An excerpt (first three chapters) of my debut novel, HOME SCHOOLING: The Fire Night Ball. It's a quirky paranormal thriller which also has a keen focus on women's issues and historic preservation. The spicy yarn is set in a remote Wyoming mountain village in late 1977, the height of the sexual revolution and feminism.
October 28, 1900
The young woman who was the focus of all eyes sat down in the first row of the unadorned church. She bowed her head, clasped her gloved hands, and prayed for the one thing she wanted most.
She longed for desire's epiphany, passion as bright and all-consuming as the bonfires the natives had lit last evening on the first Fire Night of the new century.
Instinctively, though she was only an orphan now living atop a desolate mountain, she knew a blaze is better than a weak lantern lasting for many years. She missed the gay life she had known in Saratoga with her aunt, the theater, and the military men. But she wasn't without God-given powers to achieve her desires.
She had special gifts: perfect recall of all she'd witnessed or read and a siren's trick of focusing her will to stop a horse or fascinate a man. What she wanted was simple, one great love, and because of that wish she was exerting the force of her will every night on Curly Drake.
If tepid love was all fate had in store for her, then she would prefer the safe, solitary life she had with her grandfather, a retired sea captain out of Gloucester who'd retired to a stone home in the most blustery part of Wyoming.
Cassandra's prayer ran something like this: “O Lord, deliver me from the sadness and the loneliness I feel in the vast spaces of this awful place. Grant me a great love, or I shall die.”
When the services were over, she was surprised to find her way was blocked when she stepped out into the aisle.
Standing there with folded arms was Goody Brown, who looked as if she might spit in her eye. The beauty with the flaming red-gold hair and the heavy-set matron stared at each other.
Goody felt she had every reason to object to the scarlet woman's being in church. Her carnal presence was a mark of sheer blasphemy that would bring the wrath of the Lord down on all, including the new baby in Goody's family who was about to be baptized. Goody couldn’t afford any chances of the Lord’s wrath being piqued.
The story she had heard, the gossip that was running like wildfire through the village, was reverberating in her pipes like a gong, and she felt compelled to speak.
Last evening, when the innkeeper and Miss Brighton were supposed to have been celebrating their nuptials, Curly Drake and Cassandra were meeting on Hatter's Field, Drake having been lured there by Cassandra's signal fire. The story confirmed Goody's darkest suspicions.
A Salem witch was in Cassandra's family tree; the sea captain had admitted as much.
And now the red-headed hussy was in church, acting out hypocritical piety. She’d been able to entice a bridegroom away from the pious widow's daughter, using witchcraft to carry on clandestinely on the very night he was to bed his bride. Surely this was Satan’s work, and yet here she was, brazenly parading before them all in the Lord's own house!
If Cassandra Vye could cast a spell so strong as that, there was no telling what else she might do. The waters of the baptismal fount would surely be fouled as she walked past, endangering the soul of Goody’s grand-daughter.
Anticipating the danger to her family, Goody had put a hex on the witch with a soap doll, as she'd been taught by a Lakota Sioux witch-doctor. There was nothing she could do that was powerful enough to kill the witch herself. But there might be a way to scare her off by afflicting the witch with a curse. The men who fell into the siren's clutches--also the sweethearts of her descendants--these unfortunate sinners would suffer untimely deaths, so the hexing went.
And now, while the eye of the Lord was upon her, Goody would show Him the stalwart loyalty of His servant by publicly exposing Cassandra as Satan's legion.
“Hu-sssss-y,” Goody hissed, spraying spittle from her thick lips. “I know how to defend the natives against your wickedness. Thou art accursed, Satan's whore. Be gone, witch! Or else I predict two deaths on your head once the bonfires are extinguished."
Cassandra wiped her face with her gloved hand. Captain Vye now pushed forward and grabbed his grand-daughter out of harm's way. Her face was dead white, and her exotic cat’s eyes blazed like burning coals as she marched down the aisle.
While the churchgoers gathered outside gawked and whispered among themselves, Cassandra stopped at the church door, flung off her bonnet, and let her shimmering mane of fiery-gold curls blow with the wind. Without a word, she got into the buggy.
No crazy hag is going to determine my fate. Damn the natives' opinions, and damn Goody Brown's curse.
December 20, 1977
The January issue of Playboy was in her hands. Marlena Bellum shuddered with anticipation as she opened it and began to thumb through the slick pages. There it was, a blurb under "Traveler's Report."
