June 14, 2018
July 10, 2018
How To Keep A Secret
When three generations of women are brought together by crisis, they learn over the course of one hot summer the power of family to support, nourish and surprise
Lauren has the perfect life…if she ignores the fact it’s a fragile house of cards, and that her daughter Mack has just had a teenage personality transplant.
Jenna is desperate to start a family with her husband, but it’s… Just. Not. Happening. Her heart is breaking, but she’s determined to keep her trademark smile on her face.
Nancy knows she hasn’t been the best mother, but how can she ever tell Lauren and Jenna the reason why?
Then life changes in an instant, and Lauren, Mack, Jenna and Nancy are thrown together for a summer on Martha’s Vineyard. Somehow, these very different women must relearn how to be a family. And while unraveling their secrets might be their biggest challege, the rewards could be infinite…
“Fans of Karen White and Susan Wiggs will savor Morgan’s pairing of a second-chance romance with an intense family drama.”—Booklist, Starred Review
"Morgan transitions from contemporary romance to women’s fiction with this win- ner. Her lovingly created characters come to life, the dialog rings true, and readers will fly through the pages and then wish for more." Library Journal, Starred review
“WHAT ARE WE going to do? We shouldn’t even be here.” I tugged at my sister’s skirt to pull her away from the window. “If we’re caught, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
I wasn’t about to wait around for that to happen.
My sister was taking those big gulping breaths that always preceded a fit of crying.
Giving her a final tug, I dropped to my hands and knees and scurried back along the path the way we’d come, grateful for the protective shadow of darkness. I wanted to stand up and run, but if we did that we’d be seen, so I stayed low, crawling like a fugitive. It had been a long, hot summer and the earth was dry and crumbly. It was only when I felt a cooling splash on the backs of my hands that I realized I was crying, too. Small stones bit into my palms and knees, and I clamped my teeth together to stop myself making a sound. I brushed past the jungle of honeysuckle and the sweet cloying smell almost choked me. There was nothing sweet about what we’d seen and I knew that when I was grown up and had a house of my own I’d never have honeysuckle in the garden.
There was a rustling sound behind me. I hoped it was my sister and not some nocturnal creature with sharp teeth and an appetite.
I couldn’t see the gate, but I knew it was there. Beyond the gate was the footpath. If we made it that far, we’d be protected by the high hedge. Through the panicked pumping of blood in my ears I could hear the rhythmic crash of the sea. It sounded closer than usual, louder, as if the tide was colluding, helping to drown the sounds of our escape. The salt breeze dried my cheeks and cooled my skin.
Finally I reached the gate and slid through the gap, ignoring the twigs that stabbed my back. There, right in front of me, was the path. Leaning against the hedge were our bikes, right where we’d left them. I wanted to grab mine and pedal hard into the night without looking back, but there was no way I was leaving my sister.
I’d never leave my sister.
There was another rustle and she emerged through the gate, her hair wild from our frantic retreat.
Now that safety was within reach, anger burst through the anxiety.
“It was your idea to come here tonight.” I almost choked on the emotion that had built up inside. “Why do you always have to do what you’re not supposed to do?”
“Because the things I’m not supposed to do always seem like more fun.” The wobble in her voice reminded us both that this hadn’t been fun at all.
I felt her hand creep into mine and instantly I forgave her. We stood like that for a moment, clinging for comfort.
My sister moved closer. “If I could have chosen my sister, I would have chosen you.”
I would have chosen her, too, although right then I wished there was a way of curbing her adventurous spirit.
“I wish we hadn’t looked.”
“Me, too.” For once my sister sounded subdued. “We can’t ever tell anyone. Remember what happened to Meredith?”
Of course I remembered. Meredith was a cautionary tale.
“I hate keeping secrets.”
“It’s a small secret, that’s all. You can keep a small secret.”
I swallowed, my throat so dry it hurt. We both knew that this was a lot bigger than the other secrets we kept. This wasn’t sneaking out after dark to play on the beach, stealing flowers from Mrs. Hill’s garden, or raiding Mrs. Maxwell’s strawberry patch. This was something different. What we’d seen felt like a weight crushing me. Deep down I knew we should tell, but if we told, everything would change. We’d left our childhood back at that window and there was no going back to get it.
