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“Deliciously, sublimely nasty: Mean Girls for grown-ups.”Kirkus Reviews
“Torre keeps the suspense high…Readers will be riveted from page one.”Publishers Weekly
Welcome to the neighborhood. Watch your husband, watch your friends, and watch your back.
Cat Winthorpe has worked hard to get what she has: a gorgeous home; social standing; and William, her successful, handsome husband. Then a friendly new couple moves into the estate next door. While cautious, a good neighbor like Cat greets them with open arms and warm hospitality.
Neena Ryder isn’t a fellow lady of leisure. A life coach with off-the-rack dresses, personal issues, and a husband who hasn’t delivered, she’s anxious to move up in the world. This beautiful new town is a step in the right direction. It’s also making Neena aware of what she doesn’t have. Namely, William. When Neena’s infatuation escalates into obsession, it’s just a matter of eliminating a few obstacles to get the life she wants. The life next door.
As Neena’s secret fixation grows, so does her friendship with Cat. But beneath their cordial interactions is a wealth of temptations, secrets, and toxic jealousy. For both women, the desire for a perfect life can turn perfectly dangerous.
Release date: December 1, 2020
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 291
Reader says this book is...: dark (1) emotionally riveting (1) entertaining story (2) plot twists (2) satisfying ending (1) suspenseful (3) unexpected twists (1) modern life (1) realistic characters (1) rich setting(s) (1) terrific writing (2)
Content advisory: brief profanity, cheating references
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Every Last Secret
The detective was beanpole tall, with a gap in between her middle teeth that I could push a pretzel stick through. Last night she had been unattractive. Now, under the harsh overhead light, she was downright ugly.
She stayed quiet, flipping through her case folder with the speed of a tadpole. I sighed and brought the flimsy foam cup to my lips, forcing the bitter coffee down and wondering where my attorney was. It was fine, for now. I would find out as much as I could, skirt the obvious traps, and keep my mouth shut. Keeping my mouth shut was a skill I’d perfected a long time ago. It was the gossipers who got in trouble. The braggers. People like Cat Winthorpe, who couldn’t just have the perfect life. She had to throw it in your face with her casual comments, her drip of wealth. Which is why she needed to be punished. You can’t blame me for what happened. I was simply putting her in her place.
“I listened to the call you placed to 9-1-1.” The detective studied me. “It was interesting. At one point, you yawned.”
I shifted in my seat, and the handcuffs clinked together. Twisting my wrist, I tried to find a more comfortable position. I had been hoping the phone hadn’t caught that yawn. It was one of those inescapable ones that sneak up on you right in the middle of a sentence.
“Do you realize the damage that a gunshot through the mouth creates?” She flipped over a glossy image and pushed it forward with a slow and calculated hand. “The bullet passes through an enormous number of blood vessels before piercing the brain and exiting out through the back of the skull.”
I leaned over and looked at the photo without comment, unsurprised to see a large exit hole in the top of the head. Nasty stuff, but I had seen worse. A face bloated, the lips splitting open as the features swelled past recognition. The alarmed look on the face of a man you had once loved, just before he dies. The sound of his begging that still echoes in the dark recesses of my mind.
I set down the cheap coffee. “Do you have a question, or is this just your show-and-tell time?”
The woman paused, the simple gold band on her left hand stilling as she studied my face. “Mrs. Ryder, you don’t seem to understand the gravity of this situation. You are under suspicion of attempted murder.”
I understood the gravity of her situation. That cheap wedding band? Those bags under her eyes? She’d chosen the wrong path. With braces early on and a strict fitness-and-diet routine, she could have done something with her life. Been someone. Put herself in a position to enjoy the finer things in life. I focused in on her face. “Dr. Ryder,” I corrected her.
She smiled, and there was something in that gesture that raised my hackles. I looked toward the wide mirror and studied my reflection, verifying that everything was in place.
My hair, freshly cut and dyed.
My skin, glowing and Botox smooth, despite the horrific lighting in this place.
My body, trim and thin underneath the designer workout gear.
My wedding ring, still in place, the large diamond glittering from my hand like a spotlight.
I had clawed my way to the top of this world, and they couldn’t take me down now. Not with the mountain of lies I’d worked so hard to construct.
“You moved to Palo Alto two years ago, is that correct?” At my silent agreement, she cleared her throat. “So, let’s start there.”
