UPDATE: A Ruby Christmas is FREE on Kindle
Friday, December 13 through Monday, December 16.
Read Chapter One here.
Read Chapter Two here.
Read Chapter Three here.
Read Chapter Four here.
Read Chapter Five here.
A Ruby Christmas
by Jennifer Fromke
Yippee shifted in his crate at her feet. The tranquilizer would keep him sleepy for at least another hour. Long enough to get settled with … she checked her itinerary from Daddy … Wanda. Ruby didn’t know too many women named Wanda. She imagined a cartoon-like woman with a wand but quickly shook that image away.
The taxi pulled into the courtyard of a three story, white brick building. The second floor windows sported an ornate arch on top and each floor boasted different decorative moldings on the exterior. The overall effect was an impeccably maintained fancy old building.
Before she could ring the bell, the taxi pulled away. A loud and bubbly American voice blasted through the speaker. “I’m coming down ta getcha.”
Ruby studied the topiaries flanking the glass door. A ball of green balanced atop a skinny stick-like trunk, which disappeared into an enormous footed pot. A mosaic of marble tiles lay like a carpet beneath the covered porch, playing a dizzying game on her tired eyes.
A moment later, Wanda Kurtz nearly exploded through the glass door, her arms open wide and a huge smile beaming from her face. “Ruby, Ruby. Sweet Ruby.” Wanda grabbed her by the shoulders and planted a kiss on each cheek with an exaggerated, “Mwah. Mwah. I’m Wanda Kurtz. I loved your mother.” She tapped Ruby on the nose. “You’re a doll.”
Wanda towered over Ruby, a rarity. The woman grabbed her backpack. “Follow me. I can’t wait to show you my little flat. Isn’t it funny they call them flats?”
Ruby’s throat seemed incapable of sound. She followed the woman who clacked across marble floors in heeled ankle boots, swishy wide legged pants, and a hounds-tooth jacket, belted at the waist. When she stood still, she almost looked reedy. But in motion, she resembled a tornado, unpredictably zipping left and then right.
“How was the trip? Did you have trouble finding the place? What do you think of London? I just love the energy of this city. And the history! Have you been here before?”
Ruby swallowed. Took a deep breath. “So far, it feels as crowded as New York City.”
Wanda giggled and unlocked the door to her apartment, or rather, her flat, swinging the door wide. “Welcome to my home away from home.”
As Ruby walked through the door, she felt as if she stepped back in time at least a hundred years. The tiny rooms contained antiques of all shapes and sizes, a hulking armoire, and a tufted armchair swallowed by rich velvet. One of those side tables with the curvy legs reminded her of the one she’d seen in a sepia-toned photo of Grandma Buckner. Queen Anne’s, she guessed. Similar old photographs covering Wanda’s walls hung in gilded frames.
Setting the crate down, Ruby walked her fingers over an elegant couch, the type with a back that wrapped around only one end.
The woman smiled at the furniture. “That fainting couch is brilliantly comfortable.”
I might just faint if I don’t get food. Quick. “Where ’bouts you from?”
“I live in Hollywood. I’m a director. We’re about to start filming my latest movie, and this is the absolute perfect week for you to be here.”
They passed through the living room and entered the kitchen, bright with natural light and bedecked in bone china and ancient embroidered linens. A mahogany stained table took up most of the space, already laid with delicate bone china, including a teapot and a three tiered server loaded with tiny cakes.
Ruby’s stomach rumbled. “Oh.” Her hand flew to her gut. “It looks … too pretty to eat.”
Wanda laughed through her wide smile. “My cook will be offended if you don’t try at least one.”
The faint scent of tea filled the air and something else she didn’t recognize. Ruby’s heart tugged as she thought of Dutch. His kitchen perpetually smelled of cumin and peppers and beef. Home. His savory stews, and especially the chili, satisfied her hunger but also warmed her heart—especially on a cold, wet day like this. She wished for some cornbread. Could almost taste it.
Wanda placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay, honey? Let’s get you settled.”
Over weak tea and fancy cakes, Ruby listened to her new friend talk. She added another spoon of sugar, still not thrilled with the result.
