Saddled with a man’s name, the captivating Billy Jack Tate makes no apologies for taking on a man’s profession. As a doctor at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, she is one step closer to having her very own medical practice—until Hunter Scott asks her to give it all up to become his wife.
Hunter is one of the elite. A Texas Ranger and World’s Fair guard specifically chosen for his height, physique, character, and skill. Hailed as the toughest man west of any place east, he has no patience for big cities and women who think they belong anywhere but home…
Despite their difference of opinion on the role of women, Hunter and Billy find a growing attraction between them—until Hunter discovers an abandoned baby in the corner of a White City exhibit. He and Billy team up to make sure this foundling isn’t left in the slums of Chicago with only the flea-riddled, garbage-infested streets for a playground. As they fight for the underprivileged children in the Nineteenth Ward, an entire Playground Movement is birthed. But when the Fair comes to an end, one of them will have to give up their dream.
Will Billy exchange her doctor’s shingle for the domesticated role of a southern wife, or will Hunter abandon the wide open spaces of home for a life in the “gray city,” a woman who insists on being the wage earner, and a group of ragamuffins who need more than a playground for breathing space?
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Read an Excerpt
Open those doors!” A woman in the new common-sense skirt shook her umbrella at a Chicago World’s Fair guard. The motion raised her eye-poppingly short hemline another six inches and revealed a bit of stocking above her navy gaiters.
Blocking the entrance to the International Convention of Woman’s Progress, a bearded guard crossed his arms and planted his legs wide. A wave of resentment swept through the wriggling mass of females stretching clear out to the street.
Eve was not the only woman to raise Cain, Billy thought, ducking and dodging her way through the sea of bonnets.
Still, she needed immediate admittance. That guard might not unbolt the doors for an apostle of modern bloomerism, but he’d open them for her. Dr. Billy Jack Tate. She held a seat on the speaking platform and had spent untold hours writing, rewriting, and practicing the address she would present to this Woman’s Congress.
“Excuse me, sir.” She waved a handkerchief above her head. “I’m Dr. Billy Jack Tate. I’m scheduled to speak in Columbus Hall and I need entrance immediately.”
Tall and unmovable in his blue-braided uniform, he glanced in her direction, then returned his attention to the crowd at large.
She narrowed her eyes. There was no way he could have missed her. Not in this gown. For though the bright spring day offered warmth and a promise of summer, the predominant color of gowns being worn to the Congress was drab brown. Except for hers. She’d allowed the dressmaker to talk her into a startling shade of green with vivid pink accents. A decision she’d second-guessed a thousand times.
Squeezing herself between tightly packed bodies, she pressed her way to the front like a pair of stockings in a wringer. “I say, sir. I need—”
A transom above the guard swung open and a head poked through. A head with mussed salt-and-pepper hair, a harassed-looking expression, and a body cut off from sight.
“The Hall is filled to capacity and more,” he shouted, then grabbed the windowsill, his shoulders bobbing. Taking a quick glance inside, he regained his balance on what must have been a ladder, then once again turned to them. “Admission will no longer be granted. I advise you to turn around and go home.”
Cries of protest covered Billy’s efforts to capture the man’s attention.
“Sir!” she called again. “I’m Dr. Billy Ja—”
Retreating like a frightened turtle, he slammed the transom shut. The guard widened his stance.
Another roar of disapproval rang from the women. Some raised their voices, others raised their fists.
Caught up in outrage, the dress reformer scrambled over the rope, her split skirt parting, before she started up the steps. “Move aside!”
Whipping a short broadsword from its scabbard, the guard held it in front of him.
The woman paused, her right foot on one step, her left on another. Billy tensed. The murmuring of the crowd tapered off.
The sword was supposed to be for ornamentation more than anything else, but it was well polished and, most likely, freshly sharpened.
“I’ve got a patrol wagon just beyond the copse to cart off the disorderly.” His voice was low, even, and full of conviction. “I’ve a force of guards that can be dispatched the moment I give the signal, and a swarm of the most efficient body of men ever assembled in the world will be here en masse. I strongly suggest you step down.”
A sparrow, unaware of the tension, flapped to a stop on the landing and chirped a greeting.
Billy eased her way to the front. Surely it wouldn’t come to bloodshed, but just in case . . .
