Ever since Fern could remember, she and her mother have lived as servants in Wyndemere House, the old gothic mansion of the Davenport family. She may have been a servant, but Fern developed a sweet friendship with Dr. Davenport’s son, Ryder, and she was even allowed free range of the estate.
But Dr. Davenport has remarried and his new wife has very different ideas about a servant’s place. Now Fern and her mother are subject to cruel punishments, harsh conditions, and aren’t even allowed to use the front door.
Yet, for all her wrath, the cruel woman cannot break the mysterious bond between Ryder and Fern. And when Ryder invites Fern to join his friends at prom, there’s nothing Mrs. Davenport can do to stop them nor can she continue to guard the secret that haunts the women of Wyndemere—but there’s nothing she won’t try.
After all, reputation is everything.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 6, 1923
Date of Death:December 19, 1986
Place of Birth:Portsmouth, Virginia
Place of Death:Virginia Beach, Virginia
Read an Excerpt
House of Secrets
FOR MOST OF my youth, Saturdays and Sundays were not the jewels of the week that they were for my classmates and friends. Unlike other girls my age, I couldn’t invite anyone to sleep over or have a birthday party with my classmates as guests. Bea Davenport had laid that rule on my mother. She didn’t want strange children coming to the house and gawking at Wyndemere or disturbing the grounds. I couldn’t have breakfast, lunch, or especially dinner with Ryder or, for that matter, Samantha when she was no longer an infant. Bea Davenport wouldn’t permit me to be in either of their rooms by the time Ryder was eight and Samantha was five, and she continually discouraged both of them from coming to mine even when they were older.
For Samantha, that was like reaching into the candy jar when no one was looking. The moment her mother left the house, she would drop what she was doing and sneak through the hallways to stand in my bedroom doorway, hoping I would invite her in to play or just to talk. When Ryder was older, he was more in his stepmother’s face about it, marching right past her to come to see me and often, again out of spite, inviting one of my friends to go rowing with us on the lake. Bea was furious about that and got Dr. Davenport to discourage it by telling Ryder there were insurance concerns. He was to use the rowboat only when either he or Bea was present, which was rare.
I did recall the two times Dr. Davenport took my mother and me, Ryder, and Samantha out in his motorboat, but we were all very young and he wasn’t as busy as he was now. In fact, his motorboat was so neglected; it was in need of repair. It bobbed at the dock like some forgotten relative trying to get his attention.
Bea Davenport did other things to keep us in our place. To this day, my mother and I were forbidden to enter the house from the front. Even when there was two feet of snow, we would have to go around to the rear entrance to get to our rooms. It was the same entrance where most deliveries were made, with my mother there to accept them. If Bea could, she would have stamped our foreheads with the word servants.
With a voice that was strident and nasal, Bea would snap the rules at us frequently, especially adding newly conceived prohibitions like staying out of the gazebo and off the tennis court. If I did go through the house for any reason, I wasn’t to touch anything. I recalled how she had one of the maids clean and polish the banister after I had gone upstairs with my mother, especially when my mother was caring for Sam. My mother always had my hands washed before we approached the Davenport children, but that didn’t matter. It was as if I had some disease inherent in my skin. I remember feeling very dirty whenever I was in Bea’s presence. She looked at me closely, searching for some blotch, some smudge, anything to confirm her suspicions that I was not only imperfect but infectious.
My mother was never to touch her jewelry and, of course, to be sure no maid ever did. Because my mother was the house manager, a title Bea would never pronounce, any mistake was her fault, down to having what Bea considered the wrong brand of margarine. It did no good, either, to protest that Mrs. Marlene had been serving it for years. There was a new sun shining on this house now. Furniture and paintings were shifted about, and window shades were opened and closed differently to move shadows from their traditional nests. Bea was always redecorating something. Only Dr. Davenport’s office was off-limits to her.
If there was even the smallest impression that my mother and I were a little more than household servants, that impression was crushed the way you might stamp down on an insect. I think that was the reason she made the front entrance so sacrosanct. We couldn’t come through if we took off our shoes. We couldn’t come through even if we could remove our inferior souls.
