When it comes to picking out a new book, sometimes I can be indecisive. I’m about to commit to this for the next 300 or so pages. Do I want something summery? Something dark and twisted? Or maybe more domestic fiction? It can be a real head-scratcher. That is, until I picked up a copy of Someone Else’s Secret by Julia Spiro, out July 1, 2020, which has a little bit of everything.
After graduating Bowdoin with a degree in art history, no job prospects, and no trust fund or rich parents to fall back on, Lindsey takes a job as a nanny for Carol and Jonathan, a well-to-do and well-connected couple on Martha’s Vineyard. In her care are 5-year-old Robert aka Berty, and 15-year-old Georgina aka Georgie. Lindsey, who comes from a working-class family, doesn’t exactly fit in with the types of people who summer on Martha’s Vineyard (and use “summer” as a verb), like her fellow Bowdoin alum Joanna and her friends. Over the course of the summer, Lindsey and Georgie develop a sort of friendship (or at least, an understanding), until an act of violence shatters their bond. Someone Else’s Secret is Julia Spiro’s first novel, and Betches readers can get an exclusive excerpt right here, before it comes out on July 1.
When her alarm went off at seven thirty, Lindsey was already awake. She had woken up a few minutes earlier and stayed still in bed, staring at the warm sunlight streaming in through the shutter slats, painting the room in bright stripes.
She’d decided not to tell her mom, or Rose, or anyone, about her strange encounter with Jonathan the night before. He was probably just an awkward guy, she told herself. Not everything has to mean something, she resolved. And what was he going to do, really? Hit on her in his own house with his wife and kids there? This was real life, she told herself, not a bad movie.
She thought about Dylan as she rose from bed: the ease of his walk, the way he had gently picked up her bike, the way he had looked at her directly in her eyes when he said goodbye, the way his hand felt on hers, the way her feet seemed to float off the ground when they were together. But in the light of day, she was angry with herself for thinking about him. It was obvious that Dylan wasn’t part of Joanna’s crowd. He was a local, a townie, and even though Lindsey had been on the island for only one night, she knew already that someone like him wasn’t part of her future plans. Where could it possibly go?
She brought her phone with her into the bathroom, skimming through emails as she brushed her teeth. Her phone buzzed with a text from a number she didn’t recognize. Dylan, she thought. She opened the text. Hey, it’s Brian. Nice meeting you last night. Hope to see you around.
Lindsey let the brush hang out the side of her mouth, foam frothing at the corner of her lips. Brian? She had to reread the text again. She had barely spoken to him last night. She hadn’t given him her number. There was no way he would have gotten it from Joanna, she thought.She decided not to respond. And then it occurred to her: Did Brian suspect that she had done something to his car? Was this his way of telling her that he knew?
She remembered then that Brian was a Fitzgerald, that he was part of the family who Jonathan had told her owned the art gallery. She’d been on island one night, and she’d already jeopardized her entire future. She rubbed her eyes with her palms. She knew that she had to walk a tightrope with Brian. She didn’t want to lead him on, but she couldn’t be rude either. She would respond to him later.
For now, she had to focus on her job. It was time to get breakfast ready for Berty. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, and she could feel the heated sunshine through her window, even in the early hours. Berty had tennis after breakfast, and then Lindsey was taking him over to the beach club. She was looking forward to that. She could see the club from the Deckers’ living room, just across the outer harbor. The club’s shoreline was dotted with red, white, and blue wooden cabanas that made the beach look like a traveling circus. From what Carol and Georgie had told her about the club, it seemed like Berty would have plenty of things to do there to keep him busy. She might even get to relax a little bit.
Downstairs, she heard voices as she rounded the bend into the kitchen. Carol and Jonathan sat at the island, each sipping a mug of coffee. They both looked up as she walked in, and for a moment, Lindsey thought they seemed surprised to see her, like she had accidentally interrupted some intimate moment. She had started to feel that way a lot in the Deckers’ house, like she was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Lindsey,” Jonathan said after a second. “Good morning.” He smiled at her, a wholesome, friendly smile that belonged to a father, a doting husband, someone reliable and loyal. He seemed to be an entirely different person than the one she had seen last night. Had he mentioned to Carol that he’d seen her come in? she wondered. For a moment, she considered whether she had been drunker than she’d thought. Maybe she had exaggerated the interaction in her mind as being something more menacing than it actually had been.
“Good morning.” She fidgeted, wishing that she’d worn real clothes over her suit instead of a somewhat translucent cover-up.
“Sleep okay?” he asked. Carol still hadn’t said anything.
“Yes, great.” She felt her voice raise up an octave, sounding too enthusiastic, too eager. “Everything is great.” She felt her stomach rumble.
“Good, good,” Jonathan said, rising. “I’ve got to do a little bit of work, and then I’ve got tennis at ten.”
“What time did we all decide to meet for lunch? Two?” Carol asked him, seeming to ignore Lindsey.
“Yes, two.” Jonathan gave her a kiss on the forehead, quick but gentle; then he turned and left the kitchen.
Lindsey was left alone with Carol, and despite her terrible encounter with Jonathan the night before, she somehow still felt more awkward with Carol. She smiled and exhaled. “Beautiful day, huh?”
Carol nodded. “It is a beautiful day, yes.” She shut her laptop. “Berty is outside, as you can see,” she said. Lindsey looked out onto the lawn. Berty was playing with what looked like a doll. “Georgie is already at work. But she’ll meet us all at the club later for lunch.”
“Great. Sounds good.”
Carol went over some of the logistics with Lindsey again—directions to the tennis club, their account number at the beach club, what kind of sunscreen to use on Berty’s sensitive skin—though Lindsey could tell it bothered Carol to do so. Her words were curt and quick, and she seemed distracted.
“I’ve already registered your name with the beach club. All you have to do is sign in when you get there. You can just put whatever you want on our tab. But Berty only gets one ice cream or treat a day.” Carol stood and carried her coffee mug to the sink. “See you around two, then,” she said and went upstairs. Lindsey felt as though Carol had given her a once-over with her eyes before leaving the room, and she wasn’t sure if her expression implied that she approved of her outfit or not.
She called Berty inside for breakfast and made him a bowl of yogurt with granola and honey. He stirred it repeatedly but didn’t seem interested in eating. After a few bites, he pushed the bowl away.
“I hate tennis,” he whined.
“Well, think about it this way,” Lindsey said, leaning on the counter so that she was level with him. “If you go to tennis this morning, then we can have the entire rest of the day to play at the beach. Doesn’t that sound awesome?”
“I guess so,” he whispered. “Okay.”
The walk to the tennis club was only a few minutes. It was part of the yacht club, which was located on the harbor, Carol had told Lindsey, but there was a separate area just for tennis. Berty was in a tennis clinic with other kids his age. When they got to the club, he ran to his group immediately. They were gathered on one of the courts in back. There was a middle-aged instructor on one side of the net with a basket of balls. The kids lined up on the other side; they knew what to do.