Wanda spoke with a calico American accent, a little bit southern, a little bit New York, and always fast, like Californians. “Oh, honey, add some milk. They all drink tea with milk over here.”
“I’m okay, thanks.” Still taking in the newness of London, the overly sweet petit fours, the not sweet enough ‘biscuits,’ the tea that was … a far cry from sweet, Ruby stopped examining her surroundings. Muffled sounds from the street below faded into background noise. “Daddy said you knew Momma in high school.”
“Your momma saved my skin. I grew up an army brat, so I was always new in town.”
New was certainly a feeling Ruby could relate to since leaving Texas.
Wanda dribbled extra milk from a delicate pitcher into her tea. “On my first day of tenth grade, she rescued me from my big mouth. In the middle of my telling off the football team for catcalling me, she walked up, looped her arm through mine, and waved to the front linemen. ‘Y’all wouldn’t be picking on my new friend, would ya?’ And do you know? They all backed down as if she was the Queen of Persia or something. They worshipped the ground she walked on.”
A smile tugged at Ruby’s mouth. That was Momma. Everybody’s friend and no man’s fool. “I remember your postcards.”
“That’s about all I ever can manage when it comes to correspondence.” She sipped from the cup with the daintiness of a calf roper. “Writing wears me out, and I’m always on the phone for work. She loved the postcards, though. Must have mailed her a hundred.”
“So, what do the next couple days look like?” Ruby dipped the hard biscuit into the drab brew until it softened. “I need to poke around in a few shops at some point, but other than that, I guess I’m at your mercy.”
Wanda clasped her hands together. “I have the biggest surprise for you.”
Is his name Jonathan? Ruby bit her lip, hoping.
“Actually, it’s a surprise for all my actors, too.” Her smile dazzled, and Ruby imagined an actual twinkle in her eye. “We are going to experience an English Country Manor – 1800’s style.”
Visions of classic novels flashed through Ruby’s brain. She let Jonathan’s image go. Again. “We’re going to the country?”
Wanda stood and paced across the kitchen, her gaze set on something in her imagination. “I wanted to give my actors a taste of what life was like back then. There’ll be servants, high tea, the whole nine yards. You’re gonna love it.”
“Yippee’s awake.” Worry darted through her chest. “Can Yippee come with us? I don’t really have anywhere to leave him.”
“He’s a fox terrier, isn’t he?”
“Exactly. A fox terrier. This couldn’t be any more perfect.”
Katie, the ladies’ maid, was dressed in a traditional calico dress with a white apron on top. She adjusted Ruby’s riding habit then turned her toward the standing floor mirror. A full red skirt billowed from Ruby’s waist to the floor. A fitted, matching jacket with gold buttons covered her ruffled, high-necked blouse, and to top it off, a Bell Crown hat with veiling tacked on the back.
Ruby sucked in a deep breath, despite the heavy clothing. “I look bigg’r ’n Dallas.”
Katie tucked a wisp of ash-blonde hair into her crisp white cap or hair piece or … something. “Oh, m’lady. You don’t look big.”
Giggles bubbled up inside. Yippee jumped around in circles and barked three times.
“I’m sorry. I just meant that I look so … fancy. I guess that’s the word.”
“I think you look right smart, m’lady. Perfect for a fox hunt.”
Gripping the gilded handrail all the way down the staircase, Ruby took in the stunning front hall of Belton House. Enormous portraits covered the upper gallery on all four sides. The wide stair descended in three parts, with two landings and ninety-degree turns. Gilt moldings set off creamy painted walls giving a light and airy feel to the room, grounded in black and white marble tiles.
The old black boots pinched her toes, but she felt confident the shoes would be forgotten once she sat on the horse. She joined the dozen actors gathered just outside the front door.
Wanda clapped for attention. “Okay, everybody! Let’s hunt!”
A nearby hunt club provided horses and guides, even a horn. One of their groomsmen wearing a company jacket led a sleek mount up to Ruby.
The period clothing and ladies’ maid I can deal with. Ruby shook her head at the guy. “I’m not riding sidesaddle. Horses are one thing I know.”
