Her Pretty Face is the story of two women who forge a deep friendship, but each is harboring a dark secret about the past.
Frances Metcalfe is a stay-at-home mother to Marcus, who has special needs. Diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiance disorder, Marcus is immature and throws tantrums, and Frances is extremely protective of him. She and her handsome husband, Jason, have extended themselves financially to get Marcus admitted to Forrester Academy, an exclusive private school. Frances lacks self-esteem. She is slightly overweight and lonely, and wracked with guilt about a terrible thing she did when she was a teenager. Like Marcus, she does not have friends and things are only made worse when, at the beginning of the school year, Marcus acts out against a female student. Although he is not expelled, Marcus — and, by extension, Frances — becomes a pariah.
Until Kate Randolph befriends her, and Kate’s son, Charles, becomes Marcus’s only friend. Kate is wealthy, beautiful, self-assured, and has a sarcastic sense of humor. She has no interest in being like or fitting in with the wealthy, socially-adept Forrester Academy mothers. Frances and Kate bond over their disdain for the Forrester Academy snobs and their fierce love for their sons.
But a disturbing secret threatens to tear them apart. One of the women is not who she seems. Her real name is Amber Kunick. And she’s a murderer.
Lies, deceit, and betrayal beg the question: Can people ever change? Even if they can change, is forgiveness possible?
In 1996, when Amber Kunik was 18 years old, she was involved in the heinous kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of a 15-year-old girl. Her participation in the crime is related through chilling portions of her trial testimony. She claimed that she was under the influence and control of an abusive boyfriend from whom she was unable to break free. She entered into a plea deal — in exchange for her testimony, she served a short prison sentence, but her boyfriend was sentenced to a life term.
Currently, Frances is lonely, anxious, and wracked with guilt about something horrific that she did years ago. Author Robyn Harding does not immediately reveal what Frances did. However, given her ongoing self-flagellation and the impact her action has had upon her self-esteem and ability to form lasting, meaningful relationships, it is apparent that Frances must have done something truly dreadful. But it is a secret she has carried for many years. Not even her Jason knows what she did.
Sometimes it just takes one good friend to make everything right. Unless that one friend turns out to be a murderer.
Kate is the antithesis of Frances. She’s beautiful, self-assured, and adventurous, and dotes on Charles, whose kindness and acceptance have a distinctly positive effect on Marcus. Frances is not only thrilled that her son finally has a real friend, but ecstatic when she and Kate also grow close. At the moment they become acquainted, they exchanged a “look, where they recognized the darkness in each other, forged a kind of bond. A new level of comfort was borne, an inherent understanding of each other. . . . They had found each other, and it felt fated.”
However, Daisy, Kate’s 14-year-old daughter, is troubled. Convinced that her mother cares nothing about her, she acts out in increasingly irresponsible, dangerous ways that include spending time with David, a mysterious man in his 30’s who has taken a keen interest in her. One morning Daisy needs help and, unable and unwilling to reach out to her callous mother, Daisy calls Frances to come to her aid and elicits a promise from Frances not to tell Kate. Daisy’s actions serve as the impetus for the discovery of the truth.
One of the women is really Amber Kunik who, after completing her prison sentence, was free to resume her life, but has done so under a new name. But which one?
Her Pretty Face is a riveting story told from the perspective of a woman who made a mistake as a teenager and has been struggling to come to grips with her actions for many years. Harding demonstrates that the lives of friends and neighbors are never as easy and uncomplicated as they appear to be and, in fact, one’s closest friends could be harboring horrifying secrets about themselves, their pasts, and the shocking behaviors of which they are capable. Harding expertly crafts a cautionary story about the manner in which sociopaths target and prey upon their vulnerable victims. Ultimately, it is a richly constructed character study. Harding’s narrative focuses upon learning to forgive oneself and others, finding one’s own inner strength, and what it means to become empowered. More particularly, Harding challenges readers to examine the depth of their own capacity for forgiveness. And asks whether an individual who has completed a term of incarceration and been released truly deserves the chance to start over and be accepted into a community.
