YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR WORST.
“A twisted modern love story” (Parade), Tell Me Lies is a sexy, thrilling novel about that one person who still haunts you—the other one. The wrong one. The one you couldn’t let go of. The one you’ll never forget.
Lucy Albright is far from her Long Island upbringing when she arrives on the campus of her small California college and happy to be hundreds of miles from her mother—whom she’s never forgiven for an act of betrayal in her early teen years. Quickly grasping at her fresh start, Lucy embraces college life and all it has to offer. And then she meets Stephen DeMarco. Charming. Attractive. Complicated. Devastating.
Confident and cocksure, Stephen sees something in Lucy that no one else has, and she’s quickly seduced by this vision of herself, and the sense of possibility that his attention brings her. Meanwhile, Stephen is determined to forget an incident buried in his past that, if exposed, could ruin him, and his single-minded drive for success extends to winning, and keeping, Lucy’s heart.
Lucy knows there’s something about Stephen that isn’t to be trusted. Stephen knows Lucy can’t tear herself away. And their addicting entanglement will have consequences they never could have imagined.
Alternating between Lucy’s and Stephen’s voices, Tell Me Lies follows their connection through college and post-college life in New York City. “Readers will be enraptured” (Booklist) by the “unforgettable beauties in this very sexy story” (Kirkus Review). With the psychological insight and biting wit of Luckiest Girl Alive, and the yearning ambitions and desires of Sweetbitter, this keenly intelligent and supremely resonant novel chronicles the exhilaration and dilemmas of young adulthood and the difficulty of letting go—even when you know you should.
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Chapter 1: Lucy AUGUST 2017
I wake two minutes before my 5:45 a.m. alarm goes off, on instinct, like the neurotic, sleep-deprived New Yorker I’ve become. My head kills from the wine—Dane and I split two bottles with the dinner that I paid for—but I force myself out of bed anyway. Three Advil, two cups of coffee, and an Adderall and I’ll survive the day. And isn’t that what New York is all about anyway—surviving?
Dane stirs in the bed while I’m putting on my Lululemons. The new ones—size 4, not the 2s from senior year. Ugh.
“You crazy?” he slurs, half asleep. “Get back in bed.” With his face buried in the pillow he reaches out and grabs for my leg.
“I’m going to six thirty SoulCycle.” I fling his hand away. “I already signed up.” I squeeze myself into a workout top. I feel disgusting, last night’s food baby protruding underneath the spandex.
I splash some water on my face in the bathroom and brush my teeth for thirty seconds. My watch reads 5:56. I’m running late. In New York, no matter how fast I go, I’m always running late. I grab my work stuff, shower stuff, change of clothes, and my weekend bag for Bree’s wedding—thank God I had the foresight to pack before getting drunk with Dane.
“Bye,” I tell Dane, half hoping he’s fallen back asleep.
“Babe... c’mere.” He rolls over and opens his arms. Dane has been calling me “babe” since the day we met three months ago, that drunken afternoon I stumbled into him at the Frying Pan and couldn’t help but nuzzle up to his tanned, good-smelling neck as the sun dropped into the Hudson River. Corona, babe? He’d smiled dumbly, one front tooth longer than the other. Babe is cliché, of course, coming from a guy like Dane. Still, he looks all sleepy and handsome, and I let him pull me in for a kiss goodbye.
“So I won’t see you until Monday?” he mumbles.
“I’ll be back Sunday night.”
“Okay. Let’s do something then. Have a blast, babe. You’re gonna be the sexiest bridesmaid. Wish I could go with you.”
“Me too, babe,” I say, trying out the nickname. I’m sort of making fun of him, but Dane is too oblivious to notice. I do wish he could be my date for the wedding, but Bree and Evan aren’t giving plus-ones unless the couple is engaged. And Dane and I are about as far from being engaged as you can get.
I leave my apartment in the dark. The kitchen is a mess, mostly from Dane and me, but I know Dane won’t bother doing the dishes. He’s not at all helpful when it comes to that kind of stuff. My new roommate, Julie, probably thinks I’m a slob. If Bree still lived here it wouldn’t matter, but she doesn’t. She moved in with Evan three months ago.
By the time I get down to the street it’s 6:08, and I don’t trust the subway to get me uptown on time. I hail a cab. It’s irresponsible, spending ten dollars on transportation that could be free—work pays for my unlimited MetroCard—but I can’t miss Soul.
The class is full, of course, because Courtney is teaching and her classes book up at exactly 12:01 p.m. on Mondays, one minute after weekly sign-up opens online. I set an alarm for 11:55 a.m. on my phone every Monday, so I can be ready.
Courtney is really working us this morning, and my head feels like it’s going to explode. I didn’t drink enough water.
“Tap it back! Tap it back! TAP IT BACK!” Courtney is screaming through the microphone, a Wiz Khalifa remix blaring through the speakers. The pain in my thighs is excruciating, but the calorie burn is always worth it. I turn up the resistance even higher.
