There used to be gardeners working outside and the part-time chef in the kitchen. Maids working under the direction of the housekeeper. Ten thousand square feet of French architectural splendor doesn’t tend itself.
When the scandal hit, things got even louder.
The phone rang constantly with Daddy’s lawyers and business partners. The long street leading up to the cobblestone driveway became a gauntlet, teeming with reporters. There was even a protest once, with posters that read Clean Up Corruptionand ~Get Out of Tanglewood.~
Once-rounded bushes have grown wild, casting jagged shadows on empty pavement.
No one greets me as I walk through the front door. I follow the faint hum of machinery down the hallway and into my father’s bedroom, where a hospital bed has replaced the crackled leather chairs in front of the fireplace.
Rosita looks up from her book with worry. “How was it?”
“Oh, it was fine.” I told her I had a meeting with some businesspeople.
She doesn’t know the specifics, but she knows we’re desperate for money. The empty rooms where oriental rugs and antique furniture used to sit are proof enough. I’ve sold everything, scraping every last penny from my late mother’s loving decorating. Only my father’s bedroom remains untouched—except for the IV drip and health monitors that help keep him alive.
I touch my father’s hand, the skin papery. “Did he wake up?”
She glances at my father’s resting face, her expression sad. “He had a few minutes of awareness soon after you left, but the drugs put him to sleep again.”
Sadness is better than wariness, and definitely better than hatred, the way most of his former staff looked at him during those dark days. He had given them each a small severance package, which was nullified by the court once reparations were ordered. Millions of dollars of reparations depleted every one of his accounts.
And then he’d been attacked, beaten nearly to death.
I know on some level he deserved those things. The censure, the debt. Maybe even the beating, by some morality standards. But it’s hard to believe that when I see him struggling to breathe.
I dig through my purse for the bills tucked inside.
Rosita puts her hand over mine. “No, Miss Avery. It’s not necessary.”
It’s easier to force a smile now that I’ve had practice. “It is necessary. And it’s fine. Don’t worry about me.”
She shakes her head, dark eyes mournful. “I’m not blind.” A pointed glance at my body. “I see how skinny you’ve gotten.”
I cast a worried look at my father, but he’s still asleep. “Please.”
“No, I can’t take your money.” She hesitates. “But I can’t watch your father either.”
I open my mouth, but my pleas catch in my throat. How can I ask her to come back? She’s the only one of our former staff to come at all. And she’s right that I don’t have the money to keep paying her. It’s not her fault I’m running out of options.
“Okay,” I say, my voice breaking.
“Your mother—” She makes a soft sound. “She would have been heartbroken to see this.”
I know that, and it’s the only solace I have in her death. She never had to see my father’s fall from grace. She never had to see her little girl turned into a whore. “I miss her.”
Rosita’s gaze darts to my father, almost furtive. “She was loyal,” she whispers. “Like you.”
I nod because it isn’t a secret. Everyone knew she was a doting wife and mother. A true society maven, friends with everybody and the picture of grace. I always dreamed of being like her one day, but I know that with the visit I made earlier, my life will be irrevocably changed.
“Be careful,” Rosita finally adds with a pat to my hand. She takes one final glance at my father. “Mr. Moore is waiting in the back parlor.”
My heart thuds.
Uncle Landon has been my father’s friend and financial advisor for years. They played golf and the stock market. But even as close as he was, he never would have been invited to the back parlor. That was only for family, which is why the lumpy, comfortable couch wasn’t worth anything.
I paste on an expression of nonchalance. “I’ll speak to him when I’m done here.”
Without another word, Rosita shows herself out. Steady beeps fill the space she left behind, clinical reminders of my father’s tenuous hold on life.
Swallowing hard, I take his hand. This hand rocked me to sleep and tossed a softball. Now it seems cold and frail. I can feel every vein beneath the paper skin.
Tears rise up, but I fight them back. “Oh, Daddy.”
I really need my biggest supporter right now. I need someone to tell me everything will be all right. There’s no one left to do that. The only thing that will help now is a phone call from one of the city’s crime lords. A rich man with money enough to buy a woman for the night.
His eyelids are shot through with blue-green veins. They open slowly, revealing the flat gaze he’s had ever since the conviction. “Avery?”
“I’m here. Do you need anything? Are you hungry?”
He closes his eyes again. “I’m tired.”
He’s asleep most of the time. “I know, Daddy.”
“You’re a good girl,” he says faintly, his eyelids fluttering.
My throat feels thick. “Thank you,” I whisper.
“My little jumping jack.”
His voice fades to nothing by the end, but I know what he said. He used to call me that when I was little, boundless as little girls can be. He taught me chess to help me focus. And then he found time to play a game with me every week, no matter what. He worked nights and weekends, but he always made time to sit across the chessboard from me.
In the beeping quiet that follows, I know he’s asleep again. I only get a few minutes with him a day. The rest of the time the medicine keeps him under, but without it he’s in intense pain. He has always been a man of vitality, of action. Multiple broken bones and a harrowing night in the dark alley where they left him aged him twenty years. This is all he has left—the security of this room and the pain medicine. I can’t take those away.
“Everything will be okay,” I say out loud because I have to believe that. I have to believe that I’m doing this for a reason. Have to believe that it will be enough.
There’s no one left to save us except me.