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Chapter no 16

The Summer of Broken Rules

I thought the best course of action was to apologize first, no matter how hard it might be. “Listen, Luli,” I said when she shut the bathroom door behind us, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately—”

“Oh, you have, have you?” she interrupted. “Let me guess.” Her hands went to her hips. “You’ve been thinking about yourself and only yourself.”

My eyebrows knitted together. “Um, excuse me?”

Luli rolled her eyes. “Don’t play dumb, Meredith. You and your traitorous ways just got my brother eliminated!”

“No,” I said. “That’s not true, so not true. Jake volunteered to get the chessboard. I didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah, but you knew. You knew Wit had him, and you didn’t tell us.” She laughed dully. “Some alliance, huh? I can’t believe I fell for that BS about you only flirting with him to get information. You probably switched sides the second you slipped on that little black dress.”

The back of my neck blazed. Actually, Wit and I were always on the same side, I thought about saying. We made a pact Sunday night to be open with each other.

Not that I was exactly being open with him right now.

“I have not switched sides,” I tried again. “I’m still loyal…”

Luli shook her head and pulled her phone from her pocket. I gritted my teeth, already knowing what she was going to show me. “Hitch me to

Witry?” she said when the Home Port Instagram post loaded. “That pretty much says it all, no?”

I didn’t answer, instead just looking at the photo—how the two of us sat on the same side of the table, with me grinning and licking butter off Wit’s beautifully wrecked face.

“And it’s not just about Assassin, Meredith,” Luli said. “It’s so much more than that.” She paused. “It’s always about you. Always about what Meredith wants, always about what Meredith needs, always about Meredith and her guy!”

Meredith and her guy. Her guy.

Suddenly, I realized why Luli kept bringing up Ben this week, why she’d called Wit by his name. She wasn’t teasing me about getting dumped before the wedding. She thought Ben and Wit were one and the same.

“Luli,” I said carefully. “It’s not like that.”

“Yes, it is!” she fired back. “Ben might’ve broken up with you, Meredith, but you broke up with us long before that.” She turned away. “Your friends never left you. You left us.”

I nodded, unable to deny it. I’d told Wit the same thing—that after Claire died, I’d taken Ben’s hand and pushed my friends away. The only friend I wanted by my side was my sister, and she was gone.

But I couldn’t find those words for Luli. I felt myself shutting down, quivering and anxious about being trapped in this small space with her.

“And now you’re doing the same thing with Wit,” Luli said, like I knew she would. “Ben says goodbye, and along comes Wit. You’ve known him what, five minutes? And you’re already all in with him.”

“I am not all in with him,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t falter as I grabbed a towel for Jake and moved toward the door. “We’re just hanging out for the week.”

Luli was silent for a moment, then used the last weapon in her arsenal. “He’s going to break it, you know,” she said. “He’s going to break your heart.” She took her brother’s towel from my arms and brushed past me into the hallway. “Don’t count on me when you need help picking up the pieces.”

* * *

After shivering and staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, I took Moor House’s hidden staircase up to the third floor—the attic reading room. Don’t cry, I thought, curling into a ball on the upholstered window seat. You don’t need to cry.

But I sobbed, covering my face with my hands before caving and using one of Honey’s handmade quilts as an oversized tissue. The clouds outside had almost fully cleared by the time the door creaked open. “Mer?” someone said. “Are you in here?”

Sarah stepped into the room with a small blue box in hand. Her eyes widened when she spotted me huddled up alone. “Yes,” I said weakly as she set the box down on a bookshelf. “Hi.”

A blink later, she had wrapped me in her arms. I buried my blotchy face in her pink-and-orange Lilly dress and breathed in her Sarah scent. The usual vanilla, but infused with spice from the gumbo. Somehow it worked. “Everyone is frantic,” she said when I finally looked at her. “There have been a ton of attacks—Ian crawled out the dog door—and no one’s seen you for ages, so Wit…” She tilted her head and half smiled. “Wit is worried. He’s paranoid that Ian cornered you somewhere.”