Most of the time, the pathway to the rear was cleared of snow. Mr. Stark, who managed the grounds, the long driveway, and all the outside fixtures, was very fond of my mother and me and was at the house especially early on weekdays in the winter to be sure we had an easy time going in and out. He was twenty years older than my mother, but I was sure, being a widower, he dreamed of her being more to him than simply a fellow employee. He’d leap at an invitation to have dinner with us and never forgot my mother’s birthday or mine. Despite his balding head of gray hair and the deep wrinkles worn into his face, he was stout and fit. My mother called him a walking tree trunk, even to his face.
“George, you have bark for skin,” she would say, half-kiddingly, especially when he wore a coat too thin for the colder weather. But there wasn’t anything she could say that wouldn’t bring a smile to his face.
In fact, there were times when I wondered if George Stark might be my father. He had been working at Wyndemere long before my mother arrived here, and once, when my mother was in the mood to tell me about her early days and my birth, she admitted she had needed help caring for me as well as caring for Ryder when I was born about two years after him.
“Mr. Stark’s daughter Cathy helped me out for your first year. She stayed in what is your room. Dr. Davenport approved, but of course, that was before his second marriage. By the time his new wife moved in, I was able to handle both you and Ryder, so Cathy went home.”
“I wondered why you always had me call her Aunt Cathy,” I said.
“Just a kindness. She has a younger brother, Stuart, but they don’t see each other much. Sometimes you have to adopt a family,” my mother said. “It’s too bad some nice young man in Hillsborough hasn’t discovered how wonderful a wife Cathy Stark would make. The hospital here is lucky to have her nursing in the ER. Whatever she does, she does with great dedication and responsibility.”
Aunt Cathy was always so glad to see me and never forgot to bring me a present on my birthday and Christmas, just as her father never forgot. Suspicion ran deep, but I didn’t see much resemblance between myself and Cathy or with Mr. Stark. Maybe that was because I romanticized too much about my real father, dreaming of a handsome and exciting young man who had swooped in one day and swept my mother off her feet. It was why I searched so hard for some clues, a letter, something. It was easy to imagine what it would say. Sometimes I invented the idea that he was already married at the time or that he was from a family so rich and powerful that the idea of his marrying my mother was practically science fiction.
In fact, I used to compose the love letters I imagined he would sneak into the house.
I was thinking so hard about you today and remembering how comforting and wonderful your smile for me could be that I forgot an important appointment. My wife was upset and demanded to know what I was thinking. I am so tempted to tell her. I am thinking about the most beautiful woman in the world. I am thinking about her kiss and how she embraced me. I am thinking of the minutes and hours that were precious jewels in my bank of memories, and I am thinking about the child we created out of our love.
I made up different names to use as his signature, most taken from great romances I had read for extra credit in literature class, like Antony from Antony and Cleopatra or Tristan from Tristan and Isolde. I even signed one Romeo. As soon as I finished my letter and had read it at least ten times, I would tear it into shreds, afraid my mother would find it and be upset. It was always like ripping up a beautiful dream. Yet it was something I thought I might never stop doing, even when I was older and entering high school.
Hillsborough was the township we lived in, and Ryder, Sam, and I attended Hillsborough Central School, which had the elementary school adjacent to the junior-senior high school. I went to school on a school bus, but Ryder and Sam were driven to school by Dr. and Bea Davenport’s limo driver, Parker Thomson, a forty-five-year-old African-American man with premature chalk-white hair that made it look like a piece of a cloud had settled on his head. He had been one of Dr. Davenport’s patients and was devoted to him. He was always very nice to me, waving and smiling whenever he saw me, but less so when Bea was present.
Ryder wanted me to ride with him and Sam, but Bea Davenport forbade it, and to my surprise and disappointment, Dr. Davenport rarely challenged anything she had decided regarding the house or the help. I thought he might make an exception when it came to me, but he didn’t and was quick to dismiss Ryder’s appeal to override his stepmother’s rules. When I complained to my mother, she said perhaps he didn’t want the distractions that came from domestic arguments.
