It was just that way when Jess and her older sister, Emily, were children. Born barely a year apart, they were deeply entwined, complementing each other in their differences. When Jess felt awkward and shy, Emily, the consummate big sister, was happy to take the lead.
After a long estrangement, they’ve become close again. Jess moves into the comfortable Isle of Wight home Emily shares with her husband, step-daughter, and toddler. Any misgivings about the past are swept away and forgotten.
And then, on New Year’s Eve, little Daisy disappears while in Jess’s care.
Jess is in shock, unable to remember what happened. Emily, traumatized, watches helplessly as her life unravels. But as the search intensifies and the police detective’s questions grow more pointed, a different picture emerges. Behind the image of a seemingly happy family—Daisy’s doting teenage sister, Chloe, loving father and husband, James, and siblings Emily and Jess—there are devastating deceptions and long-ago choices that can never be unmade. And underlying everything is the story of what really happened to drive Emily and Jess apart years ago.
Unfolding through shifting perspectives, Little Sister is a brilliantly plotted, dark, and constantly surprising tale of love, rivalry, and broken loyalty that reveals how far one sister might go to protect—or destroy—another . . .
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Emily is across the room, her shape made silhouette by the earthy glow of lamplight beyond the front window. There's someone with her; their head is tilted in concern, their hand resting on her shoulder, and even through the vapor of my dazed mind, I can see that she is crying, from the way her chest rises and falls with each shuddering breath. It's a tiny movement, but one I remember from earliest childhood, the way she'd turn inward as she tried to keep it together, tried to hold it all inside. I see her now, aged four or five, casting aside her new red scooter, wanting instead my purple one; I was bewildered as she turned her back to me and stood at the low garden wall, unspeaking, taking these same shallow breaths, trying to contain herself. Like a volcano, that's what Dad used to say. She's about to blow.
The paramedic tells me to stay still for a while, and I'm so tired I don't argue. I just close my eyes and drift, and wait for them to tell me what to do next. I'm rocking, standing alone on the deck of the ferry, seeing the island for the first time, the sea sunglass-bright, sailing past cheerful yellow buoys and bobbing yachts as the densely wooded land and stony beaches come into clear view, a picture-postcard setting for idyllic grand houses and country- quaint cottages. Behind me, beyond the white spumed wake of the vessel, dark Napoleonic forts rise up through the distant waters, and I'm afraid. What is this, I wonder, this strange meandering train of thought? I can feel the hard surface beneath me, and my fingertips move listlessly, recognizing the rough furrows of the kitchen floor tiles. Am I drunk — or dreaming — or dying even? My head feels submerged, as though I'm looking up through water, yet at the same time there's a feeling of clarity that frightens me. I feel the weight of a hand on my wrist, of fingers tugging at my eyelids, the assault of bright light on my retinas, and I gasp for air, my memories suddenly, horrifically breaking through the surface: awake, aware, remembering.
* * *
"There's a doctor on the way," the plainclothes officer says as she passes me a glass of water, indicating that we should move into the living room. I've been perched on a chair under the archway of the open-plan kitchen, a blanket draped around my shoulders as I gaze out into the dining room, where James and Emily answer questions, their eyes drawn back to me from time to time, their faces distraught. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a tea or coffee?"
I shake my head, almost afraid to speak, as I attempt to take in the reality of the situation. Daisy has gone. Gone? I want to feel more, but I can't, my senses deadened by the impact of the fall, my thoughts and emotions slow to respond. It seems impossible that life can change so swiftly, so entirely, from one moment to the next. Already my mind is crawling over what I can remember — and scrabbling for what I cannot — and I pray to God that I'm not responsible for this in some way, that there wasn't something I could have done to prevent it.
As we leave the clean light of the kitchen and pass through the dining room, I glance back at Emily and James, now seated around the family table with two other officers, a photograph of Daisy placed starkly in the space between them. Emily's neat dark bob has lost its party sheen of the night before, and she looks tiny beside James, whose posture is like that of a great wide-shouldered boy. His youthful peaks of hair seem incongruous in contrast with his abruptly aged expression. "What now?" he asks the officer opposite him. His voice is husky, his tone softly urgent. "What happens now?" The pain that exudes from him and Emily is unbearable. They look drained of life, transparent beneath the bright glare of the dining room lights, and I know she's aware of me standing there, but my sister won't look up, she won't meet my eye.
"It doesn't look as if anything's broken." We're in the living room, an open doorway separating me and my traumatized sister, and the woman is looking at me for a response. She points to the sofa, and I sit.