“Cardio is your friend!” Courtney is pedaling faster than anyone else in the class, a ginormous smile plastered to her face. I wonder where she gets the energy at 6:30 a.m. She probably didn’t stay up until one in the morning drinking copious amounts of sauvignon blanc and eating sweet potato fries with her new, hot, but slightly ridiculous maybe-boyfriend. Dane barely goes to work. He’ll probably lie in my bed for half the day watching surf videos on YouTube before turning his attention to his “remote marketing” job.
After SoulCycle I can barely walk, but I’m thrilled it’s over and done with. I shower in the locker room and pull myself together for work—some makeup, not too much. I walk seven quick blocks northeast to my office on Forty-Seventh and Madison.
“You’re early,” Alanna sneers when I walk in. She’s really saying: You’re early but not earlier than me. Alanna is on a complete power trip because she’s an account manager and I’m an account executive, and she pretends to be my boss even though we both have the same boss, Melissa, director of sales. God, I hate titles in the corporate world.
“I went to SoulCycle,” I say, watching her eat a strawberry Chobani. Alanna probably thinks she’s being healthy, but everyone knows those yogurts are loaded with sugar—you have to buy plain.
She ignores me, unattractively licking the top of her yogurt and sticking the whole thing in the trash. I want to tell her that she should recycle, but she goes back to click-clacking on her keyboard with her burgundy shellacked nails. Alanna’s long black hair is pinned up in a bun on top of her head, the way she wears it when she’s too lazy to straighten it or create perfect, Victoria’s Secret waves. As usual her eyes are coated in black makeup that makes them pop harshly from her face. She isn’t naturally pretty, but like lots of girls in New York City, she does everything right. Tweezes and plucks and highlights and diets and morphs herself into something she isn’t. I’m not saying I do everything naturally—I still can’t help monitoring everything I eat, and I’ve gone through more Hoola bronzers than I can count—but I would never get biweekly blowouts like some girls I know, or waste $140 on eyelash extensions. There is a level that certain girls take it to in Manhattan, and I don’t have the time or the salary to go there. Plus I think the caked-on-makeup look is frightening. I’m not a supermodel or anything, but I can get away with being a girl who is pretty-without-trying-too-hard. Mascara and a touch of eyeliner and call it a day.
I check my email, my eyes burning with exhaustion. The Adderall is barely helping. I’m going to be a wreck for the rehearsal dinner.
Melissa sneaks up on us without a greeting, her social awkwardness waning as she switches into boss mode.
“Lucy, did you print the meeting agenda?” she asks tersely, averting her eyes. Melissa is on even more of a power trip than Alanna, which, coalesced with her social dysfunction, is a frightening combination.
I hold up a manila folder with ten stapled copies.
“The Expedia client will be here in twenty. Alanna, run down and pick up some pastries from Financier. And a fruit platter if they have it.”
“Sure.” Alanna hates being the one to get sent on errands, and I can feel her seething. That’s the one thing Alanna and I have in common—we both dislike Melissa, and Melissa seems to dislike both of us.
“Lucy.” Melissa turns back to me. “Run me through the agenda.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for Harry?” Harry is VP of marketing, Melissa’s boss, who used to be my boss before he and Melissa both got promoted. Harry is my favorite person at The Suitest, the middlebrow online publication by which I am employed and “the Internet’s comprehensive guide to the best hotels around the globe.” Harry wears Pucci ties and takes me to sample sales during lunch. His husband, Dominick, is an editor at Departures, and they live on the eighty-first floor of the new skinny building on Park Avenue. Harry lets me hide in his office when Melissa is at her bitchiest. He can’t fire her because she’s so good at her job—the woman gets shit done, and fast—but he agrees that she’s got a giant rod up her ass. Harry says a lot of people in our industry have rods up their asses but that you can’t take things personally.
“Harry isn’t getting involved with Expedia,” Melissa tells me importantly, even though he attended last week’s meeting.
“But he always attends client meetings.”
“Not anymore,” Melissa barks. “He has me leading this account now. I’m the one who landed it.”
I resist the overwhelming urge to roll my eyes. Melissa never misses an opportunity to remind everyone that she’s the one who landed us Expedia. I honestly have no idea how she pulled that off.
We run through the agenda; Alanna comes back with a platter of shiny pastries; the clients are on time, and the meeting begins. The Expedia people like to keep our meetings speedy, which I appreciate, because my head is still throbbing. I’m on my third coffee. I don’t touch the food, though I want a chocolate croissant beyond badly. I observe Alanna observing the pastries, and I bet she wants one as much as I do. Maybe she even snuck a bite at Financier. Melissa digs into an apple fritter without shame—she is oblivious to the harm of carbohydrates in a way that almost makes me envy her, except that I really, really don’t. Melissa is thirty-one and single and odd and spends all her free time alone with her cat or Instagramming selfies with her cat—I’d feel bad for her if she wasn’t a raging bitch.
After the client leaves I type up the meeting notes for Melissa and then remind her that I’m leaving early. She gives me a look like this is brand-new information, even though I told her a month ago and have reminded her every day this week.
