Ruby began to unpack the boxes in the hall. Tornados haunted her dreams and last night while making love with Edward, she had mentally run through the list of essentials, including sandbags, hard hats and walkie-talkies. The important thing was, she knew what to expect, knew the dangers and how to prepare for them. She was in control.
Although there was one thing she was not in control of: her car. A rented cherry-red Land Cruiser – a vehicle designed for rocky terrain or land invasion, but impossible to reverse out of the garage. Every time she turned the key in the ignition, she was blasted by striptease-type music. The Off button had to be located among the hundreds of knobs and switches on the dashboard but so far she’d had no luck in finding it. She assumed the band was called ZZ Top because she’d found an empty CD case on the floor. The music – plus the scarlet lipstick and musky perfume in the glove compartment – meant only one thing: the previous driver had been The Wild Type.
Suddenly, she stiffened like a deer hearing the crack of a twig. The telephone! She lunged into the kitchen, mouthing NO! to Edward – but it was too late. ‘She’s right here, Claire,’ he said, passing the phone to Ruby.
‘Bonjour, ma petite choux, or should I say howdie-hi?’ Claire chuckled. ‘How are you settling in to the homestead?’
Ruby would not reveal the size of the house until after her sister had received the thick wad of photographs. And she certainly wasn’t going to mention tornados. ‘Wonderfully! I have a brand new Land Cruiser that’s simply enormous.’ This was the most irritating aspect of Claire’s bragging – it was contagious. ‘It has a compass, heated front seats and-’
‘Well, of course, you’re living in a car-culture, n’est ce pas?’
‘Mais oui, unlike Europe where they drive around in Noddy cars.’
‘Au contraire,’ Claire murmured silkily. ‘Arnaud has promised me a Renault hatchback.’
‘Hatchback? But that’s too petite.’
‘I’d hate to be seen as ostentatious.’
‘I also have a fridge as big a tank.’
‘I don’t need a fridge because Veronique buys my vegetables from the market fresh, chaque matin.’
‘Well, we can eat out tous les temps because it’s so inexpensive.’
‘Eat out?’ Claire snorted. ‘Where? Betsy’s Hog Grill? Admit it: your life has ended up in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet marked Fermé.’
Ruby took a deep breath and came back punching. ‘Au contraire,’ she said brightly. ‘I feel as if my life is only just beginning. Oh, the adventures! And the untamed beauty! Yesterday, I drove out into the prairie. It was magnifique. Thousands of bison roaming across the rippling prairie-’ She stopped, startled that Edward had snatched the telephone from her. He spoke rapidly into the receiver.
‘Sorry, Claire, I must interrupt you girls. I have to make a business call.’ He banged down the phone and swung to Ruby. ‘I can’t listen to this anymore! Ever since we’ve been in Kansas you either avoid Claire’s calls, or you speak to her like some crazed French drag act-’
‘Bison? Rippling prairie? What are you talking about? You haven’t been further than Hy-Vee!’ He took a deep breath and resumed more calmly. ‘Why do you keep trying to compete with her? She’s an alpha-female. You can never win.’ He flung out a hand. ‘By now she would have made friends with all the neighbours and hosted a banquet for the mayor. And she wouldn’t be scared to reverse the car out of the garage.’
The accusation hung in the air. Ruby opened her mouth to protest, but the words wouldn’t come. Her husband, her own husband, had taken Claire’s side.
He sighed. ‘Look, I’m sorry, Ruby, but you need to accept who you are.’
‘And who is that?’ she asked coolly.
‘Well, you’re just … ordinary. But that’s what I like about you,’ he added quickly.
Ordinary. Ruby blinked back a tear. That’s what Claire had been telling her for the last twenty years. And now Ruby’s husband was saying the same thing. But, this time, Ruby wouldn’t accept it!
She marched into the garage. ‘I’m too scared to reverse, huh?’ She jumped into her land cruiser and turned the key in the ignition. Immediately, ZZ Top blasted out. The music suited her mood! She reversed out into the road in a squeal of tyres, straightened up and accelerated hard. She didn’t know – and didn’t care – where she was going.
‘I’m not ordinary,’ she murmured, feeling the tears. As she rifled the door compartment for the packet of Kleenex, her hand touched glass. It was a small bottle of tequila, empty. Tossing it on the passenger seat, she found the tissues and blew her nose.
She drove on, her brain jumping and fizzing like television static. Suddenly, it cleared to reveal a long straight deserted road. Where was she? How long had she been driving? Scrubland stretched away to the horizon. The road was straight and empty. She slowed, realising she was lost. And alone.
She accelerated hard. ‘I am not ordinary!’ she yelled, feeling the hot air whip through her hair. She grabbed the scarlet lipstick out of the glove compartment and spread it over her lips, the car swerving as she tried to see her reflection in the rear-view mirror. Then she sprayed herself with the perfume. Loud and defiant, she sang along to the music: ‘You gotta whip it up and hit me like a ton of lead. If I blow my top will you let me go to your head-’
A police motorbike slid past, the policeman waving her down. ‘Oh, no!’ she wailed. Her thoughts zigzagged desperately. What had she done wrong?
The policeman herded her onto the gravel verge then parked at a distance and removed his helmet. Her stomach lurched. She’d seen enough movies of the Deep South to recognise this man as the archetypical law enforcer who stood over chain gangs. He was huge with a broken-nose and square jaw, his eyes hidden behind reflective sunglasses. He wore a khaki short-sleeved shirt and brown trousers tucked into long boots. He unclipped a walkie-talkie from his shoulder and spoke into it, his sunglasses focussed on her licence plate. Then he paused, nodded then nodded again.
