Mia scanned the ten-foot hedge surrounding her yard. It was overgrown, with errant shoots of new branches breaking free from the trimmed straight edges on every side. It was thick, impenetrable—or so she’d been told. It would be impossible for someone to hide on the other side, watching her, staring at her. Alexander, her husband, had assured her and even led her by the hand to the other side to show her and prove it to her. She had looked for herself, and she believed him.
And still, she felt eyes all over her body.
Mia pushed the distressing thoughts from her mind and watched her twin girls, a month away from their sixth birthday, clasp hands and leap in unison into the deep end of their backyard pool. Their short brown hair was wet and plastered flat against their heads.
Their classmate and guest, Caleb, watched from his perch at the pool’s edge. His thin arms threaded through the flotation pillows his mother had blown up and attached to him earlier. For the last half-hour, Caleb had teetered on the brink of having fun. But no matter how much the girls harangued him, he continued to sit with only his feet dangling below the surface.
“Caleb!” His mother called from the rattan lounger beside Mia’s. “Just jump in! The floaties!” She pointed to her own arms. “They’ll keep you up!”
Caleb said nothing and gave his mother a skeptical look before ignoring her advice and settling for watching Sasha and Everly have all the fun.
With a sigh, his mother gave up. “He did the same thing at every single one of his swim lessons all summer. I swear, the minute I tell him it’s time to leave, he’ll decide he’s ready to play.”
Mia gave Dominique a sympathetic smile, picked up the half-empty bottle of chardonnay between them, and offered to refill Dominique’s glass.
“I shouldn’t,” Dominique said as she held out her glass and smiled. “But I will anyway.”
Mia poured, smiled, and hoped her hostess act was a good camouflage for the interior storm gathering inside her. The last thing she wanted was for Dominique Richards, PTA president and most influential parent at Beacon Hill Private Academy, to suspect something was wrong with Mia Strauss. She should say something, she realized. Something off-the-cuff, relaxed, witty—anything other than this incessant nodding and smiling. Instead, Mia reached for a lock of her waist-length, jet-black hair and drew it like a curtain over the eight-inch scar that ran down the right side of her face.
Her nervous, unshakable habit.
Dominique had obviously seen this broadcast of insecurity. But like most people, she was polite enough to pretend she never noticed Mia’s facial disfigurement. Dominique turned away and centered her line of sight on their children laughing in the pool.
“Do you mind watching my girls for a minute?” Mia asked. “I’m just going to use the restroom.”
Dominique faced Mia again with her very white, perfectly straight smile. “Of course.” She swiped her hand through the air. It’s nothing. “Maybe I’ll slide into the pool myself and see if I can lure my son in.”
“Thank you,” Mia said, sounding too grateful. God, she was terrible at socializing, speaking, and acting like a human. Without another word—that could only make this situation even more awkward—Mia slipped her legs over the edge of her lounger, stood up, and forced herself to walk normally, not flee, to the backdoor of her house.
Once inside, with the door closed and protecting her from further scrutiny, Mia fell back against it and covered her face with her hands. Her original plan had been to get to know Dominique and establish some sort of normal, school-based relationships for Sasha and Everly. Then pull off a real birthday party, with friends from school, next month. And even though she dreaded doing any of this, Mia cared enough about her girls to make an effort and pull her shit together. But they were only an hour into the playdate, and Mia felt that she was already rattling apart from the effort. Inviting Dominique and her son here for the afternoon was a terrible idea. Mia now wished she’d never even considered it.
She dropped her hands, took a breath, and stood up straight. “Well, it’s too late for that now,” she whispered. It’s not like she could hide in the house for the rest of the day while Dominique watched the kids alone.
Mia shook her head at the stupidity of the thought. “Of course not,” she muttered. Jesus, consider how much worse it would look—and what Dominique might tell the other parents—if Mia just didn’t reappear.
She gave her arms a violent shake, squared her shoulders, and headed for the stairs. She could do this. She would do this. She just needed a little more help.
