4. SPENCER WALKS THE PLANK

“Honey, you’re not supposed to eat mussels with your hands. It’s not polite.”

Spencer Hastings looked across the table at her mother, Veronica, who nervously ran her hands through her perfectly highlighted ash-blond hair. “Sorry,” Spencer said, picking up the ridiculously small mussel-eating fork.

“I really don’t think Melissa should be living in the town house with all that dust,” Mrs. Hastings said to her husband, ignoring Spencer’s apology.

Peter Hastings rolled his neck around. When he wasn’t practicing law, he was furiously cycling all the back roads of Rosewood in tight, colorful spandex shirts and bike pants, shaking his fist at speeding cars. All that cycling gave him chronically sore shoulders.

“All that hammering! I don’t know how she’ll get any studying done,” Mrs. Hastings went on.

Spencer and her parents were sitting at Moshulu, a restaurant aboard a clipper ship in the Philadelphia harbor, waiting for Spencer’s sister, Melissa, to meet them for dinner. It was a big celebratory dinner because Melissa had graduated from U Penn undergrad a year early and had gotten into Penn’s Wharton School of Business. The downtown Philly town house was being renovated as a gift from their parents to Melissa.

In just two days, Spencer was starting her junior year at Rosewood and would have to surrender herself to this year’s jam-packed schedule: five APs, leadership training, charity drive organizing, yearbook editing, drama tryouts, hockey practice, and sending in summer program applications ASAP, since everyone knew that the best way to get into an Ivy was to get into one of their pre-college summer camps. But there was one thing Spencer had to look forward to this year: moving into the converted barn that sat at the back of her family’s property. According to her parents, it was the perfect way to prepare for college—just look how well it had worked for Melissa! Barf. But Spencer was happy to follow in her sister’s footsteps in this case, since they led out to the tranquil, light-flooded guesthouse where Spencer could escape her parents and their constantly barking labradoodles.

The sisters had a quiet yet long-standing rivalry and Spencer was always losing: Spencer had won the Presidential Physical Fitness Award four times in elementary school; Melissa had won it five. Spencer got second place in the seventh-grade geography bee; Melissa got first. Spencer was on the yearbook staff, in all of the school plays, and was taking five AP classes this year; Melissa did all those things her junior year plus worked at their mother’s horse farm and trained for the Philadelphia marathon for leukemia research. No matter how high Spencer’s GPA was or how many extracurriculars she smashed into her schedule, she never quite reached Melissa’s level of perfection.

Spencer picked up another mussel with her fingers and popped it into her mouth. Her dad loved this restaurant, with its dark wood paneling, thick oriental rugs, and the heady smells of butter, red wine, and salty air. Sitting among the masts and sails, it felt like you could jump right overboard into the harbor. Spencer gazed out across the Delaware River to the big bubbly aquarium in Camden, New Jersey. A giant party boat decorated with Christmas lights floated past them. Someone shot a yellow firework off the front deck. That boat was having way more fun than this one was having.

“What’s Melissa’s friend’s name again?” her mother murmured.

“I think it’s Wren,” Spencer said. In her head she added, As in scrawny bird.

“She told me he’s studying to be a doctor,” her mother swooned. “At U Penn.”

“Of course he is,” Spencer quietly singsonged. She bit down hard on a piece of mussel shell and winced. Melissa was bringing her boyfriend of two months to dinner. The family hadn’t met him yet—he’d been away visiting family or something—but Melissa’s boyfriends were all the same: textbook handsome, well mannered, played golf. Melissa didn’t have an ounce of creativity in her body and clearly looked for the same predictability in her boyfriends.

“Mom!” a familiar voice called from behind Spencer.

Melissa swooped to the other side of the table and gave each of her parents a huge kiss. Her look hadn’t changed since high school: her ash-blond hair was cut bluntly to her chin, she wore no makeup except for a little foundation, and she wore a dowdy square-necked yellow dress, a pearl-buttoned pink cardigan, and semi-cute kitten-heeled shoes.

“Darling!” her mother cried.

“Mom, Dad, here’s Wren.” Melissa pulled in someone next to her.

Spencer tried to keep her mouth from dropping open. There was nothing scrawny, birdlike, or textbook about Wren. He was tall and lanky and wore a beautifully cut Thomas Pink shirt. His black hair was cut in a long, shaggy, messy style. He had beautiful skin, high cheekbones, and almond-shaped eyes.

Wren shook her parents’ hands and sat down at the table. Melissa asked her mom a question about where to have the plumber’s bill sent, while Spencer waited to be introduced. Wren pretended to be really interested in an oversize wineglass.