“For my friend’s wedding in New Jersey? I’m a bridesmaid and the bridal lunch is today. I reminded you yesterday? I have to make the 11:02 out of Penn Station?” Everything I say ends up sounding like a question. I wish Melissa didn’t make me so nervous.
“Right.” Melissa scowls and darts her eyes away weirdly. Alanna spills coffee on the sleeve of her shirt and scowls. In sales, scowling is protocol.
“Before you take off, I need to see you in my office.” Melissa uses every opportunity imaginable to let the world know she has an office now that she’s director of sales, even though her promotion was more than a year ago and even though her “office” is essentially a cubicle without a door, three feet from my own desk.
“Now?” My stomach plummets instinctually.
“That would be ideal.” Melissa sneers, and I can feel Alanna smirking behind me.
I follow her into her “office.”
“Want to tell me what the hell this is?” Melissa swivels her laptop screen toward me, displaying an article on Departures.com: “Is It Worth It? The Risks We Take for Travel’s Sake” by Lucy Albright.
“It’s an article I wrote.”
“I can see that.” Melissa’s face morphs into something ugly and livid. I can see the bad foundation job, the way the yellow skin around her mouth looks like it’s cracking. I always feel strange when she confronts me in person. She loves using her authority to get pissed at Alanna and me, but it’s usually from behind the security of her computer screen, where she sends passive-aggressive emails or IMs from fewer than three feet away without a spoken word. Melissa has done well enough at The Suitest—Expedia is our biggest client—but she’s too uncomfortable to have an actual, verbal conversation about anything other than meeting agendas.
“I didn’t realize you were trying to be some kind of global health journalist.” Her face is practically twitching with rage or discomfort; I can’t tell which.
“I just freelance on the side. The article ran two weeks ago. How did you find it?”
“It’s on the Internet, so it’s not exactly hidden material. Alanna brought it to my attention.”
Alanna. Of fucking course.
“It’s a piece I wrote and submitted months ago. Dominick gave me the tip.”
“Does Harry know about this?”
“He knows I like to write and that I’m trying to do more freelancing, so he connected me with Dominick. I don’t see what the problem is.”
“The problem is, Lucy, that you wrote an article about Cabo San Lucas and did not mention our Cabo San Lucas client, Las Ventanas al Paraiso. You are first and foremost an employee of The Suitest. Do you have any idea how this makes us look? What if Sonja sees this? I know Harry would agree, had he read the article, which clearly he has not.” Melissa’s lips are curled into a snarl, and I can see just how much she cherishes the opportunity to make me feel like an idiot. It’s disconcerting to hear so many spiteful words coming out of her mouth rather than seeing them typed out in long, pointed paragraphs on instant message. I can tell she’s pleased with herself for handling this offline.
“I couldn’t have included Las Ventanas in the piece, Melissa. I work on the account. It would’ve been biased and unprofessional.”
“This is unprofessional.” She stabs her finger at my name on the computer screen. “You include Casa Dorada, one of Las Ventanas’s main competitors. Have you lost your mind? Please tell me this didn’t run in print?”
“Oh, thank God,” she breathes, as though we’ve just avoided a nuclear war with Iran. “This needs to come down immediately.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am so serious, Lucy.” Melissa folds her pale, flabby arms and focuses her socially anxious gaze somewhere past my left shoulder.
“Melissa, the article is a think piece on the Zika virus and the state of tropical vacationing right now. It has nothing to do with my stance on Cabo hotels. It’s not even about Cabo. I only mentioned the other hotel because there was an outbreak there. It’s not even good press for the resort.”
“I don’t care. If Sonja sees this we could lose the account. And if you’re trying to write I don’t know why you’re working in sales—”
“Melissa, it’s one article. You know I like to write—I’ve done some freelancing and I wrote that post for The Suitest last year. But I love working on the sales side.” I taste the lie as it slides from my mouth, bitter as metal.
It’s the lie I’ve lived for more than three years now, sustained by Harry’s advice: You want to be a travel writer? This is a good place to start and your foot’s in the door, baby. You do sales for a year, make some contacts, then hop right over to editorial. Easy with a side of simple.
But it hasn’t been easy with a side of simple; a year went by and the sole entry-level editorial opening was given to the publisher’s goddaughter. Vance, The Suitest’s editorial director and a friend of Harry’s, agreed to let me write a monthly post reviewing a local hotel bar or restaurant, but the stint didn’t last long. Once Melissa got wind that my review of the William Vale’s new rooftop bar had gone live on The Suitest, she informed Vance that I worked for her in the sales department and that I didn’t have time to be helping out with editorial projects. Harry says I shouldn’t worry so much, that I should be patient. Get Melissa to love me. Ha. Melissa hates me. No matter how hard I work or how much ad space I sell, Melissa will continue to hate me.
“Lucy,” Melissa spits. “You’ve overstepped serious boundaries and the article needs to go, now. Call Dominick or whoever you worked with at Departures and make sure it’s down by the end of the day.”
“I think I should at least run it by Harry.”