She gestures toward my bloodied shirt as she takes out a notebook. "It looks like a nosebleed to me. But we'll get you checked out all the same. So, Jess, I'm DCI Jacobs," she enunciates carefully, and I realize she's told me this already, that she's not sure if I got it the first time.
They don't always send a detective out straightaway, do they? But what do I know? I have no idea what's normal, or who arrived here in what order tonight. My gauge of time is completely off. I look beyond the inspector, out into the empty space of the doorway toward the dining room as another officer passes by. The place is thrumming with people. Did they all arrive while I was lying on the kitchen floor? Or did I just not notice them turning up as I sat on that hard chair, trying to bring my mind back into focus?
"Jess?" the inspector repeats, and I snap to attention, trying to blink myself toward some sense of clarity. She's older than me, maybe nudging fifty, and her hair is cut in a close, ear-tucked style, entirely gray. She's not vain, I can tell, but there's an attractive energy in her dark eyes, a sparkle of life. She stares back at me, as though trying to work me out, and then the questions come. Were you alone all evening? Did you hear or notice anything unusual? Was the back door locked? Are you certain? When did you last see your niece, Chloe? How old is she? Fifteen? What time did she go out? Are you sure? Do you get on well with your sister? And your brother-in-law? When did you last look in on Daisy? When did you last see Daisy? I try my best to answer them all, but I'm sure I must come across as guilty in some way, because I can't quite seize all the details, and even in my confused state, I can see how some of the gaps seem oddly placed.
"So you can't remember anything from around seven p.m. until your sister and brother-in-law returned home together at two a.m.? Did you speak to anyone on the phone? Or maybe you watched something on television?"
I turn my head toward the TV and close my eyes, recalling a remote image, barely a memory at all. "There was something with a dragon in it," I say. When I open my eyes, she's looking at me as if she doesn't believe me, or else she thinks I'm insane. "A film, I think," I press on. "Animated. But I wasn't really watching it. It was just background noise. I remember thinking I was hungry. Maybe I made a sandwich."
Her brow crinkles as she scribbles in her notebook. "What kind of sandwich?"
I think for a moment. I've no idea what kind of sandwich; I just said it, for something to say, to make her stop looking at me like that. Shit. Why do I do this? Why do I keep getting it wrong? "Turkey?"
After making another note, Jacobs rises and returns through the dining room into the kitchen, and I trail behind her, wishing I could shrink myself down to nothing and slip away through a crack in the floor. I hover in the entrance as she takes a tour of the kitchen, peering at the few dirty items in the sink, opening the fridge and scrutinizing the contents. On the kitchen wall beside me, an old photograph of Chloe looks down — not the funny, fawn-legged Chloe of today, but the little Chloe of years ago, long before I ever knew her. Her eyes are the same eyes, the exact startling blue of her father's, but here they are unadorned, not yet blackly lined and painted like those of the teenager I've come to know so well. My heart lurches at the thought of her, of the pain she has yet to feel, of the gaping hole that's about to open up in her world. She adores her baby sister, loves spending time with her on the play mat, an unspoken return to toddlerhood. She'll pile up the bright wooden blocks, higher, higher, until Daisy can resist no longer, reaching a chubby hand forward to send the tower toppling. "Daisy, you dodo!" Chloe will cry out in mock surprise. Emily hates that. "Don't call her a dodo, Chloe! It's horrible!" I have to cover my mouth and turn away, and Chloe will catch me and shoot me a little smile as she scoops Daisy into her arms, allowing her baby sister to tug at her long copper-dyed hair with softly grasping hands. I love those girls.
DCI Jacobs leans out to speak to Emily and James, who are still being interviewed at the dining table. "Sorry to interrupt ... Mr. and Mrs. King, do you have any turkey left over from Christmas?"
Emily looks confused — offended even — and shakes her head. "We threw the last of it out a few days ago."
"Thank you," the officer replies, and she jerks her head for me to return to the living room with her. "So," she says when we are seated again, her voice low and controlled. She rests her elbows on her knees and leans in so I can hear and see every word formed on her narrow lips. "Let's start again. And this time, if the answer is I don't know, then you say I don't know, OK? There is a one-year-old child missing, and I'm keeping my voice down for the sake of your sister out there, but in child abduction cases, time is of the essence. The baby isn't walking yet, so we know she hasn't simply wandered off. She's been taken." She pauses, staring at me closely, making sure I'm getting the severity of the situation. "Everything you tell me will be followed up on, and we can save a lot of time if you can resist the urge to make up what you don't know. Do you understand?"
