Thursday, July 4, 2013

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McQueen Was My Valley 1



Copyright © 2013

Chapter One

 Bird in Hand, Utah

“Mazel tov,” said Sol, raising his wine glass on high.

Alexandra McQueen toasted her lawyer. They had just accomplished a shit storm of tedious and piddling paperwork—weeks of deeds, inspections, appraisals, and taxes—and had emerged the other side, unscathed. Xandra was more than happy to clink wine glasses with Sol Greenspan.

Three months ago Xandra had never been to Utah. She knew Utah as the place where Robert Redford and Mormons lived, and something about a film festival and skiing. If someone would’ve told her that in three months’ time she’d be sitting on the deck of her very own ski lodge near the rim of a dazzling red rock canyon, Xandra would have thought that her drug-addled ex-boyfriend was concocting a prank.

Now here she was. Peaceful and serene, all the papers signed, safely away from Javier “Slippery Fish” Santana. The i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed, the deck overlooked a wonderland of stone spires and natural stone pinnacles, and she was toasting with her very own lawyer. Clink.

“Dude.” That was Doug’s toast. A very casual sort of guy, Doug Ostrovsky was Xandra’s stepbrother a few times removed. It had taken Sol and Doug days to figure out how Doug and Xandra were related, sitting around the long table in the lodge’s ballroom, hand-drawing organizational charts with Doug and Xandra’s ancestors’ names scribbled in the boxes. They’d finally decided to leave it at “stepsiblings.” Doug had actually been closely acquainted with the lodge’s recently deceased owner, Wanda Burns. Doug had worked at the Triple Play Lodge for years, now elevated to General Manager. But because Doug wasn’t related to Wanda by blood, only by his father’s marriage, ownership of the lodge had fallen to Xandra, Wanda’s next of kin. “You’re coming with us to The Inkwells, right? You need to learn the terrain beyond the borders of the lodge.”

The Inkwells was apparently a series of connected swimming holes, enormous depressions rubbed smooth in the red rock by millennia of rushing water. There were some vaguely naked connotations to these Inkwells that Xandra wasn’t entirely comfortable with. She was from Charleston. People in the west were a lot more relaxed than easterners.

“Bring your swimsuit,” said Cassandra. “If you brought one.”

“Oh, I have one, all right,” Xandra said, chipper. She started gathering her things as if to leave. “I just wanted to stop by and see Lucretia about those bed sheets. And Leif. I wanted to see Leif about the chanterelles.”

Cass sighed. “Alexandra. You’re micromanaging everyone to death again.”

“Yeah,” agreed Sol. “Leif doesn’t need chanterelle advice when he’s busy designing”—he rattled the cardboard menu—“a caramelized rack of doves and kiln-roasted Peruvian enoki.”

“Enoki are mushrooms,” Doug pointed out, popping a shrimp deviled egg into his mouth. That boy could certainly eat. And somehow managed to remain as skinny as a toothpick.

“I don’t think,” Cass reassured Xandra, “that Leif really cooks a rack of doves. Sol is just trying to point out that sometimes you can be…”

“Irritating,” Doug filled in, reaching for another Asiago potato wedge.

Xandra froze, halfway standing. “Irritating!” she gasped. “Why, I’m the new owner of the Triple Play! Of course I’m a bit nervous, seeing as how I’ve never run a lodge before.”

“You’ve been to a lodge before,” Sol said wearily. He’d quoted her asinine remark a dozen times by now. She’d been so naïve when she first came here! How she wished she could take that comment back. Yes, she had been to a resort in Myrtle Beach once. And Javier had taken her to Vermont once to ski. The trip had mostly consisted of them posing in the lounge wearing trendy ski jackets, clacking their unused skis together while Javier made transactions with other businessmen who didn’t ski, either.

Xandra hadn’t even noticed there was a McQueen Valley, Utah, on a map until her father’s lawyer had informed them three months ago. Even if she had noticed it, she wouldn’t have assumed it had to do with her family. She would’ve thought it had to do with Steve. That was logical, since he’d made at least one movie with Robert Redford.

