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Kira’s back in her affluent hometown for the first time in years and determined to unravel the secrets of her mother’s death–hidden in the unpublished memoir she left behind– even if it kills her….
After her troublemaker mother’s mysterious death, Kira fled her wealthy Texas town and never looked back. Now, decades later, Kira is invited to an old frenemy’s vow renewal celebration Though she is reluctant to go, there are things pulling her home… like chilled wine and days spent by the pool… like sexy Jack, her childhood crush. But more important are the urgent texts from her grandmother, who says she has something for Kira. Something related to her mother’s death, something that makes it look an awful lot like murder.
When her grandmother gives Kira a memoir that her mother had been working on before she died, Kira is drawn into the past and all the sizzling secrets that come along with it. With few allies left in her gossipy country-club town, Kira turns to Jack for help. As she gets closer to discovering what-and who-might have brought about her mother’s end, it becomes clear that someone wants the past to stay buried.
And they might come after Kira next.
Midmorning sunlight winks through the glass-slat windows, but I'm still lying in bed, the black paper invitation shouting at me from across the room. It's sitting upright, resting atop a stack of junk mail on my wooden café table, where it's been since Friday evening after I retrieved it from the mailbox.
20 years and still going strong!
We'd be delighted if you'd join us,
Chad & Genevieve Greer,
as we re–tie the knot with a
Vow Renewal Ceremony
Saturday, October 15th, at 6 p.m.
The Walters's Farm
7328 Evergreen Road
Please RSVP by September 15th
The envelope it came in—black on the outside, bloodred on the inside—is gashed open, the tiny RSVP card peeking out like the tip of a cat's tongue.
I can't pull it out yet and mark "Attending" or "Not attending" because I can't decide.
Of course Genevieve wants to throw herself a bash. She's always been attention seeking, and from the group text I've been ignoring since Friday night, it's clear that it's not just the ceremony itself but a weekend full of eye-rolling events she has planned for us.
Friday night at the bowling alley, kids welcome. Saturday morning ladies' brunch at The Farm (no doubt some farm-to-table BS), followed by crafts of some sort (WTF, are we five years old?), ending with a spa day complete with manis and pedis and a wine tasting.
The guys, of course, get to do the fun stuff on Saturday—canoeing, archery, and duck hunting. Chased with a private uncorking of a local distillery's batch of bourbon made exclusively for the occasion.
I'm certain the entire event will be just a giant Band-Aid on what has, from all accounts, been a very nasty marriage. But it's not just the spectacle that's making the pit of dread in my stomach expand. It's the prospect of having to go home again. A place I fled over twenty years ago, after I lost her. Mom.
I've returned only the one time, for my father's funeral.
All eyes were on me the entire day, to see if I would shatter. I'm the fragile one, the potentially unstable one. Just like her mother, they shout-whispered. And also, I'm the only one who believes my mother was murdered, that she didn't die by her own hand.
I've put acres of auburn desert land between me and East Texas, moving as far west as I could without plunging into the Pacific. But every so often—especially for events like these—East Texas tugs at me, threatening to yank me back to its pine-soaked atmosphere and engulf me. Just reading the invitation has landed me in bed for virtually the entire weekend.
Especially because of the venue: The Farm. The last place anyone saw her alive.
She wandered into the woods. She'd been having one of her spells, they said. Sadie. Always quick to tears. Hysterical. They glanced up from the bonfire and saw the shock of her platinum hair, her russet-colored fox-fur coat, before she slipped into the forest.
Now I'm up, pacing the thinly carpeted length of my six-hundred-square-foot apartment in the Hollywood Hills. I make a pass by the invitation, wanting to snatch it and shred it into tiny pieces, but instead I continue on into the galley kitchen, where I open the fridge and drag out a paper carton of pad Thai. I eat it cold from the container as I lean against the counter.
When I opened the mail on Friday evening after work and my cell started exploding with the group texts from my childhood friends—Genevieve being more frenemy than friend—I ordered four servings of pad Thai and three bowls of coconut and mushroom soup, knowing I'd be moored at home for days.