“I won’t tell. I’ll protect you. We’re sisters. Sisters always stick together. I made a promise.”
Of course most people who made a promise like that, I thought, didn’t have a sister like mine.
Premonition: a feeling that something is going to happen, often something unpleasant
YOU COULDN’T REALLY blame the party for what happened, although later Lauren wished she hadn’t organized such an elaborate affair. If she hadn’t been so wrapped up in the small details, she might have noticed something was wrong. Or would she? To notice something was wrong you had to be looking, and she hadn’t been looking. She’d been focused on the moment and the excitement of the big day.
And the day started early.
Waking before the alarm, she rolled over in the bed and kissed Ed. “Happy Birthday.”
Should she say the word forty? How did he feel about it? How did she feel about it?
She still had five years to go before she hit that number which seemed far enough away not to be worth worrying about. And forty wasn’t old, was it?
Maybe not, but when she’d taken delivery of the birthday cake the day before and looked at the forty candles waiting to be added, she’d thought, We’re going to need a bigger cake.
Ed was still dozing so Lauren lay for a moment, cocooned by the peaceful calm of their bedroom. This had been the first room she’d decorated when they’d moved in. She’d designed it as a sanctuary, a peaceful haven of white with accents of gray and silver. In summer the room was flooded with sunlight and she slept with the window open so she could hear the birds. Now, in January and with London in the grip of a cold snap, the windows were firmly closed. Their house, in an exclusive and sought after crescent in fashionable Notting Hill, backed on to private gardens. Every morning for the past week the trees had been coated with frost. The cold air slapped you in the face the moment you opened the door, as if daring people to leave the comfort of their homes.
Lauren, who had been raised on Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, wasn’t afraid of bad weather.
She peeled back the covers and ran her fingers through his hair. “Not a single gray hair. If it’s any consolation, you don’t look a day over sixty.” There was no reaction and she leaned forward and kissed him again. “I’m kidding. You don’t even look forty.” Except lately, at certain times of the day and when the sun was bright and harsh. Then he looked every day of forty. Working too hard? Ed had always worked long hours, but recently he’d been coming home later and later and seemed unusually tired. She’d subtly planted the idea that he might visit the doctor, but he’d ignored all hints. It was easier to persuade a toddler to eat broccoli than to get Ed to the doctor.
Her phone told her it was past six o’clock, and he showed no sign of moving.
Lauren gave him a gentle nudge. Her day was planned to the minute, and it all kicked off at precisely six-fifteen.
She heard the sound of clomping on the stairs. “Mack’s awake. How can one teenager sound like a herd of elephants?”
She wondered if Mack was coming upstairs to the bedroom, but then the sound of footsteps faded and she heard the kitchen door slam.
Why wasn’t Mack at least putting her head round the door to wish her father happy birthday?
Anxiety gnawed at the edges of her happiness. It wasn’t that long ago that Mack would have come charging into the bedroom proudly carrying the birthday card she’d made herself. She would have leaped into the middle of the bed and the three of them would have snuggled together. Even when she’d hit the teenage years, Mack had been easygoing.
All that had changed a month before. Overnight she’d transformed into a sullen, moody caricature of a teenager and Lauren couldn’t put her finger on why.
The Christmas holidays had been stressful. Ed, who rarely took time off, had reacted badly to the tension and Lauren had taken on the role of peacekeeper. As a result, she’d spent most of the festive period with tight knots in her stomach.
“Do you think it’s a phase, or is this it?”
Ed stirred. “Is this what?”
The way she’s going to be for the rest of her life.
She didn’t voice her thoughts.
Today was Ed’s birthday, and she had a party to run.
Thinking of everything she had to do to make it perfect made her fidget.
This being Friday, she was meeting her friends Ruth and Helen at ten o’clock in their favorite coffee shop, which happened to be exactly thirty-five steps from the hairdresser where Lauren had an appointment exactly forty-five minutes later. By eleven thirty she’d be at the florist and after a fifteen-minute walk home—ticking the boxes for both steps and sunshine—the rest of the day was devoted to making final preparations for the party.
