Read an exclusive extract from Last Seen Alive

Last Seen Alive, the third novel in Jane Bettany’s page-turning crime series, featuring Detective Isabel Blood, is an unputdownable treat! Read an exclusive extract below.

CHAPTER ONE 

It was after midnight and the clock in the corner sounded too loud, almost portentous.

Tick. Tock. Tick.

Counting down to the witching hour.

Tock. Tick. Tock.

Was she being unreasonable? Worrying unnecessarily?

Lauren stared out through the uncurtained window, scouring the darkness for approaching headlights.

Benedict lay next to her on the sofa, supported by pillows and sleeping like the five-month-old baby he
was, his chubby arms splayed either side of his head. She reached out and stroked his round, peachy cheek.

‘Where’s your mummy, eh?’ Her voice was soft and lilting and tinged with concern.

She turned and glared at the face of the clock, urging the minute hand towards the time when she
should, must do something. One o’clock. That’s when she’d make the call. At one o’clock, Anna would
be exactly ninety minutes late – Anna, who was never knowingly late for anything, and always on time to
pick up her son.

Leaving Benedict on his temporary bed, she moved closer to the window, willing a car to appear. The
pitch-black night was lit only by a smattering of stars. She’ll be here by half past twelve, Lauren told
herself. She’ll walk in with that wide, endearing smile, full of apology and still wide awake from the party
– and I’ll forgive her in an instant. There’s been a delay, that’s all. Or her car has broken down.

But if that was the case, why hadn’t she called? Why was her phone switched off?

The clock continued its relentless, steady ticking, each second a heartbeat in which Lauren grew
increasingly afraid.

CHAPTER TWO

PC Will Rowe wasn’t a big fan of the night shift. He operated best on sunny days – on noisy, crowded
streets. He was a townie, born and bred in Bainbridge, and happiest working within the confines of its
urban, bustling centre. The dark hours of early morning were alien to him; an alternative underworld
populated by furtive, shadowy people. Driving alone at night through the town’s rural, outer edges made
him feel unplugged and disconnected.

He was currently three miles north of town, on a remote country road, heading to the home of Lauren
Talbot. At one a.m., she had called 999, concerned about her friend, Anna Matheson, who had failed to
pick up her son, whom Lauren was babysitting. The force control room had despatched Will to gather
more information and assess whether the Matheson woman had gone temporarily AWOL, or was an atrisk missing person.

He leaned forward, steering his patrol car along the winding, narrow lane and scanning ahead for signs
of the address he’d been sent to: Bellbrook House. Tall hawthorn hedges towered either side of the road
and, in the darkness, it felt as though they were closing in on him.

He almost missed the turn. Swearing under his breath, he slammed on the brakes, reversed a couple
of yards and swung right, through an open gate, and onto an upward-climbing driveway.

Bellbrook House stood on the brow of the hill, an ill-defined outline against a sky dotted with a handful
of fairy light stars. The house itself was in darkness, blending in with the moonless night.

As he got out of his vehicle and strolled towards the property, a sensor lamp burst into dazzling life.
Startled, Will held up a hand to shield his eyes from its glare. As he stood there, squinting, the front door
opened and a tall, female figure looked out from the front step.

‘I’m PC Will Rowe, responding to the call you made,’ he said peering through his fingers. ‘I assume
you’re Lauren Talbot?’

‘I am.’ The woman leaned against the doorjamb and folded her arms. ‘I saw your car coming up the
lane. I didn’t want you to ring the bell in case it woke the kids.’

‘Is it OK if I come in, Lauren? Am I all right to call you Lauren?’

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Yes to both of those things.’

Will followed her through a hallway that smelled of rose-scented potpourri and on into a spacious,
unlit living room on the left.

‘Would you mind switching the light on?’ he said, peering at her through the gloom.

‘Sure.’ She reached down and turned on a table lamp. ‘I’ve been sitting here in the dark, watching for
headlights, hoping to see Anna’s car come belting up the road.’

The lamp cast a warm glow across a chimney breast covered with heavily patterned wallpaper, but
threw out little in the way of real brightness.

‘Is that OK?’ Lauren asked. ‘I’d rather not turn on the main light in case it wakes Benedict.’ She
nodded towards the other side of the room.

Will turned, noticing the sleeping child for the first time. He was lying on a makeshift bed on the
couch, arms stretched, his mouth open.

‘That’s Benedict?’ he asked. ‘Your friend’s son? The child you’ve been babysitting?’

Lauren nodded, her face tense. ‘I’ve got my own kids asleep upstairs as well.’

‘Other than the children, are you here alone?’

‘Yes, my husband’s in Liverpool for a few days. A work seminar.’

A pair of matching armchairs stood on either side of the fireplace. Will pointed to them.

‘Can we sit down?’ He smiled. ‘I need to ask some questions about your friend, and I wouldn’t mind
taking the weight off my size thirteens.’

Lauren placed a hand on her forehead. ‘Of course. I’m sorry, where are my manners?’ She sat down
and invited him to do the same. ‘My mind’s all over the place. This isn’t like Anna. She’s normally so
reliable. Always has been.’