FOUR MONTHS EARLIER
The first week of May, we held a party. It wasn’t our biggest. There were no aerialists hanging from the great-room beams. We didn’t hire the valets or put up the tents. It was a low-key party, a fundraiser for local performing arts, and one that would double as a going-away party for the flyers.
That’s what I called them: flyers. Every summer, like migrating birds, the members of our community scatter south to apply sunscreen like tourists on boutique cruise ships and private islands. I had just a month and then they’d be leaving me, the group of women currently clustered around me, too concerned with children and cultural experiences to suffer through “another frigid summer” in Atherton.
“When you have kids, you’ll understand,” Perla had once whispered, her hand tapping a metronome beat on my shoulder. “Your life becomes about them, and they want to be in swimsuits, like normal kids.”
When you have kids. Such a cruel thing to say to a fertility-challenged woman. Besides, it was pure crap. No child in Atherton wanted to be normal. Children in Atherton wanted Instagram videos jumping off yachts in taggable locations like the Greek isles. Our heated pools and chilly San Francisco gloom didn’t impress their classmates when they stepped from chauffeured sedans and returned to Menlo School in the fall.
I had smiled at Perla and wondered if she knew that her seventeen-year-old son was screwing our maid. “I know,” I’d said. “When we have kids, maybe we’ll join you.”
William and I would be “suffering” through the chilly summer with our heated tile floors, indoor and outdoor saunas, hot tubs, and six fireplaces. We’d be fighting off the gloom with day trips to Beverly Hills and weekends in our Hawaii home. And honestly, it was kind of nice to have a break from my friends and their always-present collection of children.
“I’m telling you,” Johanna drawled, eyeing a passing waiter with a look of longing. “Puerto Rico is where we’re buying next. A four percent tax rate? Think of how much we’d save.”
“Have you been to Puerto Rico?” I asked, following my husband’s path as he moved through the entrance hall, his head bent toward the older man beside him. “For an island, the views suck. If I’m moving that far away, I need a beach and a view.”
She shrugged. “We could buy an island off one year’s tax savings. That’s worth dealing with a subpar view. Plus, think of the cultural impact on Stewie and Jane. They could learn the language. Interact with the locals. See how struggling families live.”
Jane had received a boob job for her sixteenth birthday. The last time I saw her, she was sagging under the weight of a dozen shopping bags with a cell phone stuck to her ear, climbing into the passenger seat of an exotic car. I hadn’t seen Stewie in over a year but had heard of his expulsion from Menlo and rumors of an exclusive drug-rehab center that Johanna was touting as a study abroad.
“Forget Puerto Rico,” Mallory chimed in, one of her diamond chandelier earrings caught in her hair. “The home next to us in Cabo is going up for sale. One of you needs to buy it.” Her chin swung to me, and she raised a delicate, dark brow. “Cat? Come on. You could use a summer away.”
There was a general murmur of agreement among the women, and I laughed, carefully reaching forward and untangling her earring. “Not going to happen. I love my pasty-white skin. Plus, William can’t leave the office for a week, much less three months.”
Kelly tossed her arm around my neck. “You guys forget. Cat’s got Eskimo blood. Anyway,Plus, do you blame the woman? William’s keeping her warm.”
The conversation turned to my husband, their tones quieting as they criticized his work ethic while groaning over his good looks.
I leaned my head against Kelly’s shoulder and sighed. “You know you’re the only one I’ll miss,” I whispered, and it was true. Kelly—though she had the requisite +2 children Atherton admired—was the only one who displayed any sensitivity to my fertility woes. As an added bonus, she had been the only wife to welcome me to Atherton, sans snobby judgment. It had been a kindness I had never forgotten.
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” she said out of the corner of her bright-red mouth.
I smiled and straightened, half-heartedly participating in the conversation as I looked out over the party. It was the normal mix of familiar faces atop glittery gowns, the men’s tuxedos evenly mixed in with the colors. While I hadn’t personally met every guest, it was a small town, and we women had formed our own exclusive circle, one that centered around the Menlo country club and branched out.
A waiter bent to deliver a drink, and I watched as a monogrammed napkin fluttered from his tray to the dark wood floor. Excusing myself from the group, I moved toward the fallen item, checking on details as I went. Caviar buffet, stocked. The band was halfway through their set, the soft blues pairing well with the clink of champagne flutes and laughter. I was pleased to see that the great room wasn’t crowded, guests evenly dispersed between our home’s indoor and outdoor spaces.
“Cat!” A statuesque older woman approached, her gold gown brushing the floor as she reached out with both hands and fiercely gripped my shoulders. “I never had a chance to thank you for the donation to our new rehab clinic.”