“Ed—” She nudged him again. “Wake up, honey. I need to give you your gift before I head downstairs. I have the whole day planned out to the minute.”
Ed finally opened his eyes. “When have you ever not had the whole day planned out to the minute? If I ever invent an organization app, I’m calling it The Lauren.”
Was that a criticism?
“It’s important to take control, otherwise time drifts.”
Lauren had other reasons for keeping control on life, but she and Ed never talked about that. Sometimes she wondered if he remembered. Time had a way of fading events until they were distant and indistinct. It was like hanging a painting in sunlight. Lines blurred and colors lost some of their sharpness.
Occasionally her mind drifted there, but mostly she managed to keep herself in the present.
Hoping to stir him into action, she threw back the covers and stood up. Usually she started with few yoga stretches, but today she was distracted by the thought of Mack downstairs in the kitchen.
Why was she up so early?
Perhaps she was making a surprise birthday breakfast for Ed.
Or maybe that was wishful thinking.
Lauren walked to the window and glanced into the street.
With luck today would be one of those perfect sunny winter days, but this being London it was unlikely. As long as their guests didn’t have to battle snow, she wasn’t going to complain. England, she’d discovered years before, didn’t cope well with snow. Ten large flakes were all that was required to send the country into a screaming panic.
Ed finally heaved himself out of bed, too.
Lauren turned and studied his hunched form. “Are you okay?”
He turned his head to look at her, distracted. “What?”
“You look tired.”
“I am tired. I could lie in bed for a month and not move.”
She decided the time for subtlety had passed. “You should see a doctor.” Why was it men needed to be told that?
“For being tired? The advice will be ‘Go to bed earlier.’ I can’t afford the time to hear him state the obvious.”
“Our doctor is a woman,” Lauren said. “Eleanor Baxter. If you won’t see her, at least slow down a little. Leave the office earlier.”
“Slow down? Lauren, do you have any fucking idea what my job is like?” He closed his eyes and ran his hand across his jaw. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean – forgive me. I’m not feeling great.”
“It’s fine.” But it wasn’t fine, was it? Ed never swore, at least not in her presence. He was always polite and courteous—to friends, to the teachers at their daughter’s school, even to the mailman if they happened to bump into each other. It was his even temper and unshakeable calm that had drawn her to him. He was dependable. With Ed she’d never felt swept away or out of control. She’d never had to worry that her heart might fracture or her breathing might stop altogether. If there had ever been a part of her that craved something different, it was now a mere speck in her past, barely visible to the naked eye. “I know you’re busy, but it’s not like you to be this tense.”
Ed was a whiz-kid financier who had made a fortune with a big hedge fund in the city before leaving to manage his own portfolio. James, an old college friend who rented office space with him, said Ed was a financial genius. Lauren had no reason to doubt it.
This house, Mackenzie’s school, their perfect life—all of it was paid for by Ed’s brutally long hours in the office.
Once, she’d had ambitions too, but that had been before she’d had sex on a beach and found herself pregnant. Not that she undervalued her contribution to the family. Being a stay-at-home mom had been her choice and from the moment Mack was born, Lauren had loved being a mother. She considered herself Ed’s equal in every way and knew her role was every bit as important as Ed’s. She was the Yorkshire pudding to his roast beef, to use a British analogy, which she always tried to do in order to ingratiate herself with her fearsome mother-in-law who, even after sixteen years, remained appalled that her precious only son had married an American.
Ed was still sitting on the bed,, staring at the floor, and Lauren reached into the drawer by the bed and pulled out the box she’d wrapped carefully.
“Happy Birthday.” She handed him the gift and felt a thrill of anticipation. “I wanted to give it to you now because later on it’s going to be crazy here with a houseful of people all wanting a piece of you.”
Ed opened the package and stared at the contents. “You bought me a rainforest?”
“Not a whole rainforest. A patch of rainforest. I know how committed you are to environmental issues. You cycle everywhere, you’re always talking about saving the planet. I thought—”
“It’s a scam, Lauren.” He sounded tired. “I can’t believe you spent money on that. You do realize you’ve probably financed the cocaine industry?”