The poor groomsman stared hard for a moment but then traded the sidesaddle for a proper English saddle. Ruby longed for the worn, hand-tooled saddle she and Daddy had found at an auction years back. At least that one had a saddle horn. But this would have to do. Grabbing the reins, she stepped upon the mounting box and lifted herself along with fifty yards of fabric into the saddle. Maybe the sidesaddle would have looked better with the dress. Tucking Yippee under her arm, she felt closer to home than she had in weeks.
Yippee sniffed her jacket, squirmed up to put his paws on her chest, and cocked his head sideways.
Ruby stifled a laugh. “I know. I look ridiculous.”
The hunting party, fully outfitted, looked impressive. As they eased away from the stable area, a dozen dogs appeared as if from thin air, barking and dancing around the horses’ hooves. A horn sounded and the hounds ran ahead. Yippee twisted around and leaped from Ruby’s arms to join his kin.
“Yippee!” The hubbub of creaking saddles, pounding hooves, and wind swallowed her voice. Her dog’s tiny body disappeared into the fray of the hounds. At least Yippee knew how to steer clear of a herd.
Loosening the reins in her gloved hands, Ruby kicked her boot heels into the horse’s sides. She scanned the rolling hills until she spotted Yippee’s white coat against the brown and drab green landscape. John Russell bred his terriers with this very sport in mind. Their job was to bolt the foxes from their dens so the other dogs could give chase.
Today was, of course, a simulated foxhunt, since England outlawed the real thing. Yippee darted back and forth ahead, disappeared into a glade, and burst out running, close on the tail of a—
“Fox!” Ruby’s hand flew to her mouth with a quick intake of air.
Shouts rose up. The horn blew. “Ho, there!” the hunt guide shouted.
“A fox, by George!” hollered another.
Ruby’s heart pounded. Did Yippee scare up a real fox, or had it been planned? Would they be angry with her?
The fox’s tail bobbed as the animal bounded over a tiny stream and up the hill. A beautiful creature. Red, lean, bush tailed, and elegant. Not like the gray foxes at home that stalked the chicken coop at night.
The red fox outran them all, shocked as they were to see him.
“Call off the dogs!” a hunt guide bellowed.
A real fox. A warmth filled Ruby as Yippee returned and trotted by Ruby’s side. Wind in her face, a slight burn on her cheeks, Ruby inhaled the cool air, laced with the scent of peat and damp. “Smart dog, you.”
After a five-course dinner, they lounged in the drawing room, drinking more weak tea. The actors huddled in groups, discussing the day’s events and how it would help with their portrayals in the upcoming film.
Ruby left her cup and saucer and strolled to the fireplace in her floor-length gown. The dancing flames mesmerized her. She patted the dress that arched away from her waist at least three feet all the way around. The hoop skirt beneath supported layers of ruffles edged with lace. Wanda had thought of everything.
Yippee roused from his nap by the hearth and rose, sniffing the hem of her costume. She bent to tickle him behind the ears but found the outfit too constricting. The dog kept sniffing and dove under her skirt, circling her ankles until he finally plopped between her feet for another nap.
Slipping her hand into the hidden pocket of her skirt, Ruby pulled out a few crumbs she’d saved from dinner. Backing up until Yippee lay out in the open, she cleared her throat.
He sat up, expectantly.
At her hand signal, Yippee stood on his hind legs and walked in a circle. She tossed him a crumb and flashed another signal. This time, he threw his rear legs into the air and walked across the room. He circled around and flopped on his belly. When Ruby released him, he shot back to her feet and sat up straight, panting.
“Hey! How’d you teach him to do that?”
Ruby snapped her head up as the others in the room moved her way. The men wore tails and bowties, and the women’s dresses mirrored her own in varying pastel colors. How long had they been watching? “Oh, we’re just messing around.”
“Wanda,” a gentleman called, “have you seen this little guy?”
Momma’s friend crossed the room, a drink in hand. “Of course. He stayed at my flat. He’s a little spitfire, isn’t he? Show them the rolling one, Ruby.”