Next to the court was a shaded area with some chairs and a watercooler. Five other nannies were already sitting there. One had a magazine open. They glanced up at Lindsey when she arrived, assessing her, the new girl. Some smiled; others didn’t. Lindsey sat. She knew that none of them was the mother of any of these kids; it wasn’t just that they were slightly too young to be mothers; it was that they looked different from the actual mothers. They weren’t as polished; they all seemed a little bit exhausted. It was clear that they weren’t there to socialize. They were working. They were outsiders. And she was one of them, a fact that she hated.
Looking around at the other women, she noticed that some of them wore outfits that seemed to be emulations of what Carol and other women in Edgartown wore—the flat, Navajo-style leather sandals, seersucker striped skirts, simple shift dresses—yet something about these girls seemed inauthentic to Lindsey, like they were trying too hard. She gazed down at her own clothing, at the silver Tiffany’s charm bracelet that her parents had given her for her sixteenth birthday, and she knew that it was actually her own insecurity, her own feelings of inauthenticity, that bothered her, not theirs. She remembered how out of place she had felt her first week at Bowdoin.
She looked at the text from Brian again, deciding to respond. She started typing something and then deleted it. You too, she finally wrote, hitting “Send” and putting her phone away, deciding that Brian was probably just being friendly.
The club was just up the road on the Chappy side. Members Only read a sign on a white picket fence in front of the entrance. Berty swung the gate door open and barreled in. Lindsey stopped at the reception desk briefly. A young girl in a red swimsuit was manning the desk.
“Hi,” Lindsey said, keeping an eye on Berty, who had gone ahead but was now waiting and looking back at her, annoyed. “I’m with the Decker family; I think Mrs. Decker called in. I’m Lindsey?”
“You’re all set,” the girl said knowingly.
Lindsey followed Berty forward, where the club opened up to a sweeping private beach. It was paradise. There was a long dock, at the end of which was a waterslide and a diving board. “Wow,” Lindsey said to no one. The air smelled of burgers and saltwater, and there was an army of tan teenage lifeguards in red bathing suits parading around the club.
“Come on,” Berty said, tugging her. “I need to get changed.”
In the women’s bathroom, she got Berty changed into his swim trunks. “Let’s go,” he demanded impatiently once they were on. She made him wait another minute while she slathered him in sunblock.
Lindsey found a free spot on the beach, and she put her things down and then took off her cover-up. She was glad that she had worn her one-piece. Everyone at the club—parents, nannies, and kids—were all walking around in their bathing suits, but it was somehow still entirely conservative. Thank God, Lindsey thought to herself, imagining the reactions she would have gotten if she’d worn a string bikini.
Berty liked to go off the waterslide at the end of the dock again and again. A couple of his friends from tennis were there, too, and they all took turns going off the slide, climbing up the ladder, and then waiting for their next turn. A bored lifeguard blew his whistle when one of the kids started to get on the slide before the previous kid had swum out of the way.
After a while, Berty was thirsty, so Lindsey took him to the snack bar. He wanted a lemonade. She got herself an iced tea. Decker was all she had to say. She wondered what the final bill was at the end of every summer. There were no prices on the menu. None of that seemed to matter to anyone there.
She and Berty went to their spot on the beach and sipped their drinks. When he was finished, he went and sat on the shoreline and started building a sandcastle. The club really was the perfect setup, Lindsey thought to herself. She could relax and suntan while Berty was just a few feet away, playing. Lindsey sank into her elbows and let the sun blanket her skin. She could get used to this, if this was what her summer was going to look like.
“Boo!” she heard, and she felt someone’s cold fingers on her shoulders. She turned. It was Joanna. She was wearing a Shoshanna bikini with a pink gingham pattern and structured cups. Lindsey had seen it just yesterday in the store window of Nell. Joanna practically threw herself down onto the beach, stretching out on one of the towels that Lindsey had laid out, and released a dramatic sigh. Lindsey noticed that she was also wearing the exact Ray-Ban aviator glasses that she had wanted for herself. Now she couldn’t get them.
“God, what a night, huh?” Joanna said.
“Yeah,” Lindsey responded. It had been a night, though she wasn’t sure which part had unnerved her the most: keying Brian’s car, meeting Dylan, or the weird conversation with Jonathan. It had all become a surreal blur. “I’m kind of in shock about what”—she paused—“about what we did last night. To Brian’s car.” She wondered if Joanna knew that Brian had texted her. She opened her mouth to tell her but stayed silent. How would she explain it?
Joanna flipped over onto her belly, propping herself on her forearms.
“Don’t worry,” she said, swatting at Lindsey’s thigh. “It’s fine. In fact,” she whispered, pushing her glasses down on her nose and peering out over them, looking around, “nobody will ever know that it was us. Brian totally thinks it was someone else.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows.
Lindsey was relieved. She didn’t like how Joanna had said us. She knew that she had participated in it, but Joanna was the one who’d really done it, in her mind. She just went along with it. Didn’t that make her more innocent? she thought to herself.
“Well, that’s good, I guess,” she mumbled. “Who does he think did it?”
“Some townie guy,” Joanna said, shifting her hips to get more comfortable on the towel. “There’s this guy who has a rivalry with Brian. Something that happened in the fishing derby a few years ago. I don’t know; it’s so stupid. But I guess Whitney saw the guy driving by the party last night on his way back from the beach, so obviously now everyone thinks that guy did it. Makes total sense.” Lindsey’s stomach tightened. Dylan, she thought to herself. As if Joanna knew that Lindsey felt guilty, she continued. “I mean, the townie guy would have done it anyway. I mean, probably.” She paused. “Like, they’re enemies. But whatever, who cares? The point is, Brian got what he deserved, and no one knows that it was us.”
“Joanna,” Lindsey said with caution. “That guy . . .” She paused. She wasn’t sure how much she wanted to tell Joanna. She could sense already that she’d be judged if she revealed that Dylan had asked for her number and she was excited about it. “He gave me a ride home last night. My bike broke, and he saw me and drove me home. He seems really . . . nice.”
Joanna rolled her eyes. “Lindsey!” She pushed her sunglasses down. “You like this guy. It’s so obvious!”
“I don’t even know him . . .” But Lindsey could feel herself smiling. “He does seem like a good guy, though.” She looked around. “You don’t think Brian’s going to, like, retaliate, do you? I mean, Dylan had nothing to do with it.”
Joanna didn’t respond for a few seconds. “Listen,” she said, “Brian and this guy—Dylan, right?” Lindsey nodded. “They already had a beef together. It’s not like we created this. They already had it out for one another. This is just one more thing added to the list. It doesn’t even matter.” Lindsey didn’t agree with that logic. It wasn’t right. Dylan was innocent. They were the guilty ones. How could Joanna just be okay with the fact that they were blaming someone else? “What’s done is done,” Joanna added.
Lindsey’s only hope was that the whole thing might just go away. Maybe Brian wouldn’t even care that much; maybe he’d just forget about it. Though she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Her stomach churned.
“So has Mr. Decker flirted with you yet or what?” Joanna asked with a laugh, changing the subject. “I told you, didn’t I? He’s a little creepy, right?”
