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“Of course, of course.” Michael sounded overjoyed. “I didn’t realize she had a daughter. Have you seen their new place yet? It’s going to be photographed for the New York Times Home section next month.”
Spencer wound a piece of hair around her finger. “Not yet. But…I will. Soon.”
“So what can I do for you?”
She crossed and uncrossed her legs. Her heart thudded through her ears. “Well…I’d like an apartment. In New York. Preferably somewhere near Olivia. Is that doable?”
She heard Michael flipping some papers. “I believe so. Hang on. Let me pull up the database of what’s available.”
Spencer bit down hard on her thumbnail. This felt surreal. She stared out the window at the rock-lined pool and hot tub, the tiered back deck, the two dogs frolicking near the fence. Then, she turned and gazed at the windmill. LIAR. It was still there, not yet painted over. Maybe her parents had left it for Spencer as a reminder, the equivalent of the big red A in The Scarlet Letter. Ali’s old house next door no longer had the Do Not Cross tape over the half-dug hole—the new owners had finally had the sense to take it down—but the hole hadn’t been filled yet. Behind the barn were the woods, thick and black and brimming with secrets.
Olivia had told her to take things slow, but moving out of Rosewood was the smartest—and safest—thing she could do.
“You there?” Michael’s voice called. Spencer jumped. “There’s a new listing at two twenty-three Perry Street. It hasn’t even gone on the market yet—the landlord is cleaning and painting—but it’ll probably go up on our Web site on Monday. It’s a one-bedroom on the parlor level of a brownstone. I’m looking at the pictures right now, and the place looks gorgeous. High ceilings, wood floors, crown molding, an eat-in kitchen, a back deck, a claw-foot tub. You’d be near the subway and a block from Marc Jacobs. You sound like you might be a Marc Jacobs girl.”
“You’re right about that.” Spencer smiled.
“You near a computer?” Michael said. “I can e-mail you some pictures of the place right now.”
“Sure,” Spencer said, giving him her e-mail address. She sprang up and walked to Melissa’s laptop, which was sitting closed on the desk. In seconds, a new e-mail appeared in her in-box. The attached photos were of a quaint brownstone with slate stairs. The apartment had wide oak floors, two bay windows, exposed brick, marble countertops, and even a little washer and dryer.
“It looks awesome,” Spencer breathed, nearly swooning. “I’m in Philadelphia at the moment, but could I come to the city on Monday afternoon and check it out?”
She heard a horn honk outside Michael’s window. “That could work, sure,” he said, the hesitation in his voice practically palpable. “But I’ve gotta warn you. Apartments like this don’t come up very often, and New York City real estate is insane. This is one of the best blocks in the Village, and people are going to jump on it. It’s likely that on Monday morning someone’s going to show up at our office as soon as the place lists with a check, sight unseen. By the time you get here, the place might be gone. But I don’t want to pressure you. There are other places I could show you in that neighborhood, too….”
Spencer tensed her shoulders, adrenaline coursing through her veins. She suddenly felt as if she were running for the ball in field hockey or fighting for a teacher’s approval in class. This was her rightful apartment, not someone else’s. She imagined her furniture in the bedroom. She pictured herself wearing her Chanel poncho on Saturday mornings while strolling to Starbucks. She could get a dog and hire one of those dog walkers that walked fifteen dogs at once. Earlier today, she’d looked into private schools in New York City if she didn’t opt to graduate early.
When she glanced down at the blank piece of paper next to the laptop, she realized that she’d doodled 223 Perry Street over and over, in cursive and block letters and calligraphy. No other apartment would do.
“Please don’t list it,” Spencer blurted out. “I want it. I don’t even have to look at it. What if I give you money now? Would that work?”
Michael paused. “We could do that.” He sounded surprised. “Believe me, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a wonderful find.” He clattered on his keyboard. “Okay. We’ll need some cash up front, enough for the first month’s rent, security, and a broker fee. So we should get your mom on the phone. She’s going to be your guarantor for the lease and authorize the transfer of the deposit, right?”
Spencer wiggled her fingers over the laptop keyboard. Olivia had made it clear that her husband, Morgan, was suspicious of people he didn’t know. If she asked Olivia and Morgan for money, she risked losing his trust. She glanced at the screen. There was the folder in the right-hand corner of the desktop. Spencer, College.
She slowly opened the folder and then the PDF. All the information she needed was there. The account was in her name. Olivia had said that once Morgan met her, he’d love her. He’d probably reimburse this account ten times over.
“We don’t need my mother to be involved,” Spencer said. “I have an account in my name I’d like to use.”
“Okay,” Michael said, not missing a beat. He probably dealt with rich city kids with their own accounts all the time. Spencer read Michael the numbers on the screen, her voice quivering. Michael repeated them back to her, and then told her all he had to do was call the landlord and they’d be set. They made arrangements to meet in front of the building at 4 P.M. on Monday so Spencer could sign the lease and collect the keys. After that, the apartment would be hers.
