Chapter 1— GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST
The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh. I should have known better than to wear a dress on a day I had to take the subway, but in the middle of a New York heat wave, I couldn’t face another day in a pants suit.
I tried to lurch away from the large man in shirtsleeves who looked to be the most likely owner of the hand. One of his beefy paws clutched the pole just above me, but the other was invisible in the crush of bodies. Getting away from him meant I had to press closer to a besuited Wall Street type, who was engrossed in reading a newspaper over the shoulder of a woman in the seat nearest us.
I managed to move a few inches, but the hand continued its relentless journey northward.
Maybe it was the pimply kid in the Marilyn Manson tee shirt who had insinuated himself into the already overflowing car at Columbus Circle. He’d pressed in to join the three of us who had already staked claims on the center pole.
I jabbed the boy in the ribs with an elbow. He grunted an obscenity.
But the hand continued to creep.
The man in the suit turned away from his reading and whispered in my ear.
“Dr. Manners, I’ve been a bad, bad boy.”
My throat closed. The guy wasn’t just grabbing an anonymous feel. This was personal. He knew I wrote the Manners Doctor column. Did he imagine my good manners would keep me from protecting myself?
I reached behind me and slid my hand in between our pressed-together bodies. Grasping his wrist, I tried to pull his hand from between my legs. But he dug his fingers into my thigh and hung on.
As the train mercifully jolted to a stop, I stepped back and brought my stiletto heel down on the pervert’s foot. As he yelped in pain, I pushed through the crowd and made it to the doors. A stop too soon, but I’d certainly rather walk up to West 69th Street, even in this sticky heat, than be molested for one more minute. How did millions of women ride the subway, day after day?
Life without money was turning out to be way harder than I’d ever imagined.
I hoped my lawyer was going to make Jonathan’s lawyers to see reason soon. Jonathan was being so cruel about the divorce. I had no idea why. It’s not as if I was the one who had been filmed by a paparazzo while receiving the ministrations of a street hooker on Sunset Boulevard.
I ran through the turnstile and was halfway up the escalator before it occurred to me I could simply have waited for a less crowded train. No point now. I’d have to swipe my MetroCard again, and these days I needed to pinch every penny.
I walked out into a wall of hot air. This had to be the hottest May on record. If the rest of the summer was like this, I’d actually be glad I’d had to give up my midtown office. It felt like defeat to give up the keys to the landlord this afternoon, but maybe everything would turn out for the best.
But it looked like I wasn’t going to get relief from harassment anytime soon. The heat seemed to bring out the creep in everybody. A taxi driver who was stopped at the light leered as he called out to me.
“Hey, Dr. Manners, I’ve been bad. Wanna give me a spanking?”
What was it with these people? Had they all turned into raving sado-masochists?
I crossed Broadway as quick as my old Manolos would carry me. I’d bought them in the days when I could afford taxis. Now my feet screamed for a pair of Sketchers. The heel was in need of repair and I could feel it wobble as I tried to walk faster.
Too late. A family of hefty tourists in cargo shorts seemed to have overheard the driver as they barreled out of Lincoln Center toward the Metro station.
“It is her!” said the teenaged boy. “The Manners Doctor. She used to be married to that TV guy— you know, on The Real Story.” He aimed his camera phone at me.
I put on my New York street face and stared straight ahead— pretending I saw nothing and heard nothing— as all mannerly New Yorkers do when sharing a crowded sidewalk. But the family kept coming at me, like a bunch of corn-fed storm troopers. I didn’t know whether to brazen it out or turn and run.
“I heard she does weird sex stuff,” the teen girl said.
“Shut up with that filth,” said the mom.
“I’m sure it’s her. I saw her on Entertainment Tonight,” said the boy.
“Not every fancy lady is an effing celebrity,” said the dad, staring at me as if I were something in a store window. “She doesn’t even look like Kahn’s wife. The Manners Doctor has shorter hair. And bigger hooters.”
Right. I didn’t even look like me because I hadn’t been able to afford to go to the hairdresser for months. I’d probably lost weight too. The stress of the divorce had not been kind to my digestive tract.
At least I didn’t run into any more perverts as I walked up Lincoln Square and made my sweaty way to my co-op building on 69th Street. But it wasn’t a fun walk. The humidity had to be at least 90%.
Habib, the doorman, gave me a dark look when I arrived. I hadn’t tipped him for over a month. As he held the door for me, he gave a smirk. A smirk— from the ever-glowering Habib. Maybe the heat really had made everybody in the City turn into lunatic creeps.
Then I saw the copy of today’s Post on the table in the lobby.