“It’s not a scam. I’m not stupid.” And he knew it. He knew she’d graduated top of her year at school and had a place at an Ivy League college before her world had crashed down. Ed had been the one to encourage her to pick up the threads of her dream once Mack had started senior school. She’d been studying for an interior design qualification and was finally poised to embark on her own career. When she’d passed her exams, they’d celebrated with champagne. “I researched it carefully. We can visit whenever we like.”
“Right. Because flying to Brazil is great for the planet.” He tossed the box on the bed and she felt her throat thicken.
“I was trying to give you something original and thoughtful.”
“It was thoughtful.’ He rubbed his fingers across his chest. “It’s not you, it’s me. Ignore me. I need to start the day again.”
He heaved himself off the bed, walked into the bathroom and closed the door.
Moments later she heard the hiss of water.
She stood there, flummoxed.
This wasn’t about a patch of rainforest. Was he on the verge of a midlife crisis? Was he about to start wearing skinny jeans and have an affair with someone barely older than Mackenzie?
Making an effort not to overthink and overreact, she went in search of her daughter.
She found her in the kitchen, hunched over her phone at the kitchen island. A pair of oversize pink headphones covered her ears.
Mack hated pink. The headphones had been an attempt to fit in with a group at school who teased her for not being girly enough. Mack called them “the princesses,” and they’d made her life a misery.
If Mack heard her mother come into the room, she gave no sign of it.
There was no tray laid for breakfast. No sign of any birthday treat.
Nothing except a single overflowing bowl of breakfast cereal that Mack dug into.
Lauren tried to work out what she could say without causing an explosion. “Hi, honey. You haven’t forgotten Dad’s birthday?”
Mack looked up from her phone and removed her headphones in an exaggerated gesture.
“Dad’s birthday. Today.”
“Aren’t you going to wish him happy birthday?”
“Does he want to be reminded? Forty is pretty old. Not quite a senior citizen but that landmark is definitely on the horizon.” Mack took another spoonful of cereal. “I figured he might rather ignore it. And it’s six-fifteen. I’m not a morning person. I guess I could have made him tea, but he hates my tea. He always moans that it’s too weak.” She put the headphones back on her ears and went back to Snapchat. Dressed in an oversize T-shirt, she looked younger than sixteen. Her hair was the same sunny blonde as Lauren’s, but Mack allowed hers to flop forward in an attempt to hide the stubborn spots that clustered on her forehead. Her braces had come off a few months earlier but she still smiled with her lips pressed together because she’d forgotten she no longer needed to be self-conscious.
It was only when Mack picked up her empty bowl to put it in the dishwasher that Lauren noticed the two pink streaks in her hair.
“What have you done to your hair?”
“I woke up with it this way. Weird, huh? Fairies or gremlins.”
Her daughter sighed. “I dyed it. And before you flip out, everyone is doing it. All the other mothers were fine about it. Abigail’s mom helped her do hers.”
This was her cue to be like “all the other mothers.” It was a pass or fail test, and Lauren knew she was going to fail. “Why didn’t you discuss it with me?”
“Because you’re such a control freak you would have said no.”
“You have beautiful hair. Is this about trying to fit in?”
“I don’t care about fitting in.”
They both knew it was a lie.
Lauren picked her words carefully. “Honey, I know it’s hard when you’re teased, but it happens to a lot of people and—”
“That does not help, by the way. It makes no difference to me how many other people have been through it.” Nonchalance barely masked the pain and Lauren felt the pain as if it were her own.
“Your individuality is the thing that makes you special. And you need to remember that most people are thinking about themselves, not anyone else.” She decided that this wasn’t the time to raise the school issue again. “I know you’re upset. Has something else happened?”
“You mean apart from the fact that my mother is always on my case?”
“I’m trying to be supportive. We’ve always been able to talk about anything and everything.”
Mack scooped up her phone. “Yeah, right. Anything and everything. No secrets in this house.”
Her tone made Lauren feel uneasy.
“I need to get ready for school. My mother had a place at an Ivy League college, so nothing short of Oxford or Cambridge is going to be good enough for me. Education is everything, right?”
It was too early in the morning to deal with teenage attitude. Lauren opened her mouth to remind her to wish her father a happy birthday, but Mack was gone.