Her eyes raced through the first sentence:
"The place where the rich, the famous, and the wannabe depraved go to get fucked up these days is (drum roll) B. L. Zebub’s Poolhall Saloon in Alta, Wyoming, where chic bordello meets devils’ hideaway on the coldest, remotest mountain top of the Old West."
A smile of pure joy crossed her Cupid's bow lips, and her long-lashed, wide-set eyes sparkled. They were an alluring, blue-green hue, like the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
"One enters through a secret door in the grand, castle-like, five-diamond Alta Hotel, the Xanadu of real estate mogul Harry Drake and brainchild of Pioneer Architectural Designs (PAD). Once inside, you'll hobnob with Hollywood, East Coast saloon society, and oil refinery executives dandling young playgirls."
Permeating the stale doctor's office air was the scent of jasmine. Marlena flipped back her shimmering mane of fiery-gold curls, crinkly as corn silk and rippling to the curve of her backside. She read on:
"If excess is your bag, a diamond-studded card can hold your place, or you may sit your butt on a vintage saddle stool for the price of a Maserati. No streakers reported; it's too freaking cold! Check your power ties at the door, gentlemen. Ladies (the term is loosely applied), bras and girdles are optional."
Now there's advertising you can't buy, she thought happily.
The 1978 promotional campaign was her most ambitious yet. And, if the numbers held up through the holidays, 1977 would be another record-breaking year for Drake Enterprises.
B. L. Zebub's was their baby, hers and Harry's. Since December, 1972, when the secret door first opened to a select few, any traveler of note passing through northeastern Wyoming was sure to turn up at what GQ dubbed "the sexiest private gentleman's club in America.”
Its centerpiece, an oak bar she had nicknamed "B. L. Zebub" because of its intensely dark history, was an English colossus bought for only 40,000 pounds from the ancient proprietor of a dusty antique shop in the Cotswolds. Even the cherry bar in Cody's Irma Hotel, a gift Queen Victoria had sent Buffalo Bill, couldn't hold a candle to B. L. Zebub. Its woodcarver, so the story went, was a gifted young woman of 17th century England who was stoned to death in the public square of her Puritan village for crimes of adultery and witchcraft.
Marlena put aside the blurb that had taken her a year to secure and wondered how long she'd have to wait before she was called in to see the doctor.
Picking up an older issue of Cosmo from a side table, she glanced through the cover article, which offered advice to young women on how to marry a millionaire by becoming an expert on the great man's interests, ala Pamela Harriman. How do I stack up?
At first, she'd taken Harry Drake for a limp-wristed fop. He was dressed in an Italian silk suit tailored at Savile Row; his cuff links were Cartier. His high forehead was feathered with luxuriant black curls, Napoleon style; his small nose was almost girlishly attractive; and his smile was sheepishly self-effacing. He was on the short side, though a long-waisted torso and upright posture made him appear taller than he was.
However, as Harry entered the reception room at the back of Bottomly's Cafe, where Drake Enterprises was hosting a soiree for the Alta community in advance of ground-breaking for the hotel project, Marlena's initial impression changed. His signature stroll exuded male power and authority, as did the cold, light-brown eyes that were peering appraisingly into hers.
"Mrs. Dimmer, you have the most amazing eyes I've ever seen. What's that color called?"
“Cerulean. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Mr. Drake.”
As their fingers met and held, she felt a pulsating, tingling sensation. His hands were graceful, the fingers long and slim, a trait she found sexually attractive. His grip, firm and lingering, conveyed sensuality and grace under pressure.
“Are we family? I always ask," said Harry. "Most folks in this town are related.”
His disarming smile, along with a slight hesitation in his tenor voice, made her wonder if she was supposed to feel at ease. But at ease was not her reaction. Her heart was thumping like a drum, and much to her dismay, she began to blush furiously, like a schoolgirl.
“Well, uh, sort of," she fumbled. Where, oh where, was her practiced gift of gab?
"Yes?" His eyes were roving over the curves of her body, taking them in.
"I, uh, believe my grandmother was the niece of your father’s stepfather.”
“Ho, ho. You’re making that up.”
“Grandpa was a mind adrift until he met his Sarah Bellum. That was my dad's line."
She joined in Drake's laughter, recovering some composure. But the way he was staring deeply into her eyes, his sensual mouth twitching humorously at the corners, made it difficult to get her lines out.
Clumsily, she burst out, "Granny's maiden name was Scattergood." Then she pulled her eyes away from his, so as to interrupt the embarrassingly loud current buzzing between them. Surely others can hear it!
He pursed his lips, nodding.