“Great,” Spencer said. Then, she hung up her phone and stared blankly at the wall.
She had done it. She had really done it. In mere days, she wouldn’t live here anymore. She’d be a New Yorker, away from Rosewood for good. Olivia would come home from Paris, and Spencer would be adjusted to city life. She imagined meeting Olivia and Morgan for casual dinners in their apartment and fancier dinners at the Gotham Bar and Grill and Le Bernardin. She pictured the group of new friends she’d make, people who loved going to art exhibitions and benefits and didn’t give a shit that she had once been pursued by a bunch of jealous losers who called themselves A. When she thought of the boys she’d meet, she felt a twinge of sadness—none of them would be Andrew. But then she thought of how he’d treated her today and shook her head. She couldn’t dwell on him right now. Her life was about to change.
Her head felt soft and hollow, as if she were drunk. Her limbs shook with glee. And it almost seemed like she was hallucinating—when she looked out the back window, she thought she saw sparkling beams of light bouncing off the trees, like a fireworks display just for her.
Wait a minute.
Spencer stood. The beams were from a flashlight, criss-crossing over the tree trunks. A figure crouched and started rummaging in the dirt. Whoever it was tried one spot, stopped, and then crab-walked a few paces to the left and tried another.
Her stomach dropped. It couldn’t be a cop—they’d abandoned these woods days ago. She hefted up the window, curious as to whether the person was making any noise. To her horror, the window made a loud scraping sound against the jamb. Spencer winced, curling away.
The figure stopped, turning toward the barn. The flashlight beamed erratically, first right, then left, and then, for a moment, on the figure’s face. Spencer saw the whites of two blue eyes. The edges of a black hooded sweatshirt. A few pale strands of familiar blond hair.
Spencer wrinkled her nose in disbelief. Was that…Melissa?
The figure flinched in the darkness, as if Spencer had spoken out loud. Before Spencer could determine if it really was her sister, the flashlight in the woods snapped off. A few twigs cracked. It appeared that whoever was out there was walking away. The footsteps grew fainter and fainter until Spencer couldn’t distinguish them from the swishing trees.
When Spencer was certain the person was gone, she ran outside and crouched in the dirt. Sure enough, the soil was soft and loose. She felt around for a moment, touching only stones and sticks, but the ground still felt warm, as if someone else’s hands had just been there. As she looked up, she heard a thin sound, far off in the trees. Goose bumps rose on her arms. It almost sounded like…a giggle.
But as Spencer cocked her head, the noise vanished, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it had just been the wind.
ARIA’S FREE FALL
That same afternoon, Aria met Jason outside Rocks and Ropes, an indoor rock-climbing facility a few miles outside Rosewood. “After you,” Jason said, holding the front door.
“Thanks.” Aria swooned. She hitched up the slightly too-big spandex yoga tights she’d stolen from Meredith’s closet, hoping that Jason wouldn’t notice how baggy they were in the butt. Jason, on the other hand, looked comfortable and sexy in a long-sleeved gray T-shirt and Nike warm-up pants, as though he climbed rock walls all the time. Maybe he did.
Once inside, the light was fluorescent and harsh. Aggressive guitar rock blared through the speakers, and the high-ceilinged, rubbery-smelling room had thousands of colorful, plastic-looking outcroppings on the walls. Jason had asked Aria to Rocks and Ropes in a text message this morning, admitting he wasn’t the type of guy to take girls to dinner and a movie. Really, Aria would have stood in line at the DMV with Jason if that was what he considered a date.
After signing in, they walked over to the big wall and looked around. Aria ogled a few girls as they scuttled up the side of the wall, harnesses tied tightly around their waists. How could they stand being up that high? Just craning her neck gave Aria vertigo. She shuddered.
“Are you scared?” Jason asked.
Aria giggled nervously. “I’m not that athletic.”
Jason smiled and took her hand. “It’s fun, I promise.”
Aria flushed with pleasure, thrilled Jason was touching her. She still had to pinch herself to make sure this was really happening.
One of the instructors, a dark-haired guy with a scruffy beard, came over with their gear, which included harnesses, helmets, and special climbing gloves. He asked which of them wanted to be hitched up first. Jason pointed to Aria. “Madame.”
“Such a gentleman,” she teased.
“My mom brought me up well,” Jason answered.
The instructor started to hook a harness around Aria’s torso. When he walked off to find a different clamp, Aria turned to Jason. “So how is your family?” she asked as casually as she could. “Are they…okay?”
Jason stared at a few climbers on the other side of the room for a long time. “They’re wrecked,” he said after a while. He raised his blue eyes to her and smiled sadly. “We all are. But what can we do?”
Aria nodded, having no clue what to say. A’s note from yesterday popped into her mind. Big Brother is hiding something from you. And trust me…you don’t want to know what it is. Aria hadn’t forwarded the note to any of her friends, for fear they would jump to conclusions about Jason. A had to be messing with them—that was Old and New A’s M.O., after all.