“Unfortunately Harry is no longer your supervisor,” she spits. “Nor does he lead the Las Ventanas account.”
“We’re done.” Melissa turns her computer back in front of her face and pretends to already be engrossed in something on the screen. This is my problem with sales—it’s full of hotheaded, self-important people like Melissa and Alanna who think clients are demigods, who get off on creating problems out of nothing and act like they save the client’s fate, and in turn the world, by solving them. And despite Harry’s encouragement and a promotion that essentially just replaced the word coordinator with executive, I’m no closer to the editorial door than I was three years ago, especially not with Melissa as my boss. But this job pays the bills, and the $150 I got for the Departures piece didn’t make a dent.
I leave Melissa’s office and grab my bags, resisting the urge to knock Alanna in the back of the head on my way out of the building. Getting my name in Departures was a huge step up from the other freelance writing I had been doing. After Dominick had given me the tip, I’d spent two whole weekends researching and writing the piece. It was Departures! That’s basically Travel + Leisure or Condé Nast Traveler—same tier, at least. No way was I having Dominick take it down.
Outside it’s muggy and Madison Avenue is clogged, but I manage to flag down a cab. My meeting with Melissa has set me behind schedule and I’m worried I’ll never make my train if I attempt the subway.
Penn Station is like the crack den of New York transportation hubs. It’s a windowless, drab rat maze with low ceilings, and it’s always so crowded you can barely lift an arm. With my rolling suitcase, tote bag, purse, and the Bergdorf Goodman bag holding Bree and Evan’s wedding present—I still can’t believe Bree registered at Bergdorf’s—it’s that much worse, and by the time I find an empty seat on the 11:02 train headed toward Tewksbury, New Jersey, I’m in a full sweat.
My phone vibrates on my lap.
DANE: Come back, babe.
Jesus. One of my best friends is getting married tomorrow, and I’m dating Dane: a surf-obsessed skater bro who thinks my name is Babe, consistently “forgets” his wallet, and has a tattoo that reads DON’T TALK ABOUT IT, BE ABOUT IT in block lettering on one of his beautiful, muscular shoulders. Such is the strange reality of life at twenty-five: the newfound threat that everything—jobs, people, decisions—matters in a way it never seemed to before. Wasted time is a luxury I’m worried I can no longer afford.
I watch the city slink away from the window of the train. I close my eyes, still exhausted, but I know I won’t be able to sleep. I can never sleep on any form of transportation. I’m too frantic to read, so I listen to Fleetwood Mac in a nervous frenzy and pray that the bruise-colored bags under my eyes will magically disappear before we reach Tewksbury.
Now that I’m on the train, actually going there, I’m too preoccupied to think about Melissa and the Departures article and what I’m going to do. Because Bree is marrying Evan. Bree is marrying Evan, and he is going to be there; we are going to be there, sans plus-ones, and I don’t know if I can stand that. The sickness in my stomach is growing worse by the minute, the familiarity of the pain creating a nauseating déjà vu. The same gut-wrenching dread I lived with for years.
The rehearsal dinner is in a matter of hours, and even though Bree promised only the bridal party and family would be there, she could be wrong. She wasn’t looking at the actual list when she said that.
I still can’t think about him without thinking about sex. Even after a lot of the emotional residue has cleared, the physical stuff continues to sneak up on me. I close my eyes and there I am, on my hands and knees with him behind me, and I picture the hungry expression on his face, and it has nothing to do with love or missing him, it’s just raw and animalistic and I like to think about it. There is something about that kind of sex that bites into me, that causes the memory to shoot up every once in a while, like something chronic. He’s not the only person who’s fucked me like that; he was just the first.
My phone vibrates again. It’s my group text with Jackie and Pippa. Their flight got in from LAX this morning.
PIP: I think we’re close, but our Uber driver is confused. How do you spell Tooksberry, Luce? Tooksbury? We can’t wait to squeeze you!!!
Tewksbury, I text them. Underneath my anxiety I am ecstatic about seeing Jackie and Pip. I chug water from the liter I bought at Duane Reade and remember to cut myself some slack. If it was anyone other than Evan who Bree was marrying, none of this would be happening and I would be a good, normal friend and bridesmaid instead of a panicked, perspiring wreck busting out of a size 2 Self-Portrait dress. I’m not a size 2 anymore, and, after three years of therapy and numerous conversations with my nutritionist involving the potential harm to my fertility, I can live with that, but for this wedding, I had to make a size 2 work.
Part of my panic is missing Bree, I know. Watching Bree pack up her half of our apartment after two years together, having Julie move in with her frilly couch pillows and loud food processor.
