Arabella Lane is found dead in the Thames on a frosty winter’s morning after the office Christmas party. No one is sure whether she jumped or was pushed. The one person who may know the truth is the office temp, Eleanor. Having travelled to London to escape the repercussions of her traumatic childhood in Australia, tragedy seems to follow Eleanor wherever she goes. To her horror, she has no memory of the crucial hours leading up to Arabella’s death – memory that will either incriminate or absolve her. Caught in a crossfire of accusations, Eleanor fears she can’t even trust herself, let alone the people around her. And soon, she’ll find herself in a race against time to find out just what happened that night – and discover just how deadly some secrets can be.
Tim Willis collects the manila folder and sees his last client
of the day is Eleanor Brennan. Fifteen years old, with two
overdoses and some self-harm under her belt already. His
notes convey the weeks he’s spent sitting patiently with her,
getting nowhere. Her determination to shut the conversation
down had proved a match for anything he could offer. She’d
told him, more than once, that she was only here because her
mother had begged her to come.
Until last week. They had been going through the same
motions when he had pressed her for a happy memory. To
his surprise, she’d suddenly started to talk. She’d told him a
sweet story about her family, how her father had a party trick
he’d learned as a kid. A Japanese friend had taught him how
to make paper cranes, and he often used to fold them while
Eleanor slept, leaving them on her pillow. She had vague
memories of them in her cot; clearer recollections of them
appearing next to her in her first big bed.
However, her father had stopped doing this when he lost
his job, she’d explained quietly. Although by then her older
brother Aiden had learned to copy him. For a while, scruffier
cranes would sometimes land next to her while she slept,
the white paper blotched with thumb prints. Then Aiden had
stopped too, when they moved.
‘Did you ever feel that these birds were their way of telling
you they loved you?’ Tim had asked gently.
Eleanor had gone rigid at the question. Her face paled; her
hazel eyes widened. She had stared at him wordlessly for a
moment, before letting out a guttural groan as she folded into
herself and sobbed with her forehead on her knees. Hallelujah,
Tim had thought as he watched her fragile body quivering,
finally we’re getting somewhere.
His step is light today, as he clutches the folder and heads
towards the waiting room. He rounds the doorway and sees
Eleanor and her mother sitting next to one another. ‘Hello,’
he says in his friendliest tone.
Gillian Brennan responds, but her smile is forced. Eleanor
ignores him. As soon as Tim sees her stiff posture and averted
gaze he knows they have somehow gone backwards.
‘Ready, Eleanor?’ he asks brightly.
She still won’t meet his eye as she gets up to follow him.
Damn, he thinks, as he closes his office door and they take their
seats. He tries not to show his disappointment, readjusting his
focus towards this traumatised girl in front of him, who still
desperately needs his help.
‘All right then,’ he says, his mind busily searching for new
ways to reach her. ‘It’s good to see you, Eleanor. How are
The body bobs lightly against the grey stone wall, ensnared by
something unseen, resisting the current. A police diver slowly
untangles it, and gently pushes it towards the waiting boat.
People watch from the footbridge, transfixed. Some cover
their mouths with gloved hands, pointing, gasping, retching.
Others clutch their phones in a chokehold. One woman takes
furtive pictures. They are all relieved it hangs face down in
the cold, murky river. No one wants to see the person to whom
that long blonde hair once belonged.
The body floats towards waiting hands. A tiny crab scuttles
down the slim line of one of those ghostly white legs and
disappears into the gloom.
Three hours later
Eleanor joins the back of the crowd and waits. She is shivering,
desperate to sit down; her head pounds and her legs ache. The
air is rife with murmurs and confusion. No one wants to be
here. Only a handful of people are already aware of the chain
reaction of events that began at dawn.
The message had pinged up on screen five minutes ago,
summoning the entire workforce to the courtyard immediately.
Eleanor had grabbed her bag then followed the group from her
office, eavesdropping, with no one to talk to. She had prayed
this wouldn’t take long, because she couldn’t shake the nausea
that had been there since she woke up.
The last of the morning’s frost still glitters on the ledges of
doors and windows. Bulging grey clouds obscure the sky, and
the cobblestones are slippery from overnight rain. Eleanor hugs
herself, wrapping her cardigan tightly around her, in part to keep
her warm but also to hide her unironed cheap white blouse, as
she shifts apprehensively from foot to foot. She is still getting
used to the eviscerating coldness of London in December.
