Rusty trucks and derelict boats languished in front of houses along
the dark Carolina coastal road. Ever since we’d left home that
afternoon, I’d imagined winding up in the country, far from my family
and best friend, enduring months cramped in a shack with my mother’s
new boss, a reclusive writer who probably hoarded junk and never
Inspired by the hardcore music on my IPod, I finished my sketch,
shading the overalls of a cotton farmer fighting to pull a boy’s arm
from the churning spindles of old-timey farm machinery. My empty
stomach clenched at the sight of plasmatic splatters across my page.
Too dark to draw anymore, I snapped the sketchpad shut.
Beside me, Mom’s face pinched with disgust. She’d never understood my
art. Neither did I, really. It was my father’s gift.
The unexplainable image of the farmers’ agony would likely stay in my
head while I tried to sleep that night.
Somehow I’d lost track of time. The car slowed as we neared a massive
stone entrance under dim lighting. I removed an earbud.
“Chelsea, take the wheel. I have the code for the gate on my phone.”
Her blonde ponytail fell over her shoulder as she fumbled in her
I grabbed the steering wheel just as headlights burst from the open
gate, blinding me in a flash of white as a vehicle suddenly flew out,
headed in our direction. I flinched, cutting a hard right. The
oncoming car hit their brakes and veered to miss us, spraying seashell
gravel onto our Toyota like rain. Mom recovered, swerving to stop on
the shoulder of the private driveway as the other vehicle, a shiny
black Vette with lots of chrome and dark windows, gunned the engine.
“Idiot!” Mom smacked the horn.
My heart thudded. I craned in my seat, watching the guy’s thoughtless
retreat. A license plate reading “GEOFF” in reflective blue letters
disappeared into the gloom.
“You okay? I’m sorry.” She sighed, collecting herself.
Rubber squealed in the distance as the other car spun onto the asphalt.
“Barely.” I scowled at the way she always accepted blame whatever the
situation. My instincts told me to hang my head out the window and
call the driver the name he deserved. However, an awful thought
stopped me. “Was that your new boss?”
“I don’t think so.” She bit her lip as she steered our car back onto the road.
The jerk had left the gate open, so we rolled past the entry’s digital
keypad. The bars closed automatically behind us with a metallic clank
as we moved from the lighted gateway for the black woods ahead.
She offered an embarrassed smile. “Poor guy didn’t expect anyone to be
out here at night. He was probably Ben’s—”
“Ohmigod!” I sat up.
The road curved, and a lighted building emerged at the end of the
driveway where ancient oak trees spread twisting lace-shrouded limbs
of gray Spanish moss. Ginormous pillars surrounded the white house.
Mom’s eyes were hopeful when she glanced at me for my reaction and
parked the car by the brick sidewalk. “This must be Antonia. What do
I dropped the IPod and tumbled out the door for a better look.
Burning to draw, I walked backward with my head back so I could take
in the mammoth building. The plantation-style house stood three
stories high with balconies. The downstairs rooms glowed with movement
inside, while the upstairs windows were lifeless and dark. Far above
on the top floor, a single gauzy curtain flew outward, up and down,
waving us away.
Leave. Leave. Leave.
I rubbed at the goose bumps on the backs of my arms, dismissing the
thought as too much like one of Dad’s wild notions.
Mom led us past lighted palmettos and flowering shrubs along the
drive—an impressionist’s dream of soft and sharp textures—up the steps
of the wraparound porch to the double doors of what could’ve been the
set of an old Civil War movie. Except the place didn’t seem old with
fresh white paint. I hoped it was new.
Surely she wouldn’t expect me to sleep under the roof of former slave-owners.
My stomach knotted as she rang the brass doorbell, hands still
trembling after our near miss with the reckless driver. But why did I
dread meeting Mr. Ramsey? I’d never heard anything bad about the
British author. Lots of people I knew read his bestsellers. My
grandma, for one. His readers wanted to know more about him, but for
whatever reason, he couldn’t manage to write his story. Too humble. Or
too boring. Mom had spent hours chatting with him on the Internet
before they’d decided to work on his memoir together in person.
The door opened and a man wearing a blue dress shirt and khakis
blinked at us under metal-rimmed glasses. His expression slowly
smoothed from a look of utter disgust to awareness. “Lori!”
“I’m sorry we’re late, Ben. I should’ve called.”
“Not a problem at all.” His graying brown comb-over and wide smile
erased my suspicion that Mom found him attractive. Too nerdy.
“Dinner’s still warm.”
“I want you to meet my daughter, Chelsea.” She nudged me.
Ramsey shook my hand in his cool grip. “I’m so very glad to finally
meet you. I’ll wager you’re both exhausted.”
I lifted a shoulder. “It’s not been bad. Well, except for just now.
Who was driving that Corvette?”
Mom touched my shoulder. “Honey—”
“Do come in,” Mr. Ramsey interrupted, widening the door. “We can talk
Paranoia prickled me as we moved through the foyer, my worn combat
boots clomping ungracefully across the hardwood floor, but I’d save my
questions for later. Unlike Dad.
Dark-veined marble floors chilled the interior while light fanned
through chandeliers. We washed up in a formal bathroom, where I was
afraid to touch anything for fear someone would smack my hand and say
I wasn’t allowed to handle stuff.
An arrangement of fresh flowers sat in the middle of the dining table
before us. God, I’d love to capture those beauties on paper with
gouache paints. However, the aroma of fried food distracted me from
the subject matter as a serving woman wearing a gray uniform brought
in a covered tray, and then lifted lids off the awaiting platters. I
caught her slight frown as she poured water in my glass, eyeing my
hair and the blue streak I’d put in it this summer. I pushed it off my
“It was getting dark when we arrived but we saw lots of young people
leaving Hilton Head Island. It’s a popular place, isn’t it?” Mom said
Ramsey nodded. “Absolutely. I’ve made an appointment for Chelsea to
meet with the director of admissions at the island prep school
tomorrow.” He lifted a piece of something covered in golden cornmeal
batter. “Fried pickle?”
She held out her plate. “Thank you.”
“Wait. A prep school for me? Why?” Alarm twisted the knot in my
“Lori—?” He hesitated.
“It’s on the island. Very prestigious.” Mom smiled, but her eyes pleaded.
My fork clattered on my plate. So that was the drawback to this gig?
I’m no Barbie. Hadn’t he seen how I dressed? Not to mention I’d
probably be the only half-black student there. They’d hate me.
“Thanks, but I’ve always gone to public schools.”
“Nonsense. My son will be attending Prep, too. You’ll ride with him so
your mum won’t have to drive you back and forth through the tourist
traffic. Shrimp and grits?”