More tears escaped. “I was cornered somewhere,” I warbled, and then it all rushed out: Luli accusing me of treason toward our alliance, dropping my friends for Ben, and Wit—well, I started and stopped there. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about him with her, didn’t want to know her thoughts on what he’d do to my heart.

Did he have it? Because the more time we spent together, the more it felt like he did. I wasn’t in love with him, but I knew I was falling. His voice, his laugh, his jokes, how natural things were between us right from the start. I thought about his tender hand on my knee, sleeping with his arms around me, his lips on mine, and the words he’d whispered that had made me feel like I could do anything and everything.

Yes, we’d only known each other a few days, but I was sliding down one of Aquinnah’s age-old cliffs and gaining speed by the second. Luli had no idea how much of a chord she’d struck with her last blow. Although Wit’s mind was a mystery. Were we on the same wavelength? If I said I wanted to stay together after this week, would he agree?

My head was against Sarah’s shoulder when I finished speaking, and she held my hand with both of hers. I waited for her to say something, but it was several long seconds before she did. “I’m sorry,” she eventually said. “I’m sorry for being so distant this week.”

Distant? I thought. More like I’ve been avoiding you.

“Oh my god, stop,” I said. “You’ve been busy with wedding stuff!”

“That doesn’t matter,” she replied. “You’re my cousin, and I know how much you’ve been struggling. I should’ve been there for you. I should be there for you.”

This time, it was me who was quiet, debating whether or not to ask her something that would go right to her gut. “Then why,” I whispered, “did you tell the salad story? Why did you tell that story about Claire not eating her rabbit food in New Orleans?” My voice was thick, something coating my throat. “It was the same night, Sarah. That night.” I looked at her, unable to avoid staring at her long scar. “Why would you do that?”

My cousin glanced away. “I didn’t mean to,” she told me. “At least not at first. You avoiding your salad just made me think of her and how funny it was, and suddenly I was halfway through telling the story and knew I

couldn’t stop—knew that if I did, everyone would make the connection.” She squeezed my hand. “I hoped you hadn’t.”

“Of course I did.” My heart hammered. “She’s my sister, my best friend.” I paused. “We texted every day. I woke up that morning knowing that you’d be having breakfast at the Ruby Slipper and were going to visit the bayou afterward.”

Sarah burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Meredith, I’m so sorry. For telling that story like it was a harmless joke…and for taking her out that night in the first place. I never should’ve done it. She was only eighteen, but I forgot—she always acted so much older.” She shook her head. “When I woke up in the hospital and Michael told me…”

I hugged her, any and every little grudge suddenly gone. Because my parents and I weren’t the only ones who were still recovering from losing Claire. Sarah had lost her cousin—her favorite cousin. “You didn’t know,” I whispered. “How were you supposed to know what would happen? It was a freak accident.”

“I know,” she whispered back. “I know, and I remind myself every day— especially here, especially now.” She took a deep breath, then rose from the window seat and crossed the cozy library back to the bookshelf. I watched her pick up the blue box. “The next day,” she said after rejoining me, “we were supposed to go to brunch, just the two of us, and I was going to give her this before asking her to be a bridesmaid.”

My pulse slowed.

“You know how much I love you, Meredith,” Sarah said, as if reading my mind. “I love you to pieces, but Claire was my mini-me.”

“I know,” I said, because I did. Sarah and I were close, but she and Claire had something special. While Claire was my older sister, everyone considered Sarah Claire’s older sister. Their bond had been knit tighter than a winter scarf. I’d been jealous when I was younger, but later I loved watching them be their perfectly quirky selves together. They were

beautiful, singing silly made-up songs and dancing barefoot around the campfire.

Sarah smiled faintly. “This belongs to you now,” she said, handing me the blue box. “I want you to have it.”

My heart twisted as I lifted the lid to see a delicate gold necklace inside, its pendant engraved with what I suspected were latitude and longitude coordinates. “Paqua,” I murmured. “The Farm, right?”

Sarah nodded. “All the others are silver,” she said, taking the necklace and fastening it around my neck. “But Claire’s favorite color was gold—”

“Just like my hair,” I finished for her. It wasn’t an exact match, but Claire would always tug on my braids and say, “Your hair, Mer! Forever my favorite color!”

