Two Can Keep a Secret(7)

“Your tie’s crooked,” she says, heels clicking on the floor as she walks toward me, hands outstretched. A crease appears between her eyes as she tugs at the knot, then disappears when she steps back to view her work. “There,” she says, patting my shoulder with a satisfied expression. “Much better.” Her hand skims down to my chest and she plucks a piece of lint from my suit coat in two pale-pink fingernails and lets it drop to the floor. “You clean up all right, Mal. Who would’ve thought?”

Not her. Katrin Nilsson barely spoke to me until her father started dating my mother last winter. She’s the queen of Echo Ridge High, and I’m the band nerd with the disreputable family. But now that we live under the same roof, Katrin has to acknowledge my existence. She copes by treating me like either a project or a nuisance, depending on her mood.

“Let’s go,” she says, tugging lightly at my arm. Her black dress hugs her curves but stops right above her knees. She’d almost be conservative if she weren’t wearing tall, spiky heels that basically force you to look at her legs. So I do. My new stepsister might be a pain in the ass, but she’s undeniably hot.

I follow Katrin into the hallway to the balcony staircase overlooking the massive foyer downstairs. My mother and Peter are at the bottom waiting for us, and I drop my eyes because whenever they’re standing that close, his hands are usually someplace I don’t want to see. Katrin and her superjock boyfriend commit less PDA than those two.

But Mom’s happy, and I guess that’s good.

Peter looks up and takes a break from manhandling my mom. “Don’t you two look nice!” he calls out. He’s in a suit too, same dark blue as mine, except he gets his tailored so they fit him perfectly. Peter’s like one of those suave GQ watch ads come to life—square jaw, penetrating gaze, wavy blond hair with just enough gray to be distinguished. Nobody could believe he was interested in my mother when they first started dating. People were even more shocked when he married her.

He saved them. That’s what the entire town thinks. Peter Nilsson, the rich and charming owner of the only law firm in town, took us from town pariahs to town royalty with one tasteful justice of the peace ceremony at Echo Ridge Lake. And maybe he did. People don’t avoid my mother anymore, or whisper behind her back. She gets invited to the garden club, school committees, tonight’s fund-raiser, and all that other crap.

Doesn’t mean I have to like him, though.

“Nice having you back, Malcolm,” he adds, almost sounding like he means it. Mom and I have been gone a week, visiting family across a few towns in New Hampshire and then finishing up at Declan’s place. Peter and Katrin didn’t come. Partly because he had to work, and partly because neither of them leave Echo Ridge for anyplace without room service and a spa.

“Did you have dinner with Mr. Coates while we were gone?” I ask abruptly.

Peter’s nostrils flare slightly, which is the only sign of annoyance he ever shows. “I did, on Friday. He’s still getting his business up and running, but when the time is right he’d be happy to talk with Declan. I’ll keep checking in with him.”

Ben Coates used to be mayor of Echo Ridge. After that, he left to run a political consulting business in Burlington. Declan is a few—okay, a lot—of credits short from finishing his poli-sci degree at community college, but he’s still hoping for an introduction. It’s the only thing he’s ever asked of Peter. Or of Mom, I guess, since Declan and Peter don’t really talk.

Mom beams at Peter, and I let it drop. Katrin steps forward, reaching out a hand to touch the twisted beaded necklace Mom’s wearing. “This is so pretty!” she exclaims. “Very bohemian. Such a nice change from all the pearls we’ll see tonight.”

Mom’s smile fades. “I have pearls,” she says nervously, looking at Peter. “Should I—”

“You’re fine,” he says quickly. “You look beautiful.”

I could kill Katrin. Not literally. I feel like I have to add that disclaimer even in my own thoughts, given our family history. But I don’t understand her constant need to make digs at Mom’s expense. It’s not like Mom broke up Katrin’s parents; she’s Peter’s third wife. Katrin’s mother was long gone to Paris with a new husband before Mom and Peter even went on their first date.

And Katrin has to know that Mom is nervous about tonight. We’ve never been to the Lacey Kilduff Memorial Scholarship fund-raiser before. Mostly because we’ve never been invited.

Or welcome.

Peter’s nostrils flare again. “Let’s head out, shall we? It’s getting late.”

He opens the front door, stepping aside to let us through while pressing a button on his key chain. His black Range Rover starts idling in the driveway, and Katrin and I climb into the back. My mother settles herself in the passenger seat and flips the radio from the Top 40 station that Katrin likes to blast to NPR. Peter gets in last, buckling his seat belt before shifting the car into gear.

The Nilssons’ winding driveway is the longest part of the trip. After that, it’s a few quick turns and we’re in downtown Echo Ridge. So to speak. There’s not much to it—a row of white-trimmed redbrick buildings on either side of Manchester Street, lined with old-fashioned, wrought iron streetlights. It’s never crowded here, but it’s especially dead on a Wednesday night before school’s back in session. Half the town is still on vacation, and the other half is attending the fund-raiser in the Echo Ridge Cultural Center. That’s where anything notable at Echo Ridge happens, unless it happens at the Nilssons’ house.

Karen M. McManus's Books