“A cardiac specialist and surgeon like Dr. Davenport certainly doesn’t want to leave the house for the hospital with any unnecessary worry on his shoulders. He could miss something important, and someone might die.”
I couldn’t deny he was a very busy and dedicated doctor who, according to my mother, “took his responsibilities as seriously as a bishop who had to report to the Almighty. Few men have life and death in their hands as many times a week as Dr. Davenport has,” she said. But that still seemed like a weak excuse for his disinterest in what went on at Wyndemere.
From what I knew of him and from the way I heard people in the community talk about him, it did seem as if he walked on water. If there was anyone I really tiptoed around, it was Dr. Davenport, but he really never chastised me for anything more than not listening to my mother or obeying her strictly. From time to time, whenever he did see me, he asked how I was doing in school, but his questions were quick and to the point. Invariably, he would simply say, “Keep up the good work,” quickly stroke my head like he might pet a kitten, and that would be that. I didn’t think he really cared all that much whether I did well in school or not. He was simply being polite. For some people, good etiquette was sewn into their skin. It was as automatic as breathing. Still, it meant something to me to catch his attention, even if only for a few seconds a week, usually outside the house and away from Bea Davenport’s disapproving eyes.
Dr. Davenport stood just a little over five foot ten, but he always seemed taller to me. I was always afraid to look him in the eyes. When I was little and my mother told me he operated on people’s hearts, I thought he could see and know everything about someone, even his or her thoughts. His eyes were sterling-silver gray and piercingly intense whenever he spoke to anyone, especially me. He was very handsome in a distinguished sort of way, always closely shaven, his lips firm and straight. He went to an old-fashioned barber who cut his pecan-brown hair so precisely that there was never a strand too long or too short. Everything about his appearance was perfect. He wore a shirt and a tie like a uniform. My mother said he was one of those rare doctors “who actually practice what they preach.”
His day began with an early-morning run along the banks of the lake, even on very cold days, and he watched his diet. When he did have a day off, he would go rowing on the lake for hours. As a consequence, he had a lean body and a ruddy complexion. What attracted my attention especially when I was little was how long his fingers were. If he shook hands with someone, his hand seemed to wrap completely around the other’s. Everything he did, he did purposefully, slowly, as if placing something on a table was as critical a motion as the first incision to begin a heart operation.
He was as careful about his words as well. Whenever I heard him talking to Ryder or Sam, I smiled at how precise he was about what he wanted them to do or remember. He always repeated the important things, and when I asked my mother about that, she said, “Dr. Davenport believes few people listen the first time, and he’s used to dictating medical information, how many pills to take, how often, and what to avoid while taking it.”
“Maybe he thinks everyone’s his patient, even his children,” I said. “Even me!”
She gave me a strange look and then nodded. I caught her smiling to herself and wondered what I had said to bring some humor to mind. Maybe it was because she had thought something similar about Dr. Davenport but would never say it. She would never do or say anything even slightly disrespectful when it came to him. I don’t think it was because she thought he was so much better than everyone, including herself, as much as it was because she had been here when he had suffered the loss of his parents and his first wife and then had cared for his children.
I used to be jealous of how well and lovingly she took care of Sam especially. I was three when Sam was born, and for those early years, at least, because my mother had me to care for, too, when Aunt Cathy wasn’t available, Bea Davenport permitted me to be beside my mother when she looked after Sam. But I was forbidden to touch her. Sometimes when Bea wasn’t in the house, however, my mother let me hold Sam’s bottle while she drank. A real live baby, as opposed to a doll, was fascinating to watch. My mother assured me that Sam recognized me and smiled at me. I think she was trying to contain my jealousy.
Anyway, that was also how Ryder and I were able to spend more time together when we were little, when I accompanied my mother to do something for him or care for Sam, especially when Bea Davenport was out of the house. She was always attending this or that charity function and getting her picture on the society page of the local newspaper. Ryder got used to me being around him and loved to teach me how to work some of his toys. We would watch television together often during those years, too. Until Bea Davenport built “the Berlin Wall” between us in the house, Ryder used to say, “We’re all like brother and sisters.”