Her Pretty Face is a fast-paced mystery that will keep readers guessing about the two women’s respective secrets. Once those secrets are revealed, Harding supplies a resolution that many readers will find emotionally satisfying as they cheer for Frances and her special son, Marcus.
Excerpt from Her Pretty Face
Frances Metcalfe was not the type of woman who enjoyed large parties, especially large parties where you had to dress up in a costume. Given the choice, she would have stayed home and pierced her own nipples with dull knitting needles, but fund-raisers for Forrester Academy were not optional. Despite the thirty-thousand-dollar tuition fee, the elite private school’s coffers needed regular infusions of cash.
The night’s theme was The ’80s!
Like, totally come as your favorite ’80s pop star!
Frances had taken the invitation literally and dressed as Cyndi Lauper. She admired the performer’s LGBTQ activism, and Lauper’s music had been the soundtrack to a more innocent time. But the full skirt and layers of belts, beads, and scarves may not have been the most flattering choice for Frances’s curvaceous body type. With her bright red wig and colorful makeup, Frances felt as if she looked like a cross between a deranged clown and a heavyset bag lady.
She wandered self-consciously through the school gymnasium, taking in the neon streamers and hand-painted posters.
GRODY TO THE MAX!
The childish, handmade decorations, courtesy of Ms. Waddell’s sixth-grade class, stood in stark contrast to the high-end catering: attractive servers in black-and-white circulated with trays of ceviche on porcelain spoons, seafood-stuffed mushroom caps, and Wagyu beef sliders. Frances had vowed not to snack at the party. She had filled up on raw veggies before she left home as all the fitness magazines recommended. Despite their plethora of articles devoted to the psychology of overeating (“Feeding Emotional Pain,” “Replacing Love with Food”), the magazines still recommended loading up on crudités to stave off the assault of caloric party fare. But eating at a party had nothing to do with hunger; it had everything to do with fear.
Maybe fear was too strong a word for the gnawing in Frances’s stomach, the slight tremble to her hands, the prick of sweat at the nape of her neck. It was low- to mid-level social anxiety; she’d suffered from it for years. When one had secrets, when one’s past was something to be hidden and guarded, mingling and making idle chitchat became daunting. The extra twenty-two pounds Frances carried on her five-foot-five frame, and the meager check she’d just deposited in the decorated donation box (it would undoubtedly prompt snickers from the fund-raising committee, several of whom were married to Microsoft multimillionaires), did nothing to boost her confidence.
But the apprehension Frances felt tonight could not be blamed on her past, her weight, or her unfortunate ensemble. What she felt tonight was real and present. The parents at Forrester Academy did not accept her, and their hostility was palpable. Meandering through the crowd, watching backs turn on cue, Frances hadn’t felt so blatantly ostracized since high school. She plucked a second glass of wine from the tray of a passing waiter and stuffed a truffle arancini into her mouth.
She’d had high hopes when her son, Marcus, was accepted into Forrester, one of greater Seattle’s elite private schools. Marcus was entering middle school; he was more mature now, and calmer. The diagnosis he’d received at the beginning of his academic career—ADHD combined with oppositional defiant disorder—was beginning to feel less overwhelming. The behavior-modification therapies Frances had religiously employed over the past few years seemed to be working, and cutting sugar and gluten from her son’s diet had made him almost docile. Frances knew Marcus would thrive in the modern glass-and-beam building, would blossom in the more structured, attentive environment of private education. The new school was to be a fresh start for Frances, too.
The Forrester mothers didn’t know that Frances lived in a modest, split-level ranch dwarfed by mansions in tony Clyde Hill, a residential area in northwest Bellevue. They didn’t know that her husband, Jason, had bought their eighties-designed, cheaply constructed abode from a paternal aunt for roughly a fifth of its current value. They were unaware that the Metcalfes’ Subaru Outback and Volkswagen Jetta were leases, that Jason’s salary would not have covered their son’s tuition if not for the help of a second mortgage on their run-down house, a house full of clutter that Frances seemed powerless to control. They were starting school with a clean slate. It would be a new chapter for their family.
