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A HOT WIND blew dust through the opened windows of the four-wheel drive Scout, coating everything in sight with a red brown film. The fine grit clogged the pores of LaRaine's skin, particles clinging to the gloss on her lips until she could taste it in her mouth. She couldn't breathe without the dust filtering into her lungs. The dry, dusty smell of it overpowered the scent of the expensive perfume she wore.
Through the amber shade of her sunglasses, her dark eyes smarted from the dust and could see no relief ahead. The raw, harsh land stretching around her was marked with jutting mesas and slashing arroyos. Yellow grass dug tenacious roots into the inhospitable earth while stubby, gnarled trees offered questionable shade.
The Scout bounced over the rutted track that passed for a road. Above the roar of the engine could be heard the groaning, thumping rattle of protest it made. LaRaine clutched the armrest of the passenger door to keep from bouncing all over the seat, the scarlet sheen of her long fingernails contrasting vividly with the beige upholstery.
"I'm surprised somebody hasn't given Utah back to the Indians," she muttered.
The man driving darted a glance at his raven-haired passenger. His attention couldn't be spared for long from the road as the ruts tried to wrench the steering wheel from his hands. Sam Hardesty saw LaRaine wipe her throat and neck with a handkerchief and saw her grimace at the grimy dirt that perspiration had gathered. The mirrorlike finish of his sunglasses hid the glitter of amusement that danced in his eyes.
A gust of wind sent a choking cloud of dust into the interior of the four-wheel-drive vehicle. LaRaine coughed and covered her mouth with one hand while the other waved the handkerchief as if to clear the air.
"How much farther do we have to go?" she demanded, her voice choked with dust and tested patience.
"McCrea's ranch can't be far now." Sam Hardesty successfully hid a smile at LaRaine's obvious discomfort.
"That's what you said twenty minutes ago." She coughed again and futilely wagged the handkerchief in front of her. "I'm going to choke to death on this dust before we get there!"
"Roll the window up if it's getting to be too much for you," he suggested without sympathy.
"Excellent idea, Sam," she agreed sarcastically "With the window up, this rattletrap excuse for a car turns into a furnace. "
"You asked to come with me," he reminded her. "Nobody twisted your arm."
"I never dreamed it would be like this. I thought you'd take one of the limousines, or, at the very least, one of the cars that was air-conditioned. Instead you take this." There was no mistaking the contempt in her voice for their mode of transportation. Her slashing glance to the driver caught the silent twitch of laughter at the corners of his mouth. "And stop smirking! It isn't the least bit funny."
"Can you imagine any of the cars from the studio traveling over this?" He gestured briefly to the rough road ahead of them before grabbing the wheel with both hands again. "Springs, shocks—the whole bottom of those cars would be torn out before they could get a mile. Besides, you could have changed your mind when you saw I was taking the Scout."
"I wish I had," she insisted tightly.
"No, you don't." Amusement colored his dismissal of her statement. "When you found out about McCrea, you would have walked to get to his place. The minute you heard the words 'local rancher,' all your antennae came out. Is he single? Is he rich? Is he handsome? When the feedback was positive, you decided then and there to be the first member of the cast to meet him. You intend to establish your claim on him before anyone else finds out he's around."
It was on the tip of LaRaine's tongue to deny his allegation, but Sam knew her too well. She would never be able to convince him that she was just along for the ride. His words did wound, though. He made her sound so mercenary, but in a sense, she supposed she was.
"I wouldn't care if McCrea were fat, bald and eighty," she stated to boldly deny that she felt a sense of guilt at her motives. "Any diversion would be welcome in this godforsaken hole of the world!"
"I think you're being sensible." Sam briefly met her look of surprise. "I'm serious. You need to find yourself a rich husband because you don't have any future as an actress. The only part you can get is when you play yourself. There aren't that many roles that call for a greedy, grasping bitch."
LaRaine paled at his stabbing jibe, but she doubted that her dust-coated face revealed it. She had become an expert at concealing her true feelings, such an expert that she sometimes wondered if she felt anything anymore.
"Your bitterness is showing, Sam," she replied coldly, and stared sightlessly out of the window. "I didn't realize it still bothered you that I turned down your marriage proposal. As a struggling young assistant producer, you can't afford me."
"I was a fool to think I could, wasn't I?" Sam's response was sardonically dry as he pushed a wisp of thin brown hair from his forehead. "But, like a lot of others, I was blinded by your beauty. I didn't realize until it was too late that you were only using me to make sure you landed this part in the film."
"I needed the role." Financially and in every other way, her career had been spiraling downward rapidly. "And I'm grateful for all the support you gave me."
"Your thanks are very empty." His mouth was grim as he shifted the vehicle into a lower gear.