The courtyard is surrounded by red-brick office blocks,
hidden from the street, connected to the main road by one
narrow, high-walled passageway with security gates at either
end. The open space is lined with huge trees set in man-size
pots, silver tinsel winding down each trunk, and on the northern
side a wide flight of stairs marks the entrance to Parker & Lane,
one of the book industry’s darlings, already crowned Children’s
Publisher of the Year for the third year running.
There must be well over a hundred people now, and more
keep arriving as the minutes tick by. They are a jittery bunch,
huddling together, waiting for someone to tell them what is
going on. It’s a far cry from the pictures of this courtyard that
line the foyer walls just inside the entrance to Parker & Lane
– famous authors holding wine glasses, a blur of smiling faces
just out of focus, and the backdrop of tall trees festooned with
Eleanor’s gaze drifts over the crowd, but she doesn’t
recognise anyone. She’s only been working here for three weeks,
there has not been much time to form friendships, but from
what she can gather, this company-wide summons is unheard
of. Snippets of speculation swirl through the air. An emergency
drill? A company collapse? A takeover, maybe? Immediate
redundancies just weeks before Christmas? Surely not.
Each conversation begins to float away, one after another,
until the only sound is of someone clearing their throat.
Eleanor follows the collective gaze and looks upwards. The
black-and-white sign for PARKER & LANE stands proudly
above the triplet revolving doors, and just above that, on a
small balcony, is Caroline Cressman from HR, wringing her
hands as though she has forgotten her lines. Eleanor has a
horrible urge to shout, Deny thy father and refuse thy name!
as she had once needed prompting herself in high school. She
stays quiet, but her heart is restless – every few seconds she
feels it stall and tenses, willing the next beat. Everybody is
‘I will only keep you a moment – this is the one place we
could gather you all together at once.’ There’s a discernible
tremor to Caroline’s voice. She takes a deep, shaky breath. ‘I
am so very sorry to tell you all…’
Eleanor’s thoughts tip, beginning to gain speed. Something
big is coming.
‘… that Arabella Lane has passed away.’
Shock steals the air from Eleanor’s lungs. The scene before
her disintegrates; she is powerless to stop it. This cannot be
true, she thinks. It cannot be true.
She waits for the collective gasp, but there is nothing,
absolutely nothing. Perhaps it doesn’t seem real to anyone
else. Perhaps they are thinking, as she is, that only a few hours
ago their Director of Marketing and Publicity had been very
much alive at the Christmas party – drinking and dancing,
working the crowd, her face animated, her body in constant,
A few images strobe through Eleanor’s mind. Arabella is
dead, and Eleanor knows what a dead body looks like. Parched
in places and purple in others. A waxen effigy of a real person.
Nothing like Arabella.
A distant memory rises swiftly, like a vulture startled from
carrion. It draws closer, and closer, until Eleanor can feel its
black wings beating against her neck and she ducks away,
terrified, her legs buckling from under her. Coins tumble from
her pocket as she hits the cobblestones.
For a moment she is no longer twenty-one. Instead she
is nine years old again, standing in a small room in the
middle of the Australian outback. A body swings in front
of her, his face obscured by flies, and the tips of his toes
skim-kiss the floor, as though he were almost through a
jump when that rope twisted and caught him, slicing across
the bulge of his neck.
Without realising, she flings her arms over her head, trying
to protect herself from the memory, before the vision can fully
claim her. Nevertheless, she begins to dry-retch.
‘Eleanor,’ someone is close by, talking to her. ‘You okay,
She remembers where she is.
Arabella is dead.
Elegant, graceful Arabella, who plays with her hair while
she talks, whose bangles jangle when she moves, whose
laugh can make you smile even when you haven’t heard the
Arabella is dead.
She opens her eyes. It’s Will Clayton, the art director,
leaning over her. His thick eyebrows frame his concerned
expression. She’s got to know him a little over the past few
weeks, has enjoyed their flirtatious banter, particularly in
contrast to the disinterested glances of others. However, now
his face is grim and pale as he offers her a hand and sets her
on her feet. He picks up the loose change and hands it to her,
his fingers cold but his touch a reassuring link to reality.
