Thanks for stopping by! I know I’ve kept this work in progress pretty close to the vest… and I know I’m still not showing you the title or cover, but I can’t help it. I really love surprises.
But I’m super excited for this book, and I think you’ll all like it too. I know I say this about every couple, but I had a blast writing Ruby and Gabriel. So without further ado…
My hair sticks to my neck as I scoop the sticky, bubbling, pink-orange goop into the funnel, making sure to leave half an inch of air between the jam and the top of the jar. I tap the funnel gently on the side of the jar, dislodging any leftover peach chunks, and as I lift the funnel from the jar, my sister Pearl takes it and wipes the top rim with a damp paper towel.
She hands it to Joy, who drops a seal onto the jar, then puts it on the kitchen counter, next to thirty other identical jars.
We do it all in silence, like we’re a well-oiled machine.
“Even through Jim’s campaigns and his work in Washington, it’s always been my top priority that I remain at home, raising our children and running the household,” my mother says in her soft, quiet voice.
The reporter following her makes a noise of agreement.
“Right now we’re making peach jam from the very last of the peaches in the family orchard,” she goes on. “So many homemaking skills are becoming lost as a result of today’s society that girls are growing up not knowing the simple, basic homemaking tasks that made this country great in the first place. These are the valuable, much-needed arts that become lost when women are forced into the work place and out of the home.”
I’m facing the window, but I can hear the reporter tapping his pen against his notepad. I’ve lost track of which newspaper he’s from, but it’s something fairly small and fairly local, which means he won’t be pushing back too hard against my mother’s outrageous claims.
“Mrs. Burgess, there are many women who would say that they prefer to work outside the home,” he says.
I don’t have to look to know she’s smiling a soft, pitying smile at him.
“Of course there are,” she says, in her most sympathetic, understanding voice. “But when I go out with my husband to his speeches and rallies, and I talk to the strong, hard-working women of South Carolina, what I hear over and over again is that so many of them have a desire to return to traditional life and values, to be keepers of the home. I’m sure some women enjoy doing a man’s work in a man’s world, but modern society has robbed wives and mothers of the chance to truly make a difference in the lives of their husbands and children by serving them at home.”
I blob more peach jam into a jar. Pearl wipes it. Joy plops the lid on. All three of us have heard our mother’s canned responses so many times that we know them by heart and could quote them verbatim.
“Yes,” the reporter is saying. “But aren’t there women out there whose desire isn’t to stay at home, but to…”
This one’s got more backbone than I expected, I think, scooping more jam. Usually they only pretend to argue for a sentence or two, then roll over and accept everything she says about a women’s true purpose in life being to serve her husband’s needs and focus the rest of her energies on her children.
None of them have the nerve to ask about me, of course. That’s a surefire way to ensure that whichever news outlet you work for never gets another interview with Senator Jim Burgess, any member of his staff, or any member of his family, ever again.
As my mother is quietly, sweetly, and kindly answering another question, the kitchen door opens and my father’s aide Mason steps through. He’s wearing khakis and a long-sleeve Oxford shirt, despite the September heat.
“Miss Burgess, the Senator would like to see you,” he says.
The three Misses Burgess in the room turn, as does Mrs. Burgess, but he’s looking at me. I raise my eyebrows. Mason nods.
“Excuse me,” I say to everyone in the room, wipe my hands on a kitchen towel, and follow Mason. He holds the door for me and I step into the hallway, which is about fifteen degrees cooler.
It’s an incredible relief. It doesn’t matter that it’s over eighty degrees outside or that the air conditioning in our antebellum house doesn’t work very well, I’m wearing a high-necked shirt with long sleeves, a denim skirt that goes below my knees, and pantyhose.
That’s something I miss about being married: Lucas didn’t require me to wear pantyhose at all times.
I follow Mason across the house and up two flights of steps in silence, because there’s no point in asking him why my father wishes to speak with me. Either Mason doesn’t know, or he knows better than to discuss it with me.
Besides, there’s no way it’s anything good. I think the last good conversation I had with my father was a year after I got married, back when the situation was only uncomfortable and unsatisfying, not a complete wreck.
My father’s home office has a huge, wooden double door. It’s original to this house, and he’ll tell anyone visiting the story of how his great-great-great-great grandmother used this house as a field hospital during the Civil War and hung bloody sheets over all her beautiful, hand-carved door frames so the Yankees wouldn’t loot them.
It might be true. I have no idea. I just know my father’s a politician, and finally, at age twenty-six, I know better than to believe everything he says.
Mason pushes the door open and nods me through to the Senator, who’s sitting at his immense desk in his shirtsleeves, busily writing something.
“Thank you, Mason,” he says without looking up. “Ruby, you may sit.”
I do, silently, crossing one leg over the other, and wait for him to finish whatever he’s writing. Probably yet another letter to a donor, thanking them for their important working in stemming the tide of moral decay in modern America, blah blah blah. Finally he places it in his inbox and looks at me.
“I’m afraid your situation has generated a great deal of undesired attention,” he begins. His tone isn’t exactly accusatory, but I can tell whose fault he thinks this is.
I swallow and say nothing. There’s no point in arguing.
“And while this family has weathered the storm of your disgrace, and will continue to weather that storm as a strong, stable unit, I’m afraid a new problem has presented itself and it must be dealt with accordingly.”
My stomach twists and my pulse speeds up.
Crap. What else did he find out?
“What’s that, father?” I ask, keeping my face as perfectly neutral as I can.
