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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Retreat

A Novel of Suspense

Sherri Smith

Forge Books



Ellie planted one last, lingering goodbye kiss on Nate’s velvety lips. This would be their first weekend apart. “Ew, gross. Get a room or let’s go! We’re late.” Katie, clearly squeamish, gave a stage-effect groan and drummed on the dash. This from the girl who’d made them late.

“All right, you two, have fun. But not too much fun.” Nate gave his sister an Old West squint. “You. Don’t get my fiancée into any trouble.”

“Oh, Nate,” Ellie said in her twinkly English accent as she ran her hand over his forearm before pulling away from the curb, veering a little too far into the other lane, which yielded rapid-fire honking from an irate cab driver.

Katie leaned out the window, hand cupped to mouth, and shouted, “She’s British, not deaf, asshole!” She plopped down into her seat, almost losing her oversize sunhat that took up her entire side of the vehicle. “Wait, you know what side to drive on, right?” Katie liked to make jabs at Ellie’s Britishness.

Ellie smiled tightly at her sister-in-law-to-be. “Of course; I just didn’t expect that you’d get something so big.” For some reason, Katie had thought it would be prudent to lease a mammoth black Escalade to go up to a retreat that bragged about its eco-sustainability. She’d arranged to have it dropped off and now Ellie was driving because Katie, for some inexplicable reason, hadn’t been able to get to the DMV to renew her license, which expired the day after she leased this monster. No excuse or apology was offered unless you counted a deadpan I forgot. Good thing Nate was there to sign for it.

“So we’ll head right to LaGuardia first,” Katie said, all nonchalant, then snapped her gum. She slid on some mirrored sunglasses to go along with her ridiculous hat.

“What? Why?”

“To pick up Ariel. Then we’ll get Carmen.”

Ellie had no idea what she was talking about. “Are you giving them a ride somewhere?”

“Yeah, to the retreat.”

“You invited your friends?” Ellie’s mouth gaped with outrage.

Katie looked at her as if she were senile. “I told you that.”

“No, you certainly did not.”

“I swear I did.”

“No. I would have remembered that. I’d thought this was going to be just us.” Ellie felt sucker punched. This changed everything she’d planned for the weekend. Their weekend. Rather than apologizing for this rude intrusion, Katie just kept repeating that she was sooo sure she’d told Ellie, as if through sheer repetition she could make something true.

“It’s just Ariel and Carmen,” Katie finally added, like it mattered.

But of course, Ellie thought. Of course Katie had to invite along members of what she referred to as her girl squad—an ever-changing ragtag group of other daytime drinkers and hangers-on—because she didn’t want to be alone with Ellie. It confirmed what Ellie had long known, something she’d complained to Nate about. Your sister doesn’t like me.

“I went to college with them,” Katie said because she frequently liked to reiterate that she’d briefly attended college—as if a year of theater compared to Ellie’s graduate studies in environmental sciences.

Ariel. Ellie knew that name. Katie said it a lot around Nate, making his neck burn bright red, which made Ellie fairly certain Nate must have slept with this Ariel at some point.

Unbelievable. What are we, five minutes into this trip? And already the Katie Manning circus has taken hold.

She should turn around, run back to her fiancé. Katie probably expected her to do just that. Hightail it back to a very disappointed Nate so Katie could put her arms up over her head and claim that she’d tried but that Ellie was the one who’d bailed.

Whenever Ellie felt like she couldn’t take Nate’s sister for another second, she thought of her as that slightly bewildered-looking girl playing Shelby Spade, and she could pull it together. Adapt. Ellie knew going into it that it wasn’t going to be easy this weekend. She gripped the wheel harder. “LaGuardia, you said?”

* * *

Nate had waited for his second date with Ellie to reveal the identity of his sister, and he’d told her with the same gravitas as if he were telling her he was HIV positive. Apparently, Nate had put up with a whole stable of ex-girlfriends who’d wanted nothing more than to hang out with their preteen hero Shelby Spade and enjoy the accompanying fringe benefits of being friends with a celebrity (to which Ellie could personally attest was not much). When she’d told him her mother wasn’t keen about owning a television, and she had no idea who he was talking about, well, Ellie believed that sealed the deal with him right then and there.

* * *

Their first date hadn’t really been a first date but an interview—then again, was there really a difference between the two? Ellie had walked in with her résumé for a waitressing job at Nate Manning’s new restaurant and had left with a boyfriend. Or least that was how she loved to answer the “how did you meet” question.

It was September and she’d been in New York exactly forty-eight hours. She had her hair up in her best artsy blond bun and was wearing a sleek, sleeveless black jumpsuit with just the right amount of plunge in the neck. Not too desperate but enough to offset the glasses. She softened her startling blue eyes with sexy reading glasses she picked up last minute at CVS. And yes, she referred to her own shade of blue eyes as startling. What could she say? She knew what she looked like.

The restaurant was a week away from its grand opening, and the flooring was still being installed. It was an upscale gastropub jammed with flat-screens, a mix of cozy booths and round tables, exposed brick, and twenty-two-foot ceilings. She sat at the bar while Nate stood behind it, glancing over her résumé.

He asked her the usual interview questions over the intermittent buzz of a circular saw and random hammering. She drew his attention first to her brief stint as a runway model, telling him that while she did not have any direct waitressing experience, she did have impeccable balance.