She’s alert enough to nod, although she’s not okay at all.
She feels for her bag, pats the strap looped over her shoulder,
and clutches it close. Those in the vicinity have all turned to
watch them. She wants them to stop looking at her – she wants
to go back to being invisible.
Luckily, Caroline helps out. ‘There will be an investigation,’
she wails above them, hiccupping her words, seemingly
ignorant of what’s happening below. ‘Her body was found
near Waterloo Bridge at dawn.’
There are sobs. Someone cries out. It’s real now.
‘The police will be here shortly to take statements about
Arabella’s last few hours, and we ask you all to cooperate
fully. There will be rooms made available for the process,
and we will also have places set aside for those who need
somewhere to take a breather.’ She takes a big breath herself.
‘Or if you would like to pray. Please come and see us, or talk
to your manager and tell them what you need.’ She pauses.
‘Our hearts go out to Nathan…’ Her voice breaks. ‘And to
all of Arabella’s family and friends. There will be further
announcements shortly as to how we might best support them
in the terrible days ahead.’
Nathan. Eleanor feels a stab of horror at the mention of
Arabella’s husband. It’s been hard enough temping for him
these past few weeks, but she has no idea what the duties of
a PA might involve for a grieving man. She tries to soften the
antipathy she has felt for him, reminding herself of what he
must be going through, but all she feels is numb.
Will hovers beside her, until a colleague leans forward and
whispers in his ear. He nods, gives Eleanor a brief pat on the
arm. ‘Are you all right now?’ As soon as she nods, he turns
Quickly, Eleanor turns her focus to the day that looms ahead
of her, and is overcome with dread. Instinctively, she searches
the melee for Susan. She will help, won’t she? But Eleanor can’t
see her anywhere among the crowd, or on the balcony. Surely,
as the company CEO, Susan Mortimer should be here?
Caroline has gone as suddenly as she appeared, and people
begin to disperse. Most walk in stunned silence – a few have
their arms around one another, holding on tight. Some go
towards the main entrance, while others head around the side
of the building for the fire exit that leads to an internal set of
stairs. Eleanor decides to follow the latter group. She needs
to drag out every second she can while she tries to wrap her
thoughts around what this means. She feels feverish, gripping
the banister tightly as she makes her way to the second floor.
Her bag bangs against her side with its new weight of guilt,
as though she were concealing a murder weapon.
She attempts to recall the previous evening from start to
finish, but there are hot knives in her brain, pressing against
half-formed memories that fail to trigger. She knows she talked
to Arabella for a while, but her last recollections of the party
are hazy, recalled through a blur of dry ice and spinning faces.
In a daze, she interrupts a small group that has congregated
in the stairwell, two women leaning together, crying heavily,
while another woman clasps a tissue in a shaky hand and pats
one of her pals on the back. ‘She was planning her thirtieth
birthday just last night,’ one sobs. ‘She said she wanted to go
to Paris.’ Eleanor almost apologises for the intrusion, then
realises they are absorbed in their grief. She passes by them
unnoticed, a will-o’-the-wisp lost in daylight.
As she makes her way through the office, some people are
already back at their desks, frowning at their screens, looking
for answers, or just an escape. Or perhaps they have no choice
but to carry on. In the brief time she’s been here, Eleanor has
come to understand that daily deadlines and crazy hours are
part of most people’s work ethic.
She passes the closed doors of management, aware of
stricken voices and low murmurs. She glances past the hanging
Christmas decorations – oversized baubles gently twirling as
the heat from the radiators rises – and instead keeps her gaze
fixed on Nathan’s door at the far end of the office. Just to
the left of it, behind a partition, is her own desk. She hurries
past giant cardboard cut-outs of Smoky the Cat and The Pig
That Could Fly – two of Parker & Lane’s recent acquisitions.
Their strong lines, clear colours and gaping smiles don’t seem
to belong here anymore. Her legs feel weightless and hardly
under her control as she staggers towards refuge. She needs
to hide awhile and try to compose herself.
Relief washes over her as she reaches the partition. Until
she sees the CEO of Parker & Lane sitting in her chair.