‘Have the two of you been friends for long?’

‘Most of our lives . . .’ Lauren smiled. ‘Best mates since junior school.’

‘And you rang 999 because you’re concerned about her?’

She pressed her lips together and nodded. ‘Anna’s a single mum, so I regularly help out with childcare.
Tonight . . . or rather, last night, I was looking after Benedict while she went to a party. She was supposed
to collect him at eleven-thirty, and when it comes to picking up her son, she’s never late. Never.’

‘A party, you say? Is it possible she’s met someone there? Lost track of time?’

Lauren hunched forward, clutching her stomach. ‘It’s not really a party in the true sense, more of a
work do. Anna organised the whole event as part of her job. I’m pretty sure she’ll have spent the entire
evening making sure everything goes to plan.’

‘And where does Anna work?’

‘She’s the marketing manager at Allwood Confectionery. The factory’s celebrating its sixtieth
anniversary this year, and the owners decided to throw a bit of a bash for their employees.’

‘Where’s the party being held?’

‘At the factory, in the works canteen,’ Lauren said. ‘Anna would have preferred somewhere more
salubrious, but the CEO didn’t want to book a proper venue in case the lifting of the lockdown restrictions
was delayed again.’

‘Regardless of the location, I’m sure the staff will enjoy themselves.’ Will smiled. ‘I think we’re all
overdue a spot of revelry, eh?’

She gave him an uncertain nod.

‘Any idea what time the party was due to finish?’

‘Midnight, I think, but Anna was going to leave early.’

‘Is it possible she’s stayed longer than planned?’

‘She would have rung if she was going to be late. Anyway, even if she’d hung around until the end,
she would have been back by now.’

‘And you’ve tried calling her . . . without success?’

Lauren released a hiss of air and dragged her fingers through her long blonde hair. ‘Several times,’
she said. ‘Her mobile’s switched off, and that in itself is unusual. Anna’s always messing with her
phone . . . I’m constantly telling her off about it. She’s either looking something up online, or ringing
someone, or texting them, or posting something on social media. She never switches off from her job, and
it’ll have been exactly the same tonight.’

Will smiled wryly.

‘The party’s meant to be a chance for Anna to let her hair down,’ Lauren continued. ‘But I know what
she’s like. She’ll have been checking on the catering, taking photos, organising the speeches and awards.
I bet everyone else has had a whale of a time, but not Anna. She won’t have had a minute to relax.’

‘When you organise an event like that, I suppose you’re bound to feel a sense of responsibility,’ Will
said. ‘I can understand why she’d want everything to go with a swing.’

‘I’m sure there’s been nothing for her to worry about. Anna’s good at her job and her organisational
skills are second to none. She puts the rest of us to shame.’

‘Have you checked with Anna’s colleagues or family members? Perhaps one of them will know where
she is.’

‘I thought about trying to get hold of her mum,’ Lauren said. ‘But it’s late . . . she’s bound to be in
bed and I don’t want to worry her unnecessarily. As for Anna’s colleagues, I don’t know how to get in
touch with them. She often talks about the people she works with, but I’ve never met any of them.’

Will extracted a notebook from his top pocket and turned to a fresh page. ‘Can you give me any
names?’

Lauren thought for a moment. ‘The CEO is Faye Allwood, and her son, Ross, is the head of sales.
There’s also someone called James Derenby, who’s the general manager. Anna works closely with him.
He has a thing for her, actually.’

‘Thing?’ Will paused, tapping his pencil on the open page of his notebook. ‘You mean he’s attracted
to her?’

Raising an eyebrow, Lauren smiled. ‘He must be – he’s asked her out enough times. Anna always
turns him down though.’

‘I take it she doesn’t like this bloke then?’

‘She likes him well enough.’ Lauren wrinkled her nose. ‘But she doesn’t fancy him. And anyway,
Anna has a rule about not dating anyone she works with.’

‘Doesn’t like mixing business with pleasure, is that it?’

‘Exactly.’ Lauren nodded. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Ross Allwood hasn’t got his eye on her as well,
although Anna definitely won’t be going out with him.’

‘Doesn’t she fancy him either?’

‘No, and more to the point, she has very little respect for the man. Apparently, he’s rubbish at his job.
Anna reckons he’d have been sacked ages ago if he was an ordinary employee.’

‘As opposed to the boss’s son, you mean?’

‘Oh, he’s more than that,’ Lauren said. ‘When his father died last year, Ross Allwood became the coowner of the factory. His mother, Faye Allwood, owns the rest of the company.’

Will made a note of the information. ‘Is there anyone else from Allwoods that I should know about?’
he said. ‘The sweet factory employs a lot people. Anna must have mentioned more than those three
colleagues?’

‘She’s talked about a few others, but only in a casual way. I can’t remember their names. Sorry.’

‘I’ll need the name of Anna’s mum as well. I think we should let her know what’s happening.’

‘It’s Christina. Christina Matheson. I don’t have a phone number for her, but she lives in Milford, on
Hopping Hill. I’m not sure of the house number.’