"Did you expect payment for your help? Maybe you thought I'd go to bed with you?" Her volatile temper flared. "I may be guilty of a lot of things, but using the casting couch isn't one of them!"
"No, you just dangle suckers like me until you get what you want, then you cut the line," Sam muttered. "The word is spreading. You aren't going to find many more suckers you can hook. You were a fool, LaRaine, to ever let Montgomery slip out of your fingers."
"I dropped him," she lied.
"And he fell right into your cousin's hands, didn't he?" taunted Sam.
"She's welcome to him," LaRaine insisted with a trace of hauteur. The vehicle bounced in and out of a pothole and she narrowly missed hitting her head on the ceiling. The rough ride was bruising. "I hope it'll all be worth it when we reach the ranch," she murmured the thought aloud.
"It will be worth it, believe me," was the faintly smug reply.
But her thoughts were already refocusing on a previous comment from Sam. Rian Montgomery had possessed all the attributes she had sought in a husband, a wealthy, powerful figure with ruthless good looks. The mere fact that she had attracted his attention and had worn his engagement ring was the reason she had been offered her first supporting role in a movie.
Foolishly she had grabbed at the part, confident of her ability to maneuver Rian Montgomery. LaRaine had never believed for a minute that he loved her, or that she loved him. They had suited each other's purpose. He had wanted an ornamental wife to entertain his business associates and maintain a beautiful home, someone who would make no demands on him and who would be satisfied with presents instead of affection.
That type of arrangement had satisfied LaRaine until she had been offered that part in a movie. She had seen the chance to obtain glamour and fame in her own right, so she took it. She had the looks and the figure. By the time she had discovered she didn't have the talent to be a success, Rian had learned about her deception in accepting the initial role and concealing it from him. He had broken their engagement and married her cousin.
LaRaine's mother, who had raised both LaRaine and her cousin Laurie, had accused Laurie of stealing Rian from her daughter, but LaRaine didn't blame her. Many times she had envied her cousin during their early years. Neither of her parents had expected Laurie to excel in anything, but they had practically demanded that LaRaine be the best at everything—having the highest grades, the best clothes and being the prettiest girl, the most sought-after girl friend, the most popular one in her class.
Since that first movie and the broken engagement to Rian, LaRaine had managed to obtain a handful of other roles, each one smaller than the last. A half-dozen marriage proposals had been made to her, but all had come from men whose prospects for the future looked no brighter than her own. LaRaine's upbringing had forced her to believe she deserved the best. It was too deeply ingrained for her to settle for less.
Some, and Sam Hardesty was among them, had accused her of being too deeply in love with herself to love anyone else. It wasn't true. If the accusations hadn't hurt so much, they would have been funny. She had become classified as a cold, calculating woman, and she had begun to act the part with more finesse than she had ever displayed on the screen.
This movie being filmed on location in Utah would probably be her last job in the industry. The critics were crucifying her acting in her most recently released movie with Jim Corbett. She hadn't a prayer of being hired again.
The thought of James Corbett brought a painful, self-deprecating smile to her scarlet red lips. She had so stupidly believed that she had a chance of catching him. She had even imagined declaring to the world that she was giving up her acting career for him—when in truth there had been no career to give up.
LaRaine was desperate. Her parents, especially her mother, were angry with her because she didn't fight to take Rian Montgomery away from her cousin and upset because she was doing so poorly in her career. She had no friends. A marriage seemed to be the only way she could save face. But it had to be someone outside Hollywood, someone who wouldn't know of her reputation or her humiliating put-downs by Rian Montgomery and Jim Corbett. Who better to dazzle with her status as an actress than a wealthy Utah rancher? At least, that was LaRaine's fervent hope.
The four-wheel-drive vehicle bounced over a ridge and rolled to a stop. LaRaine glanced around, looking for some indication that they had reached their destination. There wasn't a building in sight, only more vast stretches of wasteland. She hadn't expected the country to be so desolate, which was how it seemed to her.
"Carl was right," Sam mused aloud. "This will be an excellent backdrop for those ranch sequences."
"This?" LaRaine looked around once again, unable to see it through his eyes. "But there's nothing here."
"Precisely." He started the Scout forward.
A wheel briefly spun into the dust, sending a gritty cloud through the open window. LaRaine coughed. "How much farther?"
"Just over the rise. You can see the roofs of the buildings." Sam pointed, a half-smile curving his mouth.
"Thank God," LaRaine murmured. She opened her bag and took out a hand mirror. "I look a mess!"
The wind had played havoc with the curling black curtain of her hair, rumpling it into provocative disorder. Dabbing at the perspiration streaks, she took care not to ruin the makeup that highlighted her striking bone structure.
"I wouldn't worry, LaRaine," Sam observed. "You're the only woman I know who can look stunning when she's a mess."