He liked this. Then she made sure to tell Nate she was never serious about modeling but making the world a better place, and that’s why she was finishing her graduate degree at Columbia. Her focus area was human impact on the environment. Nate looked genuinely impressed. Beautiful with substance—if she ever started a perfume line, she’d call it that. Nate asked her more questions about her studies, and she was ready with a bouquet of less sanctimonious-sounding answers.

“So if I hire you, am I really helping out the world at large?”

“I think that’s an accurate statement. And if you hire me, I’ll bring major composting skills to the position.” Ellie smiled, and took off her glasses.

Nate flicked his eyebrows and smiled. Oh, that smile, with its slight gap in the front teeth, a smile that had been goofy when he was younger but now gave him a slightly dangerous look. She’d go so far as to call it disarming, that gap.

She’d later tell him that he looked much better now than he did in those old Tiger Beat pictures, and she meant it. She’d done her research on him. Nate was the pinup who was probably never pinned up much. The guy who balanced a basketball on his index finger in a good-guy pose because he wasn’t good looking enough to be broody—he was too happy, too open-faced, too jug-eared, not that she said this to him. For a while, like other siblings of established child actors, Nate scored a few guest spots on Shelby Spade, but it didn’t go anywhere for him; his restaurant was aptly named Underdogs. All that remained of his stunted glory days were those Tiger Beat shots and a few archived online questionnaires about what he wanted in a girl.

Your fave food: Anything Italian. (Check. Ellie made a mean lasagna.)

What you like in a girl: A good sense of humor (Didn’t they all say that?), a nice smile. I have a soft spot for blondes and English accents. (Ellie had just highlighted her hair and spoke with a crisp London accent, so check and check!) And someone who cares about making the world a better place. (Check! Check! Check!)

“So should I expect a call, or are you saying I’m hired on the spot?” Ellie tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear, never breaking eye contact. The interview was going so much better than she could have ever expected.

“It depends.” Nate looked away first. Another glance at her résumé. Then he made a proposition: if she could start working right then, she was hired. See, he needed someone to taste test some cocktails, because, he said, every good restaurant needed a signature cocktail you couldn’t get anywhere else.

So Ellie stayed and taste tested a gag-worthy fleet of neon cockatils that were either too bitter, too tart, or too sickly sweet. Nate worked behind the bar like a frenzied chemist until he finally handed her something good. Really good. When she told him so, he looked stricken. He’d forgotten exactly what he’d put in it. Nate tried another three or four mixes but didn’t get it exactly right, and so she got up and joined him behind the bar.

The work crew left, and they spent the rest of the night trying to replicate whatever Nate had made, getting messy drunk in the process—one of those rare occasions Ellie let herself drink too much. It wasn’t until the sun started to come up and shot into the restaurant, lighting up one side of their faces like phantom masks, that Nate grabbed her and kissed her, his lips tasting of sugar rim and whiskey. He pulled back and looked at her. “Who are you?”

Ellie could have easily answered, I’m the girl you described in Tiger Beat; I’m the girl of your dreams, but she instead kissed him back, and he cleared the bar of shot glasses and lime wedges. A bottle of bourbon shattered on the ground. He lifted her up and parted her knees.

Afterward, she wanted to call someone. Her mom or her sister. Let the details spill out of her like a schoolgirl. Her stomach tripping over itself.

And then Ellie met Katie.

The worst thing about Nate was his sister.

* * *

They didn’t actually get on the road until the afternoon. Four and a half hours after they’d left the apartment, all because Katie could not make adequate arrangements to meet her friends. She did not check airport arrival times, so they had to wait inside LaGuardia, wilting in its soupy, warm, Cinnabon-flavored air that tickled the back of Ellie’s throat.

When they returned to the parking lot, Ariel tossed in her suitcases and cooed over the Cadillac SUV, and it was suddenly clear Katie had rented this tank just to spark envy.

They had to fight traffic back to pick up Carmen at a client’s apartment. When she parked, Ellie went to turn off the car, but Katie insisted they keep the missile of an engine running to unnecessarily pump out its noxious pollutants, just to keep the AC going.

“How is Carmen?” Ariel asked gravely from the back seat.

“I don’t know; I hardly see her anymore. I mean, she has like four kids now.”

“Your friend has four children?” Ellie asked. She couldn’t picture Katie having a friend with that much responsibility, who couldn’t go out and party with her every night, or Katie enduring all the mundane details mothers shared about their children. Unless the friend wasn’t a very good mother.

“No, no. They’re her siblings, but she’s practically their mother.” In the fifteen minutes they waited for Carmen, Katie explained how Carmen had been in her last year at NYU and already armed with a scholarship to attend med school at Dartmouth when her hard-partying, bipolar mom walked out for a plumber and hadn’t paid a dime of child support since. Carmen was forced to defer school for a year to work and help out, but she never went back to finish her undergrad degree and lost out on her scholarship. Now Carmen was a home-care worker, caring for her siblings and her Parkinson’s-afflicted dad, crammed into a crumbling three-bedroom duplex on Staten Island.

Ariel made a sad clicking noise. “It’s the cycle of poverty,” she said just as Carmen came hustling out of the apartment building, still in her scrubs and peeling off latex gloves, which she tossed in a garbage bin. Ariel and Katie jumped out of the SUV and greeted their friend with a round of screechy “missed you so much” that went on for several minutes. Ellie turned the music up, then cranked it back down when they got back into the car. “Did not want to spend a second longer in there than I had to,” Carmen said without explanation as she jumped into the back seat and placed a wrist full of colorful reusable grocery totes at her feet that were obviously doubling as luggage.

Copyright © 2019 by Sherri Smith