I sat, parked at my tiny café table, staring at the invitation, swirling the steaming noodles around on a plate, forcing myself to eat small forkfuls.
And I texted Jack. Jack Sherman, my childhood best friend and former crush. We were each other's first kiss, four years old and zipped up inside his Incredible Hulk sleeping bag. An odd kiss where our teeth knocked together. We only ever text now to wish each other a happy birthday—his on October tenth, mine August third—and I took this as an excuse to check in. Pathetic, really, since he's been blissfully married for a decade now and has a real life, unlike me. He's a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins and has a three-year-old son.
Me: Umm . . . You guys going?
Jack: Umm . . . Hi! And hell no .
A sinking feeling spread over me. Even though I didn't want to return home, the chance of seeing Jack again after all this time cast butterflies across my chest.
A few seconds later, the three dots started leaping again, letting me know he was writing more.
Jack: Why? Are you?
Me: Don't know yet. Probably not.
Jack: Well, Melanie's going. I told her she could have a girls' weekend, but she's pissed. Wants me there with her. I'm just . . . not really like those guys anymore, y'know? And I can't imagine you want to go either?
This was the most we had texted in years, and my pulse jangled in my neck, my face flush from this new contact with him. I could hear his voice across the line, as if he were speaking in my ear. That rich oaky voice, which was never bent with the twang of the region but always sounded sonorous and kind. And yes, sexy.
Also, Jack was the one who came to my side the night they found her. When I was shaking, when I wouldn't let anyone else near me, he asked my father if he could see me. I remember him standing in the doorway to my bedroom, his fifteen-year-old bulk filling the space. A silhouette of strength leaning against the frame. I was in bed, buried under my floral-printed bedspread, eyes bloated from wailing.
He'd been at an out-of-town football game that night, a few hours away. He was a second-string running back, usually sitting on the bench—sports were never his forte; he only played football because the rest of his friends were doing the same—and he told me he'd come as soon as he'd gotten off the bus and heard the news.
He crossed the room, slid into bed, and roped his strong arms around me.
"You're not alone, you're not alone," he whispered in his soothing voice, over and over again, as more hot tears gushed out of me. Somehow, he knew those were the very words I needed to hear then, because my mom and I had been simpatico. Best friends. Tethered by our artistic souls—misunderstood by Katie, my older and more sensible sister; and my cold-faced father, Richard. We had existed in a kind of bubble, and Katie had been part of it at first, but then she grew out of it, drifted away from us.
I'd spend bottomless hours in Mom's art shed as a little girl, our knees touching as she guided wax over cotton sheets for her batiks while I moved globs of paint around on poster board. I can still hear her voice in my head, sometimes singsongy, sometimes frantic, sharing things with me she probably shouldn't have been. Always followed by a "Don't mention that to your father, Kira."
She named me Kira after Olivia Newton John's character in Xanadu, one of her favorite films. She'd seen it at the drive-in years before I was born and loved the music, the mythology, the story of nine muses who cross back and forth between time. When it finally came out on VHS, she made me watch it over and over with her.
After I couldn't stomach any more pad Thai, I peeled the plastic lid off the soup as I considered how to respond to Jack. I knew what he meant by And I can't imagine you want to go either. He was referring to Mom, but I didn't want to get into that with him, to prick at that old wound again, so I dodged the subject.
Me: I need time to figure it out. But I was thinking about it.
Jack: Well, I'll only go if you go, so let me know.
I sent back a simple thumbs-up emoji and placed my cell facedown, cradling my chin in my hands.
I woke early this morning, before the birds started their chirping and when the sky was still a deep indigo, and dragged my laptop into the bed. I emailed in sick to work. I sat there, cross-legged in bed, my laptop baking my thighs, looking at flights, before slamming it shut without booking anything.
I shouldn't go. I shouldn't put myself through all that, but as pitiful as it sounds, I want to see Jack. I want to see myself reflected in his face, the strong girl I was once was, his neighborhood friend who he admired. I'll only go if you go. Sounds like he wants to see me, too. And now I have to decide if it's worth it. My vision blurs around the edges when I think about facing the others—Genevieve, Katie, not to mention Jack's wife, Melanie—and also returning to The Farm.
