Chapter 1: Paige paige
Why is the whole world against me?
Paige Lancaster twisted the thick, leather-covered steering wheel on the leased BMW SUV she wasn’t 100 percent sure she could afford, sweat breaking out under her arms and above her upper lip. There were cars. Everywhere. People. Everywhere. Buses and kids and dogs and strollers. But there were no parking spots. And no one was moving from any parking spots. Everyone was just standing around, chatting. Gesturing effusively with their hands and laughing with their heads thrown back and their perfect teeth bared to the sun. Swear to God, the people in this town paid more for their orthodontia than they did back in L.A.
This couldn’t be the way school pickup was run these days. School ended at 3:05. What time had these people arrived in order to park? Twelve thirty? What had they done to kill the time? Was there a mommy lunch date followed by yoga class on someone’s front lawn, followed by a book club meeting and a freaking drum circle all so people could be here early?
Finally, finally someone up ahead pulled out. Paige accelerated, catching the scathing look of some mom with two long braids in her hair like Laura fucking Ingalls. Screw you, Half Pint, I’m late to pick up my kid on her first day at a new school. Paige stopped the car and hit her blinker. And now, she had to parallel park.
Fifteen minutes later, half the cars were gone, and Paige was finally out of her SUV. She hadn’t parallel parked anything since her driver’s test in eleventh grade. And that had been her mom’s Honda Civic, not the tank she was currently driving. No one had ever uttered truer words than Cher Horowitz in Clueless when she’d said, “What’s the point? Everywhere you go has valet.” But she’d gotten through it. And her tires were only about a foot and a half away from the curb. Score. She shoved her keys into her messenger bag and jogged for the pathway that led to the school.
Fifteen minutes late. Where would Izzy be at this point? Had they left her at the side door by herself? Was she on the playground hanging upside down on the monkey bars? (Was that even something her daughter liked to do?) Or was she sitting in the front office, crying her eyes out, cursing the day her evil mother had taken her away from her nanny, Martha, the only responsible adult she’d ever known in her eight years on the planet?
Thirty years ago, when Paige had attended this very same school, Piermont Elementary (ugh… thirty years?), pickup had been a whole different ball game. Back then the teachers just let the kids out the doors. Parents didn’t need to be there to receive them. They just went. To the playground. To the Country Five and Dime (which was now a Starbucks), to their friends’ houses. Or to the chauffeured vehicles waiting out front. (Some chauffeurs were parents. Others were actual chauffeurs.) But now the parking lot out front was off-limits and every child had to be handed over to one of the three adults on their release forms, one by one, before 3:15. This was the procedure Paige had learned just this morning from the very stern assistant to the principal. The one she’d tried so hard to make smile with bad jokes and aw-shucks new-to-the-school pandering. It had not worked. And now she was clearly on the woman’s shit list. One of the most powerful women in the school. Never underestimate the last line of defense to the person with the biggest office. It was something one of her first Hollywood showrunners had taught her.
Halfway up the path, the white brick walls of the school in sight through the autumn-hued trees, Paige’s cell phone started to ring. She knew she should ignore it, but she’d just gotten off the phone with her agent before leaving the house to come here, and if Farrin Schwartz was calling back within half an hour it could only be good news. Paige suspected that Farrin routinely forgot she existed. If Paige didn’t pick up, it was likely she wouldn’t hear from the woman again for two weeks, if not two months.
But Paige couldn’t wait two weeks. She needed a win. She needed something to write or revise or punch up or doctor. Anything to feel like her screenwriting career was not over. That maybe one day she’d be able to return to L.A. without her tail between her legs.
She paused to root around in her bag and had just about decided that her phone had disappeared to wherever it was that all of Mary Poppins’s stuff appeared from, when someone said her name.
“Paige? No way. Paige Lancaster?”
A male someone.
Paige looked up into a pair of blue eyes so familiar she could have sketched them with her own eyes closed.
John Anderson. He was older. Blonder. Tanner. Softer. Crinklier. But it was definitely John.
“Holy shit, John?”
