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Chapter no 5

The Summer of Broken Rules

Part of me wanted to invite Wit tubing when we woke up, but then I remembered it was actually an Assassin alliance meeting and that Wit had groomsman obligations.

#HurrayShesADupré.

Will it be like that all week? I wondered as he mentioned that their rendezvous point for the group picture was the Pond House, since it had the most breathtaking view of the Oyster Pond. Will he just hang out with the wedding party?

“Let’s do something later,” I blurted before leaving his room. “I want to take you somewhere.”

Wit raised an eyebrow. “You want to take me somewhere?” I raised an eyebrow back. “Any objections?”

“No.” He shook his head. “But do you think it’s a good idea? I mean, shouldn’t we keep stuff on the down-low? So people don’t suspect anything?”

“Um, I hate to break it to you, sweetheart,” I said, “but Michael saw us earlier, and he definitely told Sarah, so I’d wager the whole Farm knows we’re friends by now.”

Wit wrinkled his nose. “I don’t like ‘sweetheart.’”

“Fine, cross it off the list.” I smirked, my heart racing. I had no idea where this was coming from, who this person inside me was, but it felt

good. felt good—confident and a little daring. “No baby,” I told Wit. “And no sweetheart.”

“Sounds good, darling.” Wit winked. “Now, where’re we going today?” “It’s a surprise, dearest,” I said. “Just meet me at the Annex at 1:15.”

He nodded. “Okay.”

I nodded back. “Okay.”

“So…” we then said at the same time, unsure how to say goodbye. An awkward handshake? An even more awkward hug? Where was the non-awkward middle ground?

“Good luck out there,” I said a minute later to break the silence.

“With my target?” he asked. “Or your aunt Christine and the photo shoot?”

“Both.”

“Thanks.” He smiled, and I was so busy smiling back that I didn’t register him grabbing his Gatorade bottle from his dresser. “Have a productive strategy session.”

And when he raised the bottle to spray me, I made a break for outside—so gracefully that I banged my knee on the door frame. It would bruise for sure.

“Now we’re even, peaches!” Wit called after me.

* * *

By 11:50 a.m., there were plenty of Foxes sneaking around The Farm. My dad and Uncle Brad were like overgrown teenagers, sporting camouflage hats, hiding behind scrub trees, and army crawling through the tall grass with their identical water guns. I looked up the road to see who they were tailing: an older couple walking toward the beach.

Meanwhile, Aunt Julia wasn’t taking the same subtle approach as her brothers; she was stationed outside Lantern House, gun aimed at the door. “I know you’re in there, Peter Fox!” she said. “I know you’re chugging

your third cup of coffee, but you better hurry up, because I also know you have someplace to be soon.”

Peter, Sarah’s thirty-year-old brother and another groomsman. Instead of the Cabin, he was staying in Lantern House with his wife and their new baby. Third cup of coffee? I thought. Nell must not be sleeping through the night yet.

“You get him, Aunt Julia!” I said as I passed by but then picked up my pace—it suddenly hit me that my assassin could be out on the hunt.

I felt a few imaginary creepy-crawlies scuttle up my spine. Who had me?

To be on the safe side, I veered off the sandy road and onto one of the worn trails—the labyrinthine way to the beach. It was almost out of a fairy tale, a wooded pathway with sunlight streaming through the tree branches. Birds chirped as I walked along.

Eventually, the path opened out onto the shore of the Oyster Pond, blue-green water glittering. When I squinted, I saw that a group had already gathered across the water on what we all considered the true beach, a stretch of sand halfway between the placid pond and rolling ocean so you could swim in either. It offered the best of both worlds. Claire and I used to challenge each other to flip into the ocean’s waves and avoid getting stuck in “washing machines” (whenever a wave broke overtop one that was retreating back out to sea). Then we’d go to the pond and float on our backs for a while. “This is heaven,” my sister once said. “I love this so much, Mer.”

