Excerpt

Her Pretty Face

Robyn Harding

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Her Pretty Face, by Robyn Harding, the second novel from this rising voice in the genre. In this wicked psychological thriller, two mothers with their own secrets bond over their difficult children, but what really motivates their actions?

DJ

THEN

DJ’s sister had been missing for eleven days. Courtney had taken off after a fight with their parents, and hadn’t been seen since. “She just needs to cool off,” his dad had said, when she didn’t return the first night. “She’s playing with us” he said, the second night, “she wants us to worry.” On the third night, his mom called the police.

They were looking for her now: the police, their dogs, their helicopters. The community had organized search parties, had plastered the town with missing posters. Still, nothing. His parents were frightened and frantic and blaming each other. It was late, and DJ should have been asleep, but instead he was lying in his bed, the acrylic comforter pulled up to his chin, listening to them fight.

They were looking for her now: the police, their dogs, their helicopters.

“Of course, she acts like a slut!” His dad’s angry voice bellowed from down the hall. “Like mother like daughter.”

“She hates you!” his mother screamed back. “That’s why she ran off in the first place. That’s why she fell in with a bad crowd!”

DJ stuck his fingers in his ears, but he could still hear them. His eyes fell on his Power Rangers poster, the glossy image reflecting the light that sneaked through his curtains and slipped under his door. His sister had given it to him for his eleventh birthday last month. “The red one is the best one,” Courtney had said. DJ used to like the blue one best, but now he realized his sister was right, the red one was better. He wished he could turn into a Power Ranger—red or blue. He could go downstairs and stop the fighting. He could go out and find Courtney and bring her home. If he was stronger, if he had superpowers, he could fix his family.

Courtney had been a happy little girl. DJ remembered her giggle, how she had skipped when she walked. She’d played outside with her friends then: jump rope or hopscotch or elaborate games of make-believe with princesses and evil queens and knights who rode snorting horses. And then, almost overnight, his sister changed. She got rounder and prettier. She spent hours in front of the mirror, curling her shiny dark hair and applying heavy makeup that made her look older and sleepy. She wore tight shorts and tiny shirts that showed off her breasts and her belly. His friend Carlos couldn’t stop staring at her when he came over to play Legos. This made DJ uncomfortable, so he stopped inviting Carlos around.

Courtney had gotten angrier, too. She was always yelling at her parents, slamming doors, and storming out of the house. Her father called her names: a little tart, a whore-in-the-making. Her mother cried and cajoled and pleaded with her daughter to stay home, to talk about her problems, to respect their rules. But his sister never did. She had friends who “got her,” she said. When he was fifteen, DJ wanted to find friends like that, not pervs like Carlos who only came around to ogle his sister’s boobs.

The doorbell rang then, and the house fell silent. He realized what his parents would be thinking: a neighbor had heard them fighting and called the police. But DJ knew different. He knew it was the police at the door, but their presence had nothing to do with the yelling and screaming. Courtney was dead. He knew it with a certainty that made his bones ache, made his stomach fill with acid and his teeth gnash together. He heard his father open the door and muffled male voices. Then his mother screamed. Without hearing a single word, DJ knew that his sister had been murdered.

Maybe he did have superpowers.

FRANCES

NOW

Marcus was melting down in the backseat of the Subaru. Frances had let him play a game on his iPad as they drove to school (negotiations should not be seen as “giving in” when parenting a child with his issues), and now he was refusing to go into the school until he reached the next level.

“I understand that the game is important to you,” she’d said, her voice calm but firm, “but you know that school starts at nine, and that being late is inconvenient for the teacher and the other students.”

“I don’t care!” he’d screamed. “I hate the teacher! I hate the other kids!”

“It’s perfectly fine for you to feel that way, but—”

“I hate YOU!”

He hadn’t meant it, she knew that, but it still hurt. No matter how many times Marcus hurled this assault at her, she never stopped feeling the sting. Her son must have known it, must have seen her smart and cringe each and every time, and yet still he said it. Regularly. She reminded herself that Marcus was a child with problems: his synapses fired differently, empathy was a difficult concept for him to grasp. Frances had not borne a child who was simply heartless and cruel.

She reminded herself that Marcus was a child with problems: his synapses fired differently, empathy was a difficult concept for him to grasp.

She stared blindly out the front window as her son yelled and screamed and cried in the backseat. He was eleven now; most children Marcus’s age sat in the front seat, and most had outgrown such tantrums. To make matters worse, the boy was so large that a stranger would think it was a young teenager blubbering and wailing behind her.

“Breathe,” she said, as much to herself as to Marcus. Frances could feel her composure slipping. If Marcus had been having this outburst at home instead of in the parking lot of Forrester Academy, she would have been fine. She was used to this behavior and she knew he would eventually settle. It was the fear that one of those judgmental supermoms would happen by and witness her child’s explosion, observe her inability to calm him, that was sending her anxiety through the roof. She felt perilously close to cracking.