I smiled at Madeline Sharp, one of the largest donors to tonight’s event and the chairwoman of a New York City charity for drug addicts. “I’ll pass on the thanks to William. It was his doing, not mine.”
“Oh!” She shushed me. “We all know who’s really holding the purse strings, dear. Men wouldn’t know where their shoes went if we weren’t there to point to their feet.”
I laughed, the visual so false in regard to my highly capable husband, one who had led covert operations in Afghanistan, managed his firm with cutthroat efficiency, and would go barefoot out of spite rather than take instructions on his footwear. Still, she was right about the purse strings. William hadn’t been aware of the six-figure donation. While my husband had many distractions on his time, our money—and how I spent it—wasn’t one of those.
“You’ll have to come to the clinic once it’s done,” she urged me. “We’re heading there for the summer. It’ll be set up by fall!”
Another bird, this one flying east. I felt a moment of presummer blues, our full life always a little lonely once our jeweled town vacated. Just as quickly, I reminded myself of the positives. Peace and quiet. Time for just William and me to focus on our marriage and refortify our bond. We always left each summer stronger. Closer.
We are a team, he once said to me. Summer is our season.
“Maybe we can make it to the opening.”
“Absolutely, you must. Now, I’ve got to go find my husband.” Madeline leaned forward and placed a baby powder–soft kiss on my cheek. I smiled, clasping her in a hug, then watched her leave.
“Crab cake, Mrs. Winthorpe?”
I glanced to my right and nodded at the waiter, taking a miniature creation off the silver tray and placing the petite stack on my tongue. I crushed the delicate layers of crab and crust in my mouth, the key-lime sauce playing nicely with the flavors, and watched as a couple moved through the arched opening of the east balcony.
At first glance, they fit in well. An attractive blonde, paired with a balding and stocky husband. Midforties, though the blonde was trying hard to hide the fourth decade. As I watched them weave through the crowd, the minor details emerged. Her dress, an off-the-rack number that could be found at a discount retailer, if an aspiring woman hunted hard enough. His cheap watch, the rubber band sticking out from the sleeves of a tuxedo that looked rented. I returned my attention to her, watching as she wound through my party, her eyes scanning over the room, her husband trailing obediently behind.
I moved through the crowd, keeping her in my sights, and mentally clicked through the guests I had invited. Everyone on the exclusive list was a well-known Winthorpe Foundation donor or board member. I stopped next to one of the butlers and gave a subtle nod toward the couple, who had stopped beside our Picasso and were admiring the painting. “Franklin, who is that couple by the staircase? The woman in the blue dress?”
He nodded with a pleasant smile, his eyes never roving over to the area, his professionalism impeccable. “That’s Matthew and Neena Ryder, Mrs. Winthorpe.”
My gaze sharpened. “They weren’t on the list.”
“I believe they are guests of your husband.”
Well, that was interesting. I nodded with a grateful smile. “Wonderful. Thank you for the information.”
“Absolutely, Mrs. Winthorpe. It’s my pleasure. May I get you a glass of champagne? Or perhaps something from the cellar?”
“No.” I stepped away, anxious to find William.
“Mr. Winthorpe is on the veranda.”
I paused and met his gaze. “Thank you, Franklin.” I made a mental note to pad his tip appropriately.
I was a few steps onto the veranda when a hand curled around my waist, pulling me back. I turned and melted into William’s side.
“Hey,” he said softly, a grin tugging at his lips as he looked down at me.
Devastatingly handsome. That was how my mother first described him, and it was apt. I held him at bay for a moment, examining his strong arrangement of features, then pressed my lips against his, enjoying the protective way his hand tightened on the small of my bare back.
“The silent auction is going well.” He nodded to the balcony, where long glass tables displayed two dozen different items. As I watched, a woman in a beaded gown and a massive emerald ring bent forward and picked up a pen. I had spent the past month soliciting items for the auction, which ranged from an Alaskan spa getaway to a Menlo country club initiation fee.
“Franklin said you added a couple to the guest list.” I ran my hand through his short dark hair, then tugged gently on a thick tuft of it.
He nodded. “Our new hire at the company. Dr. Ryder and her husband.”
How incredibly sexist of me to assume that Dr. Ryder had been a man. I remembered William’s mention of a new employee, some sort of motivational coach for his staff. We’d been at dinner, and I’d been distracted by an odd taste to the pâté and had barely paid attention to his enthusiastic mention of the doctor who he believed would solve the morale issue at Winthorpe Technologies.
