Think of the White Gloves like the Junior League -- by way of Skull and Bones.
Reluctant debutante Sawyer Taft joined Southern high society for one reason and one reason alone: to identify and locate her biological father. But the answers Sawyer found during her debutante year only left her with more questions and one potentially life-ruining secret.
When her cousin Lily ropes her into pledging a mysterious, elite, and all-female secret society called the White Gloves, Sawyer soon discovers that someone in the group's ranks may have the answers she's looking for. Things are looking up . . . until Sawyer and the White Gloves make a disturbing discovery near the family's summer home -- and uncover a twisted secret, decades in the making.
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"Has anyone seen William Faulkner's life vest?"
There was a point in my life when the question Aunt Olivia had just called down the stairs would have struck me as odd. Now it didn't even merit the slightest raise of my eyebrow. Of course the family's mammoth Bernese mountain dog was named William Faulkner, and of course she had her very own life vest. Hell, it was probably monogrammed.
The mamas of the Debutante set were very big on monogramming.
Really, the only thing surprising about Aunt Olivia's question was the fact that my aunt, who was type A in the extreme, did not already know where William Faulkner's life vest was.
"Remind me again why we're hiding in the pantry?" I asked Lily, who'd dragged me in here five minutes ago and hadn't spoken louder than a whisper since.
"It's Memorial Day weekend," Lily murmured in response. "Mama always gets a bit high-strung when we open the lake house up for the summer." Lily lowered her voice even further for dramatic effect. "Even her lists have lists."
I shot Lily a look intended to communicate something about pots and kettles.
"I have an entirely reasonable number of lists," Lily retorted in a whisper. "And I would have a lot fewer if you showed any inclination whatsoever to get ready for college yourself."
Lily Taft Easterling was just as type A as her mama, and both of them insisted on operating under the assumption that I was going to State with Lily in the fall. Matriculation at that fine institution was, I had been informed, a family tradition.
I couldn't help thinking that my specific branch of the family tree had our own traditions. Deception, betrayal, no-bake cherry cheesecake ...
"Is it me, or did there used to be a lot more food in this pantry?" I asked Lily, to keep her from reading anything into my silence.
"Mama packs for the lake like a survivalist preparing for the end days," Lily said in a hushed voice. She fell silent at the sound of incoming footsteps, which stilled right outside our hiding place.
I held a breath, and a moment later, the pantry door flew inward.
"Hasta la vista ... Lily!" Lily's younger brother, John David, punctuated that statement with a cackle and began pelting us with Nerf darts.
Ducking, I noted that our assailant was dressed in camo, had painted black stripes under his eyes, and was wearing an enormous life vest that I could only assume belonged to the dog.
"I try my level best to avoid fratricide," Lily said pleasantly. "However." The however was meant to stand on its own as a threat, but I decided to lend a little specificity Lily's way.
"However ..." I suggested, advancing on John David. "Noogies are more of a gray area?"
I caught John David in a headlock.
"You mess with the bull ..." John David tried his best to wriggle his way out of my grasp. "You get the horns!"
"And you get a noogie!"
Lily stared at the pair of us like we'd just started mud-wrestling in the middle of Sunday brunch.
"What?" John David said innocently, before trying and failing to bite my armpit.
"You two are bad influences on each other," Lily declared. "I tell you, Sawyer, there are days when I'd swear he was your brother, not mine."
That was Lily's version of teasing, but still, I froze. Lily had no idea — none — what she'd just said.
No idea that it was half-true.
John David seized the moment and managed to wriggle out of my grasp. He was taking aim with his weapon when Aunt Olivia rounded the corner.
I'd swear he was your brother. Lily's words echoed in my head, but I forced myself to focus on the present — and the stormy look on Aunt Olivia's face. I stepped in between John David and my aunt and offered her what I hoped passed for a sedate smile.
"Aunt Olivia," I said calmly. "We found William Faulkner's life vest."
John David and I were summarily convicted of "inappropriately timed horse play" and "wearing on my last nerve, I swear" and sentenced to loading the car. I wasn't about to complain about a much-needed distraction.
Months ago, I'd moved into my maternal grandmother's house after she'd offered me a devil of a deal: if I lived with her and participated in Debutante season, she'd pay for college. I'd agreed, but not because of the half-million-dollar trust now held in my name. I'd willingly become a part of this lavish, glittering world because I'd wanted, desperately, to know which scion of high society had knocked up my mom during her Debutante year.
And the answer to that question? The one Lily didn't know? Her father. Aunt Olivia's husband, my uncle J.D.
"Are you feeling okay, Sawyer? You're looking a little peaked, sweetheart." Aunt Olivia was holding a to-do list that appeared to have taken no fewer than eight Post-its to write. I was willing to bet that not a single item on that extensive list said Find out husband slept with and impregnated my younger sister nineteen and a half years ago.
Also probably not on her list? Realize sister got pregnant on purpose as part of some idiotic, godforsaken teenage pregnancy pact.
