What would you do if a stranger claimed to be your sibling? New York Times bestselling author Sandie Jones explores this wild scenario in her new novel, The Half Sister.
A master of writing domestic suspense, Jones has a talent for transforming seemingly mundane character relationships into shocking thrillers. Her debut novel, The Other Woman, found the protagonist at dangerous odds with her boyfriend’s mother. And in The First Mistake, a woman’s trust in her best friend unraveled to stunning effect. Jones’ twists will keep you riveted, and it sounds like The Half Sister is no exception. Here’s the scoop on the novel from the publisher:
Kate and Lauren. Sisters who are always there for each other. But as they gather for their weekly Sunday lunch, a knock on the door changes everything. The new arrival, Jess, claims to be their half-sister, but that would mean the unthinkable: that she’s the secret daughter of their beloved father Harry, who has recently died. Their mother is devastated, and sisters Kate and Lauren refuse to believe Jess. But as the fall-out starts it’s clear that they are all hiding secrets, and perhaps this family isn’t as perfect as they appear. Where there was truth, now there are lies and only one thing is certain: their half-sister’s arrival has ruined everything.
You’ll have to wait until next summer to find out what happens, but you can read that intense Sunday lunch scene today! We’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt from the novel below in addition to revealing the cover.
Cover design by Ervin Serrano; photograph by plainpicture/Reilika Landen
Minotaur Books will release The Half Sister on June 16, 2020, and you can pre-order it here.
“So, no Matt today?” asks Rose, Kate’s mum, as she bustles into the dining room, carrying a tray of roast potatoes.
Lauren deftly lifts one out as she sets it down and bites into it, groaning with pleasure as it crunches.
“Afraid not,” says Kate. “He got called into the office at the last minute.”
“Ah well, no bother,” says Rose, going back into the kitchen. “I’ll do you a plate to take home.”
“So, what’s the big scoop of the day?” asks Lauren’s husband Simon as he carves into the beef joint that’s resting in the middle of the table. Kate can’t help but feel that he’s taking her dad’s job away from him. “Or are you not allowed to tell?” he goes on.
“I could.” Kate lowers her voice. “But then I’d have to kill you.”
He laughs heartily at the joke he thinks she’s made, but if the truth be known, nothing would give her more pleasure. She and Matt had often lain in bed thinking of ways to commit the perfect murder, and her sister’s husband always topped the list of potential victims. He’s tolerated, rather than liked, and if it wasn’t for her mother wanting to keep the Sunday lunch ritual going, Kate could quite easily never see him again. But hey, you can’t choose your family.
“Come on, seriously, I wanna know,” says Simon. “Do you and Matt share stories or are you bitter rivals? Fighting each other to the death for the best ones.”
Kate wonders whether he’d prefer to hear about the imminent cabinet reshuffle or the prostitute who’s claiming to have cost Manchester United the FA Cup. She decides not to give him the satisfaction of either.
“I couldn’t possibly divulge our pillow talk,” she says. “Lauren, pass me the carrots, will you?”
“I can’t remember the last time we were all together,” says Lauren.
Kate can. It was three weeks ago, and on the way home, she and Matt had discussed how they might be able to stretch the weekly lunches to maybe every two weeks.
“I only do it for Mum,” Kate had said. “You know how she loves having us all over.”
“I know,” said Matt. “But it’s dictating our weekends. I don’t get much time off as it is, and when I do, no disrespect, I’d rather us two do something together.”
But in the last three weeks, that hadn’t happened either, as Matt had worked, then Kate had been at the Cannes Film Festival and now this weekend, he’s had to go into the office again.
“It’s just that everyone’s busy,” says Kate now.
“Everyone but me,” laughs Lauren. “I’ll be sitting at this table waiting for the roasties until my dying day.”
“Well, maybe you need to get a life!” Simon laughs.
It’s funny how words are dependent on how you say them. If Matt had said that, Kate would have taken it in the spirit it was meant; banter between two people who gave each other as good as they got. But from Simon’s lips the joke is lost, turning a flippant comment into something that sounds far more disrespectful.
The flash of disdain that crosses Lauren’s eyes tells Kate she’s not the only one who feels it.
“I’d imagine being a mother keeps you very busy,” she interjects.
Lauren rolls her eyes. “You have no idea.”
You’re right, I don’t, thinks Kate.
“In all honestly, now that I’m on maternity leave, I don’t know how I had time to go to work,” Lauren says, laughing.
“It’s all about time management,” says Simon. “Imagine Kate, when she has children; it’ll be like a military operation.” He laughs again.
“Not everyone wants children,” says Lauren, and Kate can’t help but feel dismayed at how misplaced and ill-thought out her words are.
She fixes an insincere grin on her face, wondering how much longer she has to keep up with this charade of playing happy families. If Matt were here, he’d at least take some of the flak for her, stepping in to bat away the barbs.
“Some women want careers instead,” Lauren goes on.
Kate struggles to keep her expression neutral, but it feels like her cheek’s been slapped.
“I don’t think you have to make a choice between having a career and having children,” she says.