Now, I waded in the opposite direction of the ocean, freshwater soaking my sneakers, until I reached the small dock nestled in between dunes. A rickety old set of stairs led up the hill to the Pond House. “Aunt Christine is taking this way too seriously,” Eli said to me from Wink’s Boston Whaler. I was the last one to arrive. Pravika and Jake were already sorting the life vests while Luli tied the oversize tube to the back of the boat with a

complicated knot. Eli pointed up the hill, where the wedding party photo was being taken. Listen, he mouthed.

“No, no, everyone,” my aunt was saying. “Sarah and Michael will be in the middle, then bridesmaids on one side and groomsmen on the other.”

“But don’t you think alternating might be cool?” someone asked, a confident voice I now immediately recognized.

Wit.

“Yeah, Mom,” Sarah agreed. “Michael and I will still be in the middle, and we can mix it up with bridesmaid, groomsman, bridesmaid, et cetera. It’ll be less formal and more fun. We should save the traditional poses for the wedding day.”

A moment of silence, then, “I suppose so.”

“Yes!” Sarah exclaimed at the same time Wit went, “I’ll stand next to Isabel!”

No, I thought, stifling a snort. No way, not here.

Isabel Davies, Sarah’s college roommate and Wit’s first target. “She’s been to The Farm before,” I’d briefed him, “so she knows it pretty well. She’s not just going to be lying around on the beach all day. She likes playing tennis in the mornings, paddleboarding after lunch, and then she usually reads a book near Job’s Neck Pond before dinner.”

“That’s fine, Wit,” Aunt Christine replied as Jake helped me into the boat.

Luli finished securing the tube. “Just get rid of the water bottle, please.” “Oh my god,” I whispered to myself. Yes way, yes here.

But I didn’t get to overhear Wit’s first takedown, because Eli powered up the Whaler, its engine drowning out everything. “Let’s go!” Luli called over the droning.

Eli steered us out to more or less the middle of Oyster, yards and yards away from shore, avoiding kayakers, paddleboarders, sailboats, and swimmers. The four of us shouted “Hi!” and “Hello!” to everyone, even if we didn’t know them. There was a scattering of houses surrounding the

pond, ranging from cute cottages to grand mansions. My favorite one always threw a huge Fourth of July party, and during our last summer together, I’d convinced Claire to crash it with me. “They won’t notice,” I told her. “There are so many people already there!”

Now I stared at the sprawling cedar-shingled house, at its stretch of private beach, and remembered Claire having her first kiss that night. During a silly game of spin the bottle by the bonfire, with a handsome blue-eyed boy.

“All right,” Luli said once life vests had been buckled; no one made a move for the tube yet. “First thing’s first: Who do you have?”

With no hesitation, we revealed our targets. Everyone had chosen to play Assassin except Eli. “I can’t, guys,” he said as we groaned. “You know this game spikes my anxiety. Even the ‘Will you play?’ question made me nauseous!”

I kept my mouth shut about eliminating Aunt Rachel earlier and trusted her to stay quiet, too. For some reason, I didn’t want people to know how hard I was playing this year. Well, anyone but Wit.

“So now I have Great-Uncle Richard,” Pravika said a couple minutes later, after we’d “shuffled the deck.” One of our alliance’s standard strategies was to leak our targets, or our alleged targets. Naturally, this had been Claire’s idea. Great-Uncle Richard was really Jake’s target, but we’d make sure word would spread that Pravika had him in her sights. “That’s genius, Claire,” Luli had said when my sister first presented the plan a few years ago. “Genius.

And I’d agreed, because when you didn’t know who had you in Assassin, you were ultraparanoid and suspicious of everyone. But if you found out so-and-so was gunning for you, you automatically trusted other people again.

“Good luck with yours, though, Meredith,” Jake said now. “Daniel Robinson?” He shook his head. “Whoever that is?”

“Oh yeah, tell me about it.” I fake-laughed, my stomach stirring. “Total John Doe!”

Thanks to Wit, Daniel was no mystery to me, but I’d never been the best liar. My laugh was too high-pitched, and I felt Luli’s eyes on me. Before she asked any questions, I volunteered to brave the tube first. Pravika joined me, and she and I lay on our stomachs with our arms, life vests, and legs pressed up against each other, waiting for Eli to zoom off across the pond. We gripped the handles as tightly as we could, since Eli was famous on The Farm for really whipping you around.