Sol continued wistfully. “Enoki seduced with a misting of clarified ox oil.” He reached for a deviled egg, too.

Xandra frowned at her lawyer. “I get the picture. I’m bothering Leif—”

“And Lucretia,” Doug inserted.

“—with nitpicky crap. But today isn’t the day for me to learn horseback riding. The charity fishing event starts tomorrow so I don’t think we should be gallivanting around swimming. I mean, you guys can. I’m going to get with the event director and make sure the ballroom is ready. Last time we had that quilting convention, the podium was misplaced.” Xandra slung her enormous shapeless purse over her shoulder and hugged her clipboard and notebook to her chest to let everyone know she meant business.

Sol asked, “Fishermen make PowerPoint presentations?”

“They sure do,” said Xandra.

Doug goofed, “About which kind of worms they want to use?”

Xandra ignored her stepbrother. “Sol, you’re flying out tonight?”

This apparently reminded Sol to gulp down the rest of his wine. He smacked his lips. “Yup. I’ve got to get back to Provo. Believe it or not, I’ve got other clients.” He chuckled, but everyone else looked at him blankly. Apparently no one believed he had other clients. He cleared his throat and stood, too. “You should be all set, Xandra. You’ve got Doug here to run everything, and Cass handles all the daily inner workings of the entire machine. Theoretically you shouldn’t even have to worry about piddling things like worm presentations. Theoretically you should be able to lie around in the mud bath all day long. Write a romance novel, eat chocolate bonbons.”

Xandra frowned. “Like Wanda did?”

Wanda McQueen Burns had not lounged around in the mud baths all day. From Doug’s accounts, Wanda had been a spitfire until her final days, zipping about the lodge attending to every detail. And no one had accused her of micromanaging. They all seemed to have welcomed her “interferences.”

Sol waved a dismissive hand at Xandra. They started walking together toward the breezeway that led to the main lodge. “You just steer clear of that Slimy Weasel fellow like we talked about.”

Xandra corrected Sol. “Slippery Fish. And Javier isn’t that bad. He’s just a meth kingpin, not a…” She was about to say “not a criminal” until she realized how incorrect that was. “He’s not a crazed maniac. Thank God we were never married, and I doubt I’ll ever have any dealings with him again.”

Sol held the door open for Xandra. His look was meaningful. “Yeah. He just liked to fling you around and slam you into the wall whenever he didn’t get his way.”

Xandra regretted the day she’d ever told Sol about that. She wanted to move into a positive future, living life fully, not be dragged down by the past. “Have no fear, Sol. Javier isn’t leaving Charleston to chase me down.”

“And Doug’s got a great idea. Get out into the countryside. Ride those horses. Become familiar with the cattle. Wanda rode out once a day. She just liked to stand on the rim of Prism Canyon, gaze out, and think Zen thoughts. There’s a good idea. Ask Doug about that whole Zen racket. That’ll calm your nerves. ‘The quieter you are, the more you can hear.’ I’m not much of a caballero myself, or I would’ve taken you out riding. Get Doug to do it.”

“Well,” said Xandra, “not until this fishing tournament is over.” Already they had walked past a couple dozen men and more than one woman wearing shirts and caps emblazoned with logos of their sponsors. Attendees were NASCAR racers, professional anglers, country music entertainers, and all 150 of her rooms had been booked for weeks, including all of the twenty cabins scattered closer to the river.

Xandra fairly swam in pheromones as she passed by these manly men, but she wasn’t ready to even consider a fling yet. That was one of the beauties of owning a lodge, she was discovering. Everyone here was a transient tourist. Even when she inevitably felt ready to have a passing hookup, the guy would be gone the next week. Strictly a wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and that was fine with her, she imagined. There was no danger of becoming emotionally involved and therefore devastated when she was ultimately disappointed, let down, or abused by the guy. And that would be all men. Xandra was convinced that all men would ultimately do that to her.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Sol said. “Hey, Cody!”