“A native name, like mine. There are a few others--the Brightons, of course. My grandmother married Caleb Scattergood after my grandfather died. I gather your grandmother was Caleb's niece. As for Bellum, I can’t say that name rings any bells. But you certainly do.”
He leaned over and kissed her with vigor on her Cupid's bow lips. “There," he said, looking her full in the eyes again. "Now we’re kissing cousins.”
Her earlobes were vibrating and her lips felt numb. Even more than his kiss, the intense gleam of interest in his light brown eyes was making her feel, in a room swarming with people, as if no one were there but the two of them.
Once that buzz had turned into a full-blown affair, Marlena's journey into sexual submission to Drake was as prominent in her life as a flying buttress on a Gothic cathedral. Every time they made love, her mind and body revisited her entire sexual history.
As a child, she was a gawky, long-legged, big-eyed freak, painfully shy, who suffered persecution by the normal children and endured constant loneliness in silence. For solace, she retreated into the world of adult fiction she found in the local library.
She would read over and over torrid scenes where a gorgeous woman drowsily lounged, awaiting her manly lover in a silken bed draped in gauze. At the time, she was living in her grandparents' pink house, her parents largely absent, Austin working in New Gillette and in Faith's case, far off East in Saratoga, tending to her sick father.
Marlena's childhood fantasies centered on finding someone who would kindly tolerate her presence and show her the ropes, socially speaking. She invented an imaginary brother with auburn hair and grey eyes who held her hand and guided her through kindergarten.
Later, in second grade, she found a girlfriend who was unusually intelligent and saw sexual images in everything. With June, for a season, she explored a warm, tender place between her legs which her mother didn't want her to touch.
June was almost as odd as herself. Her hair was glossy black; she had freckles and startling green eyes. She wasn't pretty like the little blonde girls who were popular in class, but she had other attributes. She could multiply large numbers in her head. Her father was a medical doctor, so they had access to his books on sexual reproduction, which they pored over together, their ankles touching in the air.
Marlena's only male admirers were Typhoid Ronnie, the boy who sat behind her and gave her all the childhood illnesses, and Gareth Blood, a goony kid from down the street who ran away from home at sixteen and joined the San Francisco Opera. If they liked her, Marlena reasoned, there must be something terribly wrong with those two.
At twenty, while a graduate fellow at the University of Arizona’s Drachmann School of Architecture, Marlena interned in the San Francisco office of PAD. There she met Codwell Dimmer, a sweet, balding man of twenty-five with a weak chin. He was the Chief Financial Officer, a CPA by profession but well-versed in commercial real estate.
They became best friends, then a couple to watch.
Their civil wedding ceremony was performed on June 21, 1970, on a wet afternoon in San Francisco’s gold-domed City Hall. A religious ceremony for the benefit of her parents was held later at St. Boniface Church.
The first wedding night broke her hymen. I waited for that?
Though passion was absent, the couple lived amicably at Dimmer’s house in the Marina district, on a cul-de-sac named Solid Hollow Lane. The following year, Marlena got the nod to assist the firm’s senior architect with hotel construction in her home town of Alta, Wyoming.
The Dimmers celebrated with prosecco in the park, followed by a tape of "Casablanca" from Blockbusters. Marlena owned a framed photograph of Joe Cocker playing an invisible guitar at Woodstock "....for my friends," but she was all about the classics when it came to movies and books.
Two months after the ground-breaking, Bob Drummond, the senior architect, became madly infatuated with the client's wife. Lovely and dashing Lila Coffin Drake had a reputation preceding her as a devotee of free love. Soon Drummond was chasing her from one international watering hole to the next.
Realizing Drummond's dereliction of duty was an opportunity for herself, Marlena stepped up to the plate, throttled into high gear, and quietly drove the project forward to completion. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to ensure its success, including a trek to England on a treasure hunt, though she hated long flights over water.
When she found B. L. Zebub, she wired Drake to fly in on the Concorde for a look.
Two weeks later, returning to America aboard the Queen Mary--B. L. Zebub, like King Kong, was locked up somewhere in the hold--she was surrounded by the endless immensity of ocean and overcome by a sense of déjà vu.
When she was jeered by childhood classmates for her freakish memory and Clarabelle hair color, Marlena had found peace and a universal connection in walking out on Hatter's Field to look upon vistas of empty, unusable space. Now, gazing upon the limitless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, she felt a fateful, romantic connection as she stood together with Harry, their elbows slightly touching and the stars as their backdrop.
While remaining technically chaste, the pair seemed to be having sex as they talked business. One evening, after trading sly innuendos, Harry observed: "I've never known a Wyoming woman to have a man's dirty mind like you do. Keep it up."
