Thursday, November 22, 2012
THE DUDE RANCH MURDERS, by Sam James, 5th Installment:
Victoria rolled over and awoke suddenly. Light strained to get in through the closed shades and curtains. The room was gray with early dawn. She reached to turn on her bedstand lamp and her hand brushed against the book she'd been reading in bed last night.
It was Murder Wears A Smile, the latest Austin Ashley thriller. Ashley was to the readers of mystery thrillers what Louis L'Amour had become to the Western book fan: the leading author in his field. Mysteries had always been her favorites, Ashley especially. Maybe she felt the kinship more out of a sense of identification with her past, but she could hardly come to that conclusion. Even as a girl, she'd loved them.
Her past was better let alone. Paul didn't know of it and never would, as far as she was concerned. Perhaps with Paul she could forget....she could become the real person she wanted to be---not the phony, glittering painted lady of the ads, the woman who must sell herself and her beauty and her talent in a dog eat dog effort to succeed.
She'd succeeded in leaving something sordid behind her. She'd lost two fiances because of it. They'd found out, and had given no mercy.
She was not a fortune hunter. The death of her first husband had left her well off. She was, however, a woman who needed a man. She knew her wants. She was well acquainted with her needs. She wanted and needed Paul, and did not want to lose him as she had lost the others.
She didn't like Merrilee at all. (Merrilee, Kate--Whatever! Paul called his sister Kate most of the time, except when he seemed annoyed with her!) Kate acted as though Victoria were an intruder, threatening somehow to her position. Kate was a very possessive person when it came to her rights or her authority. Well, that would only last so long: She knew how to deal with people like Kate.
Victoria chose her clothes for the morning and got dressed. As she studied herself in the mirror, and liked what she saw, she ignored the dark side of herself. She picked up the book and tucked it into her chic drawstring bag. She wouldn't ride today. Perhaps Paul would stay home with her.....but if not, well, she was in the mood to read and the book was good. She went downstairs to the dining room where she found most of the other guests already gathered around the long plank table for breakfast. She took her place, exchanging greetings, glancing as she did so at Mrs. Long-- Georgia--who was seated next to her place. By this time coffee was being served while everyone had a chance to arrive in time for breakfast.
She thought that Kate acted cool towards her this morning. Kate always sat at the far end of the table, and Paul at the near end, the head. Her thoughts rested on Mrs. Long, broken by the arrival of Paul, who greeted everyone and took his seat. He was always so lively in the mornings, not like most people who took an hour to wake up. But then, he'd probably been up before sunup.
All through breakfast Victoria made a point of paying attention to Mrs. Long. Did she trust Paul? He was a flirt, yes---but he loved her and meant nothing by his flirtations. She turned back to the conversation at hand, the subject being the reading of a page turner--books you couldn't put down.
"Speaking of good books," she said, "I'll forego the saddle today in lieu of the printed page. Is anyone else here an Austin Ashley fan?"
Some were, but Sherri Hilliard said, "I like Louie L'Amour, myself. He's neat. But how could anybody read a book when they've got a chance to ride a horse?"
Ralph Tully, who'd seated himself next to Sherri,--much to her distress-- leaned over and whispered an obscene suggestion that he thought only she could hear. His ugly little eyes leered at her and his hand found her thigh under the table.
"Mr. Tully, take your hands off me!" She hissed back in a firm whisper. She reached down as inconspicuously as she could and removed his hand from her leg, hoping no one else had heard. Tully laughed. He had seen the way she flirted around with the ranch boss--He knew her kind, the little tart. Who did she think she was kidding, anyhow? He'd show her a thing or two when the time came.
Sherri inadvertantly glanced at Richard DelaCruz, the Indian seated on her right at the corner of the table, next to Paul. She saw that he had seen what happened. Her cheeks flamed.
"If he bothers you again, baby, let me know. I'll teach him some manners!" He winked at her and poured himself some more coffee.
Sherri blushed. He was an attractive man but she'd seen him pour from a bottle into whatever he was drinking in the evenings when he thought no one was looking. His kind of flirting was polite and fun and harmless. Besides, he was too old for her, anyway.
It was Paul she couldn't keep from thinking about. She glanced at him up the table but he was talking to Victoria and then to Georgia, across from Sherri. Mrs. Long was saying how she had read Murder With A Smile but she'd be a sport and not tell who was killing off all those women.
"Jealousy does funny things to people," she added. They couldn't tell just how she meant it. "Lucky for you, Paul, your fiance isn't the jealous type. Or else all we females who're mad about you might end up corpus delecti!" Her eyes twinkled into Paul's and she laughed at her own joke.
"Ha ha," said Vikki, dryly. "You might just as well have come right out and said the Dr.'s fiance went around killing everyone he flirted with!" She didn't appreciate the joke at all, but maintained her cool.
"Well, that let's me out," DelLaCruz laughed. "Paul didn't flirt with me, so I'm safe, right, Vikki? In case you go Lizzie Borden on us?"
Vikki glared at him, waiting for Paul to come to her defense. Paul didn't. Instead, he laughed. He thought the jokes were funny.
A light rose to her eyes, a hot fire of indignation. She caught herself in time. Careful, Vikki. Don't let it get the best of you. Not this time. Not again.
She forced herself to relax.
She would show them she could enjoy the joke as much as the next person.
She would, no matter what effort it took.
In spite of her self-avowal, she turned to Georgia Long, a small, baiting smile on her lips. "Are you 'mad' about Paul?
"Why certainly I am! You should consider yourself a very lucky woman. Hang onto him while you can." Georgia returned the smile with a flair of her own.
"I intend to," Victoria said.
"I'd sure like to hang on to him," Sherri Hilliard said without embarassment. She was always just herself, without guile or snares, which is what made her so attractive to predators. She was really quite conservative, certainly not promiscuous. She and Patty were both moral teenagers who liked attention, a little harmless flirting, dates with boys when they could be had, and other normal things that normal teenage girls wanted. But naive enough to be embarassed when necking on dates progressed to the no-man's land of petting when the boys' hands began to rove. She honestly did not realize how strong she came on to other people nor what feelings she aroused in men, particularly.
She wished she hadn't gotten this crush on the ranch boss. It was spoiling her vacation. All she'd planned on was riding everyday as much as she could, and having the kind of wholesome fun you could have on a ranch---and if there had been any boys her age, well, just maybe she'd get a little romance, too.
But this stuff with older guys was getting out of hand.
"Better look out, Vikki--looks like you've got some serious competition." Paul grinned at Vikki, then turned to Sherri and winked at her. "You'll do allright, honeypot."
Under the table he was squeezing Victoria's hand and rubbing her leg.