At times like these, her son was not easy to love, but she did, madly. She loved his large, awkward body; his soft, brown hair; his meaty, rosy cheeks. She loved his deep brown eyes, the tinkling of his laughter, the way his tongue poked out of his mouth when he was concentrating. When he was born, she’d wanted the world for him: academic success, sporting prowess, popularity. . . . Now, she just focused on day-to-day survival.

He was about five when they noticed something wasn’t quite right. Marcus fought with other children, fidgeted in class, cried constantly. His kindergarten teacher had called Frances and Jason into a meeting. “We’d like to do some tests,” she’d said, an ominous tinge to her voice.

“Maybe he’s gifted?” Frances had suggested hopefully as Jason drove them home in the Hyundai they owned at the time.

“Maybe that’s why he’s acting up? He’s bored. He’s under-stimulated.”

“Maybe . . .” Jason said.

“He’s always been bright,” Frances continued. “Remember when your mom sent him that puzzle game for his third birthday? He solved it faster than I could.”

Jason either didn’t remember his son’s master puzzle-solving skills or was unimpressed by them. He patted her hand.

“Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it,” he said, ever stoic, ever calm and accepting.

How Frances had craved that designation. If Marcus was extremely intelligent, then his other issues were just par for the course. Being gifted often meant that children were a little weird. But being average (or, God forbid, below average) and weird was another story altogether. When Frances revisited that time, she hated herself. What kind of mother based her love for her weird son on his IQ? She was horrible. But when the results came back—average intelligence, signs of ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder—Frances found that her love for him had not diminished at all.

She blamed herself for her child’s issues. Jason had been a good boy, a good student, and was now a good man. It was Frances who’d had problems. While she’d excelled academically, she had exhibited a lack of impulse control, incredibly poor judgment, and an inability to understand consequences. Had she been normal, she would never have committed the heinous act that she had. She had put her own parents through hell; she didn’t deserve an easy child.

“I hate school!” Marcus screamed, kicking the back of the

passenger seat. “I want to burn it down!”

“I understand your feelings, Marcus.”

“No, you don’t! You’re stupid!”

Frances’s homicidal fantasies were never directed at her son. Even in their darkest moments, she couldn’t imagine harming a hair on his inordinately large round head. What she did dream about, in times like these, was running away. She could get out of the car, close the door on her son’s rage, and just walk off. She could stride across the Forrester Academy parking lot anddown the hill to the Bellevue Transit Center, where she could catch a bus into Seattle. There, she could go to a hotel and sneak onto an airport shuttle that would deliver her to Sea-Tac. She could fly to South Africa or Scandinavia or New Zealand and start over. Frances had done it before: closed the door on a dark chapter and become a new person. But she was a mother now.

Frances had done it before: closed the door on a dark chapter and become a new person. But she was a mother now.

It changed everything.

Suddenly, there was a light tap-tap-tap on her side window. Frances didn’t want to look, but, instinctively, she did. Instead of the angry, judgmental, Botoxed face she was expecting, she met the sympathetic gaze of her friend Kate. Relief flooded through Frances.

She turned the key in the ignition and lowered the window.

“Rough morning?” the blond woman asked with genuine concern.

“You could say that.” She noticed Kate’s son, Charles, hovering behind his mother. He was watching Marcus impassively, like he was monitoring a science experiment, a chimpanzee in a glass box with an abacus. Frances gave a weak smile. “Marcus doesn’t want to go to school.”

“We know the feeling.” Kate looked at her son. “Don’t we, buddy?”

“Yeah.”

Kate leaned down, rested her hands on her knees, and peered in at Marcus. Distracted by their presence, his tantrum had dwindled to an incessant whimper. Kate said, “Maybe he’d go in with Charles?”

“I don’t know. . . .”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Charles?” she said, loud enough for Marcus to hear.

“Sure.” Charles was surely the most compliant child ever created.

“It’s okay,” Frances said, knowing Marcus was not that easily defused. “We don’t want to make you late.” But Charles was already rapping on the back window and waving at her son.

To Frances’s surprise, Marcus undid his seat belt and scooched from the back passenger seat across to the driver’s side.

“Want to come in with me?” Charles asked through the glass.

In the rearview mirror, Frances saw her son wipe his tearstreaked face with his fleshy paws. “Okay.” Without a word to his mother, he opened the back door and exited the car. Frances climbed out of the driver’s seat and stood with Kate, watching their boys cross the front courtyard toward the school doors. The adolescents walked in companionable silence until Charles leaned his head slightly toward Marcus and said something indiscernible. Marcus glanced at his friend, and a smile—light, carefree, happy—danced on her son’s lips. Frances suddenly felt she might cry.

“They’re so cute,” Kate said.

“They are.” Frances pushed through the tremor in her voice.

“Thank you.”

“Charles likes Marcus. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, either.”

Really? Charles seemed so exceedingly normal: athletic, articulate, engaged. . . . Was it possible the boy had hidden challenges? That Marcus wasn’t the only one battling his way through childhood? A lump formed in Frances’s throat at the prospect that her son was not alone.