“Yes.” Sarah’s smile widened. “Just like your hair.” She folded me into another warm hug and whispered that she loved me.

“I love you, too, Sarah,” I said, eyes watery. “I’m sorry for everything.” She kissed my cheek. “Should we head back downstairs?”

Yes, I thought, but then pulled Honey’s quilt up again and lay down. “Can we actually stay here a while longer?” I asked. “Just a little?”

“Sure, why not?” Sarah got under the blanket with me, and we spooned like Claire and I used to do—me the little one, her the big. She held me tight. “Let them search far and wide for us.”

* * *

Wit was fading fast, but I kept nudging him awake. “Don’t fall asleep,” I said as his eyes fluttered open, then fell closed again. “They’ll be here soon.”

He yawned. “You’ve been saying that for the last two hours.”

“Only because you’ve been asking for the last two hours.” I hit him with one of the Annex’s throw pillows. Tonight, we’d stayed in to eat dinner and watch a movie with my parents. They’d wandered over to Lantern House

for a nightcap while Wit and I were waiting for Sarah and Michael. “Come,” she’d said after our attic nap. “Michael and I want to do something alone before all the fanfare starts tomorrow.”

Tomorrow’s fanfare included the big reception tent going up on the Big House’s sprawling front lawn (Aunt Christine was already fretting over whether or not the ground would still be saturated from today’s rain) and then the afternoon ceremony rehearsal at St. Andrew’s Church before the rehearsal dinner in Chilmark.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “If you guys want to be alone…” Sarah shook her head. “Alone as in ‘not with our entourage.’”

I laughed, and as promised, she and her fiancé arrived at the stroke of midnight. Michael beeped the Jeep’s horn, and it was like Wit had been faking exhaustion—he leapt up from the love seat, threw me over his shoulder, and walked us out the door. It was chilly, the storm breaking yesterday’s extreme heat. All four of us were wearing sweatshirts.

Once we were cruising down The Farm road, Wit asked where we were going. Don’t tell him, I’d texted Sarah earlier. It should be a surprise!

Because I wanted to see the childlike wonder on Wit’s face.

Now, by way of a response, Michael said, “You think the line will be long?”

“What a silly question,” Sarah said from shotgun. “It turned out to be a nice night, so…”

“We probably should’ve brought chairs,” I joked. Wit groaned. “Seriously?!”

“Seriously,” the three of us replied, and then it was only Assassin talk once we passed the Paqua obelisk and turned in the direction of Oak Bluffs. My mom had been taken down by a bridesmaid when leaving Moor House, Nicole Dupré basically tackled Luli and Jake’s father, and Uncle Brad had profusely thanked Jeannie for gumbo leftovers before assassinating her in

the driveway. No one had any updates on Ian; all we knew was that he’d fled Moor House through the dog door.

So he knows, I determined. He knows his assassin.

I needed to find out who it was, too. In the event that Ian was taken out before I was, I needed to know who would be gunning for me next.

“And here we are!” Sarah said, snapping me out of strategizing. She turned around in her seat. “Welcome, Wit, to Back Door Donuts!”

We passed under a streetlamp at the most perfect moment—I caught Wit’s eyes widen in the glow. “Donuts,” he said, and I swear I heard his stomach rumble with excitement.

“Yeah,” I told him, grinning. “Donuts.”

Then I pointed to what was normally a nondescript parking lot behind several stores, but tonight, it was filled with people—the winding line leading up to the local bakery’s propped-open purple back door. Hence, Back Door Donuts. It was how everyone on the island satisfied their late-night sweet tooth. The first summer Claire had her driver’s license, we came multiple times a week. The honey-dipped and coconut cream donuts were our favorites.

“You guys get out here,” Michael said after circling town a few times, looking for a good parking spot. There were none in sight, since Oak Bluffs was where everyone and their mother ended the night. The restaurants, bars, and streets were swarming with people. “I’ll find you.”

Sarah leaned over the gearshift to quickly kiss him. “Good luck.”