The train rolls into the stop for Tewksbury, my head pounding harder with the brakes. Outside, the August air is hot but less humid than Manhattan, thank God. I haul my bags into the first cab I see and give the driver Evan’s parents’ address. They decided to have the wedding in Evan’s hometown in New Jersey instead of Darbydale, Ohio, where Bree was born and raised. A more convenient location—just outside the city—it’s easier for everyone, Bree had explained. And the unspoken: Evan is the one with the stunning, ivy-adorned mansion in one of the most expensive counties in suburban New Jersey. Or maybe it is spoken—it probably is. Bree doesn’t come from much money, and she’s open about it. Her grades won her a scholarship to Choate for high school and then a full ride to Baird College. But she’s the opposite of a gold digger—Bree wouldn’t marry Evan for his money. Since day one she’s been determined to become self-sufficient, and now she’s an associate at J.P. Morgan. She would be just fine without Evan, financially.
Evan’s house is at the end of a long, curved driveway, nestled into a green hillside. It’s gorgeous, and at least twice the size of my family’s house in Cold Spring Harbor. I let the driver swipe my Visa and then haul all my crap out of the cab like a crazy bag lady. A butler, or someone who seems like a butler, rushes to help me. The foyer is giant and airy and extends to the back of the house, where I can make out Bree’s profile on the terrace. She is chatting with Evan’s parents, who I met at the engagement party at the Pierre. Her white-blond hair is swept back in a low bun and she’s wearing dark, stylish sunglasses that must be a recent purchase.
As I watch this new, sophisticated version of Bree talking closely with her soon-to-be in-laws, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the girl I met the first night of freshman year seven years ago—the scrappy, never-done-drugs, never-had-sex Bree.
I don’t miss college—I basically took my diploma and beelined for my packed U-Haul. Still, nostalgia has my stomach in knots, because I remember that first night by heart.
My mother stood in the doorway of my dorm room, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, glancing around as though something had been forgotten. My dad was calmer, smiling his usual I’m comfortable anywhere grin. I sat on my freshly made twin bed, because the room was tiny and there was no place else to sit. My roommate, a tennis player named Jackie Harper from Wilton, Connecticut, sat across from me on her own bed. Her parents had left hours earlier, and I wished mine would take a hint and do the same.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” CJ said. She pulled a liter of Diet Coke and a handle of Absolut vodka out of her oversize purse and placed them on one of the desks. She looked at me with annoyingly pleased eyes—it was her parting gift, her attempt to keep the peace between us and say to the world: I’m a cool mom.
Jackie looked impressed. A flash across my dad’s face told me he didn’t agree with his wife on this one. But my dad never crossed CJ.
“If you’re going to drink, you should drink your own stuff,” CJ said. “Don’t ever drink from a cup that’s been sitting out at a party. That’s how people get roofied. And if you’re going to try drugs, call me with questions. I’m not a dinosaur. I know that college is about experimenting.”
My father’s mouth formed a straight line, and he looked at his watch. I hadn’t heard this side of CJ in ages—she was usually a warden when it came to my drinking—but deciphering her unpredictable personality was like trying to order dinner from a menu written in foreign characters. She was probably just trying to impress Jackie because she thought Jackie was pretty, and because Jackie’s mother had been wearing Gucci loafers.
“Lucy.” CJ crossed her thin, tanned arms, her aqua eyes wide. “Last chance. Are you sure about Baird? You don’t have to go to college all the way out in California, you know. If you went to college on the East Coast, you’d still be away at school, but you could see your friends and sister whenever you wanted. Isn’t that worth considering?”
CJ always asked questions like this, illogical ones with no answers. I’d already unpacked; she’d already made up my bed with her lid-tight hospital corners. Freshman orientation had already started. CJ wasn’t done being pissed that I’d turned down Dartmouth for Baird (a lot of people seemed shocked by that), but what she didn’t understand was that if I didn’t get as far away from her and the tri-state area as soon as possible, I was going to implode.
“CJ...,” my father started. I could tell he was getting antsy. It had been a long day.
“Okay, okay. Ugh.” She looked at me. “I’m just going to miss her too much. Fuck, Ben. We’re empty nesters now.”
CJ swore a lot, which was kind of nice because, growing up, my older sister, Georgia, and I could swear as much as we wanted. Whenever we went out, Georgia and I knew to tame our speech, but CJ didn’t, and her swearing could be embarrassing.
Jackie was sitting on her bed chewing gum and pretending to read from the orientation packet, but I could tell she was listening.
“One more thing.” CJ pulled out a small white box and handed it to me. Inside were two tiny gold studs—one letter L and one letter A, my initials.
“For your second holes,” CJ explained. CJ had flipped her shit when I got my second holes pierced over the summer. She’d said they were “extremely tacky,” but now, apparently, she had decided to support them.
“Thanks, CJ. I love them.”
CJ flinched. She’s used to the fact that I don’t call her Mom anymore—I haven’t in years—but she still hates it, especially when we’re around new people. “They’re going to think I’m your stepmom,” she once said, and I’d shrugged, because after she did the Unforgivable Thing, I stopped caring what she thought.
“I’m so glad. Here, try them on.”
CJ placed one stud in each second earhole. Then she hugged me so hard I could barely breathe. For such a small woman she’s freakishly strong—it’s all the Pilates. I inhaled the scent of her Fekkai shampoo and swallowed over the lump lodged in my throat. I couldn’t see her face, but I could tell from her short, uneven breathing that she was crying. I bit the inside of my cheeks so I wouldn’t cry, too.