"You, too," she purred throatily.
"Madam, you've just proved my point."
Harry had spent his life among rich, staid, boring Republicans; he enjoyed her hungry, consuming interest in their work and her smart, saucy banter. He also enjoyed spinning yarns for his protégé, as Marlena was socially inept and thoroughly gullible.
With impunity, he dropped names of Hollywood royalty and contemporary robber barons, omitting the fact that his wife was responsible for these connections. He'd played golf with Bing Crosby, lunched with William Vanderbilt Cecil, been recognized by a former British prime minister for his generosity in the worthy cause of refurbishing the Salisbury Cathedral.
"If I'd known he and the Archbishop were sucking each other's dicks, I wouldn't have given them quite so much!"
She laughed at his jokes and hung on his every word.
As he watched Marlena blossom, Harry felt more interest in her. The waifish young woman with the fast learning curve used her gifted memory to good effect, touching back on all he said with a thoughtful comment or insightful questions. Harry genuinely admired her acumen and was gratified by her intense focus on the project and on himself.
Fascinated by her transformation, he felt as if he were Pygmalion and she his Galatea. His wife Lila, far more sophisticated and worldly than he, wasn't nearly so much fun to talk to. Seeing himself in Marlena's eyes, Harry's image of himself as an international bon vivant was restored.
Nor was it all about his self-esteem. Under the stars on the upper-deck lounge, Marlena sketched out impressive blueprints of what her mind had absorbed as snapshots. She was an invaluable asset.
"We steal only from the best," he said, toasting her drafting prowess. As the ship plowed its slow way across the Atlantic, the two debated the design of leather walls into the wee hours of the morning.
They disembarked in New York on a cold, rainy day in February. That afternoon, at four o’clock sharp, they convened in the lobby bar at the Algonquin Hotel, where Harry had checked them into adjoining rooms. They sat down at a small table in two red leather chairs to discuss plans for Marlena’s activities in New York. From time to time, he would ring the bell for more drinks and peanuts. Five hours later, they were still there.
A week later, they remained in New York, still meeting every afternoon in the lobby bar. Marlena had learned to order gin and dubonnet cocktails.
Before these pleasant meetings were many long and grueling hours of work, requiring her to be up early and at the top of her game. In hip boots and a long camel coat, she rounded up treasures for jaded hotel guests to ogle. By day, she hunted through Soho’s dustiest corners for antique clocks, scoured warehouses for Empire furniture, and selected richly patterned Moorish carpets; by night, she stayed up late sketching prototypes for the individualized décor of luxury guest suites. Meanwhile, Drake dined with former fraternity brothers at the Harvard Club.
Though she and her client often agreed, there were instances where they didn’t see eye-to-eye. She soon learned to change her mind or the subject, as the case might be. Though Drake might assume humility for his public front, he was stubborn and conceited, a classic Taurus. Marlena, though willful, presented the dreamy-eyed aspect of an Aquarian. She began to ebb and flow with his preferences, submitting herself to his every whim.
Of course, as they say, opposites attract.
One night, squeezed together as they ascended at a snail's pace in the creaky cage elevator that was run manually by an elderly, uniformed employee, midway the cage jolted violently to a halt and, as if by fate, they were literally thrown into each other’s arms.
It was not by chance, however, but by willful choice that they continued clutching each other as they reached the top floor.
Cheekbones burning, heart pounding, eyelids trembling, Marlena gazed bravely ahead and allowed her hand to remain in Harry’s as he steered her past the operator, out the elevator, and down the narrow corridor into his room.
The door closed, and overnight, her life changed.
Oh, the incredible passion of their union! An entire world, previously unknown, suddenly hove into her view, a volcanic planet characterized by smoldering desire, the crescendo of shuddering delights, and the final, mind-blowing explosion of orgasm! Why had she not known before about this dark star, the power of illicit sex?
It's our discovery, ours alone; no one else feels this special intensity.
After that night, only one of the two bedrooms was used. The maid, experienced in such matters and confident of being rewarded, discreetly made up both rooms each day with fresh linens and sprigs of lavender.
Thus began the glory days of their affair, when every thrilling moment seemed a golden-throated harbinger for a blissful future. Lila Drake was a mere phantom on the loose as she cavorted through Europe’s priciest watering holes, leaning on Bob Drummond’s tanned arm. On the rare occasion when Lila flew into town, she and Harry barely spoke.
They took obvious precautions to keep the affair hidden from prying eyes. However, there is an old Arabian proverb to the effect that there are three things you cannot hide--love, smoke, and a man riding a camel.