“I’m sorry?” Mrs. Hastings stopped and offered her a broad, fake smile.
Mrs. Norwood lowered her chin coyly and winked. “Don’t pretend nothing’s going on! I know about Nicholas Pennythistle! Quite a catch!”
Mrs. Hastings went pale. “O-oh.” Her eyes flitted to her two daughters. “Uh, I haven’t exactly told—”
“Who’s Nicholas Pennythistle?” Melissa interrupted, her voice sharp.
“A catch?” Spencer repeated.
Mrs. Norwood instantly realized her gaffe and backed into the living room. Mrs. Hastings faced her daughters. A vein protruded prominently in her neck. “Um, Darren, would you excuse us for a moment?”
Wilden nodded and headed into the main room. Mrs. Hastings sank onto one of the barstools and sighed. “Look, I was going to tell you this evening after everyone left. I’m dating someone new. His name is Nicholas Pennythistle, and I think it’s serious. I’d like you to meet him.”
Spencer’s mouth dropped. “Isn’t it a little soon?” How could her mom be dating again? The divorce had only been finalized a few months ago. Before Christmas, she was still moping around the house in sweats and slippers.
Mrs. Hastings sniffed defensively. “No, it’s not too soon, Spencer.”
“Does Dad know?” Spencer saw her father practically every weekend, the two of them attending art exhibits and watching documentaries in his new Old City penthouse. Recently, Spencer had noticed hints of a woman in her dad’s apartment—an extra toothbrush in his bathroom, a bottle of pinot grigio in the fridge—and figured he was seeing someone. It had all felt way too soon. But now her mom was seeing someone, too. Ironically, Spencer was the only person in her family not dating.
“Yes, your father knows.” Mrs. Hastings sounded exasperated. “I told him yesterday.”
A waitress stepped back into the kitchen. Mrs. Hastings stuck her glass out for more champagne. “I’d like you girls to have dinner at the Goshen Inn with Nicholas, myself, and his children tomorrow night, so clear your schedules. And wear something nice.”
“Children?” Spencer squeaked. This was getting worse and worse. She pictured spending the evening with two small brats with big ringlet curls and a penchant for torturing small animals.
“Zachary is eighteen, and Amelia is fifteen,” Mrs. Hastings answered crisply.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful, Mom,” Melissa said, beaming brightly. “Of course you should move on! Good for you!”
Spencer knew she should say something to that effect, too, but nothing came to her. She was the one who’d exposed their father’s past affair with Ali’s mother, and that Ali and Courtney were Spencer and Melissa’s half siblings. It wasn’t like she’d meant to—A made her.
“Now mingle, girls! It’s a party!” Mrs. Hastings grabbed Melissa and Spencer’s arms and shoved them into the living room.
Spencer staggered into the space, which had filled up with people from the neighborhood, the country club, and the Rosewood Day parents’ association. A bunch of kids Spencer had known since kindergarten gathered by the big bay window on the side of the house, not-so-secretly sipping glasses of champagne. Naomi Zeigler shrieked as Mason Byers tickled her. Sean Ackard was deep in conversation with Gemma Curran. But Spencer didn’t feel like speaking to any of them.
Instead, she walked toward the bar—she might as well get a drink for this—and instantly her heel caught on the lip of the carpet. Her legs went out from under her, and suddenly she was airborne. She reached out for one of the heavy oil paintings on the wall and steadied herself before she did a nose-plant to the floor, but several heads turned and stared right at her.
Emily caught Spencer’s eye before Spencer could look away. She offered Spencer the most tentative of waves. Spencer turned back for the kitchen. They were not talking right now. Or ever.
The temperature in the kitchen felt even hotter than it had been a moment before. The mingling smells of fried appetizers and pungent foreign cheeses made Spencer woozy. She bent over the island, taking deep breaths. When she looked into the living room again, Emily’s eyes were lowered. Good.
But someone else was staring at her instead. Wilden had clearly seen the silent exchange with Emily. Spencer could almost see the gears in the ex-detective’s head turning: What could have caused their picture-perfect, magazine-cover friendship to crash and burn?
Spencer slammed the kitchen door shut and retreated to the basement, bringing a bottle of champagne with her. Too bad, Wilden. That was a secret neither he nor anyone else would ever know.
Furs, friends, and far-off giggles
“Please don’t use a wire hanger,” a silver-haired matron said gruffly as she stripped off a Burberry trench and hefted it into Emily Fields’s arms. Then, without even a thank you, the woman glided toward the center of the Hastings’ living room and helped herself to a canapé. Snob.
Emily hung the coat, which smelled like a mix of eau de toilette, cigarettes, and wet dog, on a hanger, affixed a coat check tag to it, and placed it gently in the large oak closet in Mr. Hastings’s study. Spencer’s two Labradoodles, Rufus and Beatrice, panted behind the doggie gate, frustrated that they were cordoned off for the party. Emily patted both their heads, and they wagged their tails. At least they were happy to see her.