“I mean . . .” Lindsey chose her words carefully. She wanted to confide in Joanna, but she also didn’t want to talk badly about her boss, especially when he knew Joanna’s parents. “He does seem a little weird. I saw him last night when I got home. It was just . . . strange.”
“Ew,” Joanna huffed. “I mean, Mr. Decker is kind of hot, but he’s, like, a hard fifty.”
Lindsey shook her head and shrugged.
“Well, whatever. Next week is Brian’s family’s big party,” Joanna said. “It’s going to be so fun.”
“Cool” was all Lindsey could respond. She was too distracted.
Joanna left an hour later. “I’m going home to my pool,” she said, waving the sand off her towel. “It’s so boring here now. All my girlfriends are gone this year. They’re off in the real world, I guess.”
Lindsey smiled, wondering if she should be somewhat offended.
“But thank God you’re here,” Joanna added.
Lindsey watched her as she left the club, her wet hair clinging to her back.
A few hours later, Carol and Jonathan showed up for lunch.
“We’ll get a table,” Carol said. She and Jonathan turned back toward the snack bar. Berty ran behind them. Lindsey tried to towel off as best she could and then threw on her cover-up. Immediately, big wet spots formed around her breasts. She pressed the cover-up over the rest of her stomach, trying to get the whole thing wet so that the spots would blend in.
Jonathan and Carol had put some of their things on a table and were standing in line to order. There was nothing healthy—a cheeseburger, BLT, grilled cheese, chicken salad sandwich. Lindsey wanted to order after Carol. She was curious what she was going to get.
“Hi,” Carol said to the young girl at the counter. “Decker, 7625. Can we please have a cheeseburger, medium, a grilled cheese with tomato, and a garden salad with grilled chicken? Please put the dressing on the side. Jonathan?”
“A BLT, please. Thanks.” It was Lindsey’s turn. She had heard Carol order but didn’t know what was for her or the kids.
“I’ll have the turkey wrap, please. Thank you.” She didn’t really want that. She didn’t want anything. She wasn’t hungry all of a sudden. It felt too uncomfortable to eat lunch with them in the first place. They ordered a few iced teas and went to sit down.
“Georgie should be here soon,” Carol said at the table. “Or at least that’s what she told me.”
Berty told Jonathan that he’d been off the slide a hundred times that morning. Lindsey was grateful that Berty talked so much. She didn’t have anything to say.
A few minutes later, Georgie arrived. She was wearing her work clothes—jean cutoff shorts and a Picnic Basket shirt. She dumped her bag on the ground and sat down, looking around her as if she was trying to avoid someone or trying to find someone.
“Are you going to change?” Carol asked her before saying anything else. “Did you bring a suit?”
“Of course I brought a suit,” Georgie said, annoyed. “I’ll go change now.” Lindsey shifted in her seat. She didn’t see what was wrong with Georgie’s outfit or why she needed her swimsuit on to eat lunch. It was as if Carol was ashamed of her in those clothes. Work clothes.
Georgie emerged from the bathroom in a white eyelet print dress. Lindsey couldn’t tell what kind of bathing suit she had on underneath, but she had transformed from a normal teenager into a younger version of Carol—elegant, well groomed, and sophisticated. It didn’t seem like her.
“So how was work today?” Jonathan asked.
“Good,” Georgie responded, sipping an iced tea. “I saw Brian Fitzgerald.”
Lindsey nearly choked. Did Georgie know something about what she’d done last night? Did she know that Brian had texted her? Had Georgie given Brian her number?
“How is he doing these days? I just saw his father at the club last week. Said Brian was working on some start-up idea. He always was a smart kid.”
“Yeah” was all Georgie said. “He’s really smart.” Over the loudspeaker, their name was called, and Jonathan got up to go get their lunch. He came back with the food on two shiny red trays. Berty dove toward the grilled cheese.
“I took the liberty of ordering you a salad, Gigi,” Carol said.
“Thanks.” Georgie was pissed, that was obvious, but she didn’t say anything else. Lindsey watched Carol dissect her cheeseburger. She ate the patty with a fork, ignoring the bun.
The rest of lunch went by quickly, and Carol and Jonathan left when they were finished. They gave Georgie and Berty pecks on the head and then walked out. Lindsey sensed a common feeling of relief between her and the kids when they were gone.
“We got a pretty great spot down the beach,” she said to Georgie as they cleared the table.
“Cool. It’s still pretty hot out. I need to get a tan.”
Berty returned to his sandcastle on the shore. Georgie rolled out her towel next to Lindsey’s and then took off her white dress. She was wearing a string bikini underneath, to Lindsey’s surprise. Georgie looked around again, and this time, her eyes lingered on a group of girls down the beach. She dropped to her towel, lying on her stomach, and turned her head the other way.
“Cute suit,” Lindsey said to her.
“Thanks.” Georgie didn’t lift her head. It was clear she didn’t want to talk. Lindsey watched Berty for a few minutes, not saying anything.
Georgie released a sigh and flipped over, leaning back on her elbows. She turned her head toward the group of girls down the beach, her gaze settling on them. Maybe those girls had been Georgie’s friends, and something had happened, Lindsey thought. Georgie hadn’t mentioned any friends since Lindsey arrived.
“Everything okay?” Lindsey finally asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Georgie said, turning to stare straight ahead at the water. “There’s just, well, there’s this guy.”
Lindsey was surprised; she had assumed that Georgie was having issues with friends, not with guys. “Oh,” she said, “guy stuff. What’s going on?”
Georgie turned toward Lindsey so that she was on her side, as though to welcome the conversation and to keep it contained between the two of them.
“I mean,” she whispered, “he’s too old for me. I guess. Maybe not in a few years. I don’t know. I just really like him.”
“Well, how old is he?” Lindsey asked. She was thinking about how Georgie had mentioned Brian at lunch.
“I think he’s, like, twenty-four?” she said. “Basically your age, I guess,” she added.
Before Lindsey could even respond and tell her that twenty-four was too old for her, that she should find a nice guy her own age, Georgie interjected.
“He was flirting with me,” she said defensively. “Anyway, it’s dumb,” she continued. “He used to teach me sailing when I was younger, and I think I’ve always liked him.”
So maybe it wasn’t Brian, Lindsey thought to herself, remembering that Joanna had said something about Brian being on Wall Street. Must be some local kid, she thought.
“I understand,” she said, “but I think you’re right. He’s probably a little bit too old. At least for now. But you never know where life will take you. Maybe in a few years, when you’re older, when you’re eighteen, you’ll be in similar places in life.” Lindsey didn’t really mean it; she was lying to Georgie, somewhat, but it felt like a kind lie and the right thing to do.
Georgie nodded. “You’re right,” she said. “Maybe it’s just not the right time.”
“Exactly.” Lindsey couldn’t believe how fast Georgie had come around.
“I mean,” Georgie continued, “I’ve known Brian my whole life, basically, since I was a kid. Our parents are friends. I’m sure I’ll still know him in a few years. Maybe later on it will be the right time.”
Lindsey’s ears pricked at the sound of Brian’s name. What was it about this guy that everyone was so drawn to? He was charming, sure, and cute, in a way, but he seemed ordinary to her and somewhat arrogant. She didn’t understand the magnetic pull he seemed to have on women.