"I'm fine," I told Aunt Olivia, mentally adding that to the list of the lies I'd told — in words and by omission — in the past six weeks.
Under normal circumstances, Aunt Olivia probably would have tried to feed me for good measure, but she apparently had weightier things on her mind. "I forgot the backup avocados," she said suddenly. "I could run to the store real quick and ..."
"Mama." Lily came to stand in front of Aunt Olivia. The two of them didn't look much alike, but when it came to manners and mannerisms, they could have been twins. "You don't need to go to the store. We'll have plenty of avocados. Everything is going to be fine."
Aunt Olivia gave Lily a look. "Fine is not the standard to which Taft women aspire."
Lily gently plucked the list from her mother's hands. "Everything will be perfect."
A third Taft female added her voice to the conversation. "I'm sure that it will." Even wearing her version of casual wear — linen capris — the great Lillian Taft knew how to make an entrance. "Sawyer, honey." My grandmother let her gaze settle on me. "I was hoping you might accompany me on a little errand this morning."
That was an order, not a request. I took inventory of all the rules and social niceties I'd flouted in the past twenty-four hours but was unsure what I'd done to merit Lillian wanting to talk to me alone.
"Should we wait for you, Mama?" Aunt Olivia asked, her eyes darting toward the clock.
Lillian dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. "You head on up to the lake, Olivia. Beat the traffic. Sawyer and I will be right on your heels."CHAPTER 2
My grandmother's errand took us to the cemetery. She carried with her a small floral arrangement — wildflowers. That caught my attention, because Lillian literally had a florist on speed dial. She also grew her own roses, yet the bouquet in her hands looked like it had been plucked from a field.
Lillian Taft was not, generally speaking, the low-cost DIY type. She was uncharacteristically quiet as we walked a gravel path down a small hill. Set back from the other gravestones, in the space between two ancient oak trees, there was a small wrought-iron fence. Though the detail work was stunning, the fence was small, barely reaching my waist. The parcel of land inside was maybe twelve feet across and ten deep.
"Your grandfather picked this plot out himself. The man always thought he was immortal, so I can only assume he was planning on burying me here instead of the other way around." My grandmother let her hand rest on the wrought iron, then pushed the gate inward. I hesitated before following her to stand near the tombstone inside: a small cement cross on a simple base. I let my eyes take in the dates first, then allowed them to go to the name.
EDWARD ALCOTT TAFT.
"If we'd had a son," Lillian said softly, "he would have been named Edward. The Alcott was a matter of some debate between your grandfather and myself. Edward never wanted a junior, but there was something about the sound of his full name that I liked."
This wasn't what I'd been expecting when she'd whisked me away for a one-on-one.
"Your grandfather and I met on Memorial Day weekend. Did I ever tell you that?" In typical fashion, Lillian did not wait for a reply. "I'd snuck into a party where a girl of my provenance most certainly did not belong."
Unwittingly, my mind went to another high-society soiree where one of the attendees had not belonged. His name was Nick. We'd shared one dance — him in a T-shirt and me in a ball gown. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, the ghost of that dance had lingered. "If anyone else had found me out, there might have been trouble," Lillian mused, continuing her own stroll down memory lane, "but your grandfather had a way about him ..."
The nostalgia in her voice allowed me to tuck the dance with Nick back into the corners of my mind and focus on the conversation at hand. Lillian almost never spoke about her early years. I'd gathered that she'd grown up dirt poor and ambitious as hell, but that was about all I knew.
"You miss him," I said, my eyes on the tombstone and a lump in my throat, because she'd loved him. Because I'd never know the man buried here well enough to love or miss him, too.
"He would have liked you, Sawyer." Lillian Taft did not get misty-eyed. She was not one to allow her voice to quiver. "Oh, he would have pitched a fit when Ellie turned up pregnant, but the man would have gone to hell and back for his little girls. I've no doubt he would have done the same for you, once he came around."
Edward Alcott Taft had died when my mom was twelve and Aunt Olivia was closing in on eighteen. I was fairly certain that if he had been alive during my mom's Deb year, she probably wouldn't have "turned up" pregnant in the first place. The fact that she had made a pregnancy pact with two of her friends didn't exactly scream "well-adjusted." But the fact that she'd chosen her own brother-in-law to knock her up?
That had Daddy Issues written all over it.
"Have you talked to her?" Lillian asked me. "Your mama?"
That put me on high alert. If Lillian had brought me here in hopes of inspiring a little family forgiveness, she was going to be sorely disappointed.
"If by talk you mean steadfastly ignore, then yes," I said flatly. "Otherwise, no."
My mom had lied to me. She'd let me believe that my father was former-senator, now-convict Sterling Ames. I'd believed the senator's kids were my half-siblings. They — and his wife — believed it still. The senator's son was Lily's boyfriend. Walker and Lily had just gotten back together. I couldn't tell him the truth without telling her.
And if I told Lily who my father was, what my mother and her beloved daddy had done ... I'd lose her.