He was behaving as if she were armed and dangerous. And who was he talking to? And why was he taking so long? Was he trying to scare her? Well, it was certainly working: she was trembling from head to foot.
With a final nod, he clipped his walkie-talkie on his shoulder and strolled over.
Ruby, realising the striptease music would give the wrong impression, frantically sought to turn if off, trying buttons and switches, so when the policeman drew level, the windscreen wipers were thrashing, the hazard lights were flashing, and ZZ Top was still blaring.
He reached in a hand, slipped it under the steering wheel and there was instant silence. Abruptly, he swung away and sneezed.
‘Mighty strong perfume you’ve got there, ma’am.’ He rested his hands on her window sill, his biceps straining against the sleeves of his shirt. ‘Where you headin?’
She was repulsed by those broad hairy hands that had taken possession of her car, angry that he had deliberately terrified her. ‘I’m just out for a drive.’
Grinning, he took off his sunglasses, revealing friendly blue eyes. The transformation was startling. She felt a strange, uncomfortable fluttering in the pit of her stomach, then just as quickly it was gone. His name tape read: H. Gephart; the metal star inscribed SHERIFF. Granddad had always warned her that policemen were thugs in uniform. Now, looking at the various weapons of subjugation on this man – gun, knife, handcuffs, baton, and bullet-belt – she could well believe it.
‘You on vacation?’ the policeman enquired.
‘Yes,’ she lied. He wouldn’t make trouble if he thought she was here for a short time.
‘We don’t get many English folk in Kansas.’
‘I can imagine,’ she said dryly.
He paused as if sensing her hostility, then pointed down the road. ‘I pulled you over to warn you the blacktop ends in two miles. Don’t want to be hitting rocks at eighty.’ He studied her. ‘Don’t know how you missed the sign.’ His gaze dropped to the seat beside her. ‘You bin drinkin?’
Baffled, she turned to see what he was looking at. The tequila bottle! ‘That has nothing to do with me.’
It was as if she hadn’t spoken. ‘Drinking and driving isn’t tolerated in this State, ma’am.’
She could hardly speak for outrage. ‘For your information, I don’t drink alcohol.’ She saw his brow raised in disbelief and added crisply: ‘apart from a glass of Chablis. But I would never, ever touch anything like this!’ As she snatched up the bottle, it slipped through her fingers and flew out of the window.
He looked at the bottle on the gravel. He looked at her. ‘Littering’s a two hundred dollar fine.’ He picked up the bottle and handed it to her. There was a thoughtful, pitying look in his eyes as he studied her lips. ‘The first step to having a drink problem is owning up to it.’
Fury coursed through her body. If she’d been a man, she would have punched him. ‘Surely, officer,’ she said primly. ‘An empty bottle of tequila does not mean one has a drink problem?’
‘It does if you lose control of your vehicle.’ He jerked his chin. ‘You were swerving back there.’
‘Because I was applying lipstick.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘At eighty miles an hour?’
She heard the amused, patronising tone and her fury exploded; but like steam escaping from a pressure cooker valve it came out in a hiss. ‘Fascist.’
He was no longer smiling and his eyes – now a glacial blue – held on to hers like pincers. ‘Did you say something, ma’am?’
She gripped the tequila bottle as if it were his neck.
He stared at her. She stared at him. And in that moment, something passed between them; it was as if each were saying: I don’t trust you, either.
He asked for her driver’s licence, studied it then said, ‘I’ve made a note of your registration number, Miss Thompson.’
She hadn’t updated her name to Mortimer-Davis and now she was glad of it.
He handed it back to her. ‘I advise you to turn your vehicle around, Miss, and head back to where you’re staying and sober up.’ He strolled to his motorbike, swung a leg over it and waited.
Knowing he was watching her, she attempted a fast and competent U-turn and almost ended up in a ditch. As she drove away she could feel his eyes boring into the back of her head.
‘Neanderthal,’ she muttered, thankful that she would never see that horrid man again.
Hank watched the English girl drive off. His whole body was rigid, his lips numb and stiff with anger. Were all English that arrogant? Why hadn’t he tested her for drunk driving? Why hadn’t he booked her for speeding?
His emotions were stirred and it wasn’t just from anger; it was a physical arousal: those golden eyes that glittered, the little upturned nose and full lips – lips that a guy could imagine breathing over his skin.
He had tried to be friendly, to put her at ease, but there’d been something hostile about her, like a predatory cat with a twitchy tail.
She’d called him a Fascist!
Why in hell hadn’t he booked her?
He hadn’t believed her bullshit about the booze. Her mouth looked like melted crayon. He’d seen plenty enough times what happened to a woman’s lipstick when she drank from the neck of a bottle. And her throwing the bottle at his feet? That was her making a statement, telling him she was above the law.
Yeah, she might talk like the duchess of England but the duchess of England didn’t go for no joyride playing ZZ Top at full volume. He could sense she was trouble: the wild uncombed hair, the overtly-sexual perfume and the empty tequila bottle. But there were two things that worried him. Her fast erratic driving down a well sign-posted dead-end; and the full two minutes it took for her to come a halt. That was why he’d radioed in to the station: to trace if the car had been reported stolen.
He recalled the way she had looked at his hands on the door, like they were dirt.
Jesus, why hadn’t he booked her?
He prided himself on his ability to judge a person’s character. This one was superficially on the straight and narrow – Miss Righteous – but just under the surface there was something bubbling – something that would erupt and splatter gunk on whoever was standing closest. Thank Christ, it wouldn’t be him.
Yeah, he knew her type. She was reckless, and she was heading for brake failure, and he wasn’t thinking about her car.