“Well,” she said, trying to figure out what to tell Georgie. She knew that there was nothing anyone could tell a teenage girl to convince her that a guy wasn’t right for her. Georgie had a crush, and there was no going back. But she had to try. “Sometimes you think a guy is right for you, and he ends up being wrong for you.” She started rambling then, telling Georgie about her own high school crush that had ended in heartbreak. Georgie nodded but didn’t say anything. She took out a copy of Glamour from her bag and started reading.
In front of them on the beach, Berty knocked his sandcastle down with his feet, running through it with a slight scream. Lindsey looked at her cell phone but had no new messages. The phone itself felt like a duplicitous piece of evidence that she needed to bury deep down in her bag, like a forbidden weapon. She hadn’t meant to, but already she had basically lied to Joanna, Georgie, and, in a way, to Dylan, and all the lies were somehow connected to Brian. She hadn’t asked Brian to reach out to her, but he had. And now, not telling Joanna and Georgie that information somehow felt like she was actively lying to both of them. She hated the feeling of carrying secrets that she’d never wanted in the first place. She wished that she could extricate herself from the web she’d crawled into last night. But it was too late.
“Excerpted from SOMEONE ELSE’S SECRET by Julia Spiro. Copyright © 2020 by Julia Spiro. Published and reprinted by permission of Lake Union Publishing. All rights reserved.”
If you’ve read one thriller, you start to feel like after a certain point, you’ve read them all. We get it: the main character had amnesia all along. Two sisters switched places. It gets repetitive. So if you are getting a little fatigued of the same old twists, Emily Liebert’s new novel, Perfectly Famous, out June 2, 2020, will be a breath of fresh air, because it’s honestly kind of meta: after famous crime novelist’s Ward DeFleur’s daughter goes missing, the author is in the wind. But one journalist isn’t content with letting Ward remain in obscurity, and she becomes obsessed with finding her. This harrowing tale of one woman’s infatuation and another woman’s fear is full of explosive surprises, perfect for fans of The Night Olivia Fell and Then She Was Gone.
Emily Liebert is the USA Today bestselling author of Pretty Revenge, and Perfectly Famous will be her sixth novel. Perfectly Famous doesn’t come out until June 2, but Betches readers can get an exclusive first look at this gripping novel right now.
Fame is like a flame. A small flourish of light that’s ignited with good intentions and kindled with aggressive aspirations. But as those dreams are stoked, the flame grows fiercer, often too hot to pass your finger through. Fame can spread like a blazing rash, infecting everything and everyone in its path. The flame is inexorable. It can’t be stopped. It won’t be stopped. Until it’s extinguished.
Of course, some notoriety cannot be snuffed out. The force of it is too robust. People covet that fame. They envy it.
Those people become increasingly resentful as their small spark remains just that. No one—they think—deserves to shine forever, to eclipse all the others who are just as worthy of recognition.
Because only one other outcome is possible when a flame refuses to be choked.
It will explode.
CHAPTER 1: WARD
SIX MONTHS AGO
The smooth rhythm of jazz music drifted from the radio as I gazed out the window at the cookie-cutter McMansions with their rambling green lawns, glistening blue swimming pools, and soaring oak trees in a kaleidoscopic of colors. This time of year, the air is crisp but not cold. Children frolick outside until just before bedtime. Doors are left unlocked.
It’s safe here in Connecticut.
Ten minutes passed, as we traveled out of the suburban cocoon and through town, until the car pulled to a stop. I checked my reflection in the makeup compact I’d slipped into my purse at the last minute and allowed myself one final swipe of red lipstick, to match the cover of my new novel, Mysterious Stranger. Then I took a deep breath, trapped the air in my lungs for a few seconds longer than usual, and exhaled before the driver came around to open my door.
“Ready, Ms. DeFleur?” He extended his hand, and I accepted it, grateful for the support.
“Yes,” I spoke softly and stepped onto the glossy pavement, as pellets of rain struck the umbrella he was holding. One foot in front of the other, I reminded myself. I’ve done this before. Twelve times. And I’ll do it again. I hope.
“Here we go.” He hoisted me to standing, and I noticed that a bead of water had tainted my red silk flats like an inkblot in the Rorschach test. I never wear heels. When you’re five foot ten, it’s hard enough to go unnoticed. “I’ll keep you dry.”
“Thank you.” I nodded and raked my fingers through my thick, tumbling waves of auburn hair.
The line was already wrapped around the side of the building, a buzzing procession of anticipation. Instinctively, I looked behind me. As expected, the parking lot was crowded with sedans and SUVs jockeying for an open spot. To see me. Even after so many years, it’s still hard to believe.
Once we were inside, fear rose in my chest. I scanned the troop of men and women, mostly women in dark elastic jeans, stiletto boots, and flowy blouses cut to expose just enough of their assets. The landscape was dizzying. I thought about a quick pivot. I could make it back to the town car before anyone reached me. But I didn’t move.
“Hello, everyone,” I said louder than I’d expected. I sounded confident. Unlike myself. I smiled appreciatively at the light applause.
“Fabulous, you’re here.” My publicist, Gwen, swooped in, placed one hand on the small of my back, and cupped my elbow with the other. “Let’s get you settled. The signing doesn’t officially start for another twenty minutes. We can go over some important items.”
“Okay, sure.” I allowed her to cart me off.
“In here.” She thrust me into a small room with a green tweed couch and a cluttered wooden desk. “Make yourself comfortable. How are you feeling?” She motioned to the couch, dragged the metal desk chair over, and sat down on the edge of it, facing me. Her dark brown eyes were dogged. She’d rimmed them with far too much black eyeliner. And her knee was trembling. Probably from that high-octane coffee-in-a-can she drinks all day.
“Good,” I lied.
“Great, I mean. Definitely great,” I qualified.
“That’s better. Because tonight has to go seamlessly.” She maintained eye contact. “This is the first appearance in your fifteen-city tour.”
“I know.” Between my agent, my publisher, my editor, my editor’s assistant, Gwen, Gwen’s assistant, and all the other people at Lyons & Wilder responsible for launching my books, I’ve heard fifteen-city tour more times than my brain can metabolize.
“What I’m saying is that tonight sets the tone.” She leaned in closer and searched my face for mutual understanding. “There can’t be any . . .” She paused, careful to select the least offensive word. “Issues.”
“I get it.” It wasn’t hard to decipher what she meant by issues. I chose not to mention that it felt like the walls were closing in on us or that I was sweating through my blouse. “Don’t worry, it’s not my first rodeo.”
“Exactly. So here’s the plan.” Gwen lifted her chin and checked her watch. “I’m going to head out there now and make sure everything is under control and that everyone’s ready to roll. You’re going to stay here, have some water, have some fruit.” She signaled to a platter of neatly arranged slices of pineapple, mango, and cantaloupe, and a few bottles of Evian on the desk. “Then I’m going to come back and get you, and we’ll go in together. As always, there’s a table set up for you to sign at. There are plenty of Sharpies. We’re doing red for this book, as discussed. And clearly your fans are here in droves.”
