July 4, 1937
Beverly Hills, California
He was my first regret.
“You don’t need an economics degree,” Jack spoke around the cigarette hanging from his lips before lighting the paper and dried leaves. It left a biting odor in his mustache, permeating his skin and mine whenever he touched and kissed me. He breathed it in deeply and exhaled long and slow, sending a plume of smoke dancing across my face—a sooty ballerina en pointé.
“Was that necessary?” I demanded, disgusted and blinking against the sting in my eyes. “You know how I detest that nasty habit.” He didn’t acknowledge my scolding as his gaze slipped down the satin and lace of my dress, the look which told me his hands would soon follow.
“I like this color on you, Virginia,” he drawled, pulling the cigarette from his mouth and running his hands along the curves of my hips and breasts—a brazen beast, proving me right. “You’re juicy as a peach, doll face. Think I’ll eat you later.” The innuendo was there in the air, unmasked and unfiltered, and I felt my pale cheeks bloom with color as blood dashed toward the surface, singing like a cabaret flowed in my veins.
“Mind the way you speak to me tonight, Jack, and don’t you dare get any of that ash on this dress,” I warned. “Remember, I told you not to call me Virginia. I haven’t gone by that name since grade school.”
His grin was villainous, the kind written into the movies before a man steals a woman and ties her up on train tracks, staining the handsome face and cool façade he kept in firm place. Except with me. With me, Jack Marshall let down the mask and became his true self—the manipulator, the wicked lover who’d mastered my body like the lines of his movies and brought me tumbling back to the dirt as soon as he’d finished. He was a performer, treating public moments as though we were in front of the camera, and every private one in a war of words and battle a for dominance against me.
When I turned my back to him, he reached up, gripping my arm with bruising force in the practiced spots he knew my clothing covered and slammed me back against his chest.
“You’re no lady, baby. And I still don’t know why you insist on going to school. College isn’t for women,” he seethed in my ear, hot, tarred breath wrapping around my neck as his fingertips dug into my flesh. As usual in our private moments, there was no veil to hide the misogynist within him. “Do you think I’m incapable of taking care of my wife?”
“We aren’t married—”
“Yet,” he cut in with a scathing force meant to put me in my place and keep me there. He’d forgotten or ignored the plain fact that I was a force of nature—a fire, which once lit could bring a majestic forest to its ashy knees.
The front door swung open, squeaking on its hinges and screaming in protest of shifting its heavy weight. “Are you two quite done?” Mother stood with her hands planted on her slender hips, as much a power to be reckoned with as I.
The studios encouraged Mable O’Hara to keep her Anglo-Saxon surname when she made it in Hollywood after the Great War. A German name like her husband’s was bad for business in those days. She learned the acting ropes in the silent era and relearned them again for the talkies. Unlike her closest friends in show business, Mother transitioned between the changing types of silver screen films with success. The woman was the inferno which birthed my own flame.
“Ginny?” Arnold Franc’s voice echoed from the vestibule. Daddy always called me by his favorite drink, for my name fit it well. Mother and Daddy spent Prohibition making bathtub gin with their Hollywood friends and gracing Los Angeles speakeasies with their fame while I stayed home with my grandmother. Daddy, a newspaper man, used Mother’s early earnings to build up a successful paper.
His parents immigrated to the United States from Munich, Bavaria when Daddy was an infant, leaving behind the Kaiser and the politics of the European royals for a life of freedom and hope. His mother, Elsa, raised him and his six siblings in a little apartment in New York City while his father, Rudolf, worked in a textile factory. My father joined him there as a boy, working long hours in the humidity with dangerous machinery and witnessing his young coworkers sacrificing appendages and lives to the gods of the industry.
After the war, Daddy came home to America from fighting his fatherland, moved his young wife and three-year-old toddler to Los Angeles, and took it upon himself to help reinvent the German-Americans. He began this mission with his own daughter, raising me to speak English and German fluently. He’d trained me up as a bright, fierce girl, full of passion and opinions. “No one will walk on you if you stand tall,” he always told me. And tall I stood, firm and rooted, grounded to the knowledge of who I was.
“Jack doesn’t think I should attend college,” I told my father, watching his face screw up into a scowl. Jack stamped out his cigarette and squeezed his knuckles into a tight fist, and I could hear his knuckles cracking and popping at the force. It was well known that the Franc patriarch insisted I get an education equal to my male counterparts. I smiled up into my father’s fierce gray eyes which matched my own, and smoothed my dark golden hair while refastening a loose bobby-pin. “But we’re done here. Let’s get to the party.”
Mother stepped aside and the world rushed down upon me: the ringing of the house phone, the trumpets blasting from where the orchestra set up in the backyard, and the press of Jack’s hand on my lower back, ushering me into the enormous house.
The walls were dark mahogany and the floors marble. It was beautiful, but not the home I grew up in. They purchased the sprawling Hollywood mansion three years prior when Mother played the captivating role of a mobster’s mom in a film that received an Academy Award nod for Best Picture. Jack played a gangster—true to his real character—whose disarming charm had captured me from the time we first met on the set.
