Never Have I Ever Page 2

“It’ll give Charlotte a break from planning it, too,” she’d cooed, acting as if she were doing Char a favor.

I called her on it, saying out loud, in front of everyone, that Tate only wanted it because Char had worked so hard to make it shiny and popular, plus, with Tate at the helm we’d be reading Kardashian biographies every month.

It was bitchy, but losing the club would have broken Char’s heart. And it worked. In the end we moved to my large basement rec room with Char still in charge. Given the history, I couldn’t help but enjoy watching standard-American-pretty Tate meet exotic Roux. Tate straightened, one hand going to smooth her hair, then excused herself to the restroom. Two minutes later she emerged with fresh lip gloss and her T-shirt knotted to show a strip of flat, tanned midriff.

Charlotte began banging out chimes on Lisa Fenton’s wineglass, then motioning with the spoon for everyone to find seats. Unfortunately, Roux happened to be standing in front of the leather wing chair. Roux didn’t even look. She sank backward, and the wing chair received her. It was the tallest chair, the natural focal point of the circle, traditionally Charlotte’s. Char jerked like she’d received a small electric shock when she looked up from herding ladies and saw Roux already settled there. I took a seat in one of the dining-room chairs that I’d pushed up against the fireplace and motioned Char to join me.

“Honestly,” Char whispered as she sat next to me. “I mean, she didn’t know, but you’d think someone would have mentioned.”

Instead there’d been a minor traffic jam as five different women tried to claim the seats on either side of Roux.

“Next time I’ll set the printouts in your chair to hold it,” I said, and Charlotte brightened. She liked having a plan.

I was thinking that I wouldn’t have to. Braless, rental-house Roux and her bird tats would not be back. She didn’t strike me as a joiner, much less a woman who wanted to talk potty training and the lighter side of classic literature. She’d end up at bunco, or maybe nowhere, if her business got done fast enough.

Tate and Panda Grier finally closed the circle, cramming together on my padded piano bench. They’d made a quick dash to the wet bar for a final splash of wine, and no other seats were open.

Charlotte split the stack of printouts and sent pages both ways around the circle, saying, “Take one and pass, please.” She culled discussion questions from every book-club guide she could find on the Internet. “So how many of you finished House of Mirth?”

Almost every woman present put a hand up. Me, too.

She smiled, bright and approving, though I suspected that more than a few were lying. I sure was. I’d read most of it, but Oliver had been up and down all last night. When I rocked him to sleep this afternoon, he’d felt as toasty as a little jacket potato on my chest, his bald head reeking of delicious baby. I’d drifted off. We’d both slept hard and long. Madison had helped me throw together a dinner, and Davis had cleaned up after so I could skim Wikipedia to see how it ended.

“How many at least got partway through?” Char followed up, and now every hand was raised, including Roux’s. “Super, but if you didn’t finish, fair warning! Our talk will be chock-full of spoilers.”

“Oh, no, Lily Bart dies?” soft-hearted Sheridan Blake said on my other side. She’d been reading ahead in the discussion questions.

“Before we start, we have a new neighbor,” Charlotte said. “This is her first time at book club. Let’s all welcome . . . um, Roux.”

A murmur of hellos went around the circle, and Tate whispered something to Panda. Panda nodded, like always, but maybe less emphatically than usual. Panda Grier was top-heavy and matronly, with both a plain, sweet face and a delicious husband. She’d made Tate her best friend the minute the Bonascos moved in, petting her, bringing over fruit and coffee almost every morning. It was as if Panda thought Tate was a smoking-hot volcano god that must be propitiated, lest she erupt with sex all over Panda’s marriage.

Now Roux was in the room, an obvious expansion of a dangerous pantheon, and Tate was bristling at the competition. Panda couldn’t serve both gods, and I was small-town enough to wonder how it would play out. I thought she’d likely stick by next-door Tate. The Sprite House was four blocks farther away from the beautiful Mr. Grier.

“Hello,” Roux said. “Maybe y’all could introduce yourselves back?”