“Come on, Martha,” a woman nearby coaxed. “Let’s try another entrance.”
Though the guard never took his eyes from the threat, Billy sensed he was aware of every movement around him. Chill bumps rushed up her spine. She dipped under the rope.
Crouching into a half squat, he tossed the sword to his other hand, formed a half circle with his arms, and darted his gaze between them.
“I’m Dr. Billy Jack Tate.” Her voice carried in the sudden quiet, similar to the way it traveled across the frozen pond at her sister’s place. She maintained a calm, reasonable tone. “I’m a surgeon and a speaker here at the Congress. We want no trouble.” She turned her attention to the woman called Martha. “I think we’d best do as he says. He’s given a pledge to follow orders and the orders are no one goes inside. We are not a bunch of barbaric men, but women. Women much too sensible and creative to resort to brute force.”
A long, tense moment crackled between them. Finally, the woman jerked up her chin and spun about. Again, she straddled the rope rather than ducking underneath.
The guard did not relax his posture, did not replace the sword in its scabbard, and did not remove the force of his gaze. “Step down.”
Billy offered him a calm smile. “I mean no threat. I really am a speaker and I really do need to slip inside. My address begins in”—she glanced at her watch pin—“thirty-eight minutes.”
“You’re no more a doctor than I am a housewife. Now step down.”
She bristled. “I most certainly am a doctor. I earned a medical degree from the University of Michigan, I’ve practiced in hospitals all across this country for the past seven years, I’m an expert on anatomy, and my speech is about being a woman in a man’s profession. Now, you step down or I’ll let the organizers of this Congress know just exactly who’s responsible for keeping me from addressing the thousands who are waiting to hear from me.”
With each qualification, his expression became more and more amused until, with her final threat, he emitted a short huff. At least he’d straightened and lowered his sword, though he hadn’t put it away. “I’ll hand it to you, miss. You’re quick on your feet. But you’re the one who said women were crafty, not me. Either way, I’m not one to be taken in by a pretty face.”
“Creative. I said we were creative, not crafty.”
He tucked the sword away. “Same thing. Now, go on. I’m not letting you or anybody else inside.”
She glanced at the door. “But I really am who I say I am.”
With a heavy sigh, he shooed her with his hands. “I mean it. You can either get yourself back on the other side of that rope or I’ll have Willie over there escort you to the patrol wagon. From there, you’ll go straight to the city jail. And Chicago’s is a particularly nasty one that doesn’t do a good job of separating the woman prisoners from the male ones.”
With a touch of unease, she glanced to the area he indicated with his head. Amidst millinery of all sizes and shapes, a rather burly man stood only a few steps away. He tipped his hat.
Lips tightening, she flounced back down the steps. She’d have to try another entrance. But the building was huge. By the time she shoved through the crowds and appealed to each guard, the slot for her address would be over and gone.
She should have allowed herself more time. But she hadn’t expected so many women, and she certainly never considered a building such as this would fill to capacity.
Before slipping underneath the rope, she looked back over her shoulder. “I’ll have your name—so I can tell the officials who barred my way.”
He gave a bow. “Peter Stracke. But everybody calls me Pete.” He gave her a wink.
She ducked under the rope. The women immediately forged a path for her. Mr. Stracke might not have believed her, but they did and they had the utmost respect for her.
She’d gone no more than ten yards when an old country woman grabbed her hand. “Doc?”
“I can get ya in.” She looked both ways, then leaned closer. “But it won’t be through no doors.”
Billy wasn’t sure which was more potent, the smell of the woman’s breath or the smell of her unwashed body. It wasn’t the woman’s fault, though. The importance of good hygiene was something those in Billy’s profession were in constant argument over. And though she felt she was in the right, she was very much in the minority.
She looked at her watch. Twenty-four minutes left. “Is it fast? Does it involve any guards?”
The woman smiled, more teeth missing than present. “Jus’ follow me.”
Skirting around an enormous bronze lion flanking the entrance, the woman led her onto the grass and toward the north side of the building. The farther they walked, the less congested it was until finally they reached the fringes of the crowd.
“Quick, over here.” Ducking beside a puny bush, the woman dropped to her knees and began to jiggle a cellar window.
Billy glanced behind them. No guards within sight, but several women watched unabashedly. With a growing smile, one of them corralled those around her, then directed them to turn their backs and form a human wall around Billy and her cohort.
