We're delighted to present an exclusive extract from Our Little Secret, the new novel from best-selling author (and Fair City star) Claudia Carroll.
What if you let somebody into your life and then find they are taking your place?
Sarah Keyes has the perfect life. A high-flying job in a law firm, a beautiful daughter and a house to die for. So how does she find herself peering in through her own kitchen window while another woman enjoys it all?
Chapter One: Sarah
‘You have very good cuticles. Badly neglected though, I’m afraid. They just need a little bit of work,’ my beauty therapist said, her head of thick, glossy dark hair bend low over the nail station, uttered focused on her work.
‘I’m afraid I don’t get a huge amount of time to take care of myself.’ I smiled politely, flicking though that month’s Vanity Fair with my other hand. There was an article about Kate Middleton’s mother that I remember particularly wanting to read, for no other reason than to valet park my brain for the next half-hour. Exactly what I needed after that morning’s conversation/screaming match with Darcy, my teenage daughter. Not to mention the snippy tone my boss had taken with me in a meeting earlier that day to discuss a legal brief I wasn’t quite up to speed on. At least not yet, I wasn’t.
A little half-hour of pampering on a Friday lunchtime before the weekend, that’s all I was after. Something I hadn’t indulged in for years. In fact I think the last time I spent a bit of non-essential cash on myself was long before Darcy hit secondary school.
‘But it’s so important to make time for personal groom- ing,’ Lauren, my therapist, gently insisted with a sweet smile. ‘These little things matter. My mother always used to say you can tell anything you want about a person just by looking at the state of their nail bed.’
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ I chimed automatically, completely absorbed by the article in front of me. Jesus, had Carole Middleton really made £30 million by the time she’d turned forty? And all from flogging little party bags? What was wrong with me anyway? Why couldn’t I come up with a home-based cottage industry like that, which would go on to dominate the Forbes index and put an end to all of my money worries?
‘Will you be taking any holidays soon?’ my therapist asked, interrupting my thoughts yet again. Oh God, I groaned inwardly. Do we really have to have the holiday chat? Couldn’t this one sense I just wanted to pull a Greta Garbo and be left alone to my thoughts?
‘I wish. I can’t remember the last time I took a proper holiday,’ I replied, flashing her a quick smile.
‘Going out tonight, maybe?’
‘No, just back to the office shortly to catch up with a few things I need to sign off on, I’m afraid.’
‘And any plans for the weekend?’
Not unless you count frantically playing catch-up with work, bickering with Darcy and trying my level best to be civil to Tom when he comes over to collect her later on, then no, I thought. As it happens, I was plan-free right through till the following Monday morning. If I was very lucky I might get to see an episode of House of Cards that I hadn’t seen before on Netflix and maybe, just maybe, I might even chance a sneaky glass of Pinot Grigio when I had the house to myself.
As you could see, it was set be another wild weekend in the life of Sarah Keyes.
‘No, just a quiet one for me.’
‘Say no more,’ Lauren smiled very sweetly. ‘I get it. A romantic Friday night in with your husband, am I right?’ ‘A romantic night in with who?’ I asked, looking up at
‘Your husband,’ she said, two chocolate-brown eyes blinking innocently back at me.
‘I’m not married,’ I replied, just a bit too quickly. ‘At least, not any more I’m not.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry, me and my big mouth,’ Lauren said, blushing very prettily as she rubbed a dollop of cuticle cream in. ‘It’s just that you’re wearing a wedding ring, so I assumed—’
‘Ahh,’ she said, nodding. ‘I see. Do you have children?’ ‘Just one. Darcy. She’s sixteen.’
‘I’m sure she’s a wonderful girl,’ Lauren said diplomati- cally.
Oh yes, a wonderful girl all right, I thought. If you overlooked the sudden downturn in her school results ever since Tom and I broke up, the mitching off school, the sulkiness, the violent mood swings and don’t even get me started on the amounts of cash that seem to disappear out of my purse on a daily basis.
Back then my brain melted with the guilt of how badly Darcy had been dealing with the whole separation. And, of course, every time I tried gently to broach the subject with her, I’d either get the sulky silent treatment or else her bedroom door slammed square in my face.