‘We’ll find her, don’t worry,’ Will said. Shifting his weight, he leaned forward. ‘If Anna was planning
to pick Benedict up at eleven-thirty, what time would she have needed to set off from the factory?’

‘It doesn’t take long to drive here from town,’ Lauren said. ‘It’s a five- or six-minute journey, as long
as the roads are clear. Anna would have set off in plenty of time. Providing everyone was well fed and
watered, she said she was planning to leave straight after the speeches and awards, which were due to
finish at eleven-fifteen.’

On the sofa, the baby stirred. Will watched his little legs and arms stretch as he moved into a new
position.

‘Do you think Anna will have had a drink at the party?’ Will asked.

‘She rarely drinks these days,’ Lauren replied. ‘And she never drinks if she’s driving. She has sole
responsibility for her son, so she likes to stay within the limit, in case there’s ever an emergency.’

‘What’s the situation with Benedict’s father?’ Will said. ‘Is he still on the scene?’

‘No, never has been.’ Lauren pulled a face, implying that she didn’t altogether approve of his absence.

‘Any particular reason?’

She lifted her right shoulder. ‘I’ve no idea. I’ve never met the man. In my opinion, Anna should let
him be part of Benedict’s life, but she won’t hear of it. It’s one of the few things we disagree on. We’ve
come close to falling out about it a couple of times.’

‘You’ve argued about it?’

‘We did in the early days, during her pregnancy and immediately after Benedict was born, but I try to
steer clear of the subject now. Anna’s adamant she doesn’t want Benedict’s dad involved . . . that the baby
is her responsibility and no one else’s. Personally, I think she’s wrong, but it’s her son, her choice.’

Will detected a note of peevishness in Lauren’s voice, an unwillingness to accept her friend’s decision.

He licked his thumb and turned to a fresh page in his notebook. ‘We may need to get hold of Benedict’s
dad,’ he said. ‘Can you give me his name, please.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t. I don’t know his name. Anna’s never told me who he is.’

Will frowned. This didn’t sound good. Why keep the man’s identity under wraps? In his experience,
people with secrets usually had something unpleasant to hide.

‘As far as I’m aware, she hasn’t told anyone who he is,’ Lauren added. ‘Not even her own mother.’

‘Any chance Anna could be with this man now?’ Will asked.

‘I doubt it, but who knows? I haven’t a clue where she is. That’s why I rang 999.’

Will referred to his notebook. ‘What about this colleague of hers? James Derenby? Is it possible she’s
finally given in and gone for a drink with him?’

‘What? At one o’clock in the morning?’ Lauren scoffed. ‘I shouldn’t imagine so. There’s nowhere in
Bainbridge open at this time of night.’

‘Might she have gone back to his place for a drink?’

‘No.’ Lauren’s face twitched impatiently. ‘She’s not interested in a relationship with James Derenby,
or anyone else for that matter. Right now, Anna’s focusing on her child and her career – in that order.
Anyway, she wouldn’t go off with someone without speaking to me first.’

‘With respect,’ said Will, ‘she is a grown woman. She doesn’t need your permission.’

Lauren thrust out her chin. ‘I’m not saying she does, but I am looking after her son, and Anna’s not
the sort of person to take advantage. She’d let me know if there’d been a change of plan.’

‘Fair enough,’ Will said, conceding the point. ‘Can you tell me if Anna has any health issues we should
be aware of?’

‘No, on the contrary, she’s fitter now than she has been for years.’

‘What about her mental health? Has she ever suffered from depression or anxiety? Has anything been
worrying her recently? Any signs of postnatal depression, perhaps?’

‘No, none of those things.’

‘Any other reason she might have wanted to take off and have some time on her own?’

Lauren narrowed her eyes. ‘You don’t have children, do you, PC Rowe?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘I didn’t think so.’ She smiled mockingly. ‘When you do, you’ll appreciate the joy of occasionally
having some time to yourself. Being responsible for a child twenty-four-seven can be exhausting. Given
half a chance, most of us would take a break if we could. However, there’s no way any half-decent parent
would take off without making proper arrangements for their child – and, as a parent, Anna is more than
half decent. She’s an excellent mother. She lives for Benedict. He’s her world. Trust me, she’d never
bugger off and leave him. That’s why I’m so worried. Do you think she could have had an accident?’

Will held up his hands. ‘There’s no evidence of that,’ he said. ‘There have been no RTAs reported this
evening . . . road traffic accidents . . . and the control room has already checked with the hospitals. No one
matching your friend’s description has been admitted.’

‘I suppose I should find that reassuring,’ Lauren said, ‘but, actually, it has the opposite effect.’

The sleeping baby’s soft, exhaling breaths drifted across from the other side of the room. It was a
normal, ordinary sound. Soothing. Comforting. Benedict was warm and safe and content, but Will
couldn’t help but wonder how the child’s mother was faring in comparison.

He had a bad feeling about this. A really bad feeling. It was time to call it in.

Last Seen Alive is out in eBook now!

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