Simon looks at her with an amused expression. “One of us has to work if we have children.”
“I’m not talking about work,” says Kate. “I’m talking about a career. Just because women are the ones who have babies shouldn’t mean their careers have to suffer while they have them.”
Simon rolls his eyes.
Kate looks to Lauren, shaking her head, in the hope that she’ll get some sisterly support, but Lauren has turned away. Kate wonders when her sister had become so spineless when faced with her husband’s old-fashioned views.
Up until Noah was born, Lauren had dedicated her life to bringing other peoples’ babies into the world. In fact, Kate couldn’t remember a time when her sister wasn’t surrounded by children. She’d babysat for family friends as a teenager and had gone to midwifery college as soon as she’d finished school, which was why she was well placed to make comments about forgetting your dignity when you give birth. Logically, Kate knew she should take her sister’s words as they were probably intended, yet she couldn’t help but feel they were aimed at her personally.
Simon sighs theatrically. “I’m just saying that someone like Lauren, who has worked for the good old NHS for fifteen years, isn’t as high up as her peers who chose not to have children.”
“When do you think you’ll go back to work?” asks Rose, in an attempt to change the subject, although Kate is quite sure that she already knows the precise date. Lauren and their mum are close like that.
Lauren throws a glance at her husband. “I’m not due back until the end of the summer, but if we need the money, I might go back sooner.”
“Let’s hope that she still has a job by then. If the current government have their way, the NHS won’t last for much longer.”
Now, you just wait a minute, Kate can hear her father Harry saying. This government have gone all-out to secure the future of our healthcare system.
Kate turns her head to the right, waiting for her father to respond in his normal stoic manner, yet there’s nothing but silence. The chair he’d once occupied is bewilderingly empty and she feels a very real physical tug on her heart.
It’s coming up to a year since he died, but yet Kate can still hear him, still see him, sitting at his place around the table. They’d left his chair empty for the first six months, none of them able to remove it from where they gathered every Sunday, but gradually they’d moved a little this way and that, shuffling ever closer, until suddenly it had disappeared altogether. Kate had been a reluctant visitor ever since, finding the slow removal of the man she adored too painful to accept. Where she’d once looked forward to the family getting together, excited to hear about her father’s week at work and revelling in the heated debates between him and Matt, it had now become an effort. Without her ally, the dynamics seem to have shifted, and the once light-hearted, evenly matched pairing of her and her father, versus Lauren and their mother, now feels like it’s heavily weighted in her sister’s favour.
Whenever Kate calls her mother, Lauren seems to be adding her two cents in the background. And on the odd occasion Kate’s dropped in to see the children, Rose is there, preparing dinner in Lauren’s kitchen. Maybe it’s always been this way, but now that her father isn’t round at her apartment, helping her out with odd jobs, Kate notices it more.
She’d lost count of how many cups of tea she’d made him on a Saturday morning when Matt was invariably on a weekend shift, and Harry had taken it upon himself to fix a leak in the shower in his DIY-shy-son-in-law’s absence. Kate had always managed to find a creaky door for him to oil, or a shelf to put up, the pair of them as good as each other for finding excuses to spend time together.
“I thought I’d get out from under your mother’s feet for a bit longer,” he used to say when he’d appear on her doorstep on his way back from watching Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge. By then Matt would be home and they’d sit and watch the other Premier League matches on the telly together.
“Do you think you two will have kids one day?” Harry had asked once, ever so casually. Almost too casually to be a random thought that had just popped into his head. She and Matt had looked at each other, as they weighed up whether to share their desperate struggle. If any member of the family were to know about it, it would only have been him, but then Kate thought of the sadness that would cloud his features, as he contemplated his daughter’s childless future. She’d discreetly shaken her head at Matt and said instead, “We’d love them when the time’s right.”
“I’m going to make sure that whenever it happens and whatever it is, it’s going to be a blues fan,” he’d said, smiling. “It’ll be chanting ‘blue is the colour, football is the game,’ before it can say, ‘dada’.”
“I don’t think so,” Matt, a lifelong Arsenal fan, had said laughing. “I’m all right with its first words not being daddy, but if you think for one second that its favourite colour is going to be blue instead of red, then I think we might have to put a restraining order in place.”
They’d all laughed together as Kate dared to imagine her father holding the hand of his grandson, the pair of them wrapped in blue and white scarves as they made their way to the stand. The thought of it had made her want to cry, even more than the prospect of it never happening. Now, though, the impossibility of both scenarios threatens to engulf her.
Kate takes her plate into the kitchen, unable to stomach her food or the conversation. She stands facing the units with her hands spread wide on the worktop. Just count to ten, she can hear Matt’s voice saying.
It would be a hell of a lot easier if you were here, she says silently in answer.
She pictures him in the high-rise tower of The Echo’s offices, pacing up and down, raking a manic hand through his hair as he is forced to go to the wire on tomorrow’s front page exclusive. Will the government “insider” get the names to him on time? Will the prostitute want more money, now that Real Madrid is rumoured to be interested in signing her one-night stand?
