A mother-of-two has told how her husband ended up with her maid of honour – but they are still married six years later as she claims she hasn't been able to afford to divorce him.
Claire Hitchen, from Winsford, Cheshire, said she was left devastated by the betrayal.
The two women, both 32, had met at nursery school as toddlers, and remained friends throughout school and work, staying so close that they even ended up neighbours.
Claire said Louise was more than just a friend, and she ‘trusted her with my life’.
Even when Claire confided in Louise that she felt her relationship with factory worker Paul, 36, was going through a bad batch, her best friend reassured her that everything would be OK.
However, she now admits: ‘I look at my wedding photos now and can’t help wondering whether even back then, she was just waiting to get her claws into my husband.’
Looking back at their friendship, Claire said: ‘We went through school together and hung out as teenagers.
‘Over the years, we’d laughed and cried and shared secrets and holidays.
‘Paul and I double-dated with Louise and her boyfriend Dave. We even worked in the same packing factory and ended up living next door-but-one to each other.’
And the friendship meant that Louise was a constant presence in Claire's life.
Louise even became godmother to Claire and Paul’s first son, Rio, now 11 years old, and Claire was the godmother of Louise's son.
So when Claire announced in December 2002 that she and Paul - who she met when she was 18 - were getting hitched, she asked Louise to be her maid of honour.
Claire said: ‘There was never any doubt in my mind. It had to be Louise.
‘When the big day came in June 2005, we sobbed together as a bunch of flowers arrived from Paul, along with a soppy note.
‘Louise was crying that she was so happy for us, even saying that we were perfect for each other!
‘It was the happiest day of my life and sharing it with Louise made it all the more special.’
Claire enjoyed a blissful two years of marriage to Paul when she discovered that she was expecting again.
But cracks appeared after the couple went for their second scan - and learned they were having another boy.
Full-time mother Claire admitted: ‘We’d decided to find out the baby’s sex and Paul was on tenterhooks because he was desperate for a little princess!
‘I’d told him not to get his hopes up, and when the nurse said it was a boy he looked crestfallen. The disappointment was written all over his face.’
Claire remembers this as the turning point.
Claire said: ‘Until then, Paul had been the most loving husband a girl could ask for.
‘He was always leaving little love messages and making romantic gestures. I couldn’t imagine anyone or anything ever coming between us.
‘But when we found out we were having another boy, it was like I’d let him down. He didn’t want me anymore.
She claims relatives also spotted the change in Paul.
Claire then turned to her best friend and confided her fears in Louise.
‘Growing up, Louise and I had always been there for each other, so I turned to her for support,' Claire said.
‘She told me exactly what I wanted to hear.
‘I put my worries down to pregnancy hormones and pushed them to the back of my mind.’
But as Claire’s pregnancy progressed, Paul grew more distant while his friendship with Louise blossomed - the pair sharing suspicious lifts to work together.
And one day Claire’s mother stormed into her house, riled up by something she had witnessed.
Claire said: ‘By this time, I was on maternity leave. Mum worked at the same factory as the rest of us and came home one day with a face like thunder.
‘She said she’d seen Paul and Louise larking around in the warehouse, and there was something about the way they were together that she didn’t like - they were too close somehow.
‘I didn’t get the chance to confront Louise about it because she came round all flustered, playing it down and saying she and Paul were just having a laugh.
‘I did my best to put the niggling doubts to the back of my mind, but I’d never felt further from Paul - while he and Louise were getting on like a house on fire.’
Things came to a head after Paul and Claire’s second child son, Harley, now seven, was born in March 2008.
On the couple’s first night out together since the birth, Claire made a shocking discovery that would sound the death knell for their marriage - and which she believes expose her friendship with Louise as nothing more than a sham.
Claire said: ‘We went to the local [pub] together and Paul was knocking drinks back.
‘By closing time, he was hunched over the loo in the toilet, being sick. He kept slurring he was sorry and that he loved me.
‘But I thought he was just apologising for ruining our night out.
‘Then as I was helping him to his feet, I slipped a hand in his pocket – and pulled out his phone.
‘I’d been desperate to get my hands on it, to check his texts and phone calls – but he never let it out of his sight.'
Claire opened Paul’s texts and read the first stomach-churning message - from her supposed best friend, Louise: 'Hi babe! What you been up to? I’m home, going to bed now. XX Lou.'
She said: ‘With those few words, my whole world fell apart. I was shaking like a leaf and felt physically sick.
‘I remember screaming at Paul that I knew he’d been up to something. I just couldn’t believe that of all people it had to be Louise.’
Claire left her husband with relatives and jumped in a taxi home to confront her friend.
‘Louise was having none of it,’ Claire said. ‘She crossed her arms and looked me up and down, brazen-faced and denying everything.
Claire now has moved on and has had a son with her new fiance Danny Astbury, 24, who she will be marrying once she divorces Paul
‘But when I showed her the text, she turned white as a sheet. I stormed out before I did something I would have regretted.’
In the days that followed, both Paul and Louise tried to explain the text message, insisting they were just friends.
Claire, desperate to save her marriage, resolved to give it another go.
But after an agonising month she was forced to admit she and Paul could not overcome their problems.
Claire said: ‘I loved Paul so much and couldn’t face losing him. But the trust was gone and we needed time apart, so we set a date for a few weeks ahead and said we’d both see how we felt then.
'I really thought it was going to work out and I even confided in Louise and told her I thought it was going to be OK.
‘She seemed happy for me, but at the same time told me that she and her boyfriend Dave were splitting up.’
The day arrived that Claire and Paul had set to reassess their marriage, but instead of returning home to his family, Paul dropped the bombshell news that he was going for a drink with Louise.
When I confronted her, she was typically brazen, she just told me to get over it, she could go for a drink with whoever she wanted
Claire said: ‘He’d just been stringing me along while he plucked up the courage to finish it for good.
‘Finally it sank in. I’d lost it all - my husband and my best friend.
‘I couldn’t take it any longer and ended up moving in with my sister while I looked for a place of my own,’ she said.
‘There was no official announcement.'
Louise and Paul then became an item.
‘Sometimes, she’d even come to pick the boys up when Paul had access visits.
‘She’d try and stand on the doorstep chatting like nothing had ever happened.’
But money worries meant Claire couldn’t move on and shockingly - six years later - she’s still married to Paul - despite him now being in a full-time relationship with Louise.
The couple have a son together, born in March 2012, although Louise still insists that they don't live together.
Claire, who had a baby son, Logan, with new fiance Danny Astbury, 24, in July 2011, said: ‘The fact is that until now I couldn’t afford to divorce Paul so we’re still married.’
The pair will divorce, and due another boy with Danny in the New Year, Claire added: ‘As for Louise - I forgive her for what she’s done. I’m not going to spend my life consumed by hate.
‘But the friendship we had is gone forever.’
Paul refused to comment, however, former best friend Louise said: ‘We only got together after Paul split from Claire. She can do one.’