Another slammed door. Her world seemed full of them.
No secrets in this house.
Feeling a burn of stress behind her rib cage, she took herself downstairs to the basement gym they’d installed and tried to run off her anxiety on the treadmill. She flicked on CNN, giving herself a taste of home.
Storms in Alabama. An alligator thirty feet long in Florida. A shooting in Brooklyn.
A wave of homesickness almost knocked her flat. She yearned for morning runs on South Beach, the smell of the sea, the taste of seafood caught fresh that morning, the sight of the sun setting near her sister’s house in Menemsha.
Twenty minutes later Ed appeared. He was dressed in cycling gear and had his phone in his hand.
Lauren breathed a sigh of relief. This was routine. Ed cycled to the office and changed once he got there, and it seemed that today was no different except that he was running later than usual.
“Have a great day, birthday boy.” When he didn’t answer, she muted CNN and slowed the treadmill until it stopped. “You seem really distracted today. Does it bother you being forty?”
“What?” He glanced up from his emails.
“Forty.” Maybe she’d treated the whole thing too lightly. She needed to make sure he knew he was still handsome and desirable. More sex wouldn’t hurt. Sometimes the days slipped past and she’d realize it had been a week. Sometimes longer. The truth was sex between them had always been comfortable rather than urgent.
Was that normal? She had no idea because it wasn’t a topic she’d dream of discussing with friends.
Maybe he was having an affair?
Even though she’d stopped the treadmill, her heart rate continued to accelerate. No. Ed wasn’t like that. They didn’t lie to each other. That was what they’d agreed that first night they’d met. Lauren trusted Ed implicitly.
And they were happy. Happy couples didn’t have affairs.
“Are you worrying about Mack? I know she’s been difficult lately.”
She decided not to mention the pink hair. Let him notice it for himself later.
“All teenagers are difficult. I remember your mother saying your sister was a nightmare.”
Lauren realized she’d forgotten to call her sister the day before. Preparations for Ed’s birthday had eclipsed everything.
“All my mother wanted to do was paint, and she was irritated by anything that disturbed that.” Still, when Lauren thought back to some of the things she’d done with Jenna, it terrified her.
They were lucky to have come through childhood unscathed. Or mostly unscathed.
“She’s growing up.” Ed was calm. “She doesn’t have to tell us every little thing. She’s pushing for independence, and we’ve always encouraged that. And as for being difficult, it’s nature’s way of making sure teenagers want to leave home and that parents are ready to push them out of the door.”
“She’s sixteen, Ed. It’s years until she leaves home. And you know what the school told us. Mack is skipping homework and failing English. She’s always been a straight-A student. English is her best subject.”
Ed frowned. “Physics is her best subject. Last year she wanted to do aeronautical engineering.”
“That was before those girls started teasing her for being like a boy. Remember that horrible Facebook page they set up? Mack-the-man.” She’d been so upset she’d wanted to charge into school and chop off their damn princess hair with rusty scissors. It had taken a lot of maneuvering to have the page taken down and Mack had been left wounded. “She is smart. She could do what she likes, providing she works hard, but that’s the point. She isn’t. If she carries on like this, she’s going to fail her exams.” Unless there was an exam in sarcasm. Mack would ace that.
“There’s more to life than being a straight-A student, Lauren.”
“I know. But I also know how competitive the world is now. If you mess up your exams then you don’t get into a good college, and without a good college you don’t stand a chance of getting a good internship because there are literally thousands of people applying for every position. Sue Miller’s eldest graduated last summer and since then she has put in one hundred and fifty applications and hasn’t had a single interview. One hundred and fifty.”
“Calm down. Mack is going to be fine, Lauren.”
She was irritated that he didn’t even glance up from his phone.
“But what if she isn’t? The school told us she’s not speaking up in class.” And since when had her daughter not spoken up in class? Mack had been speaking up ever since she’d learned how to put two words together. “And then there was that incident a month ago—”
He glanced up. “That was a one-off.”
“She was drunk, Ed! Our daughter was drunk and Tanya’s mother had to drive her home.” And Mack had refused to offer any explanation. She’d shut them out. That had disturbed Lauren more than anything. Was that when Mack had changed?