Sol greeted a fellow Xandra knew to be the Triple Play cattle ranch manager. She didn’t want to talk about cows or horseback riding, so she darted behind a group of anglers and headed for the hallway that led to her ground floor suite.

As radically as Xandra’s life had changed in the past three months, she couldn’t have predicted how it was about to be turned upside down all over again.

Doug caught up with her when she was nearly to her suite at the end of the hallway.

“Dude,” he said urgently.

Xandra sighed. She really didn’t want to hear how easy it was riding a horse. “Just like riding a bike,” Doug had told her, “only a bike doesn’t whinny and shit.” She’d gone horseback riding once as a young teen in Charleston, with her sisters. Her butt was slapped so raw from bouncing up and down in the saddle she had walked like a—well, like a cowboy for a week afterward.

“No horse similes, Doug.”

“No horse similes,” he agreed happily. Doug Ostrovsky was a very happy-go-lucky, easygoing guy. Xandra was thankful, because she was fated to deal with him every day on many different levels. “I just wanted to say, I don’t want you to feel bad about Wanda’s will.”

Oh, damn. She was going to have to stop walking for this one. It sounded serious, and Doug wasn’t the type to discuss random serious things.

Doug continued, “I never expected anything in her will. I wasn’t related to her by blood—just her son-in-law’s stepson.”

“Yes, but you’ve worked at the Triple Play for ten years, Doug.”

“So has Cass,” Doug pointed out sincerely. “So have Leif and Cody and a ton more people. Shit, people work jobs for fifty years and don’t even get a watch.”

“Yes. All the more reason why everyone should resent me—a stranger—who just falls into the inheritance. What have I done to deserve it? Nothing. I never even met Wanda.”

“The lodge and ranch were supposed to go to your dad, Dennis, Wanda’s nephew, who has met Wanda a bunch of times. It’s not your fault your dad decided to give it straight to you.”

“Yeah,” Xandra said sullenly. “Because he felt sorry for me, living with a lowlife dickhead like Javier. He knew I needed a new life, a fresh start. Something to sink my teeth into, to get my mind off Javier.”

Doug’s eyes grew round. “Whoa,” he whispered.

“I know. Pathetic, huh? And Dad didn’t even know that Javier threw me around when he made that decision.”

“Whoa.” The color had drained from Doug’s face. Xandra knew Doug to be a caring sort of guy, but he was really getting emotional about the whole Javier thing. Hadn’t they already discussed Javier’s abuse of her? Why was he acting like it was such shocking news?

“Well,” said Xandra. “I’m away from Charleston now, thank God. Now we can move on, and—”

Doug shoved past her, toward the front door of her suite. His hand recoiled from the doorknob as though zapped. “Fingerprints,” he whispered. “Don’t touch the knob.”

It took several seconds for it to sink into Xandra’s addled brain. My door was already open.

She stated the obvious. “I didn’t leave my door open.”

“I know,” Doug said ominously, already handling his radio, presumably to call security.

Xandra pushed past Doug, making sure not to touch anything. The living area looked fairly untouched aside from a few overturned southwest objets d’art and tossed couch pillows. The armoire was open wide, but the thief had only strewn about the few jackets and coats that had been hung in there.

My safe. She had nothing in there other than some heirloom pieces of jewelry and the passport she didn’t expect to ever use again, but Xandra rushed to the bedroom to check the safe. It was still closed tight, but the gold-plated handle had been bashed by something, as though an inept burglar had tried to open it.

Her dresser was a complete hurricane zone, though. It seemed that almost every item of clothing had been strewn around the room. In particular disarray was her jewelry box on top of the dresser. In her haste, Xandra didn’t note any of her crappy junk jewelry missing. What was missing, anyway? She raced back into the living area.

There was a table in a sunny nook where she kept her laptop and important papers. Doug already stood there, hands on his bony hips, his Pearl Jam T-shirt draped like a flag from his torso. “They didn’t touch anything here,” he observed.

“I know—it’s weird. It’s like they went straight to my bedroom and rooted through my clothes.”