Damn. There was a picture of me above the fold. An awful thing showing me on Jonathan’s arm, looking slightly tipsy. Probably at the Emmys last year. The paper looked rumpled and discarded, so I didn’t feel bad about picking it up and giving it a read. I’d made Page Six way too many times since Jonathan’s scandal stirred up the media jackals, but I’d never been on page one. I couldn’t imagine what they’d dreamed up to say about Jonathan and me now.
I shook the paper open I saw the headline: KAHN REVEALS TRUTH ABOUT KINKY DR. MANNERS.
What fresh hell had Jonathan invented for me now?
Clutching the paper, I ran to the elevator and slammed the button for the sixth floor, hoping nobody would rush in and try to share the car. I wanted to be alone when I read the toxic thing.
I worked on calming my breathing to prepare myself.
But there was no possible preparation for the horrible words swimming in front of me. Jonathan had apparently told the Post reporter that he wasn’t the only one with an edgy sex life. He accused me of being into Sado-Masochism. Me. And oh my god— necrophilia and bestiality. Dead people? Animals? Where was this coming from? If anything, our sex life had been too vanilla. That’s certainly what he whined about all the time. I’d always presumed that was why he’d been getting more interesting flavors from Los Angeles street hookers.
How could I have loved this man? Maybe I really was a masochist.
No. I never loved the man who gave that interview. I’d loved a Jonathan who was a kind, loving friend, and an honorable journalist. A Jonathan who hadn’t existed for a long time. I guess I was the only one who hadn’t realized the old Jonathan was gone.
Somehow I managed to keep the tears from flowing until I got safely into my apartment. Then I let out a wail so loud it felt as if it came from somebody other than me— some wild animal that was trapped inside and screaming for its life. I was probably terrifying the doddery Grimsby sisters upstairs. But I couldn’t stop. I yelled and crumpled the copy of the Post in to a ball, threw it toward the trash, then yelled some more. I took off my Manolos and threw them hard against my closet door.
Unfortunately, one hit my dresser and knocked half my collection of photographs on to the floor. I could hear the shatter of glass. I ran to assess the damage and saw what I’d done. I’d broken the protective glass and bent the frame on my favorite photograph. The one of me and Plantagenet Smith.
It had been taken at some debutante party over twenty years ago. When Plant and I were impossibly young and beautiful. When I loved Plant with all my heart and soul, and he loved me, I think, in his way. Before I met Jonathan. Before I betrayed Plant by getting him to go on Jonathan’s damn TV show to be ambushed.
I slid the photo from the frame. It didn’t seem damaged, thank goodness. It was irreplaceable. If Plant had ever kept a copy, he’d never share it with me. He’d refused to answer my letters and calls for the past five years. He hated me for what I’d done. And I couldn’t really blame him.
Stifling new tears, I stomped into the kitchen and reached into the freezer for the Ben and Jerry’s. But there was no Chocolate Fudge Brownie left. Just an old half-eaten tub of Cinnamon Bun covered with icky crystals. I really didn’t like Cinnamon Bun.
But it only took me about three seconds to inhale it.
Then I called my lawyer. The voice mail at Barrowman, Hodges and Fine said Mr. Hodges was not available. The creep hadn’t been available for weeks now because I hadn’t paid his bill, but how could I when the checks never appeared? The divorce was final three months ago. I was supposed to be getting regular payments from Jonathan. But so far I had not seen a penny. I tried to leave a coherent message, but my tongue was twisted with rage and ice-cream freeze.
I checked my own voice mail, expecting some frantic calls from friends who’d seen the article. I didn’t use a cell phone any more so they wouldn’t have been able to reach me if they’d read the paper this morning.
I’d decided to stop carrying a phone when I left Jonathan. The media harassed me constantly, no matter how many times I changed numbers.
So I had the Manners Doctor write a column about the evils of portable phones and swore off them forever. I really did hate the way they turned people into blabbering idiots incapable of carrying on an uninterrupted conversation. Well-bred people should not live in servitude to electronic devices.
I liked my land line. Only a few people had the unlisted number. It might make me a dinosaur, but I got to choose when and if I wanted to have a phone conversation.
But no. Nobody had called. Not even my mother.
That was a blessing. Maybe I could keep it from her. Thank goodness she was off sailing the Mediterranean with her new boyfriend Count Whatsis. Pure Eurotrash, but he’d keep her occupied— at least until he figured out most of the family money was gone.
I picked up the phone and dialed my realtor. She’d been a pretty good friend since I’d split from Jonathan. I met her when she helped me find this apartment.