At her signal, Yippee flipped to his back, stretched his paws over his head and rolled like a log across the floor. After three rotations, he froze, reversed, and ended up prostrate on the floor in front of Ruby.
She whistled once and lobbed a crumb.
He scrambled to his paws, jumped into the air, and caught his treat.
An older gentlemen stepped closer. “What pictures has he been in?”
Ruby darted her gaze around the room and finally searched Wanda’s face for an explanation.
Her eyes lit up. “Marcus, you’re a genius. We should put him in the movies.”
Ruby squinted, and the candles lighted throughout the room slanted into stars of light. She allowed the room to come back into focus. “We just learn tricks and perform for fun. He’s not a professional or anything.”
Another man pushed his way to the front of the circle now surrounding Yippee and Ruby’s humongous dress. “Ruby, my name is Sandy Rognesson. I’m a producer with Miramax, and I have a movie that needs your dog.” He thrust a card into her hands. “Call me.”
“What else can he do?” someone behind her asked.
Ruby wracked her brain and sighed. “Almost every other trick requires that I wear something other than a dress as big as a longhorn.”
Chuckles bounced off the walls.
A thought occurred, and she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it.” She turned to her companion and held out her last crumb. “Okay Yippee, say good night.” She stuck her leg out behind her in a lunge, hoping the dog would sense its location beneath the layers of material.
Yippee pawed her calf then climbed up her back until his hind legs reached her shoulders. Placing his front paws on top of her head, he barked once then crawled into her arms where she cradled him like a baby. He faked a snore.
The room burst into applause as she sashayed her way across the room and glanced over her shoulder. “G’night, Y’all.”
Ruby reached the top step and had to pause for a breather. This day lived in the past weighed heavy on her shoulders. Heavier than the weight of the dress. The opulence of this historical lifestyle stood in stark contrast to her simple life with Daddy, Dutch, and the rest of the hands. In some ways, this place seemed so complex, so full of rules and details of fashion and decorum. Yet not one digital screen could be found in Belton House. Apart from individual cell phones, of course.
The quiet soothed her soul like home. Sheep dotted the English landscape like cattle in the Buckner pastures.
When she reached her room, the actress playing the role of the ladies’ maid awaited her, ready to help her from the albatross of a dress. As Katie unbuttoned the tiny buttons running down her back, Ruby couldn’t help squirming.
“It’s all right, Miss. I don’t mind helpin’.”
She scratched her elbow. “I know. I’m not used to all the fuss.”
The girl released her from the heavy dress then slipped a lacey cotton nightgown over her head. “Every girl needs a little bit o’ fussin’. If you sit here, I’ll take down your hair, and we’ll give it a good brush before bed.”
Ruby opened her mouth to protest.
“No complaints, now.” The girl wagged a finger. “Wanda said you was to get the ‘full treatment,’ and I’m not crossing Wanda.”
Ruby seated herself at the dressing table and the heart-shaped mirror hanging on the wall.
By soft candlelight, the girl began removing the pins from Ruby’s intricate up-do. She brushed out Ruby’s long hair, and the gentle tugging conjured a long-buried memory of Momma.
Swiping a tear from her eye, Ruby let her gaze fall on a small box in the center of the dressing table. Her name was scrawled in the corner. For me? She opened the attached note and devoured its contents.
I hope you don’t find me too presumptuous (though I know that I am), but I wanted you to have English sheep for your crèche. Call me romantic. Call me a boor. I just thought it felt right.
Ruby opened the box and removed three wooden sheep, all carved in great detail and painted with precision. A ewe, a ram, and a lamb.
Sunday morning dawned crisp and bright with a knock on the door. Lifting off the feather pillow, Ruby scooched up, rubbing her eyes.
Katie carried in breakfast on a tray. Having a friend in her room almost every waking moment felt odd. Especially since the friend would technically be an employee. This life felt so foreign.
“M’lady.” Katie curtsied. “Lady Kurtz wanted me to let you know that the household will be attending the Christingle service in the village church this morning. I’ve laid out your dress, so when you’ve finished eating, ring for me to help you get ready.”
A strawberry scone melted in Ruby’s mouth, and she leaned back against the fluffy pillows, savoring the flavor.