“Do you have time for a coffee?” Kate asked.

Frances looked up at the tall woman, so elegant, so puttogether. She couldn’t help but wonder why such a perfect specimen would covet her friendship. Kate could have anyone, could be part of the mommy in-crowd, on the maternal A-list.

What could she possibly see in damaged Frances?

They were both new to the elite private school, having arrived on the same warm August morning: Frances, so desperate, so obsequious, so ingratiating; Kate, cool, aloof, distant. . . . The attractive blond had barely hit Frances’s radar then (all instruments had been focused on the alpha moms, like Allison Moss and Jeanette Dumas). And Frances had made some progress with them. There had been a moderately successful playdate, a mid-morning coffee klatch, a power walk. . . . And then, Marcus had urinated in Abbey’s water bottle and it all blew up.

They were both new to the elite private school, having arrived on the same warm August morning: Frances, so desperate, so obsequious, so ingratiating; Kate, cool, aloof, distant. . . .

Frances would never forget that day. She had stood on the edge of the playground while her son, comfortable with his recent ostracizing, tossed a basketball in the general direction of a hoop mounted on a tall post. To her right, a gaggle of Forrester mothers audibly gossiped about them.

“Something’s wrong with him. He should be in a school for kids with behavior issues.”

“He’s sick. He’s perverted. He needs help.”

The next voice was even louder. “It’s selfish to send him to a school like Forrester. He’s putting all the normal kids at risk.”

Frances turned toward them, her face burning with anger and shame. It was the first time, in years, that her mind had gone to that murderous place. A machine gun factored into this particular fantasy, bitchy moms splattered all over the playground. It was a brief illusion and sanity quickly prevailed. She obviously couldn’t shoot them, but she needed to speak up—for herself and for her son. But what could she possibly say?

Before she could craft a retort, a tall, fair-haired woman had materialized. She walked right up to the nattering group.

“He’s just a kid, you toxic bitches.”

It was crass, rude . . . and fantastic! The moms’ jaws dropped open and no one spoke. What could they say? A lot, as Frances knew all too well, but this woman didn’t seem to care. She walked past them, casually, and joined Frances on the side of the playground.

“I’m Kate,” she said, pointing toward the basketball hoop. “Is that your son?”

“Uh . . . yeah.”

“Mine’s over there.” Kate indicated Charles: cute, sporty, normal. The refrain of criticism renewed behind them, louder now, and directed at Kate, the interloper. But the willowy woman remained unperturbed. She wasn’t afraid of the other mothers like Frances was; their judgments and criticisms didn’t faze her. Frances was slightly in awe of her.

“Coffee sounds great,” Frances said now, and then, “Shit!”

Her hands flew to her chest and gripped her large, unfettered breasts. “I didn’t even put on a bra this morning.”

Kate burst into laughter and Frances had to giggle, too. “I was hoping I could drop Marcus at the kiss-and-drive,” she explained, crossing her arms. “I wasn’t planning to get out of the car.”

“I have an idea,” Kate said, eyes dancing. “Go home and get dressed. Wear something hot. I’ll pick you up at eleven-thirty.”

Frances was supposed to go to Curves this morning. Her goal was three workouts a week, but she rarely (okay, never) attained her objective. And Kate’s animated offer was impossible to turn down.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

Frances didn’t own anything “hot,” but her long, silky top was flattering at least. It covered her hips and her butt, and the low neckline flattered her ample cleavage (now propped up by a sturdy bra). She wore a pair of slim dark jeans, boots with a medium heel, and a black blazer. She’d taken time with her makeup, too, applying a becoming daytime look. Frances felt almost pretty . . . until she looked across to the driver’s seat and Kate. Her companion was effortlessly stylish in expensive, faded jeans, a suede jacket, and enormous hoop earrings. Watching Kate masterfully pilot the Lincoln Navigator down I-90 toward Seattle, Frances’s confidence plummeted.

“Thanks for agreeing to this,” Kate said, glancing over with a smile. “It’s a real treat to spend a day with a friend.”

“My pleasure,” Frances replied, her self-esteem rising a couple of notches. “I don’t usually do things like this.”

“Things like what?” Kate teased. “You don’t know what we’re doing yet. I could be taking you to some depraved underground sex club.”

“Of course.” Frances shrugged. “That’s where I spend all my Tuesday mornings.”

Kate’s laughter tinkled, and Frances felt warm and happy. She was having a girls’ day out. Like other women did. Like women whose children didn’t require special diets and structured routines and constant research into treatments and behavioral modification therapies. Like women who didn’t eschew close relationships because their past was full of terrible secrets they’d protect at all costs. As the SUV exited the freeway, Frances felt a shiver of anticipation. Today felt like the start of something.

__________________________________

From HER PRETTY FACE. Used with the permission of the publisher, Scout Press. Copyright © 2018 by Robyn Harding. 




More Story
July's Best New Thrillers I am so excited to be writing for CrimeReads, and honestly couldn’t have picked a better month to kick this column off because,...