It lasted three weeks.
It was the incident with Abbey Dumas that destroyed them—both Marcus and Frances. Abbey had teased and taunted Marcus until he had lashed out in a repugnant but rather creative way. During recess, Marcus had found his tormentor’s water bottle and he had peed in it. It wasn’t that big a deal. Abbey was fine, basically. (She’d had no more than a sip before she ran screaming to the teacher.) It was the disturbing nature of the incident that the school community couldn’t forgive. Disturbing: like the actions of a sixth grader could forecast a future spent torturing cats, peeping under bathroom stalls, keeping a locked basement full of sex slaves. Frances had promptly booked her son a standing appointment with a child psychologist, but Abbey’s parents had called for Marcus’s expulsion. Forrester Academy stood by him, though. They didn’t just give up on their students. The school community was stuck with them.
The chocolate fountain loomed ahead of her, an oasis in the desert full of faux Madonnas and Adam Ants. Frances knew she shouldn’t indulge, but dipping fruit in molten chocolate would give her something to do, keep her hands busy, and make her look occupied. She’d already exhausted the silent-auction tables, writing down bids for spa packages and food baskets, while desperately hoping that she didn’t win any of them. Jason had disappeared, swallowed by the crowd of parents, all of them made indistinguishable by their mullet wigs and neon garb. She made a beeline for the glistening brown geyser.
She could have chosen a piece of fruit—minimized the caloric damage—but the platter of sponge cake looked so moist and inviting that she stabbed the largest piece with a long, wood-handled fork and dunked it into the sweet flow. She had just stuffed the sodden confection into her mouth when she sensed a presence at her elbow.
“Hi, Frances.” There was a notable lack of warmth in the woman’s voice, but at least her tone wasn’t overtly antagonistic. Frances turned toward Allison Moss, so taut, toned, and trim in head-to-toe spandex. “Physical”-era Olivia Newton-John. Great.
Frances mumbled through a mouthful of cake, “Hi, Allison.”
“You’re . . . Boy George?” Allison guessed.
Frances frantically tried to swallow, but the sponge cake and chocolate had formed a thick paste that seemed determined to stick to the back of her throat.
“Cymdi Lumper,” she managed.
“The decorations are adorable, aren’t they? I love that the kids made them themselves.”
“So cute.” It came out an unappetizing glug.
Allison forked a strawberry and put it in her mouth, forgoing the chocolate entirely. “How’s Marcus?” she asked. “Enjoying school?”
Was there a hint of derision in her voice? A touch of cruel curiosity? Or was Allison genuinely interested in Marcus’s well-being? The Abbey Dumas incident had occurred almost a month ago now. Perhaps people were starting to forget? Move on? “He’s doing okay,” Frances said. “Settling in, I think.”
“Starting at a new school can be tough.” Allison smiled, and Frances felt warmed. Allison understood. Being the new kid was hard, and that’s why Marcus had done what he did. Abbey had picked on him and he’d overreacted. It was stupid. And gross. But he was just a boy. . . .
“How’s—?” She couldn’t remember Allison’s daughter’s name. Lila? Lola? Leila? The girl was Marcus’s age, but they were in different classes.
“Marcus is so big,” Allison continued. Apparently, she didn’t want to shift conversation to her own offspring. “He obviously gets his height from his dad.”
“Yeah. Jason’s side of the family is really tall.”
“It’s nice to see him here. We don’t have the pleasure very often.”
Somehow, Frances’s husband, Jason, was not the outcast that she and their son were. Jason was tall, dark, and handsome (all but his height inherited from his beautiful Mexican mother). “He could get away with murder with that smile,” one of the infatuated Forrester mothers had once noted. Jason had also distanced himself from his difficult offspring and ineffective wife through work. His tech job kept him at the office until eight every night, and until midnight a few times a month. Obviously, the sole breadwinner, working to put food on the table for his family, could not be blamed for his son’s behavioral issues. That fell squarely on the shoulders of stay-at-home mom Frances.