I refold the carton of pad Thai, shove it back in the fridge. Drag myself the few steps back to bed, where I wilt under the covers and feel myself sinking back down into sleep.
It must be past noon, because the garbage men are here; I'm yanked from sleep to the sound of the windowpanes rattling as the trucks rumble past.
The air inside in the apartment is hot and still. These old-timey windows—which have a dozen glass slats on them that you hand-crank open—are great for maximizing air flow, but wretched for noise control.
I can hear the twist of a key in a neighbor's lock or the fumes of an argument from the couple in the house across the street if they're out on their front lawn. And on trash day, the tiny panes practically flutter as the hulking vehicles squeeze along the tiny streets.
Usually, I'll open the windows and the smell of jasmine will float through the room, but today I leave them shut. The Santa Ana winds are already gusting from the east, carrying the scorched-earth heat of the desert with them, so I lie under my sheet, damp with sweat, my studio now a tinderbox.
My cell starts to chime, small pops of sound that cause my anxiety to surge with each ping, and I glance at the sender.
A second text lands right on top of the first.
It's so like her not to give me a chance to respond before launching another round at me.
But I don't swipe and clear them; I let them rest for now. She'd be able to tell from the "Read" notification if I checked them, and then my window of time for replying would slam shut.
I've thought about changing that in settings—making it so she can't tell if I've seen her texts or not—but she would notice, and then we'd have to have a guilt trip–induced discussion about why I'm trying to avoid her. Not worth it.
Ah, my grandmother. Granny Foster. Still in control of me all these years later, even though there are fifteen hundred miles between us.
Some of it has to do with the money. She established a trust fund for me when I was little, and when I turned eighteen, I was eligible to start drawing off it.
I never have. I consider it blood money. Hush money. Granny is the one who has gaslit me the most over the years about Mom, ushering me off to boarding school right after she died so I would quit asking questions, quit being such a hassle for my father. I was a basket case, erratic, and all the other labels she was able to get her shrink to slap on me.
I was a basket case, but who wouldn't be?
So I leave the money untouched. I don't even open up my statements anymore; I just drop them in a file. It's not like it's enough to quit my dead-end job over, but I could probably do something nice for myself with it, like upgrade apartments or take a year off and focus on my art. I haven't touched my paintbrushes in years now. They just languish on the top shelf of my closet, throwing shades of guilt at me each time I reach up there for a hat or a bag. They rest next to Mom's batiks—which I haven't touched since shortly after her death; I can't bear to.
Anything to do with art has gone mute in my life. I haven't really painted in earnest since college. Pathetic. But without the structure of classes, and faced with the harsh reality that most painters don't make a living from their art right out of the gate, I chose the safe route, taking dependable office jobs. I wouldn't allow myself to touch Gran's money then, and I still won't. To do so would feel like I'm going along with their narrative, being complicit in their lies.
I loved my apartment when I first moved in over two decades ago. The off-white stucco exterior, hugged by walls of fuchsia bougainvillea. The spindly grapefruit tree out back, always pregnant with fruit, its peach-colored orbs rolling on the floor of the quaint parking lot.
I live on Cheremoya Avenue in Beachwood Canyon, a winding street that sits right underneath the Hollywood sign.
Moving here felt so exotic, so different from home, with its ranch-style houses and forested land. If I step out onto my playing card–size balcony and crane my neck just right, I have a sweeping view of the canyon below me—more stucco homes lining twisting streets that rise and fall and switch back so sharply that it almost feels Mediterranean.
I love it still, but when Granny showed up about ten years ago, uninvited and unannounced, when she crossed my threshold she proclaimed, "Oh my, Kira, you have sunk so low."
The industrial carpet with its edges frayed from my vacuum, the settling cracks and peeling plaster in the dining area, the absence of a dishwasher, the lack of AC on one of a handful of blistering days when we have a heat wave, like today: all of these made Granny's hit list, which she ticked off to me over dinner that night, and then I started to view my abode through her judgmental lens.