“They never disappoint.” I smiled, pleased by my readers’ unwavering support.
Anxiety aside, I do realize what a gift that is. There are plenty of authors who write well-received novels, one-hit wonders that skyrocket to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and sell millions of copies. Unfortunately, their sophomore efforts frequently pale in comparison. There are other authors who write five, ten, fifteen books that all do adequately enough to turn a profit and keep their contracts coming. And then there are authors like me, whose audience has doubled, tripled, quadrupled with each new release. Thankfully, so have my advances. But above all that, I feel truly fortunate because my readers are the best readers. They communicate with me, and I communicate with them, from the very safe haven of my home office. Unseen. For that reason, among many others defined by my publishing house, I feel it’s my duty to show up for them. In this case, fifteen times over.
“And they never will disappoint,” Gwen assured me. “Just keep on being you. That’s all you have to do. They love you. Happy, authentic, engaged you.”
“Thank you.” I’ve worked with a lot of “Gwens” over the years, some grittier than others. This Gwen is a straight shooter, which I like. We both know that her little pep talk was a warning not to screw things up tonight. “I’ve got this.”
“Excellent.” I thought she was going to exhale, possibly reveal a hint of relief that her star thoroughbred was ready to race. But she’s still terrified I’ll break a leg.
She can’t be blamed for that. It has happened before, so to speak. It’s lore among the young girls who’ve passed through the halls of Lyons & Wilder. I’ve seen the way they size me up. They think I’m fragile.
Ward DeFleur sat on a wall.
Ward DeFleur had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men.
Couldn’t put Ward together again.
Not on Gwen’s watch, though. I guarantee she’s got an Ace bandage and a tube of Krazy Glue in her purse. She’ll repair me if it’s the last thing she ever does.
“Sit tight. I won’t be gone long.” She stood up and clipped her walkie-talkie to her belt.
“One question.” I raised my index finger.
“Shoot.” Gwen barely looked up from her cell phone. She was already sending a text, probably to my agent, Stephanie, who couldn’t be here tonight because her sister is getting married. Apparently, she asked her sister to switch the date and was horrified that she wouldn’t. In turn, I was horrified that Stephanie even asked in the first place.
“Is there security?”
“There are guards at all three doors. We’re in constant contact.”
“Just in case,” I added, so as not to seem dramatic.
“Ward,” Gwen said with intention. “You’re completely covered. Absolutely nothing will go wrong.” We locked eyes. “This is your night. Enjoy it.” She walked toward the door, turned the knob, and paused. Then she glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “Lucky number thirteen.”
“Lucky number thirteen.”
Copyright © 2020 by Emily Liebert. From the forthcoming book PERFECTLY FAMOUS to be published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Maybe you watched The Stranger or The Five on Netflix, or saw the movie Tell No One. Or maybe you just read one of his many New York Times bestselling books, like Run Away, Fool Me Once, Don’t Let Go, or the renowned Myron Bolitar series. Either way, if you’re into thrillers, you’ve definitely heard of Harlan Coben, and you’ve probably been waiting on the edge of your seat for the release of his newest book (which will be his 32nd), The Boy From The Woods, out March 17.
Wilde is a man who is a mystery to everyone, including himself, having been found 30 years ago living as a feral boy in the woods with no memory of who he was or how he got there. Fast-forward three decades: A local girl goes missing in those same woods, and Wilde is tapped to help find her. He works with Hester Crimstein, a famous TV lawyer (with big Nancy Grace energy) with whom Wilde shares a tragic connection. Along the way, they’ll go head-to-head with corrupt politicians (never heard of ’em), powerful media moguls, long-lost relatives, and so much more. The Boy From The Woods comes out March 17th, but if you just can’t wait to get a sneak peek of the book, we have the second chapter right here. So check it out, get hooked, then preorder The Boy From The Woods.
The hipster pundit said, “This guy should be in prison, no questions asked.”
On live television, Hester Crimstein was about to counterpunch when she spotted what looked like her grandson in her peripheral vision. It was hard to see through the studio lights, but it sure as hell looked like Matthew.
“Whoa, strong words,” said the show’s host, a once-cute prepster whose main debate technique was to freeze a baffled expression on his face, as though his guests were idiots no matter how much sense they made. “Any response, Hester?”
Matthew’s appearance—it had to be him—had thrown her.
Not a good time to let the mind wander, she reminded herself. Focus.
“You’re gross,” Hester said.
“You heard me.” She aimed her notorious withering gaze at Hipster Pundit. “Gross.”
Why is Matthew here?
Her grandson had never come to her work unannounced before—not to her office, not to a courtroom, and not to the studio.
“Care to elaborate?” Prepster Host asked.
“Sure,” Hester said. The fiery glare stayed on Hipster Pundit. “You hate America.”
“Seriously,” Hester continued, throwing her hands up in the air, “why should we have a court system at all? Who needs it? We have public opinion, don’t we? No trial, no jury, no judge—let the Twitter mob decide.”
Hipster Pundit sat up a little straighter. “That’s not what I said.”
“It’s exactly what you said.”
“There’s evidence, Hester. A very clear video.”
“Ooo, a video.” She wiggled her fingers as though she were talking about a ghost. “So again: No need for a judge or jury. Let’s just have you, as benevolent leader of the Twitter mob—”
“Hush, I’m talking. Oh, I’m sorry, I forget your name. I keep calling you Hipster Pundit in my head, so can I just call you Chad?” He opened his mouth, but Hester pushed on. “Great. Tell me, Chad, what’s a fitting punishmentfor my client, do you think? I mean, since you’re going to pronounce guilt or innocence, why not also do the sentencing for us?”
“My name”—he pushed his hipster glasses up his nose—“is Rick. And we all saw the video. Your client punched a man in the face.”
“Thanks for that analysis. You know what would be helpful, Chad?”
“Rick, Chad, whatever. What would be helpful, super helpful really, would be if you and your mob just made all the decisions for us. Think of the time we’d save. We just post a video on social media and declare guilt or innocence from the replies. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down. There’d be no need for witnesses or testimony or evidence. Just Judge Rick Chad here.”
Hipster Pundit’s face was turning red. “We all saw what your rich client did to that poor man.”
Prepster Host stepped in: “Before we continue, let’s show the video again for those just tuning in.”
Hester was about to protest, but they’d already shown the video countless times, would show it countless more times, and her voicing any opposition would be both ineffective and only make her client, a well-to-do financial consultant named Simon Greene, appear even more guilty.
More important, Hester could use the few seconds with the camera off her to check on Matthew.
The viral video—four million views and counting—had been recorded on a tourist’s iPhone in Central Park. On the screen, Hester’s client Simon Greene, wearing a perfectly tailored suit with a perfectly Windsored Hermès tie, cocked his fist and smashed it into the face of a threadbare, disheveled young man who, Hester knew, was a drug addict named Aaron Corval.
Blood gushed from Corval’s nose.
The image was irresistibly Dickensian—Mr. Rich Privileged Guy, completely unprovoked, sucker-punches Poor Street Urchin.