Without answering, he reaches into a desk drawer and produces a small bundle of letters, letting them plop on his desk.
“You’ve received a substantial amount of mail from a single correspondent,” he says. “Of course, I took the liberty of reviewing your letters, given your situation — “
My blood boils, but I force myself not to show it.
Keep sweet, I tell myself. Just smile. Keep sweet.
“—And I’m afraid that what began as misguided interest has escalated into some very disturbing accusations and threats against your safety.”
I blink. I was expecting yet another lecture on my behavior and attitude.
“What kind of threats?” I ask, doing my best to channel my mother and keep my voice soft, quiet, and meek.
“I won’t be discussing that with you,” he says. “They’re completely unsuitable for a woman to read, but they’re very upsetting. After extensive discussions with my security team, we’ve decided that you’ll be receiving your own detail for the time being.”
He pauses. I pause, and for a long moment, my father and I just look at each other.
“You’re giving me a bodyguard?” I ask, finally.
Now my stomach is clenched into a knot, fury raging inside me.
Just because I’m sheltered and naïve doesn’t make me dumb. My father has a way of getting what he wants without making himself look back, so I’d bet almost anything that the letters aren’t real.
Either they’re empty, or my father wrote them himself. He knows it’s not normal to hire someone to keep watch on your daughter twenty-four-seven, and if he did it would look weird to the press, so this is his excuse.
My bodyguard’s real job isn’t going to be guarding me. It’s going to be watching me and reporting back to my father.
“Yes,” my father says. “Since I’m your guardian once more, it falls to me to protect you from harm, and these —“ he taps the bundle of letters, “—constitute potential harm. Despite your life choices, you’re still my daughter, and it’s my duty to ensure your safety.”
Not I love you and I’m worried, but your safety is my duty. I swallow, my mouth dry.
“Thank you, father,” I say.
“His name is Gabriel Kane,” my father says. “He’s a former Secret Service agent and he’ll be arriving tomorrow.”
And he’ll be on you constantly, following your every move, I think.
It’s moderately interesting that they chose a man for my bodyguard, but not that surprising. On one hand, my father would prefer that I literally never be alone in a room with a man who isn’t related to me, but on the other, his opinion of women is so low that I doubt he’d trust one to guard me.
Besides, I’m already damaged goods. It isn’t like my father has to defend my innocence or something. Everyone knows that’s long gone.
“I expect that you’ll show him proper hospitality,” my father goes on, leaning back in his massive leather chair. He’s flanked on either side by tall windows, the heavy curtains pulled back to reveal the rooftops of Huntsburg and the thick, lush forest beyond. “And I also expect that you’ll continue to uphold the standards of the Burgess name, as befits my eldest daughter.”
His stare could cut through iron right now, but like he just said: I’m his daughter. His blood runs in my veins, and his stare isn’t doing a damn thing to me.
I think he means don’t have sex with your bodyguard, because my father seems to think that all women, if allowed the slightest bit of freedom, will simply lie back and open their legs to any man who happens by.
As if I’m going to be interested in whatever ex-military meathead he’s hired to keep tabs on me. Thugs who report on my behavior to my father aren’t exactly my type.
But I don’t say any of that. I smile sweetly at him, hands clasped atop my knee, and answer, “Of course, father.”
Before he can respond, there’s a knock on the door, and then Mason’s face pokes through.
“Senator,” he says. “The photographer from the Sun-Herald has arrived, and Mrs. Burgess asked me to fetch you.”
My father nods, then stands. Mason’s face disappears, and my father pulls on his sport jacket, slicking his salt-and-pepper hair back with one hand. I glance one more time at the bundle of letters that he’s left lying on the desk.
“We’ll be meeting here at eleven sharp tomorrow,” he tells me, and we both exit his office, the heavy door shutting behind him.
My father and Mason both turn and walk down the stairs. I walk slowly in the opposite direction, along the upstairs hallway, pulse quickening as I listen to their footsteps and voices fade.
He left the letters sitting on the desk, instead of locking them away somewhere. The letters he thinks I’m too delicate to read.
The moment their voices are gone, I turn back, push the heavy office door open and shut it behind myself. I’m holding my breath and willing my heart not to beat so loud, because if I get caught in here, there’ll be hell to pay.
He can’t kick me out onto the street — not until the election is over, at least, because it would look absolutely awful to the voters — but he’d make my life even more locked-down and unpleasant than it already is.
I tiptoe across the plush area rug, past the chair where I was sitting. Suddenly the curtains stir and I freeze in place, a deer in the headlight, but it’s just a breeze from the window and I exhale.
My hands are shaking as I reach for the bundle, memorizing its exact location on the desk before I pick it up. I take three: one from near the top, one from the middle, one from the bottom, and pray he doesn’t notice.
It’s risky, but I have to know. I have to read these letters, see whether I’m actually in danger or whether my father’s invented the whole thing.
I pull up my shirt and cram the envelopes into the top of my pantyhose, which traps them flat against my belly. At least it’s good for something.
With meticulous care, I put the bundle back exactly how I found it, sweat leaking down my neck. Then I turn, tiptoe to the door, and slip out silently.
There’s no one in the hall, and a burst of polite, forced laughter comes up the stairs as I pull the heavy door shut.
Then I practically run down the hall, to my room, where I can hide these until I can read them later.
My parents tried. They really did. I’m supposed to be meek, subservient, sweet, and trusting, but that’s just not how I turned out.
I’m my father’s daughter, after all.