"I can't help but notice you've been awfully quiet these past six weeks, sweetheart." Lillian spoke gently, but I recognized a Southern inquisition when I heard one. "Not talking to your mama. Not talking to anyone, really, about things that matter."
I read between the lines of what she was saying. "Are we having this conversation because you want me to come clean to Lily and Aunt Olivia about the baby-daddy situation or because you want my word that I won't?"
Lillian Taft, grand dame of society, philanthropist, guardian of the family fortune and reputation, was not impressed with my choice of words. "I would consider it a great favor if you would refrain from using the term baby daddy."
"You didn't answer my question," I said.
"It's not mine to answer." Lillian glanced down at her husband's grave. "My time to speak up was years ago. As much as I might regret my choice, I'm not about to take this one away from you now. This is your life, Sawyer. If you want to live it with your head in the sand, I'm not going to stop you."
When it came to the art of making her opinion known while explicitly declining to share an opinion, my grandmother was an artist.
After all these years, she was tired of secrets.
Like I'm not, I thought.
"The only fight Lily and I have ever had was because her daddy's name was on my list of possible fathers." I willed that to matter less than it did. "We made up because I 'discovered' my father was someone else and told her as much."
Lily worshipped her dad. Aunt Olivia was a perfectionist; Uncle J.D. was the one who told Lily, again and again, that she didn't have to be perfect to be loved.
"I think you underestimate your cousin," Lillian told me quietly.
I let myself say the words I was constantly trying not to think. "She's not just my cousin."
She was my sister.
"Don't you go feeling guilty," Lillian ordered. "This is your mama's mess, Sawyer. And mine. Lord knows I should have kicked J.D. to the curb years ago, the moment I suspected he would dare —" My grandmother cut herself off. After a moment, she bent to lay the wildflower bouquet at the base of the tombstone. When she straightened, she gathered herself up to her full height. "The point, Sawyer Ann, is that this mess is not, in any way, shape, or form, yours." "This mess isn't mine," I countered. "It's me."
I fully expected Lillian to take issue with that statement, but instead, she raised an eyebrow. "You are rather perpetually disheveled." She produced a hair clip seemingly out of nowhere and "suggested" that I make use of it. "You have such a pretty face," she added. "Lord knows why you're so intent on hiding it under those bangs."
She said bangs like a curse word. Before she could lament the fact that I'd had her hairdresser chop off a great deal of my hair, I preempted the complaint. "I needed a change."
I'd needed something. I'd spent years wondering who my father was. Now I was living under the same roof with the man, and neither one of us had acknowledged that fact. It would have been easier if I'd thought he was ignorant, but he knew I was his daughter. My mom had said as much, and on that, I was certain she was telling the truth.
The whole situation was a mess. My entire life, my mom had never once made me feel like a mistake, but somehow, discovering that she'd conceived me on purpose made me feel like one.
If my mom hadn't still been grieving her father's death ...
If she hadn't felt like a stranger in her own family and desperately wanted someone or something to call her own ...
If her "friend" Greer hadn't seen that vulnerability and sold her on a ridiculous, happy vision of becoming a teen mom ...
Then I wouldn't exist.
"Sawyer." Lillian said my name gently. "Bangs are for blondes and toddlers, and you, my dear, are neither."
If she wanted to pretend that my hair was the real issue between us — and in this family — I was okay with that. For now.
"If you brought me here to check up on me," I told her, "I'm fine." I averted my gaze, and it landed on my grandfather's tombstone. "I'm a liar, but I'm fine."
I couldn't forgive my mom for deceiving me, but every day, I got up and let Aunt Olivia and Lily and John David go about life like normal. It was hard not to feel like the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree.
"Your mama was a daddy's girl, Sawyer." Lillian looked back at the tombstone. "Your aunt, too. Growing up the way they did, they never had to be fighters. But you? You've got a healthy dose of me in you, and where I came from, a person has to fight to survive."
That was the second time she'd referenced her origins. "Why did you bring me here?" I asked, unable to shake the feeling that nothing about this conversation — including the location — was an accident.
Lillian was quiet for a stretch, long enough that I wasn't sure she was going to reply. "You asked me weeks ago if I could find out what happened to your mama's friend Ana."
The breath stilled in my chest. Ana, Ellie, and Greer, I thought, forcing myself to keep breathing. Three teenage girls, one pact. Greer had lost her baby, and that meant that Ana's — if she'd had it — was the only other person on this planet with an origin story the exact same flavor of screwed-up as mine.
Her kid would be my age now, almost exactly.
"What did you find out?" I asked Lillian, my mouth dry.
"Ana was a quiet little thing. My recollection of her was fuzzy. She was new in town. I'd heard of her people but didn't know them. From what I've pieced together, she and her family picked up and moved back home around the time I found out about your mama's delicate condition."
By that time, I thought, Ana was pregnant, too.
"Where were they from?" I asked. "Where did they move back to?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Deadly Little Scandals"
Copyright © 2020 Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
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