He wasn’t saying that now, and it wasn’t only because Bea Davenport insisted there be boundaries between us. No, there was another reason, or at least I hoped so. Deep in my heart, I felt it when he looked at me thinking I wasn’t aware of it, but, like other boys at school, he suddenly realized I was capable of stirring him up, and maybe I could even be found in one of his sexual fantasies. I knew I had some about him. Well, maybe more than some.
One day recently, when he came to my room after school because I had asked him to help me with my math homework, which was really just an excuse to be close to him, he appeared sooner than I had expected. I had just started to change my clothes and was in my bra and panties when he stepped through my open doorway. My mother was in the kitchen helping Mrs. Marlene.
“Oh,” he said, his face bursting with what I thought was delightful surprise, a rich crimson shade.
I shrugged and reached for my sweatshirt slowly. “It’s the same as my two-piece bathing suit,” I said. Of course, it wasn’t. My panties were almost transparent, but I wanted to impress him with how sophisticated I was and how mature my body had become.
He nodded and went to my desk to look at my math text while I put on my jeans. He concentrated on explaining my math problem to me, but both of us sensed something had changed between us. Suddenly, he was affected by how close to him I stood and if we touched our arms or grazed our shoulders. It seemed like he couldn’t wait to leave that afternoon, but I was confident it was because of how he was reacting to me rather than any displeasure with me.
“I’ve got a ton of homework myself,” he blurted when I assured him I understood the math problem. I had to shout “Thanks!” after him. He was practically running down the hall to get away from himself as much as from me. Anyone else might have been offended, clamoring with annoyance. What, do I have bad breath or something? But not me. I knew Ryder too well. Something unexpected had stirred inside him, something that had already stirred in me as well. It was true, I thought, that girls grew up faster than boys.
My girlfriends would often tease me about Ryder. They had all sorts of romantic scenarios in mind because we lived in the great house. Most of what they imagined were really wishes for themselves, understandable wishes. Ryder was even more handsome than his father, and he had the same firm, athletic build. I was sure he had inherited his father’s intelligence, being a straight-A student.
I don’t know when exactly I had begun to notice the smallest things about him, delicious things. I liked the way he would sweep his dark-brown bangs away from his eyes when he grew serious about something. Ever since he was fourteen, Ryder had wanted his hair longer than his father wanted him to have it. I think that was more a result of his stepmother Bea’s negative comments about how he dressed and looked. I knew he often did things just to displease her, which usually resulted in Dr. Davenport having a heart-to-heart talk with him in his office. Ryder told me that it was almost like being called to the principal’s office in school. I was fascinated with his descriptions of these sessions.
“He looks like he’s about to take my pulse first, and he asks me questions like a doctor trying to diagnose what’s wrong with you. ‘Why did you do this? How do you feel when you do things like this?’ By the time he’s finished, I do feel sick,” Ryder said. “I always expect him to say ‘take two aspirins and behave’ or something.”
I felt sneaky knowing all this. After all, it wasn’t my business. It was as if I had listened at the door. I never told my mother what he had told me, however. I didn’t want her to think ill of him, not that she could, and to me it always seemed Ryder had more affection for my mother than he certainly did for his father’s second wife. After all, my mother had practically brought him up herself. I knew Bea resented that, and it was probably why she was so adamant about keeping us in our servants’ mode. We weren’t permitted to forget that we were the hired help, not for an instant, even on our birthdays. Ryder would get us presents and usually say, “This is from my father and me,” making a point of not including Bea.
Ryder had his mother’s eyes, which were a soft blue or what my girlfriends called “dream eyes.” His smile always started with those eyes and then rippled out over his high cheekbones and his nose with its high, prominent bridge, down to his firm, straight, “kissable” lips. He had a slightly cleft chin and was self-conscious about it, probably more so when he entered his teenage years. Nervously, he would put his right forefinger over it whenever he was in deep thought. No one else but me seemed to notice that. His mother had also had that cleft chin. I could see it in the beautiful headshots of her in frames on Dr. Davenport’s office walls the few times I had been in there. But her cleft was even slighter than his.