Pravika sighed and nudged my hip with hers. Our bikini bottoms were double-knotted but would still come off once we hit the water. They always did. “Why do we do this?” she asked.

I smiled. “Because we’re bonkers.”

She laughed, and right on cue, the rumbling Whaler lurched forward, our tube splashing and swirling. Eli’s idea of a “warm-up.”

But barely a warm-up. He soon revved the engine and gunned it full speed. The wind picked up, hungry to blow us backward, and we were skimming the boat’s wake like a stone skipping across the water, bouncing up and down.

“Oh my god!” Pravika shouted after Eli’s first abrupt turn, sending us spinning in the opposite direction. She screamed her head off no matter how many times she tubed, and somehow it never got old. “Meredith!”

“Hold on!” I shouted back. Everything was now slippery, the water spritzing up in our faces. I shut my eyes for a second, then cracked one open to see our audience in the distance. Jake was giving us a thumbs-up, but his sister had her arms folded across her chest and was grinning villainously. She always loved a good wipeout.

I gulped, knowing I still owed her that apology.

Soon Eli struck again, slowing up so Pravika and I jostled over the wake waves.

Aye-yai-yai-yai-yai!

“Ahhh, I’m falling!” Pravika said after another quick turn and zigzag combination. Her voice was almost lost to the wind. “I think I have to—”

She couldn’t finish the sentence, suddenly just gone. I was alone on the tube, and up ahead, I saw Luli cover her mouth. It must’ve been a complete catastrophe.

Eli didn’t stop there; he never did until both tubers had been obliterated. Pravika would bob like a buoy until I lost control. Which didn’t seem far off—my body had slid down the tube, toes dipping into the water. I tried to pull myself up to get a better grasp on the handles.

But I, too, was soon flying through the air, clenching my teeth and bracing myself for impact. I catapulted into the water with a loud smack. The Oyster Pond swallowed me up before my life vest tugged me back to the surface. Everything hurt.

And then unexpectedly, I was crying, sobbing uncontrollably by the time Eli pulled up beside me. I was in a haze as Jake and Luli helped me into the boat, asking if I was okay when my legs wobbled underneath me. I hardly heard them, tears still falling.

Is this what it felt like? I didn’t want to wonder, but did. It was impossible not to now. Is this what it felt like when she was hit?

* * *

I chalked up the crying to being out of practice. “Really, I’m fine,” I told my friends, hugging my beach towel around my body. Every limb was still in shock. “I just need to get back into the swing of things.”

“But look,” Pravika said, pointing to my knee, “you have a bruise.” She turned to Eli. “You’re a monster!”

Eli immediately apologized, but I shook my head, my arm jittering too much to wave him off like usual. Then it was Jake and Luli’s turn to hop on

the tube. I didn’t watch, bundling myself in another towel and lying low on the Whaler’s deck to hide from the wind.

“So we’re all set?” Luli asked once we’d anchored the boat near the beach. Wink and a few parents were walking toward us, kids streaming ahead of them. It was their turn to tube now. “Time for the leak?”

Pravika, Jake, and I nodded. The beach was the perfect place to begin spreading lies; the sun was high in the sky, and most of The Farm had set up camp for the day. My parents waved to me from a circle of beach chairs that included Uncle Brad and Aunt Christine, along with Michael’s mom and a silver-streaked blond man who must’ve been Wit’s father. Honey and Aunt Julia supervised little Ethan and Hannah playing with some younger Duprés at the pond’s edge. A tiny green squirt gun was tucked into Aunt Julia’s swimsuit, and she kept glancing over her shoulder to scan the beach. “Aunt Julia!” Pravika called. “Did you get Peter this morning?”

My aunt smiled. Yes.

Several yards away, Aunt Rachel looked as carefree as could be, sipping seltzer and swapping People and Us Weekly magazines with Michael’s older sister, Kasi.

And then there were Sarah, Michael, and their posse. They were lounging in the pond’s shallows on top of gigantic pool floats. One was a hot pink flamingo, another a swan, and the third a rainbow unicorn, so big that the groom and three of his groomsmen had climbed aboard and were now floating along comfortably. “Over here, guys!” Danielle, the maid of honor, shouted from ashore. She raised her phone. “For the ’gram!”