‘Absolutely,’ I agreed, with as bright a smile as I could muster. ‘Darcy’s a terrific kid, thanks.’
A pause while I went back to my Vanity Fair, hoping that was us done with the chit-chat. No such luck though.
‘So, whereabouts do you work?’
Oh please, if I tip you extra, can we just edit out the small talk?
‘I work over at Sloan Curtis,’ I said, taking a sip of the latte in front of me, resigning myself to the fact that I’d have to make conversation. ‘That’s a legal firm,’ I added, a little patronisingly, now that I come to think about it.
‘Yes,’ Lauren nodded thoughtfully. ‘Sloan Curtis, I’ve heard of you. You mostly concentrate on company and taxation law cases, don’t you?’
At that, I looked up, my attention caught. But then you don’t really expect your nail technician to be au fait with local legal practices and their individual specialties, now do you?
‘You’ve heard of us?’ I remember saying.
‘Yes,’ Lauren nodded, with a knowing smile. ‘I certainly have.’
‘I hope you don’t mind my asking, but how?’ Clients from the firm must come to her for treatments, I guessed. ‘It’s just that, well, let’s say I’m very interested, that’s all.’ ‘You mean you’re interested in studying law?’ I fished about a bit, wondering if that’s how this one stumbled
across the company name.
‘Oh no, nothing like that,’ she said. ‘You see, I’m already a fully qualified lawyer. I’m a solicitor, in fact.’
At that, I put the Vanity Fair aside and really had a good look at Lauren, taking her in properly this time. The girl was twenty-five tops and stunningly pretty, with brown eyes like twin Cadbury’s Buttons and a figure that Miss Universe might have wept for. She smiled a lot, and had a soft, gentle accent that was hard to place. From the West of Ireland, I wondered. Galway, maybe?
First impression? That this was a sweet, bright girl, albeit a little bit on the talkative side.
‘So is the salon a part-time job for you?’ I asked.
There was a pause while Lauren fumbled around with a selection of SHELLAC nail varnishes in different shades of beige.
‘Blush or bashful?’ was all I got by way of an answer though.
‘Which colour would you like on your nails? Blush or bashful? You did specify nude colours and these are the ones I think would probably work best with your pale skin tones—’
‘Lauren,’ I persisted gently. ‘You didn’t answer my ques- tion. Sorry if I sound nosey, but I’m just curious to know why you don’t actually practice law.’
I remember hoping I hadn’t caused the girl any offence, though it was clear what I was really asking. Why was a fully qualified lawyer working in a cut-price nail bar in a dingy salon, above an Indian takeaway in the middle of Phibsboro?
‘Money is a little bit tight just now,’ she said, pushing her hair behind her ears self-consciously.
‘But wouldn’t you earn much more if you worked for a legal firm?’
‘Absolutely, yes,’ she replied, focusing on my nail bed and not making eye contact. ‘Of course I would. But it’s so hard for someone like me to get started in that field. Almost impossible, in fact.’
‘What do you mean, for “someone like you”?’
‘It’s . . . a little bit complicated,’ she said, blushing. ‘Complicated, how?’
‘You work at Sloan Curtis,’ Lauren answered politely, ‘so you of all people must know how it is. The legal field is a pretty rarified one and it’s tough to crack into. Particularly when you don’t have a single friend or contact in that world. And I’ve been working hard to try and get some kind of a break, believe me. I’ve been trying so hard, you wouldn’t believe it. But sometimes it really feels like I’m banging my head against a brick wall.’
Looking back, it was that one single sentence that caught me.
I thought for a moment, then nodded in agreement, absolutely chiming with what Lauren had said. Because it had been a huge struggle for me too, back in the day. I didn’t come from a legal background, unlike so many in my class at college who had parents and relations practising as barristers and, in one case, even a High Court judge.