“Teenagers experiment. Tanya’s mother should have kept a closer eye on the vodka bottle.”
“It wasn’t a one-off. What about the time she took money from my purse? Our child stole, Ed.” What if Mack was experimenting with drugs? The more she thought about the list of possible horrors, the more surprising it seemed that today’s teenagers ever made it to adulthood. “I think she’s keeping something from us.” She recognized the signs, and it made her uneasy. A secret, she knew, could eat away at you slowly. It created a barrier between you and the people you loved.
“Since when do teenagers tell their parents everything? You need to chill. Mack is doing okay. She’s not the problem.”
Lauren stared at him, wrong-footed.
“What do you mean?”
“You said, ‘She’s not the problem,’ which means something else is.”
“Forget it.” His attention was back on his phone. “I might be late tonight.”
“You’re kidding. Tonight is the party.”
“The—what?” He looked confused and then closed his eyes briefly and muttered something under his breath.
“Your party. Had you forgotten?”
The pause was infinitesimal, but it was there.
He was lying, and he never lied.
Who forgot their own fortieth birthday party?
What was on his mind?
“We have thirty people coming, Ed. Friends, colleagues, your mother—” She managed not to wince and Ed nodded.
“I’ll be there. See you later.” He grabbed a bottle of chilled water from the fridge they kept in the gym, and Lauren studied him from the back and wondered if tight Lycra cycling shorts on a man of forty was still a good look.
He slammed the fridge door shut and straightened.
“Thanks for the rainforest. It’s was a sweet thought and I’m sorry I overreacted.” He kissed her cheek. It was a dry, asexual gesture. “I love you. You’re a good woman, Lauren.”
A good woman? What did that mean?
“Maybe you should take time off. Mackenzie has three weeks at Easter. We could go away.”
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
Lauren watched him leave.
She’s not the problem.
By the time she left the house to meet her friends, she’d persuaded herself that Ed was having an off day and she was having a massive attack of overthinking. She felt invigorated after her work out, happy that everything was on track for the party, and reassured by the fact that Mackenzie had spoken at least eight words before leaving for school. Fortunately the school they’d chosen was close by. One of Mack’s friends lived a few doors away and they walked together.
Most days Lauren managed to resist the temptation to track Mack’s phone to check her daughter was safe.
She buttoned her coat against the cold and walked briskly along tree-lined residential streets.
As someone who had lived her life on an island until the age of eighteen, the prospect of city living had daunted her, but she’d fallen in love with this area of London from the first moment Ed had brought her here. She loved the secret communal gardens, the elegance of the stucco-fronted houses and the candy-colored charm of Portobello Road. She enjoyed browsing in the market for secret treasures and discovering restaurants down hidden side streets. In those early years she’d explored the city with the baby tucked in her stroller, loitered in galleries and strolled through London’s many parks. She’d spent hours in the Tate Modern and the Royal Academy, but her favorite place without a doubt was the Victoria and Albert Museum, which had been a source of inspiration for designers and artists for over one hundred and fifty years.
Lauren could happily have moved in there.
She reached the coffee shop at the same time as her friends.
She went to the counter to order while Ruth and Helen grabbed their usual table in the window. They’d started meeting for coffee when their children had moved to the same girls school and conversations at the school gate had become impossible.
She ordered coffees and a couple of pastries for her friends and pushed her credit card into the machine. It was promptly declined.
With a murmur of apology, Lauren tried again and the card was declined a second time.
“I’ll pay cash.” She slipped the card back into her purse and scrabbled around for money. Red-cheeked, she carried the tray over to the table and set it down.
“Thanks.” Ruth lifted a cappuccino from the tray. “My turn next time. It’s freezing out there. They’re saying we could still have snow.”
Lauren sank into the vacant chair and unwrapped her scarf from her neck.
The British preoccupation with the weather was one of the things that had fascinated Lauren when she’d first arrived in London. Entire conversations were devoted to the weather, which, as far as Lauren could see, was rarely newsworthy. On Martha’s Vineyard bad weather frequently meant being cut off from the mainland. She wondered what her British friends would have had to say about a hurricane. It would have kept the conversation going for months.
“Did you want to share this croissant?” Helen broke it in half and Lauren shook her head.