But she didn’t pick up. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything on her voice mail. My assistant didn’t pick up either. Just as well. She wasn’t happy that I’d shut the office. I guess I wouldn’t be either, if I had to give up a glamorous Manhattan job and telecommute from my parents’ house in Queens. I didn’t feel up to talking to any of my old friends in Long Island. I’d been kind of shunned by the social register crowd since the scandal of the divorce.
Maybe it was for the best. I had no idea what to say to anybody. And I didn’t want to see people. Or for people to see me.
Damn. I was going to have to stay in this apartment forever.
If I could afford it. I looked at the stack of unpaid bills by the phone. The co-op board had sent a second notice on last month’s maintenance fees. The co-op board. What were they going to do when they read the Post? People had been asked to vacate for much less.
I paced my two tiny rooms, banging open cupboard doors looking for something. I didn’t even know what. Probably chocolate. But I didn’t find anything chocolaty but two stale Powerbars.
However, I did discover the bottle of Glenfiddich Mother’s drunken stockbroker friend brought when I agreed to have dinner with him last month. He’d left almost half the bottle. If there was ever a time for scotch, this was it. I poured myself two fingers and added a little water and some ice. It stung on the way down, but I felt better once I finished it. I refilled the glass and skipped the water this time.
When I was on my third refill, the phone rang.
I checked caller ID. Not a number I recognized. It had a California area code.
Jonathan. Jonathan the Monster must be calling me from his fancy new digs in Malibu. Which he much preferred to that palace we used to rent in Southhampton, he’d said in his last semi-toxic missive. His lawyer must have given him the number.
The phone kept ringing. I certainly wasn’t going to pick up. I wondered if he’d leave a message. I took deep breaths, telling myself to be calm and ignore whatever sadistic nonsense he tried to pull.
Finally I heard a voice— deep and raspy— not at all like Jonathan’s mellifluous broadcaster’s tones. In fact, even though the voice was in a low register, it didn’t sound male. And something about it was familiar.
“I hope you’re not out of town, Camilla dear.” An old lady’s voice. “Have I reached the right Camilla Randall? The Manners Doctor? Your mother gave me your number last month when we were fundraising for the Equine Rescue Ranch. I’m Gabriella Moore.”
Gabriella Moore, the actress. No wonder I recognized the voice. I’d loved her TV show when I was a child. Big Mountain— all about lovely horses and wayward cowboy sons. I had no idea she was still alive. I hadn’t heard anything about her in twenty-five years. Why would she be calling me?
I picked up.
“Miss Moore! What a delightful surprise. I grew up with Big Mountain. It was my absolutely favorite TV show when I was little.”
Gabriella gave her signature throaty laugh. “Don’t admit that to anybody, honey. It’s like sticking a sign on your forehead that says, ‘pushing forty.’ But I sure am glad you’re a fan. Maybe you’ll be willing to help me out? I have an emergency here.”
“Where? In California?” No way was I going anywhere in the vicinity of Mr. Jonathan Kahn.
“Yes. The Golden West Writers Conference. I run it here on my ranch in Santa Ynez. Festivities start on Thursday and I’ve just lost my only nonfiction workshop leader. Would you be interested in giving a little presentation about how to write a syndicated column? The pay’s not great, but I’m sure that wouldn’t matter to a Randall. It’s a chance to promote your column. And don’t you have a couple of books out?”
My books were out all right. Out of print. But I wasn’t going to tell her that.
“Santa Ynez? Isn’t that where the Reagans used to live? The Western White House and all that?” Maybe I should consider it. I’d stayed out of the spotlight as much as possible since the divorce, but my readership had been falling off. It was probably time for me to let people know I was still alive and kicking.
“Yup. Prettiest country on earth. Golden hills, fat cattle, and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Just north of Santa Barbara. This place was a dude ranch back in the 1920s. And hundreds of old westerns were filmed here, back in the day. Come on. How about a nice change of pace? And a paid vacation. All you have to do is talk about your column to a few wannabe writers. Marie Osmond had an emergency and cancelled on me so I’m really up the creek without a paddle, honey.”
I was being asked to stand in for a has-been TV celebrity who wrote little sewing books. Mother would have a fit.
But Santa Barbara was far enough from Los Angeles that I probably wouldn’t run into Jonathan. And going anywhere outside the circulation area of the New York Post would be awfully nice.
“Is it hot there?” I looked out my bay window at the sweaty, shirtsleeved crowd on the sidewalk. Odd to see so many people gathered in this residential neighborhood.
“These hills can be toasty in the daytime, but it’s a dry heat, Gabriella said. “And the nights are cool.”