Money would solve the morale issue. The team had spent four years on a new medical device that could replace pacemakers; pass through metal detectors; and reduce allergic reactions, infections, and surgery complications by more than half. The team’s profit sharing and bonus structures were tied into the successful launch of the product, which had already dragged eighteen months past expectations. Everyone was tired and frustrated. We’d lost our top technician last month, and there was a general feeling of dissension among the ranks.
William was über-intelligent, decisive, and charming. He was also a cutthroat workaholic who valued money over personnel and demanded perfectionism without excuses. Leading a team had never been his forte, and I feared that Winthorpe Tech’s staff was close to mutiny.
“Here she is now. Neena,” he said warmly, and in that smile, you’d never think that he had kept the team working on Christmas or cut bonuses as punishment for a failed FDA trial. “This is my wife, Catherine.”
“Cat,” I said, extending my hand. Her grip could have cracked an egg, and I fought back a wince.
“Matt Ryder.” The husband beamed as he shook my hand. “Beautiful home you have here. This thing would survive an earthquake, if need be.”
“I hope it doesn’t have to.” I laughed and didn’t miss the way her arm curled protectively through his. An amusing act, given how much my husband overshadowed hers. “Thank you both for coming. The party is in support of a great cause.”
“It’s for the Center for the Performing Arts, right?” the man asked, his fair eyebrows linking together intently. On the right breast of his tuxedo shirt, there was a pale-golden stain. Chardonnay? Tequila?
I checked William’s shirt, unsurprised to see that it was spotless, my husband as ready for a photo shoot as he was a party. “That’s right. Are you familiar with Atherton? The center is on Middlefield Road.”
“We’re growing more familiar with it. In fact, we’ve put a home under contract just next door,” the woman supplied with an unnaturally white smile.
I stalled, surprised by the response. “You mean right next door? The Bakers’ old home?” Home was a nice term for it. It was the neighborhood’s resident teardown, a foreclosure that had spent the last five years dragging through the courts. If it ever came up for sale, I had plans to knock down the entire structure and replace it with an expansion to our pool area and gardens.
“Yep.” Dr. Neena Ryder’s beam grew even wider. “Matt had an inside track with the bank. He’s in real estate development.”
“Demolition,” her husband corrected with a self-deprecating smile that crinkled the edges of his eyes. I immediately warmed to him.
“So, you’ll be tearing down the house?”
“Oh no.” He shook his head quickly. “We can’t afford to rebuild, not to the neighboring standards. We’ll renovate, then decide what to do.”
Sinking a single dollar into that heap would be a waste. It needed to be bulldozed, the pool yanked out, and a fresh foundation poured. I smiled. “Well, if you ever want to make a quick buck, we’ll take it off your hands. I’ve had my eye on that lot for years. I’d love to expand our pool deck all the way to the edge of the view.”
“I appreciate the offer,” he said, running a hand through the sparse hair crowning his head. “But Neena and I are pretty set on the house, especially with Atherton’s proximity to her new job.”
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to work with Winthorpe Tech’s team.” Neena glanced at William, and I didn’t miss the appreciative linger in her eyes. Then again, there wasn’t a woman in town who hadn’t given my husband a second look at some point or another. His looks and charm were one draw, the dollar signs that kept multiplying beside his name, another.
“And what is your position exactly?” I glanced at William, trying to remember how he had referred to the hire. Something odd.
“I’m the director of motivation,” Neena supplied.
“I’d never actually heard of that before.” I kept my tone mild, not wanting to ruffle her feathers. “Is it in the personal-coaching sphere?”
Her lips thinned, an almost imperceptible adjustment that pulled at the skin around her mouth. “It’s not exactly coaching. I’m responsible for keeping the energy and motivation of the team high. I’ll work with the team to help them achieve their goals, overcome obstacles, and eliminate workplace issues that may hamper productivity. It’s amazing how small changes and shifts in a person’s life can lead to huge results.”
“Dr. Ryder comes highly recommended, from Plymouth Industries. We were lucky to steal her away.” William lifted his drink in the doctor’s direction, then took a sip.
“And you should have seen her parting bonus!” her husband said heartily, his head swiveling to follow a platter of crab cake bites that passed by. “Excuse me,” he said quickly, then darted after the waiter, leaving us alone with his wife.
A parting bonus? Did those even exist? I watched as Matt hustled through the crowd, calling out to the crab-toting waiter. “What are you a doctor of?”