The twelvish boy next to John—practically his doppelganger—snorted, eyes trained down at his phone, as the world around them seemed to go quiet. But not because they were having some sort of rom-com meet-cute moment. No. It was because every mom within a ten-foot radius had heard Paige utter the word “shit” in the vicinity of the pristine ears of their children and had paused in place, as if some sort of sci-fi time-freeze device had been unleashed on the sleepy hamlet of Piermont, Connecticut. John blushed. Blushed! And Paige laughed. The world started up again, albeit with a few more scathing looks thrown her way. She was really racking them up today.
“How are you?” She leaned in to hug him and was relieved when he hugged her back, not stiffly, not awkwardly, but as if no time had passed. Her bag swung around him and knocked him from behind, the keys and sundry things inside jangling.
“I’m good. I just… I can’t believe it’s you. How long has it been? What are you doing here?”
She righted her bag on her shoulder and wished she weren’t sweating. “Oh, it’s been a minute,” she said, and they both laughed. It had been twenty-four years. A quarter of a century, practically. How was that possible? “I just moved back. With my daughter, Izzy. We’re going to stay with my mom for a while.”
“That’s great!” John said with a smile. A genuine smile. One that still weakened her knees, and she suddenly found herself on the verge of a giggle. And it had been decades since she’d giggled. “Welcome back.”
“I guess that means you still live here, then.”
“Yep. Well, moved back after college and grad school and a couple years living in the city. You know.” He lifted one shoulder. “The usual. I’m so sorry about your dad. Everyone in this town loved him. I mean… you know I loved him.”
“Oh, thanks. Yeah. He loved you too. Back in the day.” She cleared her throat and cast around for a subject change. “This must be your son.”
John did a double take at the kid and laughed. “Yeah, yes. Sorry. Bradley, this is my old friend Paige. Paige, this is Bradley, my youngest. He’s in sixth grade this year.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Bradley, barely looking up from his phone.
Youngest? How many kids did he have? And when had he started, five minutes after they’d broken up?
“How old is your daughter?” John asked.
Izzy. Shit! “She’s eight. And I’m super late to pick her up, so I should go. But it was good to see you!”
He looked amazing. Was he married? Of course he was married. But his hand was in his pocket, so she couldn’t see a ring. People did get divorced. John looked past Paige and his smile fell away. With his free hand, he removed the sunglasses he had hanging from the collar of his T-shirt and slipped them on.
“Yeah. Us too. I’ll see you around.”
John steered Bradley around her, making an abrupt exit. Paige slowly turned, wondering what the threat had been. Three women stood alongside the path, dappled with sunlight, eyeing her. Sizing her up.
Paige felt instantly inferior. Pretty girls. Rich girls. Mean girls. The myth that they stopped existing after high school really needed to be debunked. She decided she would just walk past them. Pretend she hadn’t noticed them noticing her, even though she was sure they had noticed that she had noticed that they had noticed. Panicked, late, and experiencing serious sexual nostalgia was not the right frame of mind in which to be meeting the A squad. Hopefully these three could read body language.
“You must be the new mom!”
One of the women waved Paige down as she drew near.
So much for that.
“I’m Lanie Chen-Katapodis.” The woman extended a hand. She was tall, East Asian, and completely, utterly perfect. Not a hair out of place. Not a crease in her crisp, white shirt, which was tucked into a pleated, T-length skirt at her teeny, tiny waist. Her nails were gelled, her skin was flawless, and her hair was pulled back from her face in a skinny, tortoiseshell headband that would have looked ridiculous in Paige’s curly, blondish-brown mess of a mane. There were big diamond studs in her ears and an even bigger diamond engagement ring on her left hand along with a band of sapphires. She wore a gold necklace featuring four diamond stars that hung prettily over her collarbone. “I’m the membership chair of the Parent Booster Association. You’re Paige Lancaster, right? This is Dayna Goodman,” she said, gesturing to a woman whose raven hair was cut into a sleek, asymmetric bob. In linen overalls and a white crop top, which offered a peek of her perfect abs, she had that laid-back ease of a woman who’d been comfortable in her skin since birth. “And this is Bee Dolan, our finance chair.”
