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The Fiancee
Author: Kate White

 

Prologue


The first thing that seems wrong to her is the vultures.

There are five or six of them, perched in a cluster on the peaked roof of the old bird blind, which sits at the edge of the woods and to the right of the stream.

She freezes with a start about twenty yards away from them, unsettled by their presence. What are they doing so close? They’re usually in the sky when she sees them, riding thermals.

One of them creeps along the base of the roof and drops its beak. Her eyes follow the movement downward and then keep going, drawn magnetically to the ground.

Three more of the birds ruffle about in the knee-high grass by the stream, and they’re pecking at something long and tan colored. A deer must have staggered here and died after being maimed by a car. She watches in disgust as one of the vultures beaks the far end of the animal, then tears away a stringy red piece of flesh.

She starts to turn, unable to stomach a second more of the grisly scene, but part of her brain has gone rogue and won’t let her look away, urging her to revise her interpretation.

No, not a deer, she realizes. What she’s staring at is a coat. And something denim colored near the lower end of it. Her heart lurches.

Stooping down, she grabs a rock off the ground and hurls it toward the vultures, who lift their wings slightly and hop backward.

It’s clear now there’s a body inside the coat, lying facedown, with one arm flung outward. And there’s skin evident below the bottom of it, the backs of two bare calves. The denim, she now sees, is a pair of jeans that have been bunched around the ankles. Her stomach heaves.

A voice in her head screams at her to flee. Before she can propel herself away, she notices the hand protruding from the sleeve, its nails painted a vivid shade of pink. She’s seen this hand before.

 

 

1


The day couldn’t be more gorgeous. It’s late July, and the sky is a spectacular shade of blue, with only a few tiny clouds scudding across. I’m in the passenger seat of our Volvo with my husband, Gabe, behind the wheel and my nine-year-old stepson, Henry, in the back. We’re halfway to Gabe’s parents’ sixty-acre country home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for our annual family vacation there, a week that I know from experience will involve plenty of swimming, tennis, badminton, biking, hammocking, forest hikes, Frisbee-tossing, stargazing, board games, and epic conversations, to say nothing of fantastic meals and delicious cocktails.

And yet I’ve got a pit in my stomach that won’t go away, no matter how deeply I breathe, release, and repeat.

“You okay?” Gabe asks, glancing over at me and raising a single eyebrow in that way of his.

“Not totally,” I admit. “I’m kind of upset about the job I did this morning.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to ask how that went. Want to talk about it?”

I steal a glance into the back seat, where Henry, a precocious kid and world-class eavesdropper, appears engrossed in something on his iPad.

“The session turned into a real dumpster fire,” I tell Gabe.

“I thought you were only recording a short story today,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be pretty straightforward?”

I’m an actress, and I’ve been concentrating for the past couple of years on voice-over work. Today’s dumpster fire involved, yes, me reading one story for the audio edition of an upcoming collection by a hotshot writer.

I sigh. “The author convinced the publisher to let her sit in on the sessions, which is a bad idea on so many levels. Two minutes in she starts wrinkling her nose, like she’s smelling a dead yak, and whispering to Shawna, my director. Then, if you can believe it, she started doing line readings for my benefit—to explain how things should sound.”

“Did Shawna say anything?”

“Not really. She seemed totally intimidated by this woman. We got through the whole recording, but I think they could tell I was flustered.”

“I’m sure you did fine, Summer, you always do. And besides, it’s just one job.”

I usually appreciate Gabe’s typical glass-half-full attitude, but it’s not as simple as that. Though audiobooks don’t pay as well as some of the other voice-over work I do, like TV and radio commercials, and also IVR (interactive voice response)—you know, those prompts that route your call when you contact your insurance company or internet provider, the ones that sometimes make you want to hurl your phone against the wall—I love recording them. That’s because it feels like acting, and I don’t want Shawna to think twice about hiring me again.

But I just nod. Gabe’s been worried lately that I give my inner critic way too much headspace, and I shouldn’t look like I’m stressing as we kick off our vacation.

“How about you?” I ask. “Are you going to be able to chill this week?”

“Yeah, mostly. Marcus and I need to sit down with Dad about some business stuff, but we’ll get that out of the way this weekend.”

Gabe and his brother have a flourishing eight-year-old wine-importing firm, and my father-in-law’s been an adviser to them, as well as an early investor.

“Will we have time to swim before dinner tonight?” Henry pipes up from the back.

“Probably, buddy,” Gabe responds. “I talked to Gee earlier and she said we won’t eat till seven.”

We’d gotten a later start from Manhattan than we hoped for, in part because Gabe’s ex, Amanda, was late dropping Henry off (“You could not believe the traffic.”), but the GPS has us arriving by five.

“Do you think I’m gonna be able to swim every day?” Henry asks. “My mom said it’s supposed to rain this week.”

Gabe rolls his eyes for my benefit only. It’s so much like Amanda to put a Debbie Downer spin on a fun vacation, but all things being equal, Gabe’s coparenting experience could be worse. She’s the one who initiated their split (“We were such different people in college, don’t you think?”), and though she can be a pain in the butt, her guilt about ending the marriage seems to have kept her from turning toxic.

“There might be a few thunderstorms here and there,” Gabe says. “But nothing to worry about. And you downloaded some books, right?”

“Yeah, a bunch.”

“What are you reading now, Hen?” I ask.

“Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking.”

Jeez. Well, hopefully he won’t ask me to elaborate on anything. My BFA theater degree meant that I made it through college without any math or science, but feel free to quiz me on what I soaked up in courses like “Freeing the Expressive Human Instrument” and “Unarmed Combat: Learning Slaps, Punches, and Found Objects.”

“You know what could be fun to do if it does rain, honey?” I say, twisting around in my seat to look at him. “We could ask Gee to give us a cooking class.”

“Wow, that would be awesome.”

“Gee,” aka my mother-in-law, Claire, has help from her longtime housekeeper, Bonnie, at the Bucks County house, but she also prepares many of the meals herself. A landscape designer by profession, she’s a natural and talented chef.

I turn back to Gabe. “So you talked to your mom? Has anyone arrived yet?”

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