“Mental health and psychological studies. I’m a PhD, not a medical doctor.” She brushed over the designation with a shrug, her wine almost sloshing over the lip of her glass and onto the white sheepskin rug—a 1940s piece we’d gotten in New Zealand.
“Well, it’s wonderful to have you on the team.” I smiled, and her eyes sharpened.
“Do you work for the company, Cat?” She glanced at William. “I thought you stayed at home and handled the, ah . . . foundation? Is that what it’s called?”
I laughed, and if she looked at my husband like that one more time, I was going to stab my crab-cake fork through her jugular vein. “You’re right,” I admitted sheepishly. “I don’t work for the company. But I do own half of the preferred stock of Winthorpe Technologies, same as William. So I’m heavily invested in its success and our employees.” Employees like you. I pinched my brows together in a regretful frown. “William, it looks like the Decaters are leaving. I promised her an introduction to you. Would you mind me stealing you away for a bit?” I turned back to Neena without waiting on William’s reply. “It was such a pleasure to meet you and Matt. Best of luck with the property next door.”
“I’ll see you on Monday,” William interjected, lifting his glass in parting. “Tell your husband it was a pleasure.”
Her eyes darted from William to me, and I could almost see the gears turning behind her blue eyes. Taking a step back, she gave a tight nod. “Thank you again for inviting us.”
I placed a possessive kiss on William’s cheek as we walked away, my arm tucked into his. We passed Matt, who was scurrying back in Neena’s direction, a fresh drink in hand. He beamed merrily, and I struggled to connect his friendly demeanor with her ice.
“Was it just me,” William said carefully, “or did that feel a tad territorial? I thought leading with your stock options was a bit on the aggressive side.”
“It was a wee bit territorial,” I admitted, coming to a stop along the railing, out of the cover of the veranda, under the brilliant night sky. Before us, the pools and lit gardens extended out like a glittery array of jewels. “I don’t like her.”
He groaned, pulling me closer. “Don’t say that. I’m drowning right now in grouchy doctors and engineers. I need someone to babysit them or I’m going to go postal and fire everyone.”
“Okay, don’t do that,” I instructed firmly, then smiled at the pained look he gave me. “I’ll try to like her, okay? I’ll be nicer.”
“Pull out that prom-queen smile,” he urged, lowering his voice. “Only no poison this time.”
“Ha.” I scowled at him. “Don’t even joke about that.” I’d spent years running from the Mission Valley High rumor that I’d spiked my prom-queen competitors’ drinks with laxatives. The rumor had hit William’s ear at my tenth high school reunion, spilling out of the drunk mouth of Dana Rodriguez, one of the diarrhea-ridden candidates who had peaked in high school and now clipped grocery coupons when she wasn’t driving three kids around in a Chrysler minivan. I had laughed and wrapped Dana in a hug, hoping that William would forget and dismiss the rumors. He hadn’t, and Dana had paid for her loose lips with an accidental electrical fire in her she shed, followed by a well-timed Great to see you again, hope all is well note on embossed Winthorpe stationery.
“Do I actually need to speak to the Decaters, or was that just a ploy to escape the conversation?” He placed his tumbler on the wide stone railing, and I watched as the night air ruffled his salt-and-pepper hair.
“It was a ploy, but let’s do it anyway, for appearances’ sake.” I started to head back into the party, and his hand wrapped around my wrist, tugging me toward him.
“Stay out here.” He cupped my face in his hands and stared down at me, studying my features. “I’m with the most beautiful woman in the world. Let me enjoy her for a moment.”
I looked up into his eyes and smiled. “I’m here for as long as you want. In fact . . .” I lowered my voice and glanced back at the party. “Let’s ditch this place. If we hurry, we can get to that diner by Stanford that has the apple crisp you like. And if you’re lucky . . .” I bit my bottom lip. “I’ll let you feel me up in the car.”
He chuckled, and that bad-boy glint lit in his eyes. “What about all the guests?”
“The butlers will watch them. And Andi will emcee the silent auction.” I stepped toward the dark end of the balcony, where the steps led down to the gardens. “Come on . . . ,” I teased. “I know where they keep the keys to the Ferrari.”
He caught me just before I sneaked down the stairs and pulled me into his chest, kissing me deeply. I sank into the contact, my hand fisting the front of his tuxedo as I stole a deeper kiss.
There were men you owned.
There were men you borrowed.
And then there were men you took.
I would never let anyone take him from me.
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