I remembered all too vividly how tough I’d found it to get a paralegal job – any kind of job, really – after I first graduated, all those years ago. How I’d had to graft away as a postgraduate, doing any kind of legal temping work that came my way. I had to shatter every glass ceiling I came in contact with all by myself, with absolutely no one to help me. Then eventually after years of that, an oppor- tunity finally opened up for me at Sloan Curtis. It felt utterly miraculous to me that I’d managed to land an actual bona fide job there. I really couldn’t – then or now – believe my luck.
‘All down to my magic novena to St Joseph,’ my mother had preached at the time, wagging a triumphant finger in my face. Yeah, right. More to do with the fact that I invested years practically battering down the door of Sloan Curtis before I could even get an interview in the place.
Because Lauren was absolutely right. The legal world was then and is now a virtual closed shop, and it takes grit and iron determination to get a foot in the door. And that’s only if you happen to be one of the incredibly fortunate ones.
‘So where did you qualify?’ I asked, turning my attention back to Lauren, feeling guilty for not having engaged with her a bit more beforehand.
It struck me as strange that she didn’t even attempt to answer my question. Instead she flushed red with a coy, embarrassed little shake of her head.
‘Or did you study abroad?’ I persisted, confused by the silence.
‘It’s a long story,’ she said quietly.
I looked expectantly across at her, waiting on her to elaborate a bit but, no, there was nothing. Instead, she just kept her head bowed and her mouth firmly shut as she continued filing away at my nails.
So I let it drop. Was the girl exaggerating her qualifica- tions? Possibly. Maybe she was doing some kind of night course in law and had decided to ‘big’ herself up a bit. Which happened all the time, by the way. We’d just been interviewing for an intern over at Sloan Curtis and some of the exaggerated fiction that prospective candidates adored their CVs with would almost be worthy of a book award.
A companionable silence fell and I went back to my Vanity Fair, while Lauren concentrated on applying a perfect layer of topcoat.
It was only as I was leaving that it happened. I remember going to the till and paying what I owed to a surly looking receptionist who barely glanced up from the Hello! maga- zine she’d been reading as she took my money; instead she just growled at me to ‘come back again – whenever’.
Then I made a point of going back to the nail station to find Lauren, so I could give her the fiver tip I had clutched in my hand for her.
‘Thank you so much,’ I said, shaking her hand and pressing the cash right into her palm.
But Lauren didn’t respond with an automatic ‘thank you’, the way any other therapist would. Instead she locked eyes with me and stared at me for just a beat longer that you’d expect, almost like she was trying to communicate some- thing unspoken. Then to my surprise, she handed the tip right back.
‘Please don’t,’ she said. ‘There’s really no need.’
‘Come on, Lauren, take it,’ I persisted, gripping her hand and forcing it on her gently. ‘Cash is cash.’
It wasn’t much but still, I wanted the girl to have it. ‘No, really,’ she insisted, her voice wobbling a bit. ‘Come on, you’ve earned it. It’s just my tiny way of saying
thank you, that’s all.’
‘Oh no,’ Lauren said,‘I’m the one who should be thanking you. It meant so much to me that I got to talk to you. As one lawyer to another, that is. It’s been a long time for me and it’s so hard. You really have no idea just how hard—’ Then her voice cracked and I could have sworn the girl was getting a bit teary. But she’d turned away before I could
‘Lauren?’ I asked. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m OK,’ she said quietly, head bowed as she cleaned up her nail station, almost as though she didn’t want me to see how upset she was. ‘But you know, if it’s not too cheeky of me, I’d love to just chat to you properly over a coffee sometime, that’s all. Just a coffee. That’s all. I know you’re busy and everything, but if you ever had the time – well
. . . you know where to find me.’
I walked back to my car, went back to the office and gradually fell into my normal work routine.
But I thought about Lauren for the whole afternoon. Thought about her, and wondered.
About The Author: Claudia Carroll is a top-ten bestselling author in the UK and a number one bestselling author in Ireland, selling over 670,000 copies of her paperbacks alone. Her last novel, All She Ever Wished For reached the coveted number one spot in the bestseller lists, and remained in the top ten for a phenomenal 14 weeks. Her 2013 novel Me and You was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Popular Choice Irish Book Award. She was born in Dublin where she still lives and works, juggling her writing with her acting roles on stage and screen.