Once, years later, when I was more comfortable talking to him, I put my finger on his cleft chin and told him what I had noticed him doing. He shrugged and revealed he had studied up on it.
“In Persian literature, you know, the chin dimple is considered a facet of beauty.” He leaned toward me and, in a whisper that titillated me as much as a kiss might, added, “It’s a well into which the poor lover has fallen and become trapped.”
I was self-conscious about the way I blushed, so I snapped back at him with, “Yes, but yours isn’t deep enough to trap a fly.”
Ryder could be arrogant sometimes and too full of himself. He was honest enough to admit that to me and tell me, “You’re the only one who reminds me I put my pants on one leg at a time.”
I wasn’t sure I was happy about that. It wasn’t how I wanted him to think of me. It sounded too much like being a good friend, even a sister, and I was dreaming of more. But those feelings were yet to come. They were still embryonic, inside an egg far from being hatched. And boy, were those thoughts forbidden in the world of Wyndemere House. Nothing could damage the Davenport image of being special.
Inside its walls, we were truly a world unto ourselves. Sometimes I believed the Davenports thought their personal history was as important as the country’s, especially as it involved Dr. Davenport’s father and mother. Awards, plaques given to them from high government officials, huge portraits of ancestors who looked like noblemen or princesses, even queens and kings, hung over fireplaces and in the entryway. When I was five my mother told me most posh families felt that way about themselves. “The blue bloods,” she said, “think they were chosen to have special privileges.”
“Why do you call them blue bloods?” I asked. I had seen Ryder cut himself and knew his blood was as red as mine.
“Aristocrats in the Middle Ages thought their blood was blue, and the term stuck,” she said.
“This isn’t the Middle Ages,” I said. Even back then, at the age of eight, I didn’t want to criticize Ryder and Sam, and I especially didn’t want to think badly of Dr. Davenport.
My mother shrugged. “You could never convince Simon and Elizabeth Davenport of that.”
I really didn’t know Dr. Davenport’s parents. His mother gave birth to him when she was nearly forty and his father was fifty. By the time my mother came to work for Dr. Davenport and his first wife, Samantha, his father was seventy-eight and a severe diabetic. There was a full-time nurse caring for him back then. According to my mother, Dr. Davenport’s mother was one of those women determined to defeat age.
“She practically put her plastic surgeon’s children through college singlehandedly and would spend hours in the morning working on her makeup before she would leave the house, usually to meet women overly made up like herself for lunch at some expensive restaurant. Her skin had been pulled and stretched so much it was practically transparent. You could see the veins in her face, which were always blue, convincing her she was truly a blue blood.”
Mrs. Marlene told me Elizabeth Davenport interviewed undertakers to find one who would be skilled enough to make her look alive in her casket. She said, “The woman actually went to funerals if there was an open casket to inspect the work they had done. I wanted to tell her what my grandmother had told me: Never resist growing old. Many are denied that privilege.”
These little stories about Dr. Davenport’s parents trickled down to me as I grew older. I knew they had slept in separate bedrooms almost the day after returning from their honeymoon. I was told that they always dressed formally for dinner, something Dr. Davenport still did, and they were always wealthy. Simon Davenport had assumed control of his father’s export-import business and had doubled its value. He had wanted Dr. Davenport to assume it, too, but Harrison Davenport was a brilliant student determined to become a cardiac surgeon. In the end, the business was sold, for what my mother called “an outlandish amount of money, enough to choke a horse.”
Simon Davenport died before I was born, and Elizabeth had a stroke and lived in her room with around-the-clock care until I was six. I saw only glimpses of her when I was still permitted to go upstairs to either Ryder’s or Sam’s room when my mother cared for them. My memory of her was of a tiny woman practically swallowed up in a bed with huge pillows and a headboard with embossed angels. I thought they were there to carry her to heaven, but when I told my mother that, she shook her head and said, “Too heavy a load.”
Too heavy a load? She looked like she was put together with chicken feathers.