“What’d they take?”

“Nothing that I can figure out. Maybe we interrupted and surprised them in the act.”

Doug went to the back sliding door that led to the private deck. This entire wall of the wing faced southwest, and Xandra had spent many a relaxing early evening sipping wine out here with Cass, Sol, or Doug, watching the sun set over Prism Canyon. Xandra looked forward to the winter when they could stand out there with hot chocolate mugs, soaking in the snowy view.

Doug lifted the hem of his loose, holey T-shirt so he could open the slider without getting prints on the handle. It was still locked from the inside.

“He obviously went back out through the front door. And I didn’t pass anyone in the hallway coming down here—anyone other than fishermen,” Doug added.

A new voice in the suite startled them. “He could be disguised as a fisherman,” said Cassandra.

“He could be a fisherman,” Doug pointed out.

Xandra frowned. “Why would a fisherman be rooting through my clothes?”

Doug and Cass shared looks as if to say Do you even need to ask that?

“Oh, come on!” cried Xandra. “Just because they spend a week out of the year competitive fishing that automatically means they need to break in to sniff my panties? Come on, you guys.”

“You are extremely cute, Miss McQueen.” Cass turned to Doug to reminisce. “Remember that bass tournament last year, Doug?”

“How could I forget? Douche bag won the big purse—a forty-five thousand dollar boat—but was disqualified because he’d forgotten to get a fishing license.”

Xandra jammed her hand onto her hip. “Yeah. That automatically makes him a pervert.”

Cass explained. “He was so distraught he went on a bender. He bet someone he could get into the baby swing at the playground, so he stripped and greased himself up. He got stuck and died of a ruptured appendix.”

“Oh, God!” Xandra cringed. “I’ll bet that raised our liability insurance.”

Doug pointed heatedly at her. “Sure did!”

“Anyway,” said Cass, “I already called Marcus and told him to review his security tapes for this hallway and he’s got his men stationed all around the building ready to nab anyone if we recognize him.”

“‘His men’?” Xandra queried. “He has one security guard, that doofus who makes alien noises all day.”

Doug clarified for her. “He thinks spacemen invaded his brain. They tell him things like don’t eat margarine and grind your own pepper.”

Xandra rolled her eyes. “Oh, that makes it better. He actually sounds like a likely suspect.”

Cass made a thoughtful face. “Anyway. I think I just saw someone who can help us, seeing as how Marcus probably can’t. On my way over here just now, of course I passed by the Neon Cocktail. All sorts of anglers in there, comparing their biggest catches, I guess. Anyway, of course I just vaguely glanced in there since I was in a rush to get here. Well. There was this gorgeous, beefy, hunky, muscular son of a bitch”—Doug rolled his eyes now, as Cass formed her hands into claws of desire—“with this impeccably hot ass—”

Xandra cleared her throat. “Cass. Get to the point.”

Cass sobered up. “Oh. Right. Anyway, I think this guy is a cop or some sort of law enforcement because he had a shoulder holster with a pistol in it. I know if you’re licensed to carry a concealed weapon you’re supposed to keep it concealed, but he was sort of, ah, getting into a bit of a brawl with a fisherman, so his jacket sort of lifted up, and—”

“All right,” said Xandra, clutching Cass’s upper arm. “Let’s go find your hunky cop. If nothing else, we can stop the brawl from getting worse. No point in injuring the anglers before the tournament even starts. Doug, wait here. Can you find Sol before he leaves? I’d like to get his take on this.”

Xandra whisked her friend down the hallway. “You just wanted an excuse to talk to this beefy cop,” she chided Cass. “But he could actually be the culprit, if he’s packing a concealed weapon.”

“Oh, I doubt it,” Cass said dreamily as they sped by several groups of outdoorsmen. “His ass was too impeccably hot.”

Xandra snorted in exasperation. Sometimes women could be more predatory than men.

She went through the Neon Cocktail’s doorway. And stopped dead in her tracks when she instantly saw what Cass was mooning about.

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