The gesture warmed her heart. Women were a wonderful breed. Such a shame they didn’t run the country.
“There’s a nail loose.” The woman grunted, her entire body shaking as she continued to rattle the window.
Dropping down beside her, Billy tried not to think about the moist dirt beneath her knees. Better to arrive with a soiled skirt than not at all. Lining up her fingers along the opposite side of the frame, she pressed as hard as she could.
“That’s it.” The woman’s breath came in huffs. “I clean this place at night. I been tellin’ the menfolk about this window for months now, but they can’t be bothered with it.”
Without warning, the frame swung inward, crashing against the wall. The momentum slammed Billy into the stone wall above the opening. The rim of her hat wrenched its pins to an awkward angle and ripped the hair entwined by them.
Sucking in her breath, she pushed away. At least her hat had protected her face. If the brim hadn’t stopped her, she’d have likely broken her nose.
“Go on.” The woman waved her arm toward the window.
Ignoring the pain in her scalp, Billy considered her options. There was nothing for it but to lie full out on the ground and shimmy herself in. With a sigh, she flopped down and stretched her arms toward the opening. She was a quarter of the way through when she realized the window was level with the ceiling of the cellar.
She returned her hands to the opening and pulled herself backward. “I’m going to have to go feetfirst. It’s a good eight-foot drop to the floor.”
Entering feetfirst wasn’t nearly as easy as headfirst. The old woman grabbed Billy’s ankles and guided her feet through.
Raising up on her arms, Billy propelled herself as far toward the window as best she could, then collapsed to her tummy and lifted her hips. Like a worm she inched backward, her body making progress, her skirts and petticoats staying where they’d started.
Without too much effort, her pantalet-clad legs made it inside and dangled against the freezing-cold stone cellar wall. But her skirts were inside out, cocooning her upper body within their folds and inhibiting all progress.
“I’m stuck,” she called, sputtering against the fabric of her skirts.
Within seconds, all hands were on deck and bodily lowering her the rest of the way in.
“Wait!” she squeaked. “Slow down! My dress—it’s going to tear. And I’m . . . I’m going to fall!”
The women clutched her arms, their grips digging into tender flesh.
Billy lifted her head, the brim of her hat hitting the edge of the window. “Easy. Go as slow as you can.”
The rough wooden frame scraped against her midsection, tearing the delicate cotton of her corset cover. Her pantalets traveled up her legs, bunching at her thighs.
In an effort to see how far she was from the floor, she wiggled her feet. Nothing but open air.
They lowered her a bit more. Pain shot through her arms at the awkward angle.
“Wait,” she breathed. “Let go of my right arm.”
They released it. The pain in her left arm increased tenfold.
She pulled her free arm inside and steadied herself against the wall. “When I count to three. Ready? One . . . two . . . three.”
They let go. She hit ground almost immediately, then her knees gave. Between her tangled skirts and the unforgiving floor, it took her a moment to orient herself.
“Doc?” It was the old woman. “You all right?”
She took a mental catalog of all extremities. Other than weak knees and throbbing arms, everything seemed to be in working order. “Yes. Yes! I’m good. Thank you so much.”
Instead of a chorus of encouragement, she heard nothing. Complete silence. Eerie silence.
A drop of moisture from the ceiling plopped to the floor. Pushing the hair from her face, she straightened her hat and looked up at her comrades. Four faces peered through the window. All attention was focused on the opposite wall.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Please, don’t let it be a rat. She hated rats.
“What is it?” she hissed.
They said nothing, their eyes wide.
Careful not to make any sudden moves, she drew her legs beneath her and straightened, inch by inch by inch.
Finally, she turned, then sucked in a breath.
The silhouette of a man—no, not a man, a guard. A guard with monstrously broad shoulders, a trim waist, a scabbard, and a pair of very muscular legs stood with one shoulder against the doorframe and one ankle crossed in front of the other, exposing a pair of cowpuncher boots.
He cocked his head. “Goin’ somewhere?”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Fair Play includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Deeanne Gist. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The only “mannish” thing about Dr. Billy Jack Tate is her name. A female doctor in the 1890s, Billy graduated at the top of her class and won’t let anything—or anyone—stand in her way. When Billy lands a job as a doctor at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, she is already a successful surgeon and finds herself one step closer to her own medical practice. But after her chance (and revealing) meeting with the rugged and very traditional Texas Ranger Hunter Scott, a reluctant romance blossoms, and Billy is forced to consider a future without medicine—or without Hunter.