I never realized she had died until weeks later. To me, the house wasn’t any quieter or darker, and I saw no one, not even Dr. Davenport, crying. Later, my mother told me she and Mrs. Marlene had gone to the funeral.
“Did she look alive?” I asked.
She smiled. “I thought she was going to sit up and complain about the uncomfortable coffin halfway through the service.”
I knew my mother was just being funny, but for a long time afterward, I had dreams about this wisp of a woman with her styled and lacquered rust-brown dyed hair wandering through Wyndemere House at night looking for some jewelry she was always accusing maids of stealing. When I told my mother about my dreams and visions, she did not laugh.
“Most ghosts,” she said, “are visible only to children. But you have nothing to be afraid of, Fern. Elizabeth Davenport thought children were a nuisance and wished people were born grown-up. I don’t think she was much of a mother for Dr. Davenport. From the way he talks sometimes, it was like she had completely forgotten she had given birth. Maybe she didn’t,” she added in an almost inaudible mumble.
There was another dark secret, I thought. It was no use to keep asking about it, either. My mother refused to follow and encourage gossip about the Davenports, especially when other members of the staff asked her questions.
“Never you mind,” she’d tell them. “Manage yourself. You’ve got enough there to occupy your mind for a lifetime.”
Even as they grew older, neither Ryder nor Sam seemed to care all that much about their grandparents and their family history. Sometimes, I thought because of my mother, I knew more than they did about their grandparents. Because I had so little when it came to family, I enjoyed the fact that they didn’t talk about their own very much. Their world, like mine, was quite enough, even though we practically lived on separate planets. With Bea Davenport’s heavy unwritten but clearly stated rules governing my behavior, it really was like visiting another house whenever I did cross over, either to help my mother with her chores or during a rare time when she and I were invited to participate in something. It was why I wasn’t very helpful when the girls in my class asked me questions about Wyndemere.
“I really don’t live there,” I said. “I live in the afterthought, a part of the building created when the original owners realized they needed a place for their live-in help. Two maids slept where I sleep, and another maid and the cook back then slept where my mother sleeps.”
It didn’t sound good and certainly not like anything any of my friends would envy, but I saw no reason to lie about it. Someday I’d be leaving Wyndemere, and so would my mother. We’d be more like normal people then, I thought, although deep in my heart, I had a fear. I feared my mother would fade and die if she ever left Wyndemere.
I had no idea why.
It was another secret and one maybe not too far from the secret that squirmed restlessly just beyond my reach but was growing closer and closer with every passing year, and this year seemed to be going faster than the previous. Maybe that was because I was doing more with my friends. One thing I was going to do that I had never done was attend the prom. It would be my first formal date.
At Hillsborough, the senior class ran the school prom. Others attended, of course. Ryder was a senior this year and president of his class. Although he was always popular and invited to many parties and had many friends, he hadn’t dated one girl as steadily as he did this year, Alison Reuben.
Alison Reuben was definitely the prettiest girl in Ryder’s class. She had light strawberry-blond hair that floated around her cameo face dominated by her kelly-green eyes, and there was no other girl with fuller, more perfect lips. The patches of freckles at the crests of her cheeks and the richness of her complexion made any makeup extraneous. She didn’t even have to put on lipstick, because her lips were so bright, a sort of reddish orange. I wanted so much to hate her, because she was one of those girls who knew they were beautiful and let everyone else know it, too.
Ryder was blind to any faults in her character, and I was certainly not going to be the one to point any out. Whenever I was near them, she was pleasant enough to me but always acted toward me the way someone much older and more sophisticated would. Although she never came right out and said it, I sensed she saw me as only the little girl whose mother worked for Ryder’s parents.
So I was very surprised when one night after dinner, when I was doing some homework and lying on my bed in my pajamas, I heard a soft knock on my not-quite-closed door and looked up to see Ryder peering in.
“Hey,” he said. “Can I talk to you?”
I slammed my history book closed so fast and hard that I almost caught a finger in it. “Come in,” I said, sitting up. He stepped in. “Close the door.”