“I’m Spencer,” she said finally. She wondered if her breath smelled like mussels. “The other daughter.” Spencer nodded toward the other side of the table. “The one they keep in the basement.”

“Oh.” Wren grinned. “Cool.”

Was that a British accent she heard? “Isn’t it strange they haven’t asked you a single thing about yourself?” Spencer gestured at her parents. Now they were talking about contractors and the best wood to use for the living room floor.

Wren shrugged, and then whispered, “Kinda.” He winked.

Suddenly Melissa grabbed Wren’s hand. “Oh, I see you’ve met her,” she cooed.

“Yeah.” He smiled. “You didn’t tell me you had a sister.”

Of course she hadn’t.

“So Melissa,” Mrs. Hastings said. “Daddy and I were talking about where you might be staying while all the renovations are happening. And I just thought of something. Why not just come back to Rosewood to live with us for a few months? You can commute to Penn; you know how easy it is.”

Melissa wrinkled her nose. Please say no, please say no, Spencer willed.

“Well.” Melissa adjusted the strap of her yellow dress. The more Spencer stared at it, the more the color made Melissa look like she had the flu. Melissa glanced at Wren. “The thing is…Wren and I are going to be moving into the town house…together.”

“Oh!” Her mother smiled at both of them. “Well…I suppose Wren could stay with us too…what do you think, Peter?”

Spencer had to clutch her boobs to keep her heart from exploding out of her chest. They were moving in together? Her sister really had some balls. She could just imagine what would happen if she dropped a bomb like that. Mom really would make Spencer live in the basement—or maybe in the stable. She could set up shop next to the horses’ companion goat.

“Well, I suppose that’s all right,” her father said. Unbelievable! “It’ll certainly be quiet. Mom’s in the stable most of the day, and of course Spencer will be in school.”

“You’re in school?” Wren asked. “Where?”

“She’s in high school,” Melissa butted in. She stared long at Spencer, as if she were sizing her up. From Spencer’s tight ecru Lacoste tennis dress to her long, dark blond wavy hair to her two-carat diamond earrings. “Same high school I went to. I never asked, Spence—are you president of the class this year?”

“VP,” Spencer mumbled. There was no way Melissa hadn’t already known that.

“Oh, aren’t you so happy it worked out that way?” Melissa asked.

“No,” Spencer said flatly. She’d run for the spot last spring but had been beaten out and had to take the VP slot. She hated losing at anything.

Melissa shook her head. “You don’t understand, Spence—it’s soooooo much work. When I was president, I barely had time for anything else!”

“You do have quite a few activities, Spencer,” Mrs. Hastings murmured. “There’s yearbook, and all those hockey games….”

“Besides, Spence, you’ll take over if the president, you know…dies.” Melissa winked at her as if they were sharing this joke, which they weren’t.

Melissa turned back to her parents. “Mom. I just got the best idea. What if Wren and I stayed in the barn? Then we’d be out of your hair.”

Spencer felt as if someone had just kicked her in the ovaries. The barn?

Mrs. Hastings put her French-manicured finger to her perfectly lipsticked mouth. “Hmm,” she started. She turned tentatively to Spencer. “Would you be able to wait a few months, honey? Then the barn will be all yours.”

“Oh!” Melissa laid down her fork. “I didn’t know you were going to move in there, Spence! I don’t want to cause problems—”

“It’s fine,” Spencer interrupted, grabbing her glass of ice water and taking a hearty swallow. She willed herself not to throw a tantrum in front of her parents and Perfect Melissa. “I can wait.”

“Seriously?” Melissa asked. “That’s so sweet of you!”

Her mother pressed her cold, thin hand against Spencer’s and beamed. “I knew you’d understand.”

“Can you excuse me?” Spencer dizzily shoved her seat back from the table and stood up. “I’ll be right back.” She walked across the boat’s wooden floor, down the carpeted main stairs, and out the front entrance. She needed to get to dry land.

Out on the Penn’s Landing walkway, the Philadelphia skyline glittered. Spencer sat down on a bench and breathed yoga fire breaths. Then she pulled out her wallet and started to organize her money. She turned all the ones, fives, and twenties in the same direction and alphabetized them according to the long letter-number combination printed in green in the corners. Doing this always made her feel better. When she finished, she gazed up at the ship’s dining deck. Her parents faced the river, so they couldn’t see her. She dug through her tan Hogan bag for her emergency pack of Marlboros and lit one.

She took drag after angry drag. Stealing the barn was evil enough, but doing it in such a polite way was just Melissa’s style—Melissa had always been outwardly nice but inwardly horrid. And no one could see it but Spencer.