We hopped out of the Jeep, and Wit took my hand as Sarah led the way up the street, down some brick steps, and across the massive parking lot, stopping at the end of an incredibly long line. I squeezed Wit’s fingers. “Now we wait.”

He was bouncing up and down like a little kid, and when Michael joined us twenty minutes later, he nodded at his stepbrother. “Everything okay, Witty? You need to use the bathroom or something?”

Sarah and I giggled. “Where’s the car?” she asked. “Far?”

Michael rubbed his jaw. “Let’s just say we’ll be walking off some calories.”

My cousin smiled and rolled her eyes, then burrowed into his side. Michael slipped an arm around her and kissed her forehead. They began murmuring about this and that, off in their own loved-up world. “What if I trip walking down the aisle?” I heard her ask him, to which he answered, “Then I’ll trip walking back up it.”

The couple in front of them turned around. “I didn’t mean to overhear,” the woman said, “but are you two getting married?”

“Yes!” Sarah answered. “The day after tomorrow!”

Wit leaned closer to me. “And…bam!” he whispered at the same time Sarah flung out her left hand to show off her engagement ring, a halo of small stones surrounding a pear-shaped diamond big enough that I’d asked my dad how much Michael made working for the Saints.

The answer? A lot more than I’d thought.

We slowly but steadily moved up in line, Sarah and Michael now chatting away with their new friends, who had gotten engaged last month. Sarah sounded like Aunt Christine, all too happy to impart some wedding planning wisdom. Like mother, like daughter, even in the smallest of ways.

I shut my eyes and settled back into Wit, standing beside me like a human shield. The wind had picked up, but he gave off heat like a fire. His arms held me to his chest while his chin rested on the top of my head. I could feel his heartbeat against my back. “You’re so warm,” I murmured.

“And you’re a liar,” someone said, and my pulse surged before I realized it was not Wit who had responded. It was whoever stood behind us.

Relax, I told myself. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know you lied about Assassin, about having him as your target. He doesn’t know, he won’t know, he’ll never know…

But wait, was that true?

“No, it’s not,” came the voice again. “You are such a liar.”

Yes, I am, I thought, shifting from one foot to the other and admitting to myself that Wit would find out sooner or later. Whether it was because Ian eliminated me tomorrow or because the two of us made it to Saturday’s final showdown, Wit would learn that I’d lied to him. That I’d broken our pact and straight-up lied to his face.

My stomach knotted, but I exchanged a funny look with Wit. We were close enough to read the menu now, and the two boys behind us were bantering about the origins of the Charlie donut. It was so hilariously absurd that soon Wit’s body was shaking against mine with silent laughter. “Are these guys for real?” he whispered.

“Apparently,” I whispered back, then glanced over my shoulder to see a grinning boy with bright blue eyes and red-gold hair.

“Did you want to weigh in?” he asked as I noticed Edgartown Yacht Club’s insignia embroidered on his windbreaker. “Tell my boyfriend who really invented the Charlie?”

He was holding hands with none other than the cute bookseller. “Nope, I’m good,” I said, also thinking, Poor Eli.

“Hey, Hitch Me to Witry!” Sarah called, and I spun to see her and Michael at a register. It was our turn to order. “Get over here!”

* * *

Donuts. We ordered so many donuts. Boston cream, honey-dipped, coconut cream, maple bacon, apple fritters—we ordered them all. They were so light and fluffy, the sugary sweetness bursting before melting in your mouth, but I might as well have been chewing and swallowing cardboard.

And not very much of it.

“Are you sure you don’t want a fritter, Mer?” Michael asked on our walk back to the car. “There are a couple left.”

“No, thank you,” I said, holding tight to Wit’s hand. A few minutes ago, he’d polished off his third jelly donut and offered to let me lick the rest from his fingers. Sarah and Michael cracked up when I accepted.

Now I didn’t want to let go of those fingers. I couldn’t let go of those fingers. Our time together was unraveling like a ribbon. The day after tomorrow, I kept thinking. The day after tomorrow.

I only had these fingers, this hand, this arm, this body, this person until the day after tomorrow. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even close to enough, and my heart was fluttering so fast it felt like it was going to fly out of my chest.

And I knew why.

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