows rose as he turned back to her. "Of course not," he said, as if that were a ridicu-lous observation. Then, with a note of impatience in his voice, he went on, "Miss Mitchell, we have a great deal to discuss. Please be so good as to go inside.You have my word that you are perfectly safe."
The other man was reaching forward, pushing open the gate and ushering her along the short path to her front door. Numbly she did as she was bade. Tension and a deep unease were still ripping through her. As she gained the tiny entrance hall of the cottage she paused to unlatch Ben from his safety harness. He struggled out immediately, and turned to survey the two tall men waiting in the doorway to gain entrance.
Lizzy straightened, and flicked on the hall light, surveying the two men herself. As her gaze rested on the younger of the two, she saw he was staring, riveted, at Ben.
There were two other things she registered about him that sent conflicting emotions shooting through her.
The first was, quite simply, that in the stark light of the electric bulb the man staring down at Ben was the most devastatingly good-looking male she'd ever seen.
The second was that he looked terrifyingly like her sister's son.