At first I thought the crowd down there must be tourists, since they all had cameras, but I realized what was happening when one of them aimed his camera at my window.
Not tourists. Paparazzi. Damn.
“It’s a four-day conference, but you can stay longer if you like,” Gabriella said. “Free room and board.”
“I’d love to.” I pulled the drapes shut.
Now I just had to figure out how to survive until Thursday with no Ben and Jerry’s. With any luck, by the time I got back, the Post article would be history, and some other celebrity would be in the media crosshairs.
Chapter 2— GHOST MOUNTAIN RIDER
The flight to California wasn’t too bad, considering how miserable traveling in coach was these days. But our take-off was delayed, and some mechanical drama during a layover at Dallas/ Fort Worth kept us grounded for a couple of extra hours.
At least nobody in the airport seemed to recognize me. A few dogged paparazzi had followed my cab to Kennedy, and I was very ready for my fifteen Warhol minutes to be over. When we finally landed in Santa Barbara, I felt free for the first time since the story broke on Monday.
A little too free. I seemed to have been unencumbered of my luggage. At the baggage claim, I was told my suitcases had probably taken an alternate flight.
I tried to get the baggage clerk to show some interest in finding them— they were Louis Vuitton— but he looked at me with such blank boredom, I wondered if I’d ever see my things again. Thank goodness I had a few necessities in my carry-on.
I looked around the little Santa Barbara airport for anybody who looked like greeters for the conference, but saw no likely candidates. I didn’t really expect Gabriella’s people to wait so long. It was nearly seven. The opening reception would be going strong by now.
I flagged a taxi and told the driver the address in Santa Ynez. The unsmiling little man seemed to speak no English, but he nodded seemed to understand when I said “Santa Ynez.” He repeated the name of the town with lilting Spanish inflection.
He didn’t seem to be speeding, but we arrived at our destination in amazingly good time. I thanked him and gave him a couple of twenties, hoping that would be enough. He gave a sudden wide grin, jumped back in the taxi, and took off so fast I wondered if he might be dealing with some sort of bathroom emergency.
I peered through the evening gloom, but saw no sign of Gabriella’s ranch— or the writers who should have been gathered for the opening reception dinner.
I didn’t see any golden hills, fat cattle or vineyards, either. Nothing but the strained quiet of over-manicured suburbia.
I felt a sudden icky sensation run down my neck.
I could feel someone watching me— lurking in a shadowy open garage across the street. I heard the snarl of a motorcycle engine and reached in my bag for the hairspray— a useful weapon in a pinch.
I headed for the corner with purposeful stride— or as close an approximation of stride as I could achieve in my wobbly Manolos. Under the street lamp, I saw a sign that said, “Santa Ynez Ct.”
Oops. The driver thought I meant the Court, not the town. That’s why the trip from the airport had been so improbably short. I must still be in Santa Barbara.
And I’d really overtipped that driver.
I told myself to think positive: be grateful to the airline for losing my luggage. This would be a whole lot worse if I were carrying all those suitcases. I’ve never learned to pack light.
A motorcycle roared down the driveway from the ominous garage. I clutched the hair spray and re-arranged my face into a stiff smile.
The rider pulled up beside me and lifted his face guard.
“Doctor Manners? I thought I recognized you, darlin’.”
He grinned, displaying a serious need for dental work.
Apparently members of the Santa Barbara outlaw biker community read the New York Post.
“It’s me.” The man took off the helmet. His look was something between cave person and aging rock star entering rehab. His eyebrows might have done damage in their own right. “From the Saloon. You’re a long way from Santa Ynez, sweet thing.”
He knew where I was going. This was getting creepier by the minute. I didn’t see a camera, but he had to be a paparazzo. Gabriella probably put out some publicity about me for the conference and this guy had followed me from the airport.
“I don’t frequent saloons.” I gave him a look that, while not exactly rude, was of a chilliness that could usually shrivel a Manhattan maître d’.
He responded with a suggestive chortle. “Oooh, I love that talk. Come on darlin’.”
I realized I was going to have to let him take his pictures. This wasn’t a case of being able to close the drapes. After fifteen years of marriage to a TV celebrity, I’d learned the best way to get rid of some paparazzi is to give them what they want.
“Okay, you win.” I smoothed my hair and gave him a celebrity smile. “Get out your equipment.”
“In the goddam street? Doc, you are into the kink!” With an animal grunt, he lunged in my direction. I jumped back, but he caught my wrist and jerked me toward his leather-clad chest. “I am up for some fun, darlin’, but I like a little privacy. I just got paid for an ’88 Norton I rebuilt for that old fart across the street.”