Her voice is solid and reassuring, and I feel her eyes drilling right down inside me, as if she's lifted the top off my head and peered in. She's giving me a second chance.
"I'm sorry," I stammer, and my voice sounds pathetic. "I just — I just panicked. I'm trying to remember, honestly. But I was out cold earlier. It's a heart thing — they call them 'episodes'— and I haven't had one for years, and I thought I was over them, but they — they can hit me like a sledgehammer. And afterward, there are these small chunks of time missing, and my mind feels like sludge, and I thought if I didn't say anything you'd think I had something to hide, and Daisy — Jesus, Daisy —"
And that's when it really hits me. My niece is gone. Sweet, beautiful Daisy is gone.
She hadn't expected to see her at the funeral. After all these years, Jess had faded until she had begun to take on the sepia tones of a distant memory or of a film watched long ago, the images patchy and incomplete. It wasn't that Emily never thought of her; she was aware of her in the world, but just — during the past sixteen years at least — not in hers. And so it took her by complete surprise, the lurch of yearning affection she felt when she spotted the unmistakable outline of Jess sitting alone at the far end of the empty front pew. From the doorway, she appeared unchanged, the sharp downward light from the stained glass windows outlining her narrow shape. Emily would have known that shape anywhere: the sun-streaked hair that bordered on messy, the modest tilt of her head, the delicate frame of her shoulders still evident beneath a heavy, mannish coat. How must it be for her, returning to their gentle hometown after all these years away? Emily finds it strange enough on her yearly visits, but to have been absent for the best part of two decades? It must feel like walking among ghosts.
Instinctively, Emily reached for James, slipping her arm through his as she scanned the farther rows of the small church. Chloe trailed awkwardly beside them, visibly shivering in the cold stone building, the cuffs of her coat pinched down into tight fists. Emily searched for familiarity in the faces of her mother's friends and neighbors, and her glance lingered briefly on her old school friend Sammie Evans over on the far side, but apart from her, she recognized no one. Many of them seemed to know her, though, to nod and smile sympathetically as she, James, and Chloe passed mutely along the aisle toward the front seats, reserved for immediate family, reserved for them. That's Emily, they'd all be thinking. That's Emily with her widower and their baby, and that's the teenage stepdaughter. So sad; the mother died when she was just a tot. So sad. Amazing how Emily took them on. He runs his own business, you know. Oh, yes, they'd all know who they were: Mum would have shared every proud little detail, passing it on over church tea and cake, her talk of them a poor substitute for the visits they should have made more often. When did all these people get so old? Emily wondered, her eyes taking in the sea of silvered hair and mourning gray, not one of their faces recognizable as the younger versions from her childhood. Is this the way it will go, for all of us? Daisy wriggled on James's shoulder, and he extricated his arm from Emily's to soothe and reposition her. Even the baby was silent, as if she understood the gravity of a funeral, the need for solemnity in the House of God. That was what Mum and Dad used to call it, the House of God, and Emily and her sister would try not to smirk or roll their eyes or any of those other things that teenagers falling out of love with religion so often did. Mum never got used to the idea that neither of her daughters wanted to carry on in the Catholic faith, and Dad, though silent on the matter, was saddened by it too, missing the presence of his daughters by his side at Sunday Mass. Of course, Jess was gone long before Emily had had the courage to pull away completely, but over the years, she and her parents found a way to skirt around the subject, to avert their eyes from the disappointment in the room. Not that it mattered anymore, because now both their parents were dead. Perhaps that was why Jess felt able to come back; perhaps it's always easier to face our loved ones once they're gone.