My dad is less complicated. He hugged me like he always did—lifting me off the ground and giving me a butterfly kiss with his eyelashes. As usual, his face smelled like Noxzema. He placed me back down and I took in the sight of him—kind blue-gray eyes, dark hair sprinkled with gray. I felt grateful for him in a way I no longer could for CJ.
“Be good, Sass.” He winked. My parents have called me Sass since I was two and used to parade around the house wearing sunglasses and a feather boa.
When my parents finally left, Jackie and I looked at each other. Our dorm room was small, but it was all ours. I felt a stir in the base of my stomach at the knowledge that I could finally do whatever I wanted. No curfew, no sneaking around, no asking permission. The expression on Jackie’s face revealed a mutual feeling. We were exhilarated and terrified, all at once.
We decided to put CJ’s vodka to use immediately. Jackie mixed the drinks in a couple of mugs she’d brought and accidentally tipped one over, spilling the spiked Diet Coke all over my bed. The soda hissed and I watched as the tar-colored liquid soaked my new white sheets and duvet. CJ bought all my bedding at Saks—it was some European designer she loved. CJ always spent way too much on stuff like bedding. My father never seemed to mind.
Jackie covered her mouth. “Shit! I’m an idiot. Sorry, Lucy.”
I shrugged, barely caring. I kind of liked seeing CJ’s efforts unexpectedly negate each other. “It’ll come out in the laundry.”
“We should wash them now, to be sure. I’m an idiot,” Jackie repeated.
“You’re really not.”
Jackie stripped the sheets. The hospital corners would never be as perfect again—I don’t even tuck in my top sheet when I make the bed, which CJ hates.
I could tell Jackie felt really bad, and I wished that she didn’t. I watched her rub a Tide stain stick over the ruined part of my sheets. She was beautiful in that idyllic way—the effortless blond, blue-eyed, stops-you-in-your-tracks beautiful like CJ and Georgia. My sister looks much more like CJ than I do. I have brown hair and my dad’s eyes, a darker, grayer blue than CJ’s and Georgia’s translucent, shocking aqua ones. People tell me I’m pretty, but I’m not Georgia pretty. People tell me I look like the brunette version of Georgia, but nobody ever says that Georgia looks like the blond version of me.
Jackie insisted on washing my bedding (blue-blood manners—I could tell), and I mixed us new drinks while she ran down to the laundry room. When she got back we sat on our beds, talking, playing the do-you-know-this-person? game for a good half hour, because Wilton, Connecticut, isn’t that far from my hometown in Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island. The vodka made us chat faster and deeper, until we were both stretched out on our beds, the last of the light spilling through our single window. We had a view of palm trees and in the distance the San Gabriel Mountains, a purple ridge in the dusk. Mountains were still so new to me then, and I shivered at their potential, at whatever it was they would promise.
Talking to Jackie was almost as easy as talking to Lydia, my best friend from home. I knew I’d lucked out on the roommate front. Georgia’s freshman-year roommate at Yale had been from a farm in Kansas, and she said they’d never had anything to talk about besides chickens and organic fruit.
“Your mom is awesome,” Jackie said, gesturing toward the half-empty bottle of vodka.
As usual, I hated hearing this. But I didn’t hold it against Jackie, because if I didn’t know CJ, I’d probably say she was awesome, too.
Jackie opened her laptop and turned on “Rhiannon.” I felt even surer about her.
“You like Fleetwood Mac?” she said when I smiled.
“If I could have lunch with one person in the world, it would be Stevie Nicks.” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, hoping my answer didn’t sound too rehearsed. It had been the personal-essay question on my application to Dartmouth (I was surprised they’d accepted me based on that answer—Stevie isn’t close to being intellectual enough for Dartmouth). I grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac like it was a religion, especially that really bad year, the year that followed the Unforgivable Thing. Lydia and I used to play Rumours from start to finish and smoke cigarettes out her bedroom window. Well, I smoked. Lydia never smokes.
Jackie grinned. “Stevie’s the queen.”
The Absolut was making my limbs pleasantly heavy, and I felt as though I could stay there talking to Jackie forever. She asked me about boys, if I had a boyfriend, so I told her about the Parker part of my past, making sure it sounded like I cared more than I did. It actually bored me to talk about Parker—I’m much more interested in other people’s love lives—so I quickly moved on to ask Jackie about her own love life. She’d broken up with a high school boyfriend over the summer, she said. He was going to college in Virginia and they didn’t want to do long-distance, so it was mutual.
I wanted to ask more questions, but our door swung open and a tall girl with long, glistening black hair walked in, followed by a skinny girl with white-blond hair, the color of saltine crackers.
The dark-haired girl’s eyes were so crystal blue they looked fake.
“Finally, Bree,” she said. “I think we found normal people.” She ran her fingers through her dark hair and looked at Jackie and me. “I thought I heard ‘Rhiannon.’ Have you guys noticed that everyone in our hall is either international or a dreadlocked lesbian?”
