Summer Island Page 8

“Hey, sis,” Ruby said, feeling a sudden tide of loneliness.

“So, you finally plugged your phone in. I've been going crazy trying to reach you.”

“Sorry,” she said softly. Her throat felt embarrassingly tight. “I saw the pictures.”

“Yeah. You and everyone else in America. I was always afraid something like this would happen.”

Ruby was stunned. She had never imagined it.

“Did you know about the affair?”

“I suspected.”

“Why didn't you ever tell me?”

“Come on, Rube. You've never once mentioned her name to me, not in all these years. You didn't want to know anything about her.”

Ruby hated it when Caroline acted like she knew everything. “I suppose you've already forgiven her; Caroline-the-saint.”

“No,” Caroline said softly. “I'm having a hard time with this one. It's so ... public.”

“Ah. Appearances. I forgot about that.”

“Don't make me sound so shallow. There's more to it than that and you know it.”

Ruby was instantly contrite. She hated how easy it was for her to say hurtful things--even to the people she loved. When Mom had left them, Caroline had been the one who held the family together; even though she'd been no more than a teenager herself. She'd stepped up and been everything Ruby needed. Without Caroline, Ruby honestly believed she wouldn't have made it through that awful year. “I'm sorry. You know how goodness brings out the worst in me.”

“I'm not so good. Yesterday, I said some really nasty things to her. I couldn't seem to help myself. I was so mad.”

“You talked to her? What did she say?”

"She's sorry. She loves me.

Ruby snorted. “Yeah, just imagine if she hated us”

Caroline laughed. “I'm going to call her when calm down. Maybe we can finally talk about some of the things ... you know, the stuff that matters.”

“Nothing she has to say matters, Caroline. I've been telling you that for years.”

"You're wrong about that, Rube. Someday you'll see that, but for now, all I know is that this thing is going to get a heck of a lot worse before it gets better.

“Only for you, Glenda. I'm not the one who keeps trying to forgive her.”

Before Caroline could respond, the doorbell rang. It played a stanza of I just met a girl named Maria ...

Ruby made a mental note to change the damned bell. Max had thought it was funny; Ruby disagreed. gotta run, Caroline. There's someone here to see me. With my luck, it's probably the landlord, looking for my rent check."

“Take care of yourself.”

“You, too. And kiss my niece and nephew for me.” She hung up, then decided not to answer the door anyway. It probably was the landlord.

She went into the kitchen. Flipping through the mostly empty cabinets, she found a half-full fifth of gin and a bottle of vermouth, both of which Max had obviously forgotten. She made herself a martini in a Rubbermaid container; then poured the drink into a plastic tumbler.

By the third repeat of “Maria,” she gave up. Taking a quick sip of the martini, she padded across the shag carpeting and peered through the peephole.

It was Val, standing beside a woman so thin she looked like a windshield wiper.

“Oh, perfect.”

She wrenched the door open. Val grinned at her. He looked acutely out of place in the dim, ugly corridor.

Val leaned forward and kissed Ruby's cheek.

“How's my newest star?”

“Fuck you,” she whispered, smiling brightly at the strange woman. “I never saw it coming.”

Val drew back, frowning. “I tried to call you. I even sent a messenger over. You didn't answer the door.” Ruby would have said more, but the way the lady was watching them made her uncomfortable. She turned to her, noticing the woman's severe haircut and expensive black dress. An unlit cigarette dangled from her bony fingers.

New Yorker. Definitely. Maybe a mortician.

“I'm Ruby Bridge,” she said, extending her hand.

The woman shook her hand. Firm grip. Clammy skin. “Joan Pinon.”

“Come on in.” Ruby backed away from the door, made a sweeping gesture with her hand. She tried not to see the apartment through their eyes, but it was impossible. Tacky furniture, dusty shag carpeting, garage-sale decor.

Val went right to Max's old velour Barcalounger and sat down. Joan perched birdlike on the end of the sofa.

Ruby flopped down on the sofa's other cushion. She took a sip of her drink. A big gulp, actually. “I know it's early for drinks, but it's not every day you see nude pictures of your mother and lose your career. I'll probably get hit by a bus later today.”

Val leaned forward. “Joan is an editor from New York.”


“She's here because of your mother.”

Ruby took a long, stinging swallow. “Of course she is.” She wished she had an olive to nibble on; she needed something to do with her hands. She turned Joan. “What do you want?”

“I work for Cache” magazine. We'd like you to write an expose' on your mother.“ Joan smiled, showing a mouthful of smoker's teeth. ”We could hire a ghostwriter if you'd like, but Val tells me you're a first-rate writer.

A compliment. That felt good. Ruby settled back in her seat, eyeing Joan. “You want a daughter's betrayal.”

“Who betrayed whom?” Joan said. “Your mother has been telling America to honor commitments and put their children first. These photographs prove that she's a liar and a hypocrite, plain and simple. We checked the records. Nora was married to your father when those pictures were taken. People have a right to know who they're taking advice from.”