The man’s breath needed to be reported to the EPA.
“What say we hit the Saloon, then my place? I’ve been a bad, bad boy… ”
Another pervert. I should have realized this would happen. The Post was online these days, like everything else. People all over the country could have seen that article.
“You’re not a paparazzo, are you?” I scouted for the best way to run.
The biker looked offended. “Paparazzos? Never heard of that bike club. I’m a Ghost Mountain Rider.” He pointed to the bike-riding skeleton logo on his jacket.
I edged away, scanning the garden for a nice rock or weapon-sized garden gnome.
A barking dog startled us both. A spandex-clad woman appeared in the doorway of the next house, talking on her cell phone while jogging in place. I ran to her, waving with relief. But her dog barked louder and the woman screamed at us.
“Get out, you trash!”
The dog was large, with dangerous-looking teeth— and no leash. It let out a menacing growl. The spandex woman shouted again.
“I’ve called 911. I can’t believe it. Prostitution. Only two blocks from Montecito. Oprah lives here! Have some respect.”
The dog growled again.
“Here you go, Doc!” The biker offered me a silvery helmet and pointed at his studded-leather saddlebags. “Got an extra jacket. Put it on, and you can stow your bag back there.”
I looked from the dog to the biker. The dog had significantly more teeth.
A police siren wailed. I tossed my tote in the saddlebag, shoved my arms into the huge jacket, slammed on the helmet, and launched myself onto the back of the Harley, trying not to think about the damage I was doing to my Dolce and Gabbana suit— or how much leg I was showing.
“I can’t believe that woman took me for a streetwalker!” I tried for a casual laugh.
“Yeah. What a bitch! Everybody knows you are one high class call girl.”
The biker gave my thigh a startling slap. “Put your arms around me, darlin’ and hang on!”
He wove through the congested traffic, as drivers raised middle fingers and one— I’ll swear— waved a gun. By the time we escaped the city and hit the dark mountain roads, I stopped worrying about what the man intended do to me and concentrated on worrying whether I was going to live long enough to find out.
I couldn’t have said if we spent hours or days roaring up the twisting highway, zooming around hairpin curves, leaning into the wind and passing cars as if they were standing still. My legs went numb first, then my hands, and soon after, my lips. The endless roar drilled through my ears to my brain until all thinking was impossible. With my arms circling the biker’s thick body, the worn leather of his jacket was the only reality I could cling to.
When we finally came to a stop, we seemed to have passed through a portal of time and space and landed in the Wild West, circa 1895. We’d parked in front of a building called the “Maverick Saloon.” Two horses were tied to the railing of a wooden sidewalk and several cowboys smoked hand-rolled cigarettes nearby. None of them took any notice of us. Perhaps dentally-challenged bikers accompanied by designer-clad etiquette columnists frequented the place on a regular basis.
“Time for a brewski, darlin’.” My companion lifted me off the bike.
I followed on rubbery legs, reasoning that wherever/ whenever I’d landed, I’d be safer in public than alone with the man.
As we entered, my dried-out eyeballs managed to focus on a newspaper stand next to the door. It displayed The Santa Ynez Valley Journal. The headline read, “Golden West Writers Conference celebrates its Thirteenth Year.” Underneath was a photograph Gabriella Moore in full cowperson regalia— a bit shrunken with age, but still very much the rancher-matriarch of her Big Mountain days.
Santa Ynez. Here I was, after all. Miraculous. All I needed was a ride to Gabriella’s resort. Did the town have taxis? Or was one expected to rent a horse?
“I’m going to have to take a rain check,” I said, choosing words I hoped wouldn’t offend my unorthodox chauffeur. “I’m supposed to be at the Rancho Montana Grande. You gave me such a fun ride, I nearly forgot!”
I faked a grateful smile as I checked my watch: nearly nine PM. I’d missed my evening presentation. I hoped Gabriella would be sympathetic to airline delays. I didn’t want to antagonize one of the few people willing to employ me after the scandals of my divorce.
The biker looked like a little boy who’d lost the ice cream from his cone.
“Day-um. Can’t you cancel, darlin’? I’ll make it worth your while…”
I managed to keep my smile in place.
“Is there a public telephone nearby?”
He laughed. “You still on that ‘the Manners Doctor doesn’t approve of cell phones’ thing?” He started to pull a phone from a zippered pocket, then dropped it back. “Aw, hell. Hop on the hog. It’ll only take a minute to run you up there.” His expression darkened. “But I ain’t stickin’ around. That place scares the bejeezus out of me. It’s lousy with ghosts.” He shivered. “Some ain’t even got no head.”