He thought a moment, as if he had to step over hot coals, and then did so.
I brought my knees up and embraced my legs. He came closer and, after a slight hesitation, sat on my bed. My pajama top was open more than it should be, but I didn’t rush to button it. I saw how his eyes were drawn to the growing fullness of my breasts.
“What do you think of Paul Gabriel?” he asked.
“Paul Gabriel? He’s a senior.”
I shrugged. “I don’t think of him at all,” I replied, tucking the sides of my mouth in. That triggered a dimple in my right cheek, the same dimple my mother had. I supposed one of the things that made it easier to ignore wondering who my father might be was the strong resemblance I bore to my mother. We had the same violet eyes and raven hair, with curls that were always a little frizzy and untamed. Our foreheads were a little too wide, but we made up for it with perfect, diminutive features, high cheekbones, and full lips.
“Yeah, well, he’s noticed you,” Ryder said.
“Really?” I searched my memory for any snapshot visions of Paul Gabriel. He was tall, over six feet, with an awkward gait. I vaguely knew he was one of the best pitchers on the school’s baseball team, but I couldn’t recall ever speaking to him.
“He’s a nice enough guy, actually shy.”
I nodded. “So?”
“So he came to me to ask if I thought you would go to the prom with him.”
“Paul Gabriel? I don’t think he’s said two words to me.”
“I told you he was shy. I think you’d have a good time. I bet not too many girls in your class are being asked,” he added.
“I don’t know.”
“If you agree, he’ll drive. He’s got his own car.”
I started to shake my head.
“And we’d double-date,” he said. “There’s an after-party at Shane Cisco’s house.”
“Really? Is Alison all right with that?”
“She will be. I haven’t told her yet. Paul called me again about it tonight. So what do you say? C’mon. It’ll be fun. Paul’s okay. I wouldn’t set you up with anyone who wasn’t,” he added.
“I’ll ask my mother,” I said. “But I know I don’t have the right sort of dress.”
“I’ve got an idea,” he said, leaning forward, his hand on my knee. “I know where my mother’s dresses are stored in the attic. We’ll find one that works, and you can get it fitted. Okay?”
“I guess,” I said, shocked and delighted at how determined he was to get me to go, determined enough to want me to wear one of his mother’s dresses.
“Great.” He stood up and started out.
“Hey,” I called when he opened the door. “You didn’t arrange all this just to get a ride to the prom, did you? Because I know you wouldn’t want Parker driving you like some snobby rich kid, and your father hasn’t bought you your car yet.”
He smiled. “What a terrible thing to think,” he said, widening his smile, and he left.
Did I know him, or did I know him? Whatever, what did I care about his reason? We’d be double-dating! It would be my first formal date, too.
I lay back and looked up at the ceiling.
It all sounded wonderful, but how was Alison going to react to this? I could count on the fingers of one hand how many conversations she’d had with me so far this year, and those were usually “Oh, hello.” I wasn’t exactly the choice she would make for a girl to share her big night. She had many close friends in her own class.
And then I wondered, what would it be like going to the prom with a boy I hadn’t even spoken that much to all year? And anyway, could I give Paul Gabriel the attention my date should have if I was with Ryder? Every time he kissed Alison, I would imagine he was kissing me.
Could I hide that from Paul Gabriel? What if he realized it and blurted out something like “Hey, she’s jealous”?
Alison might tell him to take care of his own business, meaning me. What would I do then? I had yet to kiss a boy the way I dreamed of kissing Ryder. And the prom . . . what if it led to something further? Would my resistance fit Alison’s view of me perfectly?
She’s just a little girl. Why did Ryder arrange this?
I might spoil their night with my innocence.
My worries fit. After all, this was virgin me afraid of justifying the dirty thoughts boys whispered behind my back because I was a mistake.
Was I a mistake?
And was it true that girls who were mistakes had a tendency to be more promiscuous after all? I was always worried about my sexual thoughts and the fantasies I couldn’t seem to stop lately.
What did this really mean?
Maybe I didn’t have long to find out.
And maybe that frightened me more than anything.