“Ah, the people's right,” Ruby said, taking another sip of her martini.

“It's just an article, Ruby, not a book. No more than fifteen thousand words, and ...” Val said, “it could make you famous.”

“Rich and famous,” Joan added.

Now that got Ruby's attention. She set the glass down and looked at Joan. “How rich?”

“Fifty thousand dollars. I'm prepared to pay you half of that amount right now, and the other half when you deliver the article. The only catch is: can't do any interviews until we publish.”

“Fifty thousand dollars?” Ruby reached for her drink again, but she was too wound up to take a sip.For a few measly words ...

And all she had to do was serve up her mother's life for public consumption.

She set her drink down. This wasn"t something to take lightly. She wished she had someone to ask about it, but Ruby had always had problems trusting people, and that made close friendships impossible. There was her dad, but he was so busy with his new family that he and Ruby weren't as close as they'd once been. And her sister had spent the past decade trying to forgive their mother; there was no doubt she'd tell Ruby to turn down the deal. Caro would despise the idea of airing their family's dirty laundry in public.

“I don't know my mother that well,” she said slowly, trying to think through it. “The last time I saw her was at my sister's wedding nine years ago. We didn't speak.”

That wasn't entirely true. Ruby had spoken to her mother. She'd said, “And I thought the worst part of this day would be wearing pink polyester.” Then she'd walked away.

"We don't want cold facts and figures. We want your opinions, your thoughts on what kind of a person she is ... what kind of a mother she was.”

“That's easy. She'd step on your grandmother's throat to get ahead. Nothing-and no one-matters to her; except herself.”

You see?“ Joan said, eyes shining. ”That's exactly the perspective we want. Now, I'm sure you'll understand that we need to go to press fast. While the scandal's still hot. I brought the contract with me. Val has already had a literary agent look it over—and a check for twenty-five thousand dollars." She reached into her black snakeskin (appropriate, Ruby thought) briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers and a check. She slapped the papers down on the table, with the check on top.

Ruby stared down at all those zeros and swallowed hard. She'd never had that much money at one time. Hell, it was more than her salary for all of last year.

Joan smiled, a shark's grin. “Let me ask you this, Ruby. Would your mother turn down this offer if you were the subject of the article?”

The answer to that question came easily. Her mother had once had to make a choice like this. She could have chosen her husband and her daughters ... or her career. Without a backward glance, Nora Bridge had chosen herself.

“This is your chance, Ruby,” Val said. "Think of the exposure. The networks will be fighting over you.

She felt flushed. There was this strange sensation that she was removed from her body, watching the scene unfurl from a distance. Slowly, she heard herself answer, “I'm a good writer ...” That was one thing she'd always believed. Now she knew that Val believed it, too. She bit her lower lip, worrying it. If the article made her famous, maybe she could parlay notoriety into a sitcom. “I certainly know the beginning of her career--who she may have fucked to get to the top and who she just plain screwed.”

Joan was smiling now. “We've tentatively booked you on The Sarah Purcell Show for a week from now ... to promote the article.”

The Sarah Purcell Show ...

Ruby closed her eyes, wanting it so much her head hurt. She'd clawed and scratched through life for so long, been a nobody, a nothing ...

She thought of all the reasons she should say no--the moral, ethical reasons--but none of them found a place to stick. Instead, she thought about those damned photos ...

And all of her mother's lies.

She took a“ deep breath, then exhaled. Slowly, she reached down for the check and picked it up. The numbers swam before her eyes. ”Okay,“ she said. ”I'll do it."

Chapter Four

Ruby cranked the Volkswagen's radio to full blast. A raucous Metallica song blared through the small black speakers. Her whole body was moving to the beat.

Fifty thousand dollars.

She wanted so badly to share this day with someone. If only she had Max's new number; she'd call him and tell him what he'd missed out on. She would have spent a lot of this money on him ... on them...

The thought brought a quick thrust of sadness, and The drive into Beverly Hills. Usually, she didn't pissed her off. Max didn't deserve one cent of this fortune.

She drove into Beverly Hills. Usually she didn’t even drive past this area; it was too depressing to see all the luxuries she couldn't afford. But today, she was flying high. She felt invincible.

When she saw an open spot on Rodeo Drive, she pulled over and parked. Grabbing her purse (with the yellow deposit slip for twenty-five thousand dollars inside), she got out of the car and slammed the door shut behind her. For once, she didn't bother locking the car; if someone was desperate enough for transportation to steal this one, they were welcome to it.

She strolled around for a while, passing pods of women dressed in expensive, beautiful clothing. No one made eye contact with her. In this part of the world, a twenty-seven-year-old woman dressed in what could only be called “grunge” simply didn't exist. And fifty thousand dollars wasn't nearly enough to get these women's attention.

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