“Just coffee for me.” She pulled out her phone and sent a quick text to Ed.
Credit card not working. Problem?
Maybe the bank had seen a transaction that was out of the ordinary and frozen it. She probably ought to call them later.
“I wish I had your willpower.” Ruth ate the other half of Helen’s croissant. “Don’t you ever give in to your impulses?”
Lauren dropped her phone into her bag. “Giving in to impulses can lead to disaster.”
Both her friends stared at her in surprise, and she wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
“Disaster?” Ruth blinked. “You mean like not fitting into your jeans?”
“No. I—” She shook her head. “Ignore me. I’ve had a crazy morning. Busy.” It was Ed’s fault, for making her think about things she didn’t want to think about.
“Ah, yes, the birthday. How was Ed?” Helen picked up her spoon and stirred circles into the foam on her coffee. “When Martin hit forty he bought a sports car. Such a cliché, but I get to drive it so I’ve stopped complaining.”
Lauren sipped her coffee. “Ed seemed fine about it.”
She’s not the problem.
“I had a crisis when I turned forty,” Ruth said. “Having a sixteen-year-old daughter reminds you how old you are. I don’t have daughter envy yet, but I can see how it could happen. You don’t have that problem—” she glanced at Lauren “—because you had Mack when you were still in your pram, or whatever you call it across the pond.”
Lauren laughed. “I was nineteen. Not that young.”
But she’d been pregnant at eighteen, which was only two years older than Mack was now.
“And you still look twenty-one, which makes me want to kill you.” Ruth waved a hand in disgust. “At least your daughter doesn’t think you’re too old to understand anything.”
Thinking of some of the conversations she’d had with Mack lately, Lauren gave a tight smile. “Oh, she does.”
“But you have energy. I’m too tired to cope with a teenager. I thought the terrible twos were supposed to be the worst age and now I’m discovering it’s sixteen. Peer pressure, puberty, sex—”
Lauren put her cup down. “Abigail is having sex?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. She has a ‘boyfriend.’” Ruth stroked the air with her fingers, putting in the quote marks. “The phone pings all the time because he’s messaging her.” Was that the problem with Mack? Was it a boy?
“Phoebe is always on her phone, too,” Helen said. “Why is it they don’t have the energy to tidy their rooms, but manage to hold a phone? Last night when I finally wrenched it from her grabby hand and told her all electronic devices were banned from the bedroom, she told me she hated me. Joy.”
Lauren’s sympathy was tinged with relief. Even during their most prickly encounters, Mack had never said she hated her. Things could be worse.
“They don’t mean it,” Ruth said. “It’s one of those lines straight out of the teenage phrase book, along with I hate my life—my life is so crap.”
“And but all my friends are doing it.”
“Nobody does that stuff, Mom. It’s the moods that get me. I know it’s hormones, but knowing that doesn’t help.” Helen finished her coffee. “It makes me feel guilty because I know I was the same with my mum, weren’t you?”
Ruth nodded. Lauren said nothing.
As long as they weren’t doing anything that interrupted her painting, her mother had left her and Jenna alone. It was one of the reasons she and her sister were close.
“The only one with a predictable temperament in our house is the dog.” Ruth gave a wicked smile. “Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you’d married your first boyfriend?”
“I’d be divorced,” Helen said. “My first boyfriend was a total nightmare.”
They looked at Lauren and she felt her face heat. “Ed was my first real boyfriend.”
It wasn’t really a lie, she told herself. Boyfriend meant someone you had a relationship with. The word conjured up images of exploratory kisses, trips to the movies and awkward fumbling. A boyfriend was a public thing. I’m going out with my boyfriend tonight.
Using that definition, Ed had been her first boyfriend.
“You’ve been with one man your whole adult life? No flings? No crazy, naughty teenage sex?”
Lauren felt her heart pick up speed. That didn’t count, she told herself. “For me it’s always been Ed.”
“Well—” Helen spoke first. “I’m going to stop talking before I incriminate myself.”
“I auditioned a lot of men before finally awarding the role of my husband to Pete.” Ruth finished her croissant. “I’d better go. I left my house in chaos.” She reached for her bag. “See you at the party tonight, Lauren. Sure there’s nothing we can do?”