Yippee stirred from the nest he’d made near her feet.
“What do you think, Yip? M’lady this, and m’lady that.” At home she’d been one of the guys, an extra hand on a horse, who could rope a stray calf in less than a minute.
She sipped strong coffee from a delicate china cup. Even stronger than Dutch’s coffee, which Daddy declared would put hair on your chest. She shifted in the bed, studying the room’s feminine furnishing. Lace details, ruffles, yellow and pale blue everywhere. She fingered the lace at the edge of her sleeve and felt a sudden flush. Loathe to admit it aloud, she liked the girly touches. Not that she was comfortable with them, but they made her feel something new inside. Giddy.
She dressed again, and they rode to the village with Wanda. From the horse-drawn carriage past meadows full of sheep, to the stone church steps, to the miniature nave bedecked with evergreen and holly, Ruby scoured her surroundings.
Entering the church, she drank in the scent of evergreen, damp soil, and … oranges?
Yippee squirmed in her arms, but she held him fast. Why did she smell oranges in church? She sat on the ancient wooden pew through the liturgical service. The cowboy church back home didn’t smell this good. Not that she’d attended in a while.
After the readings, the sermon, and a few songs, everyone stood and the oranges appeared. Yippee sniffed the air, stretching his neck toward the aisle. Ushers passed out oranges with a candle mounted in the middle, a red ribbon wrapped around it, and several toothpicks which skewered dried fruit and gumdrops.
Wanda leaned over and whispered, “It’s called a Christingle. This is my favorite English tradition.”
A new song filled the air as the Christingles were distributed, each person lighting his candle from his neighbor and then passing the flame on.
Once everyone held his Christingle, the minister blessed the congregation. “Christ the Son of Righteousness shine upon you and make you ready to meet Him when He comes in glory. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.”
Momma’s sweet face swam before Ruby’s eyes. Before she’d died, Momma had said she was ready to meet Jesus when the time came. The burning candle mingled with the sweet citrus scent, and gradually, all the fancy clothes, Christmas decorations, and even the heavy stone church faded into the background. Ruby imagined Momma sitting beside her. She would have fussed over the Christingle, noticing every detail. She would have sung the hymns at the top of her voice. Her overflowing joy in the season would have bubbled over, infecting everyone she touched. That’s how it always was. Alive.
Ruby had travelled a long way to remember such a simple thing.
Yippee nosed the Christingle, and the flame wobbled. The weight of the orange in Ruby’s hand, its cool dimpled surface, the simplicity of the symbol all spoke to her soul, kindling a flame inside that never should have gone out.
Ruby rolled her suitcase through the great hall of Belton House and stepped outside into a misty morning fog. Sticking her hands into the back pockets of her favorite jeans, she smiled across the grounds at the grazing sheep disappearing into the patchy fog.
“Wanda, I can’t thank you enough for this weekend.”
“Sugar, I’m just glad the timing worked out so well. It’s a rare thing to go back in time like we did.”
You can say that again. She toed the gravel with her well-worn boots. “And I love the wooden sheep.”
Worry flashed across Wanda’s face. “It wasn’t too much? Your Daddy said you’d be picking the pieces out, but I couldn’t resist.”
“They’re perfect. This whole experience was … unreal but just what I needed.”
Wanda scratched Yippee behind the ears. “And, hey, I think we might have found the next big Hollywood canine star.”
“How ’bout we count those chickens after they hatch.”
Looking straight into her eyes, Wanda’s gaze pierced her heart. “You remind me of your mother.”
Ruby swallowed the lump in her throat and pressed her lips together as her face washed with heat.
“Her exuberance for life just gushed all over the place.” She hugged Ruby from the side. “I can tell you have some of that. It’ll come out. Don’t worry.”
Ruby nodded, unable to speak. She climbed into the waiting cab, settled Yippee in his crate, and leaned back out of the car. “I hope the movie goes well. Can’t wait to see it.”
“You’ll come to the premiere with me. I need a date.”
Ruby’s heart fluttered with joy, and her mouth pulled into a wide smile. “That sounds great. Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”
Wanda tossed her head back with a loud cackle. “See? You are your mother’s child. Safe travels, Ruby girl.”