“Pippa, you can’t talk like that,” the blond girl said. She shifted her weight to one foot and placed her pale, pin-thin arms on her nonexistent hips.
“Why not? I have nothing against lesbians. My cousin is a lesbian. For a while I thought I was a lesbian. I’m just saying that I don’t have anything in common with someone who chooses to do that to their hair.”
“Not all lesbians have dreadlocks,” the blonde said.
“I know that, Bree.”
The dark-haired girl looked at us and rolled her enormous eyes. “I’m Pippa McAllister. And this is Bree Benson.”
Jackie and I introduced ourselves.
“Are you roommates?” Jackie asked.
“No,” Bree said. “I have a single in Pitney. I wish I were in Kaplan, though. This dorm is so much nicer. But I met Pippa last week. We were on the same Orientation Adventure.”
I nodded. Orientation Adventure was part of Baird’s freshman orientation program—camping trips that took place the week before the semester began. They were optional, though, so I opted out. I hate camping. Turns out Jackie did, too.
“My dad made me go,” Pippa sighed. “It was kind of brutal. Two of the girls on our trip didn’t shave their armpits. Thank God I found Bree.”
The way she carried herself, I could tell Pippa had been popular in high school. She seemed like someone who did whatever she wanted without worrying too much about the consequences. I liked her instantly—probably because I’ve always lacked that I don’t give a fuck quality in myself. Even if I don’t want to give a fuck, even if I convince myself I don’t, I always do.
“And I live on this hall,” Pippa continued. “My roommate is from Seattle, and she and her boyfriend came here together, so she’s like, off with him somewhere. He came to the room earlier, and they were basically making out in front of me; it was disgusting. He’s one of those dudes with the big holes in his ears.”
“Gauges,” Bree corrected. She sat down in my desk chair and crossed one of her chopstick legs over the other. She was so thin she looked like a thirteen-year-old boy. “Have you guys eaten? Maybe we should order a pizza? I’m starving.”
“I cannot eat pizza,” Pippa whined. “I’ve already eaten a muffin today and a sandwich. I refuse to gain the freshman fifteen.”
“Pippa, you had a gluten-free muffin this morning and like, one bite of my sandwich. You’re fine.”
“Easy for you to say, you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.”
I eyed Pippa, who wore a black cotton dress. She wasn’t fat by any means, but she wasn’t super skinny like Bree. It’s how I would’ve described my own body, until Pippa turned to Jackie and me and said, “But you’re both rails, too. Ugh! Not fair. My metabolism is failing me with age.”
I looked down at the tops of my thighs, tanned from the summer but suddenly fleshy-looking. Fleshier than Jackie’s, and definitely fleshier than Bree’s. It hadn’t even occurred to me to think about the freshman fifteen. I’d heard Georgia mention it, but only in passing—the inevitable fifteen pounds everyone gains their freshman year because of all the beer and pizza.
I’d eaten a cheeseburger and a bowl of ice cream at the orientation barbecue earlier that day. CJ had nibbled on some potato salad. I’d never had to think about what I ate, but maybe I needed to start.
“Anyway,” Pippa said. “We’re supposed to find people to bring to this party. Some guy invited us and said to bring more freshman girls. ‘Fresh meat’ is actually what he said, which is kinda gross, but hey, it’s a party. Wanna go? It’s at a house on Hutchins Street.”
“Sure,” Jackie said.
“Now? Should we change?” I was still wearing jean shorts and a white tank top, grubby from moving in all day. Pippa and Bree were in sundresses, and Pippa was wearing eyeliner and something glossy on her lips.
“If you want.” Bree shrugged.
“Nah, let’s just go,” Jackie said. She untwisted and retwisted her blond hair into a messy bun and stood. In a navy T-shirt and track shorts, she looked like a gorgeous tomboy—the kind guys are obsessed with. I wanted to at least put on some mascara and change my shirt, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to come off like some superficial girly girl who can’t go to a party without makeup on.
“Let’s take a shot before, though?” Pippa said, gesturing to the Absolut. “If it’s okay with whoever’s vodka that is.”
“Mine,” I said. “Go for it.”
The four of us passed the bottle around. When it was Bree’s turn, she hesitated before taking a swig, then her expression morphed into one of disgust.
“Yuck.” She passed the bottle to Jackie.
“It gets easier,” Pippa said.
“Easier?” Jackie asked.
“I didn’t drink that much in high school.” Bree blinked her hazel eyes.
“Well, there’s plenty of time to catch up now.” Jackie smiled.
“What did you do in high school, if you didn’t drink and you didn’t have sex? You went to boarding school. Isn’t that what people do there?”
“Pippa, you’re annoying.” Bree glanced away before looking at Jackie and me. “I went to Choate and spent most of the time studying my ass off so I could get a good financial aid package for college. I’m not trying to make you feel bad for me; I’m just telling you,” she said quickly, as if she had rehearsed it. Then she looked down and smiled ruefully. “But yeah, I’ve got to lose the v-card.”