“Hello,” said Bee, gently running her hand over her cloud of white-blond hair. She wore the sort of flowy, silky, colorful clothes that could have been pajamas or high fashion.
“Your Izzy is in class with my Dickinson and Dayna’s daughter Devyn.” Lanie gave a tinkling laugh. “Say that three times fast.”
“Stepdaughter,” Dayna corrected. Her eyes flicked over Paige, not unkindly. “How do you know John Anderson?”
“Oh. We’re just old… friends.” Paige blushed so hard her body temperature doubled. “What do you do in the Parent… Booster… thing?”
“Me?” She laughed. “I just heckle them from the cheap seats.”
Paige laughed. Maybe a bit too loudly. But Dayna seemed pleased.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” Bee said. “It’s Bee. B-e-e. Like Honeybee, which is my actual name. But nobody other than my mother calls me that.” Bee shook Paige’s hand vigorously. She had a very firm handshake and wore many, many rings. As she leaned in, Paige noticed she wore a necklace with four diamond stars arranged each about an inch apart. It was the same necklace Lanie had on, and a quick glance at Dayna confirmed that she had one as well. “Where are you from? You have a very artistic aura about you.”
This totally unfounded compliment nevertheless pleased Paige. Like somehow this woman recognizing her aura could save her career. “L.A. But I grew up here.”
“I’m so sorry,” Dayna said.
“That you had to grow up here.”
Paige blinked. Was she being serious? “Aren’t your kids growing up here?”
“Stepkid. One.” Dayna pulled out her phone and started to text. “And to say she’s growing up is giving her far too much credit.”
“Dayna! The girl is eight!” Lanie said with a laugh. “Ignore her. She’s in a surly mood. Apparently, the heater stopped working at her hot yoga class. Literally, all Dayna does is work out.”
Paige checked out Dayna’s cut arms. She could believe it.
“Don’t apologize for me,” Dayna said. “She’s from L.A. She gets it.” She turned away, focused on the phone.
“Do you take Bikram?” Bee asked. “To be fair, the heating system is, of course, integral to the practice.”
“I… no.” To Paige, yoga looked like self-torture.
“Anyway, we just wanted to welcome you and let you know that membership to our PBA is available on our website. Piermont PBA dot org.” Lanie enunciated each word deliberately so that Paige would be sure to understand. “Once you sign up, you’ll have access to our full directory, including your child’s class list and all the parents’ contact information!” She had a tiny birthmark, Paige noticed, just above the left side of her top lip, which only served to make her more beautiful. “You can even make payments for all of our events through the website. All you need to do is create an account, enter your credit card information, and you’re good to go!”
“I’m sorry, what’s the PBA, exactly?” Time was ticking, and she had no idea where Izzy was.
“The Parent Booster Association,” Lanie said slowly. “It only costs fifty dollars a year to join, and all you have to do is go to our website to purchase your membership.”
“Our next meeting is this coming Monday,” Bee offered. “We’re going to be discussing the diversity in the arts program. And maybe you could sign up for the Thankful Dinner committee? We’re low on volunteers this year.”
Dayna snorted but covered it with a cough when Lanie shot her a wide-eyed look. The second Lanie’s back was turned, though, Dayna shot Paige a look that quite clearly read, There’s a reason they’re low on volunteers.
“Right, I just don’t really know if I’m the PTA type,” Paige said.
She knew instantly that this was the wrong thing to say. The smile wilted on Lanie’s face. What was wrong with her? Read the room, Paige-y. You don’t tell the people who clearly live and breathe the PTA that you’re not the PTA type. But could they not tell this from her acid-washed jeans and her motorcycle boots and her suede jacket? Her lack of makeup? Her being now twenty minutes late to pick up her only child who was a product of a one-night stand nine years ago? Not that they had any way of knowing that last bit.
“It’s just… We just moved here and I… I wouldn’t want to volunteer for something and then not have the time to fully commit.”
“Oh. Are you a working mom?” Bee whispered the last two words.