Hester quickly craned her neck toward Matthew and tried, through the haze of the studio spotlights, to meet his eye. She was a frequent legal expert on cable news, and two nights a week, “famed defense attorney” Hester Crimstein had her own segment on this very network called Crimstein on Crime, though her name was not pronounced Crime-Rhymes-with-Prime-Stine, but rather Krim-Rhymes-with-Prim-Steen, but the alliteration was still considered “television friendly” and the title looked good on the bottom scroll, so the network ran with it.
Her grandson stood in the shadows. Hester could see that Matthew was wringing his hands, just like his father used to do, and she felt a pang so deep in her chest that for a moment she couldn’t breathe. She considered quickly crossing the room and asking Matthew why he was here, but the punch video was already over and Hipster Rick Chad was foaming at the mouth.
“See?” Spittle flew out of his mouth and found a home in his beard. “It’s clear as day. Your rich client attacked a homeless man for no reason.”
“You don’t know what went on before that tape rolled.”
“It makes no difference.”
“Sure it does. That’s why we have a system of justice, so that vigilantes like you don’t irresponsibly call for mob violence against an innocent man.”
“Whoa, no one said anything about mob violence.”
“Sure you did. Own it already. You want my client, a father of three with no record, in prison right now. No trial, nothing. Come on, Rick Chad, let your inner fascist out.” Hester banged the desk, startling Prepster Host, and began to chant: “Lock him up, lock him up.”
“Cut that out!”
“Lock him up!”
The chant was getting to him, his face turning scarlet. “That’s not what I meant at all. You’re intentionally exaggerating.”
“Lock him up!”
“Stop that. No one is saying that.”
Hester had something of a gift for mimicry. She often used it in the courtroom to subtly if not immaturely undermine a prosecutor. Doing her best impression of Rick Chad, she repeated his earlier words verbatim: “This guy should be in prison, no questions asked.”
“That will be up to a court of law,” Hipster Rick Chad said, “but maybe if a man acts like this, if he punches people in the face in broad daylight, he deserves to be canceled and lose his job.”
“Why? Because you and Deplorable-Dental-Hygienist and NailDa-Ladies-69 on Twitter say so? You don’t know the situation. You don’t even know if the tape is real.”
Prepster Host arched an eyebrow over that one. “Are you saying the video is fake?”
“Could be, sure. Look, I had another client. Someone photoshopped her smiling face next to a dead giraffe and said she was the hunter who killed it. An ex-husband did that for revenge. Can you imagine the hate and bullying she received?”
The story wasn’t true—Hester had made it up—but it could be true, and sometimes that was enough.
“Where is your client Simon Greene right now?” Hipster Rick Chad asked.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“He’s home, right? Out on bail?”
“He’s an innocent man, a fine man, a caring man—”
“And a rich man.”
“Now you want to get rid of our bail system?”
“A rich white man.”
“Listen, Rick Chad, I know you’re all ‘woke’ and stuff, what with the cool beard and the hipster beanie—is that a Kangol?— but your use of race and your easy answers are as bad as the other side’s use of race and easy answers.”
“Wow, deflecting using ‘both sides.’ ”
“No, sonny, that’s not both sides, so listen up. What you don’t see is, you and those you hate? You are quickly becoming one and the same.”
“Reverse this around,” Rick Chad said. “If Simon Greene was poor and black and Aaron Corval was rich and white—”
“They’re both white. Don’t make this about race.”
“It’s always about race, but fine. If the guy in rags hit the rich white man in a suit, he wouldn’t have Hester Crimstein defending him. He’d be in jail right now.”
Hmm, Hester thought. She had to admit Rick Chad had a pretty good point there.
Prepster Host said, “Hester?”
Time was running out in the segment, so Hester threw up her hands and said, “If Rick Chad is arguing I’m a great attorney, who am I to disagree?”
That drew laughs.
“And that’s all the time we have for now. Coming up next, the latest controversy surrounding upstart presidential candidate Rusty Eggers. Is Rusty pragmatic or cruel? Is he really the most dangerous man in America? Stay with us.”
Hester pulled out the earpiece and unclipped the microphone. They were already headed to commercial break when she rose and crossed the room toward Matthew. He was so tall now, again like his father, and another pang struck hard.
Hester said, “Your mother… ?”
“She’s fine,” Matthew said. “Everyone is okay.”
Hester couldn’t help it. She threw her arms around the probably embarrassed teen, wrapping him in a bear hug, though she was barely five two and he had almost a foot on her. More and more she saw the echoes of the father in the son. Matthew hadn’t looked much like David when he was little, when his father was still alive, but now he did—the posture, the walk, the hand wringing, the crinkle of the forehead—and it all broke her heart anew. It shouldn’t, of course. It should, in fact, offer some measure of comfort for Hester, seeing her dead son’s echo in his boy, like some small part of David survived the crash and still lives on. But instead, these ghostly glimmers rip at her, tear the wounds wide open, even after all these years, and Hester wondered whether the pain was worth it, whether it was better to feel this pain than feel nothing. The question was a rhetorical one, of course. She had no choice and would want it no other way—feeling nothing or someday being “over it” would be the worst betrayal of all.
So she held her grandson and squeezed her eyes shut. The teen patted her back, almost as though he were humoring her.
That was what he called her. Nana. “You’re really okay?”
Matthew’s skin was browner than his father’s. His mother, Laila, was black, which made Matthew black too or a person of color or biracial or whatever. Age was no excuse, but Hester, who was in her seventies but told everyone she stopped counting at sixty-nine—go ahead, make a joke, she’d heard them all—found it hard to keep track of the evolving terminology.
“Where’s your mother?” Hester asked.
“What’s the matter?” Hester asked.
“There’s this girl in school,” Matthew said.
“What about her?”
“She’s missing, Nana. I want you to help.”
Excerpted from THE BOY FROM THE WOODS. Copyright © 2020 by Harlan Coben. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
Have you ever said a hilarious joke that got no laughs, only to have your friend repeat it a little louder and get all the credit? I imagine that’s kind of a small version of the feeling Claire Martin has when she gets kicked out of her band right before they get super famous for a song she wrote. Laura Hankin, famous for her “Feminarchy” comedy videos, debuts her first novel, Happy and You Know It, about the treacherous places Claire must go before she withers away in self-pity: straight into the middle of a group of young Manhattan moms, as the playgroup musician for their kids. You know, the ones who make it to hot yoga like, the day after they give birth. It’s basically like The Assistants but with rich moms, or like Mean Girls mixed with The Nanny Diaries.
If you’re looking for a hilarious read, but can’t get through a book without a little suspense, Happy and You Know It is the book for you. Claire enters a world of dark secrets, and discovers that these moms have much bigger problems to worry about than which Lululemon leggings to wear that day. Hankin, who did this job in real life, tells us what it’s actually like to be a mom in this Instagram-perfect world.
Happy and You Know It made Newsweek’s “Must-Read Fiction and Nonfiction Books to Savor This Spring” and, after reading this first look, I can already see why. The book comes out in May, and you can preorder now, but if you can’t wait that long to start it, Betches was lucky enough to get an exclusive excerpt.