“Well, don’t give it up to just anyone,” Jackie said.
I nodded in agreement, though I felt bad for Bree for getting put on the spot. I would’ve hated going to college a virgin.
“We’ll get her laid, ladies.” Pippa grinned. “And with someone worthwhile. You’re gorgeous, Bree. You can afford high standards.”
I wouldn’t have called Bree gorgeous—she was more cute, with her freckles and button nose—but I understood that Pippa was trying to redeem herself for making Bree feel self-conscious. Bree’s prettiness was mostly accentuated by her thin figure. Skinny people just look better, I realized then.
Jackie took her swig of Absolut, and my stomach churned in anticipation. We were going to a party, and there wouldn’t be a curfew. I would probably never have a curfew again. I felt the corners of my mouth poke into a smile. I fingered the backs of my new earrings, twisting them around and around as I waited for my turn to take a pull of the lukewarm Absolut. Jackie handed me the vodka and I winced as I swallowed it down—not a new feeling. I’d done my fair share of vodka pulls in high school, first for fun and then just to dull everything away. But things were going to be different now, I knew.
I felt a pleasant rush to my head as I stood. I was still touching my new earrings as I caught a glimpse of them in the mirror hanging on the back of the door. L. A. They looked expensive—definitely real gold. I actually liked them a lot (I’m a sucker for a tasteful monogram), but they screamed gift from CJ. They would never be anything else. I pulled them off discreetly, quietly dropping them into the trash bin as we left the room.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Tell Me Lies includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Early on, Lucy repeatedly states that she is not immediately attracted to Stephen. Do you believe her? Why or why not?
2. Considering things only from Lucy’s perspective, do you see any red flags that should have tipped her off to Stephen’s true nature? What are some warning signs you have noticed in your own, or your friends’, relationships?
3. At the beginning of the book, there are two epigraphs: one from The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the other from Before I Fall. What effect did reading these quotes initially have on you? Did they affect your mind-set entering the first chapter or color how you interpreted the characters? While these quotes clearly hold true for Lucy, how might they be applicable for Stephen?
4. Stephen takes manipulating people around him to an extreme, but many of his methods are very common. Have you ever made something up to get someone to like you? Do you have (or have you ever had) “tactics” for dating in order to win your romantic interest over?
5. How are Lucy and her mother, CJ, alike? To what degree is Lucy aware of these similarities, and how does her awareness change over the course of the novel?
6. Stephen feels certain he is destined for “bigger things” than most people around him. What does having a “bigger life” mean to him? At the end of the epilogue, Lucy’s mother tells her that she has to dream “really, really big.” Do Lucy and Stephen have similar ideas of what that broad ambition means? How so or how do they differ?
7. During her college years, Lucy struggles with unhealthy eating habits and an obsession with thinness before ultimately being diagnosed with depression. In what ways did a fixation on food and exercise serve as an outlet for Lucy? Did this element of her character strike a chord with you in any way?
8. Stephen makes a number of assertions about the way the world works. Choose three of his pronouncements that you agree with along with ones you firmly disagree with and share them with your group.
9. Both Lucy and Stephen have traumatic events from their past that continue to haunt them. What effect do you think their respective experiences have on their behavior?
10. In the present-day storyline, in which Lucy is attending Bree’s wedding, Lucy is twenty-five years old. In what ways has she grown since her relationship with Stephen, and in what ways do you think she still needs to grow? How do you imagine these experiences will shape who she is ten years from now?
11. While Stephen and Lucy’s connection is the narrative’s primary romance, Lucy’s relationship with her friends is arguably a love story of a different kind. What were some of your favorite examples of how Lucy’s friends supported or expressed their love for her?
12. What would this book be like if it were only told from Lucy’s perspective or only from Stephen’s?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider having all members of your book group bring a photo and/or share a story of a “Stephen” from their life. As you share your stories, some questions you could potentially address are: How did you meet? How did you discover the person you met wasn’t the person you hoped? If you could go back in time, would you do things differently?
2. While Tell Me Lies centers on Stephen and Lucy’s toxic relationship, Stephen also has a prolonged, perhaps equally unhealthy relationship with Diana. However, we see her only through Stephen’s and Lucy’s eyes. Try writing a scene from Diana’s perspective. Consider jumping off of a scene in the book in which Stephen interacts with her or creating a scene from their earlier relationship, before Stephen met Lucy. In what ways does their relationship parallel Stephen’s relationship with Lucy and in what ways does it differ? Are his interpretations of how she reacts to and feels about him accurate? If you are creating a scene from earlier in their relationship, has their dynamic shifted over time? Share your writing pieces with your group.
3. In the epilogue, Lucy decides to quit her job and leave New York City. Have you ever, or would you ever, leave behind the life you’ve built without a new job or destination lined up? If you had a new chance at pursuing your dreams, where would you go? What would you want to do? Share a story of a time when you made a fresh start to move on from something in your past, or share a time when you have been glad you stayed in a situation that didn’t initially feel as if it was working.