Despite both of them being in the business for over ten years, the pressure never lessened, and the reliable sources were proving to be ever-more unreliable. That’s why Kate had opted to stay where she was, on the showbusiness desk, instead of rising up through the ranks, where the stakes and stress increased ten-fold. She chose not to acknowledge that a bigger reason for not putting herself forward for promotion was that she’d not expected to be there for that much longer. But that was four years ago, when she’d thought that she’d have to hand over coverage of the next Oscar’s ceremony because she’d be too heavily pregnant to fly to Los Angeles. She honestly hadn’t expected to be reporting on the fashion faux pas of Hollywood actresses ever again. But she’d been there for the last three years in a row, without even the merest hint of a bump.
“Are you okay darling?” asks Rose, coming into the kitchen to fetch more gravy. “You look a little pale.”
For the briefest of moments, Kate considers telling her why she might look peaky, why her temper seems to be on a short fuse and why everything everybody’s saying seems to be rubbing her up the wrong way. But, no, she and Matt had decided they’d do it together when there was something to say, and anyway, Rose has already disappeared through the side door and into the garage.
“I don’t like vegetables,” says Noah, spitting out a mouthful of chewed up swede, as Kate walks back into the dining room.
“Come on darling, just a few more for mummy,” says Lauren patiently.
“No! Vegetables are yucky.”
Lauren looks at Kate, as if to say, Aren’t you glad you’re not me?
You’re exactly who I want to be, Kate thinks.
Over the years, she’s fallen into the trap of gauging everyone’s good fortune and sense of self-worth on whether they have children or not; using their ability to have a baby as some kind of currency that makes them rich beyond their wildest dreams. So all she sees when she looks at Lauren is a multi-millionaire. Though if she looked a little closer, she might notice the finer details of what Lauren’s life is really like. The fact that her husband has almost cleared his plate whilst she is yet to start her dinner, as she’s too busy cutting up carrots for Emmy, chasing the peas that Noah is flicking onto the table and manoeuvring a baby’s hungry mouth onto her breast.
The juxtaposition of the scene and her selfish thoughts jolt Kate into action.
“Here,” she says, moving around the table to stand behind Emmy’s highchair. “Let me do that.”
Lauren gratefully gives her a child’s plastic knife and fork whilst throwing a sideways glance at her oblivious husband.
“Thanks,” says Lauren, as Kate cuts up Emmy’s vegetables before falling to the floor to retrieve the errant peas.
It somehow feels easier to be under the table than sat around it. A place to hide from all the words that are said, and unsaid. Kate can hear them forcing a conversation, changing the subject to one that isn’t deemed to be in the least bit controversial, so that nobody gets on their high horse and threatens the equilibrium again.
She’s still down there when the doorbell rings, and Rose huffs before putting her knife and fork down. “Who can that be on a Sunday afternoon? Simon, be a love and go and get that, will you?”
Kate feels strangely relieved, grateful for an interruption. Hopefully, once the visitor is sent on their way, the reset button will have returned to its default position of everyone pretending to get along.
She watches from floor level as Simon walks out of the room and waits to hear his voice at the door. The conversation is muffled and Kate strains to hear, relishing his discomfort as he no doubt listens to a Witness regaling him about the power of Jehovah, or a landscaper who just happens to have finished a garden down the road and has a few pergolas and statues left over.
Emmy is hitting her on the head with her plastic bowl and Kate waits expectantly for more peas to rain down on her.
“Oi, you little rascal,” she laughs, grabbing hold of Emmy’s bare foot. Just feeling her soft skin in the palm of her hand makes Kate’s chest tighten and she swallows the tears that are prickling the back of her throat.
“It’s someone looking for Harry,” says Simon, as he walks back into the dining room with a blonde young woman behind him.
“What?” asks Rose abruptly, looking from the woman to Simon and back again.
Kate is still on her knees, surveying the scene from across the top of the table.
“It’s actually Harry I’m after,” says the woman. “Harry Alexander. Is he around?”
Kate feels her blood run cold as her brain struggles to comprehend what this woman might want. But whichever way she looks at it, asking for a man almost a year after his death can’t be a good thing.
“Sorry, what is it we can help you with?” asks Kate, rising to full height.
The woman looks at her feet as they shuffle from side to side. “It’s probably best if I speak to Harry first,” she says.
“Well, he’s not here,” says Kate tightly, her chest feeling like a coiled spring. “What is it you want with him?”
“Are you Lauren?”
Kate feels Rose shift beside her, but Lauren, she notices is stock still. Even her swaying, to comfort the baby, seems to have stopped.
“Sorry, who are you?” asks Kate, ignoring the question,
“I’m Jess,” she says, before clearing her throat.
“And what do you want with Harry?” asks Rose shakily.
Jess eyes her warily. “I need to talk to him. It’s really important.”
Kate looks to Rose. “I’ll let him know you came by,” she says, as her mother and sister’s heads turn in her direction. “Who should I say you are?” she goes on, ignoring their perplexed stares.
The woman looks down at the floor again, as if summoning the courage she needs, to say what she’s about to say.
“I’m his daughter,” she says eventually, looking up. “Tell him his daughter came to see him.”