She pulled the door shut, and the cab pulled away from the grand house. Ruby girl. She’d liked it when Momma had called her that so long ago. Wanda saying it stuck to her like a lipstick kiss.
Check back tomorrow for Chapter Seven of A Ruby Christmas.
Our authors are blogging all sorts of fun posts, interviews, articles, devotions and more during the next couple of weeks too, so we'll try to keep an updated list so you can visit. Most of them are changing posts as often as we are, so if you see their names listed more than once, check out all the links, because it's a different post.
Monday, December 9
For the Pinterest Contest, visit Chapter Six's Pinterest image and Jennifer Fromke's blog
JENNIFER FROMKE Author Interview on Stitches through Time
MARJI LAINE - Interview on Lena NelsonDooley's Blog
DIANNE E. BUTTS
FAY LAMB posting on INNER SOURCE
MARJI LAINE Chapter 6 Devotion onFaith~Driven Fiction
PHEE PARADISE on Delighted Meditations
From Friday, December 6
For the Pinterest contest, visit Chapter Five's Pinterest image and Jerusha Agen's blog
DIANNE E. BUTTS
FAY LAMB posting on INNER SOURCE
JERUSHA AGEN guest posts at SERIOUSLY WRITE blog
MARJI LAINE Chapter 5 Devotionon Faith~Driven Fiction
MARJI LAINE Devotional about Light on A Woman Like Me Blog
PHEE PARADISE on Delighted Meditations
From Thursday, December 5
For the Pinterest contest, visit Chapter Four's Pinterest image and Ruth O'Neil's blog
DIANNE E. BUTTS
FAY LAMB posting on INNER SOURCE
MARJI LAINE Chapter 4 Devotion on Faith-Driven Fiction
PHEE PARADISE hosts Tracy Ruckman at Delighted Meditations
From Wednesday, December 4
For the Pinterest contest, visit Chapter Three's Pinterest image and Fay Lamb's blog
DIANNE E. BUTTS
MARJI LAINE Chapter 3 Devotionon Faith~Driven Fiction
FAY LAMB guest devotional at Phee Paradise's Delighted Meditations
From Tuesday, December 3
For the Pinterest contest, visit Chapter Two's Pinterest image and Dianne E. Butts' blog
FAY LAMB posting on INNER SOURCE
MARJI LAINE Chapter 2 Devotion on Faith~Driven Fiction
DIANNE E. BUTTS guest article about Christmas at Embattled Spirits
DIANNE E. BUTTS guest devotional at Phee Paradise's Delighted Meditations
A Familiar Shore, Jennifer co-authored a best-selling Christmas novella and published three short stories. Her favorite pastime is laughing with her family and her aim is to ensure the candy dish never runs dry.
Meg Marks is a young lawyer raised off the coast of the Carolinas. An anonymous client hires her to arrange his will, and sends her to meet his estranged family at their lake home in northern Michigan. After a shocking discovery, she finds herself caught between his suspicious family and a deathbed promise her conscience demands that she keep. Will she sacrifice her own dreams for revenge? Or will she find something more?
Available on Kindle: A Familiar Shore
The Christmas Tree Treasure Hunt
** Amazon Best Seller **
Grace takes delivery of a package and her life is turned upside down by nine sealed mystery envelopes from her late grandmother. Grammie’s instructions require Grace to take the journey of her lifetime, not only to far off places, but also into the deepest parts of her heart. As she follows the trail laid out for her and uncovers her family’s darkest secrets, Grace is forced to confront the loss and betrayal that has scarred her past and seek the greatest Christmas Treasure of all.
What do stories about a high school principal with a mean reputation, a doctor searching for his dream car, an ad executive still in love with his ex-wife, a clueless husband, a graduating grad student trying to buy a cup of coffee for his ladylove, and a missionary on furlough have in common? Romance.
Authors Marji Laine, Jennifer Fromke, Lynda Schab, Stephanie Craig, Traci Tyne Hilton, and Peggy Cunningham, each give you a unique story: their Heart Bouquets especially for you.