PROLOGUE

She stood at the edge of the second floor landing, looking down on the polished wood staircase. The conversation from the morning's phone call still rang in her ears. It had confirmed her suspicion, but nevertheless, she felt a numb shock settling over her body. She realised her hands were shaking, and gripped the banister harder.

She had known immediately that seeing her own doctor was not an option, and as the hot dread started to form in the pit of her stomach, she contemplated her next move. In the end, she had decided to take the train to Portsmouth. When she arrived, she asked a woman on the street directions to the nearest doctor's surgery, which turned out to be only a few blocks away. She told the receptionist a story she had thought up on the short walk from the train station, that she was in town on a short visit and was feeling under the weather. Of course, she hadn't used her real name.

She sat in stony silence on the return trip London, hoping by some chance she was wrong, but knowing in her heart the futility of her hopes. Now she had days of waiting and pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary. She was good at hiding her true emotions; it would not be hard to convince her busy husband that she was the same cool, well-bred social butterfly he had married five years previously. His working hours had become longer as of late, so it was very probable she would see him only a few hours within the next few days anyway.

She was home that evening when he arrived, sitting in her usual chair in the lounge, everything as it should be. She had gone to bed soon after supper, complaining of a headache, and he had stayed up to do some paperwork he had brought home. She was still sleeping the next morning when he gently kissed her forehead and left a few minutes early, hoping to avoid the morning traffic.

Mornings were already nearly unbearable; as soon as her eyes opened, waves of nausea threatened to drown her, and it was all she could do to make it to the lavatory before she succumbed to them. Eating something usually helped, but she had begun to feel queasy at other times during the day as well. The aroma from the coffee shop on the corner was enough to do her in. She used to love the smell of brewing espresso, and she angrily added it to the list of things to avoid for the time being. (Another being chocolate, which in normal circumstances was very hard for her to resist.)

The phone had rung just as she was finishing her breakfast of dry toast and tea. She was expecting a call from Mrs. Grantham about the hospital's charity benefit dinner at the end of the month, of which she was the chairwoman. She picked up the receiver on the second ring.

'Hello?'

'May I please speak to Mrs. Emily Jones?' said the caller.

She stopped cold, feeling as if she had been slapped. Emily Jones was the name she had given to the surgery receptionist in Portsmouth.

'This...this is she.'

She listened to the words being spoken, her expression never changing. At the end of the conversation, she thanked the caller and quietly laid the receiver to rest in its cradle, then slowly climbed the stairs to the upstairs lavatory and ran herself a hot bath. She knew what she had to do next, and this would be her only chance. Her husband would know the truth once it was over, whether her plan was a success or a failure. If she failed...she shook her head to rid herself of the thought. No. She was sure everything would sort itself out in the end. Everything was going to be fine.

As the water drained from the bath, she stood looking at herself in the mirror, already noticing a slight difference in her appearance. Sighing, she wrapped her dressing gown around herself and tied it securely. She had made sure she was presentable underneath the gown, and also ran a comb through her damp hair, in case someone other than her husband happened to see her. Even in this unusual situation, she had some sense of propriety; she would keep her good social standing unsullied at all cost. She had thought of everything.

And now she was standing at the top of the stairs, determined to preserve her life and marriage by carrying out her plan. The last five years with her husband had been perfect, and she would not let anything change her life with him. This was only a tiny bump in the road, soon to be mended.

She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.

And then, letting go of the banister, Margaret Ellingham began to fall.