If Granny had her way, I'd be living back in East Texas, married to a good local boy with connections, floating from room to room in a white-carpeted house while a nanny attended to my babies. She thinks I deserve more than what I have now.
I don't want those things, but she's not wrong. My life is a glacier—frozen, unmoving. I'm thirty-eight. Still single with no end in sight. I'm lonely most of the time, except when I have the occasional dinner with my small group of friends, who are really just acquaintances. Hate my job. Wish like hell I'd stuck with my sole passion—painting—instead of letting it wither away after college. Every year I swear I'm going to dig in, spend the weekends creating new work, update my portfolio, and drop into galleries to show them my stuff, but every year I fail to do so. I just can't find the drive, even though it's all I really want to do. The only time I've felt truly alive was when I was creating, but it's as if there's an invisible shroud wrapped around me, weighing me down.
It's what Sadie and I shared; it was our connection. And though I continued to paint in college after her death, as a way of holding on to her, with her gone now over two decades, that part of me still feels lost.
When Granny arrived here for her one and only visit, I heard a horn blasting and peered outside. I was greeted by a black stretch limo containing Granny, her window lowered, waving a white-gloved hand at me. The driver came around and opened her door; she was wearing an Hermès scarf on her head and oversized sunglasses, and she did an honest-to-goodness visual sweep of the street, as if she were scouting for paparazzi lying in wait.
She stayed only the one night, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and whisked me down the hill to dinner at Musso & Frank, where she flirted endlessly with our middle-aged waiter, a plump, boyishly handsome man with silver hair.
I wasn't surprised when he flirted back, all but ignoring me. I'm used to being invisible around Granny. Her tongue is ruthlessly witty and biting. And yes, she's attractive, with high cheekbones and steel-blue eyes, her silver hair luminous and perfectly coiffed, hanging just above her chin line. But more than that, she radiates power, and she's always dressed to kill—her slender frame usually swishing inside a silk Prada trench, with snappy trousers and pointed flats in every shade. Old money can buy you those things.
I roll onto my back and lift the phone to my face, swiping open the first text.
Granny: You got the invite, right? And you're coming?
I place the warm cell on my chest, exhaling a jagged sigh. I swipe and read the second text.
Granny: I really think you should.
That text is followed by the shoulder-shrug emoji.
I simply text back No. A burning spot of indignation spears my chest as I hit send. Even though I'm actually considering it, I want to cut her off, make this decision on my own.
Although she's never returned to Los Angeles since that brief visit, which she refers to as her "wellness check," Granny's presence still floods my life. Usually in the form of terse, handwritten letters that are folded around my childhood friends' wedding announcements from the local paper
Granny typically includes commentary on them, such as, "She's one of the last ones. A pity she's found someone finally and you still haven't."
Her perfume, White Shoulders, permeates the air around her letters, and it's as if she's in the room with me, giving her head a quick shake of disapproval.
I'm hoping my text has shut her down, but no, two more surf into my cell before the screen even darkens again.
Granny: I think it's time you come home. I have something of your mother's. Something she was keeping in secret, and it's time you found out about it.
Sigh. I'm not falling for her bait. She's trying to reel me back home because she wants to see me again, but I want nothing to do with that. She's lying. But before I can call her bluff, another text lands. Reading it knocks the breath out of me.
Granny: And Kira, I think you're right about your mother, about how she died.
It happened again last night. At the dinner party. I caught Mike staring at me, his hooded, kind eyes sheepish over the edge of his sherry glass, sneaking a glance while Bertie carried forth, her harsh laughter barking out of her like an excited seal.
My cheeks flamed and heat pooled in my stomach under his stare, but I quickly dropped my gaze from his, worried the others might notice.
But especially Richard.
I waited for my moment, until after I'd cleared all the platters from the dinner table and everyone was clumped in groups in our sunken living room, half-mooned around the various glass ashtrays I'd set out just before the guests arrived.