The contraction sounded wrong in her mouth, even though Pensacola, Florida, sat right between the ocean and Alabama. About half my neighbors had a soft southern slur, but Roux didn’t sound like them. “We could go around the circle. I want to know who y’all are.” Maybe she’d lived south long enough to pick it up.

I felt Charlotte’s elbow jab my arm, hard enough to telegraph outrage.

“Well, but we all know each other. And we only have an hour,” Charlotte said, in a voice that was sweeter than I knew she was feeling. One person grinding the whole club to a stop strictly for her own benefit was exactly the kind of thing that Charlotte hated. Char was addicted to fairness. It was one reason I loved her so. The world all around her was patently, consistently unfair, but Charlotte lived like a kid at the beach with a little red bucket, sure she could fix it so every ocean had the same amount of water.

I backed Char, saying, “Plus, we’ve got such a crowd tonight—how many names will you remember? If you come again, you’ll get to know us naturally.”

“You’re right. I won’t remember,” Roux said, smiling at Char. Char smiled back and inhaled to speak again, but Roux talked in the gap, looking across the circle, right at Panda. “You’re Panda, right? I remember that. Because it’s unusual, sure, but also because you struck me as so funny.” Tate’s smile got brittle as Panda’s whole face pinked up with pleasure. “But you aren’t a Panda. Not at all. Not with those killer cheekbones and that sense of humor. Sly, sly, sly. You’re a fox, aren’t you?”

She leaned forward, intense, as if Panda Grier, who barely seemed to own cheekbones, was just so damn interesting. She wasn’t. We weren’t. We were just regular women living near a college in a midsize seaside town. We were wives and moms, adjuncts and administrators, professors and librarians. Roux was interesting, elbows resting on her knees, her legs set wide, and her dress hiked up so the full skirt hung down between. Her thighs were trim and very pale, and she was wearing scuffed cowboy boots. I could feel her charisma like it was a wind she’d set loose in the room, pushing us all forward in our seats.

Panda, still blushing, said, “What do you mean? I should be named Fox?”

“Not at all,” Roux said. “It’s just you are one. Fox is your spirit animal.” She said it as if this were a known thing. Like this pack of mommies, clutching our printed sheets and paperbacks, had spirit animals tucked under our chairs instead of designer leather bags we’d bought on the cheap, three seasons late, from TJ Maxx. I would have bet money that the number of women here who had ever spoken to a spirit animal could be counted on one finger. And that one was still talking. “What if we did that? Instead of a regular and—you are so right, Charlotte—useless formal introduction. If you each tell me your spirit animal . . . well, believe me, that’s a thing that I’ll remember.”

Women in the circle were turning to one another, ripples of energy and whispers spreading. With someone like Roux listening, they wanted to talk. They wanted to have spirit animals, and they wanted to say them. I felt a spark of it, too, but this was Charlotte’s club, and she was my best friend. Across the circle Tess Roberts was bright-faced and excited, while Liddy Sleigh was uneasy, looking our way for a cue. Tate glowered, sending psychic demands for Char to shut this down. I felt us all wavering, as if we were balanced on a peak and the merest breath could blow us one way or the other.

Roux turned to Sheila Bowen on her right. “Lila? No, Sheila. Yeah? What kind of animal are you?”

“A tiger,” Sheila said promptly, and I felt us tip.

“I see that! You’ve got those yellow eyes, like some kind of huntress,” Roux said, and an affirming murmur ran around the circle. Sheila did have tiger eyes, but none of us had noticed that before. Roux said, “Keep going, keep going, I can hear,” as she got up and left the circle, heading for the wet bar.

She loaded every leftover wine bottle into her arms, though we usually all stopped pouring when we took our seats, finishing our last half drinks during the discussion. She plopped them clanking down onto the coffee table as Lavonda Gaffney introduced herself and claimed to be a lion fish.

I felt the elbow again. Harder. I gave Char a commiserating glance. Charlotte had had a rough first trimester, and all the vomiting had made her more impatient than she usually was.

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