LaRaine wasn't sure if he meant that. "Thanks," she returned, but her voice was as dry as her throat. She added a fresh touch of vivid red lipgloss and decided that was the best she could do under the circumstances.
As the vehicle crested the rise, her anticipation soared. She had expected to see a modern, sprawling ranch house complete with stable and barn and immaculate white-fenced corrals, and her brown eyes widened in shock at the ranch buildings before them.
The massive house was an old, two-story affair. The hot sun had long ago blistered the paint from the boards. The flat gray color added years to the structure's age. Both the barn and a small shed seemed on the verge of falling down, their siding equally bereft of paint. A late model pickup truck was parked near the shed, its color hidden by the thick coating of dust.
The single corral was constructed out of leftover posts, boards and logs, a conglomeration of materials that made it appear less substantial than it was. A windmill creaked noisily in the gusting wind, adding to the feeling of total dilapidation.
"Surprised?" Sam's voice mocked her expression as he stopped the Scout in front of the house.
LaRaine removed her sunglasses to turn her dark, accusing eyes on him. "You knew it was going to look like this, didn't you?"
"Carl gave me a pretty good description of the place," he admitted.
"And you led me to believe this rancher had money!" Frustration throbbed in her voice, mixing with anger.
"I never said he had money." Sam opened his door and stepped out. "I said he was well-to-do. Like most ranchers, McCrea is rich in land and cattle, but poor in money. Why else would he be willing to sell us permission to film on his land? He needs the cash."
Pushing open her door, LaRaine stepped out. She brushed at the dust that powdered the ivory silk of her blouse; the action sent puffs of dust in the air. A closer look at the buildings didn't improve their appearance.
"I hope you're planning to offer him enough money so that he can afford to buy some paint," she declared, disappointment tasting bitter.
"I'm sure there'll be enough," Sam answered, but his thoughts were elsewhere. Behind the sunglasses, his gaze had narrowed to inspect the premises. "This place could be used to film the nesters scene. I'll have to make sure he doesn't paint anything until we decide."
"That arrogance is typical of you producers. You give a man money, then tell him when he can spend it," she retorted with biting softness.
Sam merely smiled and walked to the porch. LaRaine didn't follow; she doubted that the porch floor would hold the weight of two people. She waited beside the Scout, wiping at the dust on the soft fawn leather of her split riding skirt. The screen door rattled when Sam knocked on it. The swirling wind billowed the light blue windbreaker that protected his slender torso. He knocked again.
"Doesn't seem to be anyone home," he decided, and walked off the porch. A chicken scratched the dirt in his path and clucked in protest as it was forced to move out of his way.
"Did you tell him that you were coming by this morning?" LaRaine wondered aloud. "Or did you just expect him to be here when you showed up?"
"No, that's something you would do," Sam retorted. "You always expect people to be around when you want them. I called McCrea last night to tell him I'd be by this morning." He pushed back the elastic cuff of his windbreaker to look at his wristwatch. "Carl warned me about the road, so I told McCrea not to expect me until around eleven. It's a couple of minutes before that now."
His passing remark that she expected people at her beck and call had hurt, and LaRaine tried to get back at him. "I'd laugh if he's changed his mind about letting you film on his land."
"You wouldn't laugh for long," he told her as he walked around to the driver's side. "Any more delays would mean budget cuts. Your role isn't all that essential. You might remember that, LaRaine."
"Are you threatening me, Sam?" For all the laughing challenge in her voice, LaRaine was inwardly intimidated by his statement. "I didn't realize what a sore loser you were, that you'd contemplate revenge."
"Revenge might be sweet," was the only response he made as he reached inside the opened window of the vehicle to honk the horn.
The blaring sound sent the chickens scurrying, wings flapping, to the rear of the house. LaRaine felt sick and frightened, but she wouldn't let Sam see that. Her downcast gaze glimpsed the dust on her knee-high boots. The handkerchief had been used to wipe everything else; she decided she might as well use it on her leather boots.
Resting a toe on the chrome bumper, she bent to wipe away the dust from her boot. A swipe of the linen cloth brought out the high-polished sheen of the fine leather, a darker, complementing shade of brown to the riding skirt she wore. With one boot free of dust, she shifted her attention to the other.
"That must be McCrea coming now," Sam announced.
LaRaine glanced up to see a horse and rider approaching the ranchyard. She held her pose, one foot on the front bumper of the vehicle and an elbow resting casually on a raised knee. Her attitude of indifferent interest was feigned as she studied the horse and rider coming toward them.
Excerpted from A Land Called Deseret by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1979 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 19, 2011
This is the book that made me falll in love with janet dailey. Whats awesome is that this is a continuance of - dangerous masquerade, sonora sundown, for bitter or for worse and fiesta san antonio. I've reread this a thousand times!
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