Susan’s right elbow rests on the files that Eleanor was
meant to stow back in the cabinet yesterday, while her left
hand has crept across to open Eleanor’s sketchbook, and she
is flicking through the pictures, her head down.
Eleanor is furious at this breach of privacy. ‘That’s private,’
she says, before she can help herself.
Susan looks up, her eyes red and weary. She stands up,
fingertips smoothing the sides of her sleek black hair, which
is pulled tight into a bun. She closes the book without a word,
straightening her Chanel suit jacket, while Eleanor’s throat
burns with the abruptness of her words. She swallows, trying
to absorb her anger into something more palatable. She knows
that Susan holds virtually all the cards to her life right now.
She’s not only her boss, but also her landlord. And her aunt.
They have had an uneasy relationship from day one. When
Eleanor’s uncle had invited her to stay in their Notting Hill
home when she arrived in London, she hadn’t expected such
a frosty reception from his wife. They had known of one
another for over ten years, but had never met until three weeks
ago, and Susan was not at all what Eleanor had expected. She
suspects the feeling might be mutual.
Susan is scrutinising her, making no attempt to smile.
Eleanor can’t think of the right thing to say, but she tries.
‘I’m so sorry about Arabella.’
Susan sighs and looks away for a brief moment. Then she
fixes Eleanor with a stare. ‘You look dreadful. Do you want
to go home? I can get Priscilla to take over here today, there
will no doubt be phone calls from the press, and from authors.
I don’t expect you to have to deal with all that. We’ll figure
out something else for you to do on Monday.’
She doesn’t know, Eleanor thinks. She doesn’t know I spoke
to Arabella last night, or she’d tell me to talk to the police.
And yet, unintentionally or not, Susan is throwing her a
lifeline. This is her chance to escape, to gain time, to think
over what to do before she has to tell anybody what she’s
concealing. Instinctively she pats the cloth of her bag,
wondering if she has made this up. Can it really be happening?
‘Thank you, Susan.’ She reaches over and grabs her
sketchbook, slipping it into her bag. She’s about to turn to go
when Susan says, ‘Oh, and Eleanor…’
Before she can reply she hears heels clacking quickly
down the corridor. She turns at the noise and finds Caroline
hurrying towards them, faint streaks of mascara on her cheeks.
‘Susan, Sky News are setting up outside the building,’
Caroline says breathlessly, eyes shining like a startled animal.
Whatever Susan was going to say to Eleanor is forgotten. She
smooths her hands over her knitted jacket, then says softly,
‘And here we go.’
Eleanor watches them leave, before collecting up the
paperwork on her desk and pushing it back into her in-tray.
Then she grabs her coat and hurries towards the stairwell,
anxious to be gone before any more news crews arrive. Her
temporary status requires her to sign in and out at reception,
and once downstairs she heads quickly across to the logbook,
which is left permanently open at the front desk. Two of the
receptionists are deep in discussion.
‘I just cannot believe she would jump off a bridge,’ one of
them is saying.
‘Me neither,’ the other replies. ‘She was always such a
For a moment, Eleanor cannot move the pen in her hand.
Not last night, she wasn’t.
Before they can engage her in the gossip, she turns towards
the doors. She sees a cameraman screwing something on to
the front of his camera. The reporter clutches his microphone
to his chest like he has just caught a bridal bouquet. Two
lackeys have been tasked with holding umbrellas over the
men, to protect them from the persistent rain.
They all look at Eleanor as she exits the building, but before
they can decide if she is important enough to accost, she has
hurried down the passageway, waved her key card at the exit
gate and continued towards the main road beyond. She pauses
a moment, her head spinning in this shining world where the
shops twinkle with Christmas lights and an accordionist plays
‘Jingle Bells’ and the cars are adorned with reindeer antlers
and all is merry and bright. She takes a few gulps of air to
steady herself, and then she sets off for the tube, for Uncle
Ian, for some semblance of safety
Thank you, Sara Foster and Legend Press
About the author
Sara Foster is the bestselling author of five psychological suspense novels. Bristish author Sara now lives in Western Australia with her husband and two young daughters, and is a doctoral candidate at Curtin University.
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Hours-Sara-Foster/dp/1094094021/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+hidden+hours&qid=1604870689&s=books&sr=1-1