Daisy reached out toward her, and Emily felt a pang of regret that she hadn't brought her to see Mum in the past six months or so. She had only been three or four months old the last time Mum saw her, and she probably wouldn't have recognized Daisy now, her early wisps of dark downy hair having morphed into soft blond curls; they change so quickly in that first year. People are always saying that, aren't they: make the most of these early days; they'll have grown up and left home before you know it. When Mum last saw her, she was barely rolling over, and now she had a whole world of her own: favorite toys and television shows, best friends and funny little habits. Only last week, she had them all in stitches when they caught her leaning out through the old cat flap, desperately grasping for a dropped toy she'd spotted on the other side. Mum would have loved that story. Emily thought of all the other things they'd never discussed. Jess's disappearance. Dad's indiscretions. Emily's desperation to break away. Should she feel bad about these things? These missed opportunities to know her mother better, to love her more? Maybe it was just being in church again, the source of this guilt. Or maybe it was seeing Jess, sitting there, so alone, without family or friend by her side. Of course, she thought, we Catholics do a good line in those things — shame, anxiety, remorse. In reality, Emily didn't think of herself as someone too blighted by these emotions, but even as they drew closer to the front of the church, toward the elevated coffin at the center of the aisle, she wondered if God had been watching when she shuddered in disgust at her mother's request for burial, still wedded as she was to the old Catholic rites. When drawing up their own family wills, Emily had firmly stipulated cremation for herself and James (along with a hilltop scattering, to go the whole hog), and she wondered what God thought of that — or what He thought as she popped her daily contraceptive pill and consciously supported the concept of a woman's right to choose. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned — it has been twenty-one years since my last confession, and I've broken all the rules.
She started to worry what the rest of the congregation would think if she didn't join them to receive Communion, and as they drew closer to the coffin, she became aware of the force of her breath pushing against her rib cage, straining to be released. She exhaled, slowly, silently, and when they came level with the front pew, Jess turned and looked at her, as if she'd known she was there all along and could sense her anxiety. Jess smiled, gently, and Emily slid into the seat beside her and, without thought, slipped a hand into hers. And that was how easily they glided back into each other's lives: a simple moment of understanding, a shared point of grief in their adult lives.
* * *
And now here they are, three months later, in what feels like a scene from a nightmare parallel universe, small clusters posed around the house in the soft rising light of morning. They gather like portrait studies: the devastated parents bent over the dining room table, a police officer on either side; the huddle of strangers through the archway, poised to photograph the island worktop, the bloodied kitchen floor; the barely functioning aunt, a blanket around her shoulders, hovering in the doorway to the living room. Emily glances at James before she replies to the officer's question, giving an answer that accurately matches his. "We arrived home together. At around two a.m. That's when we found Jess on the floor."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Little Sister"
Copyright © 2017 Isabel Ashdown.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 - Jess,
2 - Emily,
3 - Jess,
4 - Emily,
5 - Jess,
6 - Emily,
7 - Jess,
8 - Emily,
9 - Jess,
10 - Emily,
11 - Jess,
12 - Emily,
13 - Jess,
14 - Emily,
15 - Jess,
16 - Emily,
17 - Jess,
18 - Emily,
1 - Avril,
2 - Jess,
3 - Emily,
4 - Avril,
5 - Jess,
6 - Emily,
7 - Avril,
8 - Jess,
9 - Emily,
10 - Avril,
11 - Jess,
12 - Emily,
13 - Avril,
14 - Jess,
15 - Emily,
16 - Avril,
17 - Jess,
18 - Emily,
19 - Avril,
20 - Jess,
21 - Emily,
22 - Avril,
23 - Jess,
24 - Emily,
Epilogue - Jess,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Little Sister by Isabel Ashdown is a twisting tale of lies and secrets that makes me happy I'm an only child. Almost everyone here is shown to have massive flaws but Ashdown creates one of the worst characters (not poorly done, just a bad person). No spoilers but the level of psychosis here is frightening. The author jumps back and forth between characters and time periods with ease. This was certainly a page turner and the last third of the book wouldn't let me put it down. Very good read.
Gripping novel with surprises at every chapter . The Sisters don't get mad, they get even---with each other , that is .
Got me on the first chapter.
Little Sister by Isabel Ashdown Twisted is the first word that came to mind when I finished the books. The story, characters, family, relationship…all…twisted… Sisters should be friends but are they? Can you trust your sister? What about your husband and your friends – are they trustworthy? And, what about yourself? What about the things you tell yourself and others – are they honest and true and how does your “truth” synch with that of those around you? All of those things came to mind as I wondered just how two women who are sisters could end up as they did in this story. I have to say that the storytelling style was not my favorite flipping from one character to another with three eventual viewpoints and within a segment the past and present were often mentioned in a haphazard way. At first I almost put it down but persevered and did finish the story but…did I like any of the characters? Nope…not really. Could I relate to any of the characters? Not really. Would I read another book by this author? Perhaps. I am not sure if “like” is a term one can use to describe this book. It did make me think and say, “Oh my!” a few times but…it was truly TWISTED. Thank you to NetGalley and Kensington Books for the ARC – This is my honest review. 3-4 Stars