When she returned to her perch at the coat check table, she looked cautiously around the room. Spencer had slipped back into the kitchen and hadn’t come out again. Emily wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
The Hastings house was the same as ever: Old paintings of relatives hung in the foyer, fussy French chairs and couches sat in the living room, and heavy gilded curtains covered the windows. Back in sixth and seventh grades, Emily, Spencer, Ali, and the others had pretended this room was a chamber in Versailles. Ali and Spencer used to fight over who got to be Marie Antoinette; Emily was usually relegated to a lady-in-waiting. Once, as Marie, Ali made Emily give her a foot massage. “You know you love it,” she teased.
Despair rolled over Emily like a strong ocean wave. It was painful to think about the past. If only she could box up those memories, mail them to the South Pole, and be free of them for good.
“You’re slouching,” hissed a voice.
Emily looked up. Her mother stood in front of her, her brow wrinkled and the corners of her lips crumpled into a scowl. She wore a blue dress that hit at an unattractive spot between her knees and her calves, and she carried a fake-snakeskin bag under her arm like it was a loaf of French bread.
“And smile,” Mrs. Fields added. “You look miserable.”
Emily shrugged. What was she supposed to do, grin like a maniac? Burst into song? “This job isn’t exactly fun,” she pointed out.
Mrs. Fields’s nostrils flared. “Mrs. Hastings was very nice to give you this opportunity. Please don’t quit this like you quit everything else.”
Ouch. Emily hid behind a curtain of reddish-blond hair. “I’m not going to quit.”
“Just do your job, then. Make some money. Lord knows every bit counts.”
Mrs. Fields marched away, putting on a friendly face for the neighbors. Emily slumped in the chair, fighting back tears. Don’t quit this like you quit everything else. Her mom had been furious when Emily walked off the swim team last June without any explanation, spending the summer in Philadelphia instead. Emily hadn’t rejoined the Rosewood Day team in the fall, either. In the world of competitive swimming, missing a couple of months spelled trouble, especially during college scholarship time. Missing two seasons equaled doom.
Her parents were devastated. Don’t you realize we can’t pay for college if you don’t get a scholarship? Don’t you realize you’re throwing your future away?
Emily didn’t know how to answer them. There was no way she could tell them why she’d quit the team. Not for as long as she lived.
She’d finally rejoined her old club team a couple of weeks ago and hoped that a college scout might take pity on her and give her a last-minute spot. A recruiter from the University of Arizona had been interested in her last year, and Emily had clung to the notion that he would still want her for the team. But earlier today, she’d had to let go of that dream, too.
Pulling her phone from her bag, she once again checked the rejection email that had come in from the scout. Sorry to say . . . just not enough room . . . good luck. Looking at the words, Emily’s stomach swirled.
Suddenly, the room smelled pungently of roasted garlic and cinnamon Altoids. The string quartet sawing away in the corner sounded hideously out of tune. The walls closed in around Emily’s sides. What was she going to do next year? Get a job and live at home? Go to community college? She had to get out of Rosewood—if she stayed here, the terrible memories would swallow her up until there was nothing left of her.
A tall, black-haired girl near the china cabinet caught her eye. Aria.
Emily’s heart began to pound. Spencer had acted like she’d seen a ghost when they’d locked eyes, but maybe Aria would be different. As she watched Aria gazing at the knickknacks in the cabinet—acting like the objects in the room mattered more than the people, something she’d always done when she was left alone at parties—Emily was suddenly overtaken by nostalgia. She stepped out from behind the coat-check table and moved toward her old friend. If only she could rush over to Aria and ask her how she was. Tell her what had happened with the swimming scholarship. Solicit a sorely needed hug. If only the four of them hadn’t gone to Jamaica together, she could have.
To her surprise, Aria looked up and focused on Emily. Her eyes widened. Her lips pursed.
Emily straightened and offered her a small smile. “H-hey.”
Aria flinched. “Hey.”
“I can take that for you if you want.” Emily gestured to Aria’s purple trench coat, which was still knotted tightly around her waist. Emily had been with Aria when she’d bought it at a thrift shop in Philly last year, shortly before they went on spring break together. Spencer and Hanna had told Aria that the coat smelled like an old lady, but Aria bought it anyway.
Aria placed her hands in the coat pockets. “That’s okay.”
“The coat looks really good on you,” Emily added. “Purple has always been your color.”
A muscle at Aria’s jaw twitched. She looked like she wanted to say something, but closed her mouth tightly. Then her eyes brightened at something across the room. Noel Kahn, her boyfriend, swooped over to Aria and wrapped his arms around her. “I was looking for you.”
Aria kissed him hello, then wheeled away without giving Emily another word.
A group of people in the middle of the room burst into laughter. Mr. Kahn, who was staggering as though he’d had too much to drink, started fiddling on the Hastingses’ piano, playing the right hand part to the “Blue Danube Waltz.” All at once, Emily couldn’t bear to watch the party any longer. She tumbled through the front door just before the tears started to fall.