When Hunter discovers an abandoned infant in the White City exhibit, his and Billy’s search to find its parents leads them down a path of discovery, hope, and loss as they help erect a playground for underprivileged children on the West Side of Chicago. As Billy and Hunter pursue their common goal, their passion and respect for each other grow, and the two must decide whether love is more important than having it all.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Dr. Billy Jack Tate, a female doctor in the 1890s, firmly believes women are just as capable as (if not more than) men. What events or circumstances may have shaped her beliefs? What kind of challenges would a woman with these attitudes face in the late 1800s?
2. One of Billy’s strategies for being successful in a male-dominated profession is to make men forget she’s a woman. Is this a good long-term strategy? Why or why not?
3. What are your first impressions of Hunter Scott?
4. Describe Billy and Hunter’s relationship at the beginning of Fair Play. How does discovering and spending time with Joey change the dynamic between them?
5. Would you describe Billy as a feminist? Why or why not?
6. How does Hunter perpetuate female stereotypes? What about male stereotypes?
7. In Fair Play, Billy often defies gender stereotypes and expectations for her generation. Can you think of any examples in which Hunter does not meet similar cultural expectations of how a man should act?
8. Do you think Billy was fair in her terms for her marriage to Hunter? Do you think her terms would be perceived differently if she were the man in the relationship?
9. Hunter and Billy’s mutual interest in creating a safe space for children to play on the West Side nurtured their burgeoning romance. Why do you think both were willing to sacrifice their jobs to make this happen?
10. Ownership is a significant theme in Fair Play. What are some examples of characters who believed they owned something or someone? How do those examples differ, and why were they important to the characters’ development?
11. Billy’s encounter with Kruse and his friends reminded her of how physically weak she was compared to some men. What do you think ultimately made her decide not to report them to the police? How do you think this changed her views on women’s capabilities compared to men’s?
12. In Fair Play, we are introduced to people of many nationalities, professions, income levels, and circumstances. Why was diversity so important in the plot? How was it a driving force behind Billy and Hunter’s relationship?
13. Billy and Hunter’s romance demonstrated that compromise is an Essential element of a successful, loving relationship. Do you think their compromises for each other in the end were balanced? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Billy and Hunter’s romance centered on pursuing their passions, and building a playground was one of them. Pack a picnic basket and take your book club to a park for the day—preferably one with historical significance!
2. The Woman’s Congress at the Chicago World’s Fair featured some of history’s most influential women, such as Susan B. Anthony. Assign famous female figures to each book club member and have him or her recite a brief biography, as well as any quotes or clips from World’s Fair lectures.
3. Fair Play often focuses on children who are forced to grow up too quickly due to circumstance. Ask each book club member to bring in memorabilia from his or her childhood—a toy, a photograph, a journal entry, anything. Take turns describing what these items represent in your development into adults and how growing up in the 1890s might have shaped you differently.
4. Names and identity are important themes in Fair Play. Have each member research his or her name and its meaning. Discuss how these names may have impacted their identity or choices.
A Conversation with Deeanne Gist
1. This is your second novel taking place at the Chicago World’s Fair. What made you want to revisit this place and time in our country’s history?
While writing It Happened at the Fair, it was impossible to include all the wonderful tidbits I learned about the fair. And there were some I so desperately wanted to include—like the fact that the Board of Lady Managers put on a contest asking for women architects to submit plans for the Woman’s Building. Then a twenty-one-year-old girl fresh out of MIT won! Can you imagine having that as your very first job?
So I asked the publisher if the next two books could have a tie-in to the fair. And they said yes—on the condition that the fair be a secondary character, not a primary character like it was in the first book. Thus, we briefly visit the fair in Fair Play but a majority of the novel takes place in the city of Chicago. Book Three of the series will also have a tie-in to the fair, but it will be set in New York for the most part.
This will allow the reader to read these books in any order they like, since they are all stand-alones and don’t build on each other.