Her gaze followed Allison’s across the room. It took a moment to recognize her clean-cut spouse in the fedora he’d donned for the fund-raiser, but she knew his confident stance in his pleated trousers, his strong broad back in the cherry satin blazer. (He was dressed as John Taylor from Duran Duran.) Jason was talking intently to a petite Asian woman with a lion’s mane of synthetic hair and a very short leather skirt. Tina Turner, obviously. She was laughing at something he had said, her head thrown back, her hand lightly resting on his shiny red forearm. She was attracted to him; it was obvious even from this distance.
“He seems to be enjoying himself,” Allison said, and there it was, subtle, but there: that condescending, mocking edge that Frances had come to expect from the Forrester mothers. Allison had veered from the usual narrative, though. Normally, Frances felt judged by these other parents as a poor mother, but Allison had taken a new tack and condemned her as an inadequate wife. It was effective. While Frances had developed something of a protective shell against criticisms of her parenting, she was completely vulnerable to assaults on her marriage. She knew that people, especially women, were surprised to learn she and Jason were a couple. He was gregarious, attractive, and fit. She was quiet, dull, and chubby. “Such a pretty face . . .” No crueler words had ever been uttered.
Allison was still watching the exchange between Frances’s husband and his flirtatious admirer. “Isn’t May adorable? And those legs! Her husband moved to Hong Kong to run Expedia’s Asian office, and she decided to stay. Divorce is hard, but May’s handled it so well.”
The adorable May was now clinking her wineglass to Jason’s. What were they toasting? Their mutual superiority to the people they had chosen to marry? Frances knew she was projecting her insecurities onto Jason. Her husband routinely assured her that he loved her, that he still found her sexy, that he had no regrets. . . . But it was evident—to Allison, to Frances, to everyone—that he could do much better. A bitter-tasting lump was clogging her throat as she watched her husband chuckle at May’s comment.
“May will find someone better.” Allison turned to Frances and smiled. “But not Jason, obviously. He’s married to you.” And then, as she reached for another piece of fruit, she murmured, “Too bad.”
Had Allison really just said that? Was she that cruel? Frances wasn’t sure she could trust her own ears. Her brain was spinning, lucid thought replaced by pure emotion: hurt, jealousy, anger. Time seemed to pause as she looked down at her diminutive companion, so poised and perfect and pleased with herself. In that suspended moment, Frances thought how good it would feel to kill her.
She could beat Allison to death with the chocolate fountain. The contraption probably weighed less than twenty pounds, and, once unplugged from its power socket, could be easily hoisted and swung like a club. It was an incredibly messy choice of weapon, but there would be a delicious irony in murdering toned, svelte Allison Moss with such a caloric and sugary vessel. Frances could almost hear the metal base cracking against Allison’s birdlike skull, see the blood spurting, mixing with the melted chocolate to form a savory-sweet noxious puddle. How many blows would it take to ensure Allison was dead? Three? Four at the most? For once, Frances’s heft would come in handy.
Alternatively, Frances could choke out the petite PTA mom with her bare hands. She could clutch Allison’s sinewy neck between her chubby mitts and squeeze. Frances would enjoy hearing her croak and wheeze and struggle for breath; thrill as the cruel light drained from her eyes, as the boyish body slackened and then crumpled into a heap on the gymnasium floor. This was a definitively less messy option, but it would take a lot longer. There was a high probability that someone from Allison’s crowd would tackle Frances before the job was done.
Frances knew she wasn’t psychotic. It was a fantasy, a harmless coping mechanism. That was her self-diagnosis, anyway. She could never tell a therapist about these violent thoughts, at least not one who knew what she had done in the past. But given the treatment she’d received at the hands of the Forrester community, was it any wonder her mind went to these dark places? She wouldn’t really kill Allison Moss—especially not in her son’s school, and definitely not in front of its entire parent population. The scandal would be legendary. She could see the headlines:
MIDDLE-SCHOOL PARENT PARIAH SNAPS, MURDERS COOL MOM AT SCHOOL FUND-RAISER
With the slightest shake of her head, Frances dislodged the homicidal whimsy. She gave Allison a tight smile and turned away, reaching for another piece of sponge cake.