The air swirled with cigarette smoke, a nicotine stratus cloud hovering over our heads, and Mike rose and headed down the back hallway toward the guest bath.
I took it as a signal and his timing was perfect: Richard was knee-to-knee with Ty Henderson, both men gnawing on cigars, and Bertie, once again, was holding forth to a clique of women on the sofa. Even though she's new to town—or perhaps because of the fact that she's new—all of my friends are captivated by her.
Swiping a near-empty champagne flute from an end table, I beelined to the kitchen under the guise of tidying up. No one seemed to notice my exit. The clamor from the living room hummed through the paneled wall, giving me a sense of invisibility, so I rounded the corner and waited in the dimly lit hall for Mike to finish up in the bathroom.
Our home looks like a set design from a 1970s film; it's badly in need of updating, but we can't afford it. Richard's mother, Granny Foster, has offered, of course, to foot the bill, but Richard doesn't want to be beholden to her any more than we already are. And neither do I. Plus, I still like it. The gold chintz wallpaper with bamboo shoots in the dining room. The shiny penny-colored parquet floors. The candy-yellow cabinetry in the kitchen. It reminds me of my twenties, when we had this house built; I'm still in denial that I've just turned forty. I never thought my life would turn out this way.
When Mike exited the bathroom, he froze in place when he saw me, his eyes crinkling into a smile. Like me, Mike's not a smoker; I could smell the sharp tang of soap on his hands and his full, dark brown beard carried the scent of oaky aftershave.
I guess I should clarify. I do indulge, but I'm not a pack-a-day smoker like everyone else. I'll have one only when I'm really worked up and also when I'm all by myself. Although Richard enjoys his cigars, he doesn't like me smoking, so I do it in secret.
I've been doing a lot of things in secret lately.
"I was just picking up some things in my daughter's room," I said to Mike, my neck turning crimson at the lie. "They're at their friends' for the night and I—"
He leaned against the wall, a smile playing on his lips as if he knew I was lying, as if he knew he was the reason for my being back here. He loosened the tie around his neck, a boyish move that made my crush on him surge even more, and I could've kissed him then; I wanted to, but instead, I just stood there like a dipshit, my hands twisting around each other like trapped birds.
"Oh?" Mike said, his voice rich and deep.
He took a step toward me. Something about the way he looks at me makes me feel like he's really seeing me.
"Well there you are." Bertie's voice rushed down the hall at us, half-indignant, half-playful, as if Mike were a child caught with a fist in the cookie jar.
Could she tell there were sparks crackling between us? It's not like I left a lipstick print on his collar, but still, she stepped over to him, encircled his waist with her arm, lassoing him into her.
"I was just taking Mike a hand towel; I forgot to stock the bathroom before the party. Silly me!" My voice came out shaky and shrill, and there I was, sliding into my usual posture of self-deprecation. I don't know why I do that, only that it seems to keep things smooth, seems to disarm folks. And it always works on Richard.
"Well, thank you for looking after him, Sadie." She fumbled my name around in her mouth as if she'd forgotten it but remembered it at the last second. "And thank you, dear, for just everything." The expression in her eyes was unreadable behind her cat-eye glasses, and even though her words were drawn out with warmth, I detected a pinprick of jealousy from her, laced with condescension.
"Everything," she continued, stretching out the ev-er-y until it contained more syllables than one would think is possible, "has been marvelous tonight: the food, the drinks, the company. Ev-er-y-thing."
Mike looked slightly embarrassed by her over-the-top declarations, but nodded when she twisted her neck toward him, expecting him to concur.
She tapped the face of her silver Rolex with a powder-pink fingernail. "We should be going, we have an early day tomorrow, remember?"
Mike nodded and they moved down the hall together, Bertie whispering something in his ear before erupting into her barking laugh again.
I didn't even want to have the stupid dinner party—we'd just had one a few months before—but Granny Foster had insisted, and Richard is desperately trying to score more clients, so I pretended to be overjoyed at the prospect of hosting, even though I was screaming inside.
- On Sale
- Jul 11, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Hachette Book Group