She’d gotten revenge on Melissa just once, a few weeks before the end of seventh grade. One evening, Melissa and her then-boyfriend, Ian Thomas, were studying for finals. When Ian left, Spencer cornered him outside by his SUV, which he’d parked behind her family’s row of pine trees. She’d merely wanted to flirt—Ian was wasting all his hotness on her plain vanilla, goody-two-shoes sister—so she gave Ian a peck good-bye on the cheek. But when he pressed her up against his passenger door, she didn’t try to run away. They only stopped kissing when his car alarm started to blare.

When Spencer told Alison about it, Ali said it was a pretty foul thing to do and that she should confess to Melissa. Spencer suspected Ali was just pissed because they’d had a running competition all year over who could hook up with the most older boys, and kissing Ian put Spencer in the lead.

Spencer inhaled sharply. She hated being reminded of that period of her life. But the DiLaurentises’ old house was right next door to hers, and one of Ali’s bedroom windows faced one of Spencer’s—it was like Ali haunted her 24/7. All Spencer had to do was look out her window and there was seventh-grade Ali, hanging her JV hockey uniform right where Spencer could see it or strolling around her bedroom gossiping into her cell phone.

Spencer wanted to think she’d changed a lot since seventh grade. They’d all been so mean—especially Alison—but not just Alison. And the worst memory of all was the thing…The Jenna Thing. Thinking of that made Spencer feel so horrible, she wished she could erase it from her brain like they did in that movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

“You shouldn’t be smoking, you know.”

She turned, and there was Wren, standing right next to her. Spencer looked at him, surprised. “What are you doing down here?”

“They were…” He opened and closed his hands at each other, like mouths yapping. “And I have a page.” He pulled out a BlackBerry.

“Oh,” Spencer said. “Is that from the hospital? I hear you’re a big-time doctor.”

“Well, no, actually, I’m only a first-year med student,” Wren said, and then pointed at her cigarette. “You mind if I have a bit of that?”

Spencer twisted the corners of her mouth up wryly. “You just told me not to smoke,” she said, handing it over to him.

“Yeah, well.” Wren took a deep drag off the cigarette. “You all right?”

“Whatever.” Spencer wasn’t about to talk things over with her sister’s new live-in boyfriend who’d just stolen her barn. “So where are you from?”

“North London. My Dad’s Korean, though. He moved to England to go to Oxford and ended up staying. Everyone asks.”

“Oh. I wasn’t going to,” Spencer replied, even though she had thought about it. “How’d you and my sister meet?”

“At Starbucks,” he answered. “She was in line in front of me.”

“Oh,” Spencer said. How incredibly lame.

“She was buying a latte,” Wren added, kicking at the stone curb.

“That’s nice.” Spencer fiddled with her pack of cigarettes.

“This was a few months ago.” He raggedly took another drag, his hand shaking a little and his eyes darting around. “I fancied her before she got the town house.”

“Right,” Spencer said, realizing he seemed a little nervous. Maybe he was tense about meeting her parents. Or was it moving in with Melissa that had him on edge? If Spencer were a boy and had to move in with Melissa, she’d throw herself off Moshulu’s crow’s nest into the Delaware River.

He handed the cigarette back to her. “I hope it’s okay that I’m going to be staying in your house.”

“Um, yeah. Whatever.”

Wren licked his lips. “Maybe I can get you to kick your smoking addiction.”

Spencer stiffened. “I’m not addicted.”

“Sure you’re not,” Wren answered, smiling.

Spencer shook her head emphatically. “No, I’d never let that happen.” And it was true: Spencer hated feeling out of control.

Wren smiled. “Well, you certainly sound like you know what you’re doing.”

“I do.”

“Are you that way with everything?” Wren asked, his eyes shining.

There was something about the light, teasing way he said it that made Spencer pause. Were they…flirting? They stared at each other for a few seconds until a big group of people came whooshing off the boat onto the street. Spencer lowered her eyes.

“So, do you think it’s time we go back?” Wren asked.

Spencer hesitated and looked at the street, full of taxis, ready to take her wherever she wanted. She almost wanted to ask Wren to get in one of the cabs with her and go to a baseball game at Citizens Bank Park, where they could eat hot dogs, yell at the players, and count how many strikeouts the Phillies’ starting pitcher racked up. She could use her dad’s box seats—they mostly just went to waste, anyway—and she bet Wren would be into that. Why go back in, when her family was just going to continue to ignore them? A cab paused at the light, just a few feet from them. She looked at it, then back at Wren.

But no, that’d be wrong. And who would fill the vice president’s post if he died and she was murdered by her own sister? “After you,” Spencer said, and held the door open for him so they could climb back aboard.

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