It was a lousy supper. I couldn't get away fast enough. Once Melinda started talking, she yammered on about "Jeffrey this . . " and "Jeffrey that . . ." on purpose, I think, just to show me she didn't believe me even a little bit. Or maybe she was trying to convince herself that I was wrong. Whatever the reason, I asked to be excused and ran up to my room to make plans.
During Melinda's jabbering, I learned that Jeffrey Sullivan, the Rat, planned on picking her up for a ride around the ranch at two o'clock the next afternoon. I pulled out my journal, scribbled a few notes, and spent the rest of the evening avoiding my family. That wasn't hard to do. It was warm--as usual in August--and the one place I knew nobody would come looking for me was up at my special spot.
|I don't look very happy, do I? Well, I'm not.|
So, I went fishing. Usually, the creek in August is little more than a dribble, but for some reason, it wasn't the muddy trickle it had been last year. And . . . I didn't care if it was, anyway. I was not fishing because I wanted to catch trout, but because I needed to think.
By the time the sun was setting, I knew what I was going to do. I rode home, rubbed Taffy down, and went to bed. But I didn't sleep much.
The next morning I rushed through my chores, changed into riding clothes, and saddled Taffy. This was the tricky part. I had to go to town, but I didn't want anyone to know I was going. This could get me into a lot of hot water later on.
"Oh, the things I do for my sister," I said with a sigh. "If Mother catches me heading to town alone without permission, she'll skin me alive; then she'll ground me for a month."
By the time I rode into Fresno, the sun was high overhead and blazing hot. Now, where were the Flanders staying? I took a wild guess and figured they'd stay at the nicest hotel in town. After all, that's where my family would stay. "Whoa, Taffy," I said and pulled her to a halt in front of the Arlington Hotel. I slid from her back, wrapped the reins around the hitching post, and paused.
"You are out of your mind," I said, gulping back my fear. Then I put one foot in front of the other and stepped up on the boardwalk. The walk was not crowded. It was too hot for passersby to go strolling. I opened the door to the hotel and stepped inside. It was only a few degrees cooler in the lobby.
Right then, I almost turned tail and ran back outside. What if my plan backfired? What if somehow Jeffrey was able to sabotage my idea? I wouldn't put it past him. He seemed very determined to snag the girl of his choice--and leave two or three others stringing along behind, broken-hearted.
Not if I can help it! I determined fiercely. The thought that my sister, whom I loved--even when she yelled at me and pretty much called me a liar--might get stuck with Jeffrey energized me. I approached the desk clerk and asked, "Are the Flanders staying here?"
The skinny, clean-shaven young man reminded me of Tim O'Neil, Justin's clerk. Why do they think they are all so important? "Yes, miss," he answered, frowning. "And what is your business with them?"
None of your business, I said silently but smiled and simply ignored his rude question. "I wish to call on Liberty Flanders," I said politely. "Is she in?"
The clerk held out his palm. "Your calling card, if you please."
I rolled my eyes and dug into my vest pocket. Calling cards. A waste of the paper and ink they're printed on. But for families as well known and important as the Flanders (and the Carters, I reckon), name cards are the polite way of letting someone know you would like to call on them. Hence, a "calling" card. It was the polite way of receiving visitors back then.
The clerk took my card. It was pale blue, with flowers scrolled around the edges, and had one line of script that read: "Andrea Rose Carter." I had asked the printer for horses, but alas, he didn't have horses available for printing. And flowers, he said, were so much more feminine.
The clerk glanced briefly at my card before dropping it onto a small, silver tray, and his eyebrows went up. "I will return immediately, Miss Carter." He sounded much friendlier this time around.
I rolled my eyes again, but at his back as he scurried up the stairs. I guess the Carter name was good for something. I expected to be invited up to the Flanders hotel room, but no. The desk clerk returned, and Libby was right at his heels. It was refreshing to see that she didn't take the calling card propriety very seriously either.
"Andi!" she said, smiling so wide that her dimples cut into her cheeks. She wasn't wearing her floppy hat, and she'd left her hair long. Clearly, she hadn't expected visitors. "I'm so glad you came for a visit. The hotel room is getting pretty crowded. I can't wait until Father's cattle auction is over and we can do something more interesting while we're in town."
"Aren't you and Jeffrey Sullivan spending time together?" I asked boldly. I knew the answer, of course. The Rat was going to be squiring Melinda around today.
Libby's face fell, and she sighed. "Oh, he wanted to be with me, and we breakfasted together. But he had important business this afternoon that he simply could not put off. I felt so badly for him. I know he wanted to take me on a buggy ride out to the San Joaquin River. But maybe tomorrow."
My cheeks turned hot, and my heart pounded against the inside of my chest like a hammer. Right then and there I wanted to blurt out to Libby the same thing I'd told Melinda yesterday afternoon. That Jeffrey Sullivan was not who they thought he was. But I clamped my mouth shut. If my own sister didn't believe me, why should just an acquaintance? She'd probably think I was trying to break up her and Jeffrey.
This is getting much too complicated! I moaned and shook my head. Then I sucked in a deep breath and told Libby what I'd come to say in the first place. "I was wondering if you wanted to get out of town and go riding with me out on our ranch?" I crossed my fingers behind my back and sent up a quick prayer that she actually liked to ride and would want to go.
Libby's eyes sparkled. "Oh, Andi, I would!" She was just a year younger than Melinda, but seemed a lot younger . . . even though she dressed so fancy and frilly. Suddenly, I wished Libby Flanders lived a lot closer to Fresno. I could see she and I becoming friends. Then I sighed. After today, she would probably want to wring my neck for what I was about to do.
But she would have to stand in line behind Melinda . . .
[to be continued in Part 6]