2. You are known for writing strong-minded, whip-smart female leads. What was your inspiration for Billy?
I knew I wanted to use the Woman’s Building as my initial backdrop. As I researched it, I discovered it had an infirmary staffed completely by females. Immediate possibilities began running through my mind. I wondered how an alpha male would feel if he collapsed in the Woman’s Building and found himself faced with a woman doctor. That was the moment both Billy and Hunter were conceived.
3. What kind of research did you conduct to learn Texan catchphrases circa 1893?
That part was easy. I live in Texas, where those kinds of phrases have been passed down for generations and are still alive and well. Maybe not so much in the urban areas, but certainly in the more rural ones. It was great fun to include some of my favorites.
4. Did you discover any surprising facts about famous female figures from the late 1800s/early 1900s while you researched Fair Play?
I really enjoyed learning about the president of the Board of Lady Managers, Bertha Palmer. I’d never heard of her until I began studying the fair. She was married to a real estate magnate who was one of the founders of Marshall Field’s. He was twenty-three years her senior, but it was a love match and he placed great store on her business acumen. Each evening they’d sit together and he’d go over all his business transactions of the day, then ask for her input—an unheard-of practice at the time.
He sold his shares of Marshall Field’s to his partners, and built a lavish, opulent hotel as a wedding gift to Bertha. Thirteen days after it opened, it burned to the ground during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. They lost everything. Bertha was instrumental in working “behind the man” to rebuild not only Palmer House Hotel, but their fortune.
5. How much do real people in your life inspire the development of characters in your books? Does Hunter, for example, have anything in common with your husband?
All of my characters are fictitious, but I’m sure my life’s experiences influence how I write certain characters. My husband is definitely an alpha Texan with a dry sense of humor, a touch of bravado, and a fierce instinct to protect those who are weaker. When you’re married to a man like that, it’s not very hard to write heroes who are attractive on the outside and even more attractive within.
6. Billy wants to “have it all,” to borrow a modern cliché, when it comes to having children and a career. Do you believe that’s possible for today’s woman? Do you think men are faced with similar challenges?
As I contemplate this, it seems to me that each person—man or woman—is so uniquely different that it would be impossible to give a blanket answer. One thing that continues to amaze me, though, is that women a hundred years ago were struggling with the same thing women today struggle with: balancing work and home. Or for those who were full-time homemakers, they often struggled to find an outlet for their more marketable talents while still fulfilling their obligations as wife and mother. It is every bit as delicate a balance today as it was then. It’s one I personally wrestle with on a continual basis.
7. What is your writing process usually like? How easy (or difficult) was it to write Fair Play?
My writing process seems to be getting harder instead of easier. When I first started writing, I would research for six months and write the book for six months. But as my career has matured, additional tasks have been added to the process: speaking engagements, social media, book signings, short stories, travel, events, blog tours, etc.
Before I was published, I’d see other authors doing those things and it all seemed so glamorous. But what I have found is, it is very difficult to meet all the expectations and still have time to write the book—especially with my dyslexia. With each new project, I try to come up with a new game plan. Ways I can manage my time so that I don’t get caught at the end of the process with way more book to write than I have hours in the day.
I’ve yet to find that magical formula. Ten weeks before Fair Play was due to be turned in, I worked eighty-hour weeks. Not quite the “balance” I was striving for!
So, if I don’t do quite as many public appearances as I did last year, quite as many blog posts, quite as many online interviews, it’s not because I’m snobbish. It’s because the most important thing I can do for my readers and my family is to put my backside in that chair and write the book.
8. Cullen McNamara from It Happened at the Fair made a cameo appearance in this novel. Will we be seeing Cullen, Della, Hunter, or Billy in any future novels?
I don’t know. I haven’t finished the next book yet! But if I can find a good spot, I’ll definitely include them. It’s something that has to kind of unfold as I go. But if they don’t make an appearance in the next book, it’s always possible they’ll show up in some other book.
For instance, Texas Ranger Lucious Landrum from Love on the Line walked onstage for a quick scene at the end of Fair Play. Had you asked me back in 2011 when that book came out if Lucious would be making any cameos, I’d have probably told you no.
In the same way, characters from my 2006 book, The Measure of a Lady, unexpectedly popped onto the pages of my 2009 book, A Bride in the Bargain—two totally unrelated books.
So I guess the best answer is . . . you never know. (And neither do I!)?