New Yorkers are good at turning a blind eye. They ignore the subway ranters, the men who walk with pythons twined around their shoulders, anyone who suggests meeting for dinner in Times Square.
But on one sweltering August afternoon, when the whole city was trapped in a bubble of heat, a woman came running down Madison Avenue in a full-length fur coat, demanding to be noticed. As she sprinted by, encased in a suffocating cocoon of mink, the sweaty customers at the sidewalk cafe on 94th Street couldn’t help but stare.
Maybe it was, in part, because of her smell — the staleness of the inky black pelt she wore, plus something else, something sickly-sweet and stomach-turning. Vomit. Dried bits of it crusted the woman’s mouth. Little chunks clung to her hair. She didn’t look like someone who should smell that way. She looked rich.
Maybe it was the sleek stroller she pushed in front of her. It glided along the sidewalk, the baby equivalent of a Porsche, but without a baby inside.
Or maybe it was the pack of women chasing her.
Afterwards, when the media was just starting to whip itself into a frenzy about the so-called ‘Poison Playgroup of Park Avenue,’ one witness would tell reporters that he had known the women were dangerous all along. He had sensed it from the moment he saw them—even before they tipped their heads back and started to scream.
Claire Martin didn’t want to throw herself in front of a bus, exactly. But if a bus happened to mow her down, knocking her instantly out of existence, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
If she were floating in eternal nothingness, at least she wouldn’t have to hear Vagabond’s music in every fucking bar in New York City. It happened for the fourth time not long after New Year’s Day, as she sat on a stool in some Upper West Side dive, performing her fun new ritual of Drinking To Forget. She’d managed to swallow her way within sight of that sweet, sweet tipping point — the one where all her sharp-edged self-loathing melted into something squishier and Jell-O-like — and had just caught the eye of a curly-haired guy nearby when “Idaho Eyes” came over the speakers, as jarring and rage-inducing as the clock radio blaring “I’ve Got You” in Groundhog Day.
She turned away from her new prospect, and leaned over the bar. “Hey,” she said to the bartender, who held up a finger in her direction, and continued his conversation with a middle-aged man a few stools down. Automatically, she drummed her fingers along with that catchy opening beat, before she caught herself and closed her hand into a fist. “Hey!”
“What?” the bartender asked, glaring.
She squinted at him, trying to make him come fully into focus. He was a big, scowling bear of a man, and alarmingly fuzzy around the edges. “Can we skip this song?”
“No,” he said.
Claire considered leaving, but the guy with curly hair intrigued her, and she liked Fucking To Forget almost as much as Drinking To Forget. She swallowed, then flashed the bartender what she hoped was a winning smile. “Please? I’d really appreciate it.”
Her smile had worked wonders for her in the past, bright and effective enough to be a form of currency. In the early days of touring with Vagabond, rattling around in a van for which they could barely afford the gas, the guys had joked about it, and had sent her into convenience stores to see if she could get them all free snacks for the road. But this bartender remained unmoved. He folded his hairy arms across his chest. “My bar, my playlist.”
She gritted her teeth, as the verse turned into the first chorus. A nearby couple began to dance, shout-singing along, the man looking into the woman’s face with pure love. In times like these, Claire thought that maybe God did exist, not as some benevolent being or terrifying father, but as the omniscient equivalent of a prank show host. An Ashton Kutcher kind of God. She took another large gulp of her whiskey. “Don’t be a dick, man,” she said, as the bartender turned away. “The customer’s always right, right?”
“I’m a customer, and I love this song,” said the middle aged man down at the end of the bar.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” she said, as a wave of nausea rose in her stomach. “They’re terrible.” She took a couple of shallow, panicky breaths as, over the speakers, Marcus and Marlena’s voices mingled in harmony. Dammit, they sounded good together. The middle aged man, apparently some kind of regular at this dive, made a wounded face, his shoulders slumping. The bartender noticed and pulled out his phone, holding it up right in front of Claire to show her the song playing on his Spotify. His finger hovered over the skip button. Then, he deliberately turned the volume up. The sound grew loud enough to suffocate her, to smother her. She lunged forward to grab the phone away from him.
As the bartender ejected her, none-too-gently, into the stinging January night, she realized that perhaps it was safer to drink alone in her apartment instead.
A month later, her cousin Thea called.
“How’s the wallowing going?” Thea asked, in her brisk way.
“I don’t know if it’s fair to call it wallowing,” Claire said. “That sounds so masturbatory. I think your band getting super-famous right after they kick you out is a great reason to become a shut-in.”
“Mm-hm,” Thea said.
Over the past couple years, Claire had spent so much time on the road that all she’d wanted from her home was a place without roommates, where she could immediately take off her pants and collapse into bed. What did it matter that her “kitchen” only had room for a mini fridge and a hot plate? She wasn’t exactly whipping up five-course meals for herself. Who cared that the bars on her window blocked out most of the natural light, or that she’d stuck up all her posters with tape instead of framing them? But now, from underneath her sheets, Claire cast a look around her tiny studio, at the stacks of boxes from Pizza Paradise starting to grow mold, at the piles of discarded beer cans, at the torn-up remains of a note her parents had sent her, reading: You can always come home. Jesus forgives, and so do we. “The wallowing is getting pretty gross,” she said.
“Well then, get up. I got you a job.” Even as a child in their tiny Ohio town, Thea had been the one who got shit done. She’d organized all the bored neighborhood kids into teams for kickball. She’d harangued all the grown-ups until they signed up to bring something for the church bake sale. And then, when her parents had discovered she was gay and threatened to kick her out of the house unless she agreed to go to a conversion program, Thea had wasted no time in getting a full scholarship to Harvard, and leaving on her own terms.
“A job? What is it?” Claire asked.
“Singing ‘Old MacDonald’ to the future CEOs of America. Some woman named Whitney Morgan emailed the Harvard list looking for a playgroup musician, so I sang your praises.”
Claire bit her lip. “That’s really nice of you, Thea, but that’s the kind of stuff I was doing five years ago. I don’t know if I want—”
“How much money do you have left in your bank account?” Thea asked.
“Um,” Claire said. She swung herself out of bed too quickly and, a little dizzy, reached for her computer to pull up her account balance. When she saw what her self-destructive spiral had done to her savings, her mouth went dry. Her rent was already overdue because she’d run out of stamps, and hadn’t been able to muster the energy to go out and buy more. And once she sent in that check, her bank account would be down to double digits. She cleared her throat. “What’s the address?”
“I’ll text you the details,” Thea said.
“Thanks,” Claire mumbled.
“I’m looking out for you, cuz,” Thea said, a note of tenderness creeping into her voice. “Can’t have you going back to Sacred Life Christian Fellowship. We’re the ones that got out.”
“Yeah, we are.”
“And Claire? Before you go, please take a shower,” Thea said. “I can smell you over the phone.”
Excerpted from Happy and You Know It by Laura Hankin, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020
The author of 2019’s My Lovely Wife, Samantha Downing, is back with her second book, He Started It. Her first thriller was hailed as “a dark and irresistible debut” by PEOPLE and “Gone Girl, except better” by yours truly. He Started It follows a family of grifters on the road trip of a lifetime (and I mean that quite literally), out April 28 by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, but you can start reading He Started It right now, exclusively on Betches.