I was only nineteen at the time, fresh out of high school and working as an extra in films Mother starred in. Jack had dressed me up in purple silk, draped me in rubies, and escorted me to the Oscars as his date. It Happened One Night took the 1934 Oscar for Best Picture, and Jack took my virginity, as red as the rubies I wore while he broke my flesh, in a room at the Biltmore Hotel. He was older, experienced, and looking for a nice girl to bring propriety to his playboy lifestyle. He thought he found that in me, but he hadn’t bet on my strong-headed will. I played along for the public so as not to damage my parent’s reputation, but kept Jack on his toes everywhere else.
We made our way to the back patio, Jack guiding me like the elegant gentleman we pretended him to be, and I snatched a flute of champagne off a silver tray from a passing waiter. It shimmied down my throat, dancing into my belly with the wings of fairies. I’d need the bubbles to help me float high above the palm trees, beyond the Hollywoodland sign, and up into the Los Angeles sky, left starless by the lights surrounding us.
Chinese paper lanterns were strung between the trees, glowing and casting ghostly shadows over the couples, and a dance floor was erected in front of a makeshift stage which held the orchestra. They were playing a jazzy piece, soothing my frustrations with bright notes from the saxophone and thrumming from the bass until Jack stopped to pull the champagne out of my hand and spun me into a close dance. He held me much too intimately for the public setting, his hand clasped against the slight curve of my backside and our thighs pressed together until there was no room for air or whispers of breath in between. Jack refused to be insulted or embarrassed by me again, and he’d prove his point by swaying there with me on the fine line between proper and indecorous.
Jack’s family had become so lost in the annals of Americana, they no longer knew where to trace their ancestry. He was raised by a drunkard, Okie farmer who’d taken his family on a 1932 trek across the destroyed plains to the oasis of California’s endless harvest. His mother died of dust pneumonia along the way, and they buried her under a willow in Texas. Jack often mentioned with heavy bitterness that his mama ended up feeding that tree while he had to learn to feed himself. I almost felt bad for the guy. Almost.
Known for his knockout left hook, Jack was a lightweight boxer in the little town of Goodwell back when the Dust Bowl rolled across the Oklahoma panhandle. He was lucky his nose was never broken—the film executives preferred their actors to be as beautiful as their leading ladies. He left his daddy and two younger brothers to work the lima bean fields of Oxnard without him while he sought his fortune in the City of Angels. The producer, who discovered him four years ago as he drank a heavy dose of bourbon on a barstool all alone, hadn’t noticed the distaste for others curdling in Jack’s damaged soul. His handsome face was his only saving grace; he struck it big when he starred in a film opposite Greta Garbo six months later.
He was everything perfect in a leading man, though the dust of his Okie life remained, clotting his veins and blackening his heart toward those around him. No matter the training Hollywood gave him, the Okie parts of him never left, and he’d forever be a grungy soul on the silver screen. They could dress him up, refine his outer appearance until they were blue in the face, but it wouldn’t change him.
Never a hair out of place, Jack wore it slicked back with oil and a little black curl twisting down to kiss his forehead, and his jaw was always clean shaven. The mustache gave him an air of sophistication that his simple brown eyes would otherwise belie. He drew me in like a moth to a flame, and whenever I thought of getting out, his magical fingers and tongue and whanger would make me forget every doubt. He held that mystical manifestation of testosterone-laced manipulation about him.
I glanced about pointedly, hoping to dissuade any curious onlookers from staring too long at our intimate dance, but guests watched with narrowed gazes and ogling eyes. Mother looked on with a straight face, giving nothing away, and nodded toward the side of the house where Daddy stood, speaking with two men in drab brown suits and matching fedoras. As though he felt my eyes boring into his back, my father turned around, face laced with anxiety. I couldn’t know then the anxiety was not about Jack’s overfamiliarity, but for myself and something much deeper.
“Jack, you’re drawing their attention,” I warned, furrowing my brow and turning back to give him a subtle push and put distance between us.
His chuckle was dark and daunting in its sexy timbre. “Let them look. Then, they’ll know you belong to me.”
“I belong to no one, Jack Marshall,” I seethed. The bastard was cocky and arrogant. “I’ve reminded you of this at least three thousand times in our years together.” My hand tingled with an ache to slap his face, an electricity often building between us until it became a full-blown war, by a heated blush radiated beneath my dress, a different kind of craving altogether. He was my deepest anger and my most carnal desire—a disquieting contradiction.
The gods mocked me for believing I could be my own woman in this world of convention, as Jack dropped to his knee.
The music cut off, sending slicing silence through the air. I stared down at a black box extended toward me and an enormous ruby and diamond ring nestled snug and secure, challenging everything I wanted to be. It laughed at me with its red eye looking up from the black velvet like Satan from hell. Fists clenched, I forced a tight smile and ground my teeth together, grating them until all I heard was the sound of bone against bone.
“What in hell’s name are you doing?” My voice was quiet—deadly—a whisper which may have torn skin from the bones of a lesser man. Of course, I knew the answer, for it had been written on his face many days, playing on his lips whenever we spoke. The hints, the snide remarks about making me his bride; they all added up in disastrous fashion to this moment.
“Virginia Franc,” he began, amplifying his bass voice so it carried throughout the party. “You’ve made me a new man, showing me what love is capable of.” I glanced to Mother to see only a look of insouciance and narrowed eyes. “Marry me, Virginia?”
I always hated rubies.