Everyone laughed.

The five of us dispersed among different groups to plant seeds of deception, but after chatting with my parents for a few minutes, I asked my dad what time it was. He grinned and told me I’d better get going. It was

1:00, and everyone on the Vineyard knew Morning Glory’s famous pies were set out at 2:00. Time was ticking.

I quickly glanced around for my wingman but didn’t see Wit. He was probably at the Annex already. “See you tonight, Meredith!” Honey called after me as I tried to sprint through the sand—an impossible feat—slowing down once I was up and over the dune and passing the dusty cars in the beach’s parking lot. Home free, I thought, since nobody was around. The lot appeared safely deserted.

Then I heard a voice.

“Hey, Meredith,” Luli said, and I turned to see her trailing me. “Not in the mood for the beach?”

“Oh, yeah, no,” I said while reminding myself that her target was someone else in the Fox family, not me. “I actually have to run an errand, so…” I gestured at the houses ahead of us.

“For Wink and Honey’s dinner?”

I nodded. Tonight, my grandparents were hosting a potluck meal at the Big House, but only for their immediate family: children, grandchildren, and spouses or significant others. I guess it seemed exclusive from the outside, but it was one of the few times we were all together during the year. “No ifs, ands, or buts,” Honey always said. “You’re there in a chair!”

Luli and I kept walking together, and as we got closer and closer to the houses, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time.

“I’m sorry, Luli,” I told her. “I’m sorry for everything I did last year.” I paused to exhale a long breath so my voice wouldn’t shake. “Or didn’t do, really. I was terrible—not answering your texts or calls or Snaps.”

Luli was silent. My heart hammered, but it steadied some when I spotted Wit standing by the Annex. His T-shirt was now green, the light blue wedding one gone.

“Thanks, Meredith,” Luli finally said. “That means a lot. It does.” She kicked up some dust and added in a smaller voice, “But why? Why didn’t

you answer them? You know how much I loved her.” Her voice dropped even more. “We both needed—”

“Hey!” Wit called out, cutting her off. “Angel!” Luli stopped in her tracks. “Uh, excuse me?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s only a joke. He’s harmless.” Then I shouted back to Wit, “Shut it, you devil!”

Wit broke into his crooked grin. Luli sighed. “So that’s him, huh?”

I nodded. “Yeah, that’s Michael’s stepbrother, Wit. We met last night.

He’s—”

“The new Ben,” she finished dryly and gestured to Wit. He was now jogging over to us. “From the looks of it.”

The new Ben? I tightened my grip on my towel. What’s that supposed to mean?

“I heard you went on a run with him and Michael this morning. At, like, the crack of dawn. When have you ever gotten up that early?”

Thanks a lot, bride and groom, I thought. Michael had indeed told Sarah about this morning, and she’d spread the word that Wit and I were hanging out. Which didn’t bother me…but why was Luli on my back about it? Why was she bringing up Ben?

I mumbled something like “I couldn’t sleep” as Wit slowed next to me, a smirk still on his face. The sight made me want to smirk back. Even if I had agreed to keep our friendship a secret, it never would’ve lasted. Wit was too smiley around me, and I found myself too smiley around him.

“Hi,” Wit said to Luli, offering her a hand to shake. “You’re Luli, right?” “Yes.” She nodded. “And you’re the groomsman who got clocked in the

face on the ferry.”

Wit bumped his elbow against mine, setting off this strange sensation— spirals under my skin. “Courtesy of this one, yes.”

Luli gave me a look.

“It’s a long story,” I said, then tugged Wit’s sleeve in the direction of the storage shed. We needed bikes. “I’ll tell you later.”

“Right,” she said slowly. “Your errand.”

“Wait, errand?” Wit said. “I thought you were taking me someplace special.”

“Morning Glory Farm is special,” I said.

That made Luli laugh. “It is, buddy,” she told Wit. “Morning Glory Farm is really special.”

She and I exchanged a smile.

And I hoped that meant we were okay, even though I had an inkling that Claire would’ve said Luli’s smile was strained.

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