“Hi, Allison.” The voice was forced, frosty, familiar.
Frances halted her fork in midair. She turned to see Kate Randolph’s tall, willowy frame looming over Allison Moss, and her heart soared. Her friend—her only friend in the school community—wore a white button-down shirt knotted under her breasts to reveal a flat, tanned stomach; faded men’s Levi’s; and heavy black boots. Kate’s caramel-colored hair had been back-combed and sprayed into a sexy bouffant. The effect was that of an eighties supermodel (and not a homeless clown, like Frances).
“Kate. Hi,” Allison said, suddenly deferential. “You look great.”
“Thanks.” Kate gave Allison’s spandex ensemble an obvious once-over. “Wow. . . . You’re really confident to wear an outfit like that at our age.”
Allison’s smile stayed in place, but insecurity flickered in her eyes. “I work out a lot.”
“Still . . . gravity.”
The tiny woman folded her arms across her breasts and changed the subject. “How’s Charles enjoying sixth grade?”
“So far, so good. And Lulu?”
“She’s great. Really blossoming.”
Kate gazed around the gym. “With all the money we’re paying, they couldn’t have hired a professional decorator?”
Frances saw Allison flinch, like her precious Lila had painted the rad posters herself . . . which she probably had. The wisp of a woman set her strawberry fork on the table. “I should get away from this chocolatey temptation. Nice to see you, Kate.” With a slight wave to Frances, she walked away from the two of them.
“That was awesome,” Frances gushed. Kate’s biting comments were far more rewarding than actual murder.
“Why, thank you, Cyndi Lauper.”
Frances smiled. “I didn’t think you’d come. You said you hate these things.”
Kate picked up a fondue fork. “I couldn’t let you face these stuck-up bitches alone. And besides, Robert said Charles would be expelled if we didn’t show up.”
“He’s probably right.” Frances looked over to see Kate’s husband, Robert, a fit fifty-something, talking to Jason. Robert Randolph was tall and dignified, almost attractive except for a slight overbite that gave him a mildly cartoonish affect. The older man’s costume consisted of a gray blazer with pronounced shoulder pads over a white T-shirt and a pair of black jeans. (David Bowie, maybe? Or David Byrne?) He’d been a lawyer in a past iteration (clearly a successful one to nab a hot, younger wife like Kate); dressing up was obviously not part of his lexicon. Jason and Robert were talking, laughing, the adorable May suddenly neglected. Frances watched as May casually wandered off.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” Frances turned back to Kate. “I was about to drink this entire chocolate fountain out of sheer boredom.”
Kate stabbed some cake and doused it in chocolate. How could she eat like that and still stay so slim? “Daisy agreed to babysit her brother tonight, but only if he was asleep before I left.”
“That doesn’t sound like such a bad gig. Charles is so sweet.”
“Daisy hates him.”
“No, she doesn’t. She’s just fourteen.”
“I’m not so sure,” Kate said, through a two-hundred-calorie mouthful of cake and chocolate. “He drank all the orange juice this morning. I thought Daisy was going to stab him with her butter knife.”
Frances laughed and realized she was enjoying herself. It was all due to Kate’s presence. The two women shared a sense of humor and a disdain for Forrester’s snobby, cliquey, yummy-mummies. With statuesque, self-assured Kate in her corner, Frances felt more confident, less vulnerable to attack. Their friendship was still in its adolescence, but Kate had already earned Frances’s devotion.
Kate set her fondue fork down. “Where do I get some wine? Daisy’s charging me twelve bucks an hour. I’ve got to make the most of this night.”
“I’ll show you to the bar,” Frances said. Together, they picked their way through the crowd.
Copyright © 2018 by Robyn Harding. Excerpted from Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books. All rights reserved.