“It’s the PBA,” Lanie said. “We’re not affiliated with any national organization. We’re completely self-funded and we have plenty of working moms who are super involved. We run all kinds of enrichment programs for our children—”
“And provide new books and interactive materials for the library,” Bee put in.
“Because otherwise there would be nothing published after 1990,” said Dayna.
“And offer enrichment classes in art and technology,” Bee added. “Creative writing… chess… robotics…”
“And we spearhead our charitable giving and social events!”
“That all sounds amazing. But I really have to go,” Paige said, inching down the path. She needed to get away from these people before she stuck her foot any further into her mouth. And besides, Izzy was probably in the back of a van halfway to the Canadian border by now. Part of her wanted to tell these women how very much they did not want her anywhere near their precious organization. She couldn’t remember the last thing she hadn’t utterly fucked up.
“It’s really a lot of fun!” Lanie rose up on her tiptoes now and lifted her chin to better see Paige, who was making her getaway.
“I’ll check out the website!”
Paige turned and ran to the school, hoping that last promise was good enough to keep them from completely writing her off. The side door, where the stern lady had told her she was to be between 3:05 and 3:15 to pick up Izzy, was locked, so she tore around to the front of the school, where only a handful of parents and kids milled about, getting in their social hour. There were also a few luxury automobiles lined up at the crosswalk to filter out of the parking lot, so clearly some things hadn’t changed. Paige wondered what a person had to do to get parking lot access around here.
Paige walked up to the front door of Piermont Elementary and was buzzed in by security—something they did not have when she had been a student here. Inside the cozy, sunlit front office, Paige found her sweet-faced daughter in tears.
“Izzy! I’m so sorry,” she said, dropping to her knees on the hardwood floor.
Izzy threw her pudgy arms around Paige’s neck. “I thought you went back to California! I thought you forgot about me!”
Paige’s heart broke into a dozen jagged pieces. “Never. I would never forget about you. Mommy’s just really bad at parallel parking.”
She looked up at the woman hovering over her and gave a self-deprecating twist of her lips. But the woman didn’t so much as blink. She was young—much younger than Paige—and plain, with very pale skin, a round face, and straight, chin-length auburn hair. She wore small, square glasses and a shapeless black dress with a shapeless gray cardigan over it. Was she a nun? Did she teach here? Could nuns teach in public school?
Paige stood up, clasping Izzy’s hand. Her eyes finally found someone she recognized. “Principal Spiegal,” she said to the woman standing behind the front desk. At least she wore a kind, sympathetic smile. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you had to get here at the crack of dawn to get a parking spot.”
“Not the crack of dawn,” said the nun. “If you arrive on any of the side roads adjacent to the school at or before 2:55 p.m., you’ll have no trouble getting a spot.”
Paige’s face burned at the clipped, judgmental tone. She already felt like a failure at parenting. She didn’t need this chick piling on.
“It happens all the time with new parents,” the principal put in placatingly. “We must have forgotten to mention it at your intake this morning.” She smiled down at Izzy, who sniffled up at her. “But Izzy was fine. She was a brave little trouper, right, Izzy?”
Paige wanted to hit someone. A brave little trouper? It wasn’t as if Paige had left her here overnight. She noticed for the first time that there were two little kids behind the nun, pushing their faces into the windows overlooking the small front parking lot. One boy and one girl. They both had hair the exact same shade as the nun’s, but curly, so they must have been her kids.
So, not a nun.
“Well. That’s good to know,” Paige said to the principal. “Thanks for understanding.”
She started past the woman who’d chastised her about the parking, tugging Izzy along.
“Being this late to pick up a child from school can leave them with permanent fears of abandonment,” the Not-a-Nun said. “You should try harder to be on time. I have my office in town and leave work at two thirty to get here on the days I pick them up.”
“Thanks again.” Paige directed her comment to the principal. “Izzy what do you say to ice cream for an after-school snack?”
“Yay!” Izzy cried, jumping up and down.
“See? Already forgotten,” she said to the room. “Thanks for keeping an eye on her.”
She let the door slam behind her before Not-a-Nun could lecture her about too much sugar in her child’s diet.