“No thanks, I’ve got it covered.”
“Is your sister coming over from the States?”
“No, she can’t get away from school right now.”
Lauren felt another stab of guilt. When they’d last spoken, Jenna had confessed that her period was late. Lauren had heard the excitement in her voice and felt excited with her. She knew how desperately Jenna wanted a baby and how upset her sister was each month when it didn’t happen. She’d intended to call, but party planning had driven it from her head.
“What about your mum? She’s not coming either?”
Lauren kept her smile in place. “No.”
Of course that had a lot to do with the fact that she hadn’t been invited.
Lauren had never had a close relationship with her mother, but things had been particularly strained last time she’d visited home. Her mother had seemed preoccupied and even more distant than usual.
When her father had died five years earlier, Lauren had expected Nancy to be devastated.
She’d flown home for the funeral and been humbled by how strong her mother was. Her father had been a much-loved member of the community and there had been plenty of people sobbing at his funeral. Her mother hadn’t been one of them. Nancy Stewart had stood with her back as straight as the mast of a ship, dry eyed, as if part of her was somewhere else. Lauren assumed she handled grief the way she handled everything else life threw her—by vanishing to her studio and losing herself in her painting.
Lauren stared into her coffee.
Growing up, her father had been the “fun” parent.
“Let’s go to the beach, girls,” he’d say, and scoop them up without giving a thought to what they were doing, He’d bring them back long past bedtime with sandy feet, burned skin and salty hair. They were hungry and overtired and it was their mother who had dealt with the fallout.
Nancy would be waiting tight-lipped, the supper she’d prepared congealing on cold plates. She’d serve the ruined food in silence and then dunk both girls in the shower where Jenna would scream and howl as the water stung her burned flesh.
By the end of the summer the sun had bleached their hair almost white and freckles had exploded over Jenna’s face. To Lauren they looked like sand sprinkled over her skin, but Jenna thought they looked liked dirt. She’d scrub at her skin until it was red and sore and the freckles merged.
“You could at least remember sunscreen,” Nancy had said to Tom one night and Lauren had heard him laugh.
“I forgot. Loosen up.”
It seemed to Lauren that the more her father told Nancy to loosen up, the tighter she was wound.
She’d long since given up wishing her relationship with her mother were different.
She and Ed returned to Martha’s Vineyard for ten days every summer, but Lauren felt edgy the whole time. It was part of a life she’d left behind, and being there made her feel uncomfortable, as if she was dressing in old clothes that no longer fit. Not having her father there with his endless jokes and energy made the visit even more awkward.
The only good part about it was seeing her sister in person.
Lauren saw Helen stand up and realized she’d missed half the conversation.
Her friend reached for her bag. “Have your girls finished this wretched ancestry project? Martin’s been wishing we’d picked a different school to send her to. One that doesn’t take education so seriously.”
Lauren grabbed her coat, too. “What ancestry project?”
Helen and Ruth exchanged looks.
“This is why we envy you,” Ruth said. “Your Mack is so smart she does all these things without your help.”
“Mack does tend to figure these things out on her own.” All the same, she made a mental note to ask Mack about it, just to be sure.
“Everything okay with Mack?” Helen held the door open for them and they swapped warm, scented air for frozen winds. “No more trouble with those bitches from the year above?”
Lauren was tempted to mention the pink hair and the fact that something felt “off,” but decided not to. She was still hoping it was nothing.
“Everything seems fine.”
“Abigail hasn’t mentioned anything, and she was the one who found that Facebook page when it happened.” Ruth squeezed her arm. “I’m sure it’s over and done.”
She hoped so. She knew she had a tendency to blow things out of proportion. According to Ed, she catastrophized.
If he was right, then his words earlier should be nothing more than a throwaway comment.
If they had a problem, they would have talked about it.
She checked her phone and saw she was on time for her hair appointment. “I’ll see you both later.”
Ed was going to be fine and so was Mack. True, she was behaving oddly but the chances were it was nothing more than a phase.
It didn’t mean she was keeping secrets.
Lauren tried to ignore the voice in her head reminding her that she and her sister had kept secrets all the time.