Three siblings. Their spouses. Dear old Grandad’s dead body in the trunk. Such begins He Started It, a fast-paced novel about a dysfunctional family on a road trip—only things are a lot darker and more twisted than your average family vacation. That’s because instead of a feel-good getaway, this family of three grifters, liars, and cheats (plus their spouses) are on a quest to scatter their grandfather’s ashes so they can collect his inheritance. But exactly like on your family road trips, nobody wants to share.
Samantha Downing’s debut novel, My Lovely Wife, earned her a nomination for an Edgar Award—a big f*cking deal in the thriller world. Her follow-up doesn’t come out until April 28, but it’s already generating buzz, and you can read an exclusive look at the first chapter below.
You want a heroine. Someone to root for, to identify with. She can’t be perfect, though, because that’ll just make you feel bad about yourself. A flawed heroine, then. Someone who may break the rules to protect her family but doesn’t kill anyone unless it’s self-defense. Not murder, though, at least not the cold-blooded kind. That’s the first deal breaker.
The second is cheating. Men can get away with that and still be the hero, but a cheating wife is unforgivable.
Which means I can’t be your heroine.
I still have a story to tell.
It begins in a car. Rather, an SUV. We sit according to our rank, the oldest in the driver’s seat. That’s Eddie. His wife sits next to him, but I’ll get to her.
The middle seat is for the middle child, and that’s me. Beth. Not Elizabeth, just Beth. I’m two years younger than Eddie and he never lets me forget it. I’m okay to look at, though not as young or thin as I used to be. My husband sits next to me. Again, later for that, because our spouses weren’t supposed to be here.
One seat left, way in the back, and that’s Portia. The surprise baby. She’s six years younger than me and sometimes it feels like a hundred. With no spouse or significant other, she has the whole seat to herself.
In the very back, our luggage. Stacked side by side in a neat single row because that’s the only way it fits. I told Eddie that the first time. Our handbags and computers bags go on top of the roller bags. You don’t have to be a flight attendant to figure that out.
Under the bags, there’s the trunk compartment. One side has the spare tire. In the other, a locked wooden box with brass fittings. This special little box in this special little place, all by itself with nothing else around, is to hold our grandfather. He’s been cremated.
We aren’t talking about him. We aren’t really talking at all. The sun beams through the windows, landing on my leg and making it burn. The A/C dries out my eyes. Eddie plays music that is wordless and jazzy.
I look back at Portia. Her eyes are closed and she has headphones on, probably listening to music that is neither wordless nor jazzy. Her black hair is long and has fallen over one eye. It’s dyed. We all have pale skin, and we were all born with blond hair and either blue or green eyes. My hair is even lighter now because I highlight it. Eddie’s is darker because he doesn’t. Portia’s hair has been black for a while now. It matches her nails. She’s not goth, though. Not anymore.
The music change is abrupt. I didn’t even see Krista move. That’s Eddie’s wife. Krista, the one with olive skin, dark hair, and brown eyes with gold flecks. Krista, the one he married four months after meeting her. She used to be the receptionist at his office.
I continue to stare out the window. Atlanta is long gone. We aren’t even in Georgia. This is northern Alabama, past Birmingham, where the population is sparse and skeptical. If we were trying to rush, we’d be further along by now. Rushing isn’t part of the equation.
That’s Portia, her voice groggy from her nap. She’s sitting up, headphones off, wide-eyed like a child.
She’s been milking that baby-of-the-family shit for a long time.
“You want to stop?” Eddie says, turning down the music.
“Let’s stop,” Krista says.
My husband shrugs.
“Yes,” Portia says.
Eddie looks at me in the rearview mirror, like I get a say in the matter. I’m already outnumbered.
“Great,” I say. “Food is great.”
We stop at a place called the Roundabout, which looks just as you imagine. Rustic in a fake way, with the lasso and goat on the sign, but naturally rundown with age. Authentic but not—like most of us.
We all climb out and Portia is first to the door; Krista isn’t far behind. Eddie is the one who takes the most time. He stands outside the car, staring at the back. Hesitating.
It’s our grandfather. This is our first stop of the trip, meaning it’s the first time we have to leave him alone.
“You okay?” I say, tapping Eddie’s arm.
He doesn’t look at me, doesn’t take his eyes off the back of the car because Grandpa’s ashes are everything to us. Not for emotional reasons.
“You want to stay out here? I can bring you a doggie bag,” I say. Sarcasm drips.
Eddie turns to me, his eyes wide. Oh, the shock. Like if I had just told him I was leaving my longtime partner for someone I met two months ago.
Oh wait, he did that. Eddie left his live-in girlfriend for the receptionist.
“I’m fine,” he says. “You don’t have to be so bitchy about it.”
Yes. I’m the villain.
Inside the Roundabout, everyone is sitting in a semicircle booth. It’s twice as big as it needs to be. The seats are wine-colored pleather. Krista and Portia have scooted all the way to the center of the booth, leaving Felix on one side. That’s my husband, Felix, the pale one with the strong jaw and white-blond hair with matching eyebrows and lashes. In a certain light, he disappears.
“We probably should get something settled,” Eddie says. He looks like our father. “We’re going to be driving for a while. A lot of gas, food, and motel rooms. I propose we take turns covering the expenses. More than anything else, let’s not argue about it. The last thing we need to do is fight over a gas bill.”
Before I can say a word, my husband does.
“Makes sense,” Felix says. “Beth and I will pay our fair share.”
Only a spouse can betray you like that. Or a sibling.
That leaves Portia. Given that she’s doesn’t really have a career, the deal isn’t fair.
Oh, the irony.
She yawns. Nods. In Portia-speak, she’s agreeing for now but reserves the right to disagree later.
“Great,” Eddie says. “I’ll get this one.”
He takes the check up to the register, because that’s the kind of place this is. Felix goes to the restroom and Portia steps out front to make a call. That leaves Krista and me, finishing those last sips of lukewarm coffee.
“I know this must be terrible for all of you,” she says, placing her hand on mine. “But I hope we can have some good times, too. I’m sure your grandfather would’ve wanted that.”
It’s a nice enough thing for Krista to say, if a little generic. Given the circumstances, I expect nothing less and nothing more.
Still. If everything falls apart and we all start killing each other, she goes first.
You think I said that for shock value. I didn’t.
No, I’m not a psychopath. That’s always a convenient excuse, though. Someone who has no empathy and has to fake human emotions. Why do they do bad things? Shrug. Who knows? That’s a psychopath for you. Or is it the word sociopath? You know what I’m saying.
This isn’t that kind of story. This is about family. I love my siblings, all of them, I really do. I also hate them. That’s how it goes—love, hate, love, hate, back and forth like a seesaw.
That’s the thing about family. Despite what they say, it’s not a single unit with a single goal. What they never tell us is that, more often than not, every member of the family has their own agenda. I know I do.
From HE STARTED IT by Samantha Downing, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2020 by Samantha Downing.