Mia realized one of the biggest problems was the shirt she had forced herself to wear. Which now, in hindsight, seemed obvious—the short sleeves exposed her arms. Earlier, before Dominique and Caleb had arrived, Mia had stood at the center of the walk-in closet she and Alexander shared and decided to forgo the safety of one of her typical long-sleeves—she feared Dominique would find it strange to see her covered from head to toe while they lounged by the pool in eighty-degree heat. She had paired her most drapey black linen pants with one of the few short sleeve blouses still remaining in her wardrobe.
But from the moment she had slipped it over her head, it had felt like a mistake. The loose sleeves stopped short right above her elbow, exposing her forearm and hands. Once she reached the safety of her bedroom, Mia pulled the shirt up over her head and dropped it into the trash can beside her dresser. She pulled one of her Anthony Thomas Melillo mock turtlenecks from her middle drawer. She threaded her arms into the extra-long sleeves before lifting it over her head and smoothing the familiar fabric into place along her long torso.
Mia held her neck between her two cupped hands, closed her eyes, and waited for relief. She could feel every pulse of her rapid heartbeat course through the jugulars beneath her palms. But with every second that passed, and deep breath Mia took, the pressure and intensity thrumming through her body ebbed, and she was able to drop her hands.
She pulled the extra-long sleeves over each of her hands to the base of her long, delicate fingers, then turned and headed for the drawer in her bathroom where she kept her meds. When she pressed and twisted the safety cap off and into her palm, she saw only three pills at the bottom of the brown plastic bottle.
She checked the date on the label—it had only been a week since she’d had it refilled. This worried her for several reasons. For starters, if her husband, Alexander, found out how quickly she’d run through these, she would have a problem. Secondly, she dreaded having to try and convince her doctor to refill it again—because what if she refused? But by far, her biggest concern was that she’d need to ration these last pills while also knowing she would need all three of them before this day had finished.
Mia placed one pill on her tongue and swallowed it dry as she slipped the other two into the front pocket of her linen pants.
She’d left Dominique alone for too long, beyond what might be considered normal or polite for a guest she hardly knew. But before she headed back downstairs, she needed to ensure she looked okay. Mia hurried back into their walk-in closet and opened the bottom drawer of the center island, where she kept several of her essential accessories. She grabbed her selfie stick, mounted her cell phone into the holder, and extended the arm before snapping several full-length photos of herself from various angles.
After checking each photo and feeling satisfied her appearance was appropriate, she returned the stick to the drawer, tucked the hair on the left side of her face behind her ear, and deleted each photo from her phone as she headed for the stairs. Undoubtedly, Dominique would think Mia’s behavior today was a little weird. Still, Mia felt sure she could turn the rest of the visit around and leave the PTA president with a more favorable overall impression before she and Caleb left for the day.
When she was halfway down the staircase, Mia heard Sasha and Everly’s voices. She stopped, realized that everyone must now be inside, and hoped she would still have the opportunity to show Dominique that she was a good and normal mother. That her girls were good and normal girls. And that coming here along with their entire kindergarten class of kids and parents for Sasha and Everly’s sixth birthday party was something Dominique would definitely want to do.
Mia picked up her pace and descended the stairs.
As she passed through the foyer at the bottom of the stairs, she remembered to smile as she passed under the archway and into the portrait room. “I’m so sorry about that, and I hope you don’t think I’m incredibly rude for leaving you all alone with the kids while I changed,” she kept her tone breezy and light. She could see all three kids sitting at the large kitchen island down the hall, each wrapped in a plush bath sheet and snacking on the bowl of cut fruit Mia had taken outside for them earlier.
Dominique stood in the portrait room, her back to Mia, her gaze fixed upward on the oil painting of Mia’s father that hung above the fireplace. When Mia first spoke, Dominique glanced back to acknowledge her, but she didn’t appear to register what had been said.
“This is really him?” Dominique asked.
Mia stopped short at the unexpected question. “Yes,” she whispered and raised her eyes to meet those of her long-dead father, Raphael Renaud. “It’s really him.”