"Here in Porcupine, some folks have sex just to keep warm." Betsy Baylor, sole proprietor of the Loose Moose Lodge, leaned her sizable forearms on the walnut registration desk, obviously trolling for a response.
Ally Jarrett, sole guest at the Loose Moose, had intended to pass through the lobby with a smile and a wave. But Betsy's observation wasn't easily ignored.
Knowing she'd probably regret it, Ally paused. "Well, it is pretty cold out there."
"Cold enough to freeze your nose hairs, sweetheart. But it was hot times in this hotel." Betsy gazed around the small lobby filled with antiques and memorabilia from the Gold Rush days. "If only I had a time machine. I'd give anything to see this place when it was a whorehouse."
"It must have been something, all right." Ally inched toward the front door. She already knew some of thehistory because Betsy had talked her arm off during breakfast.
After coming in late last night, Ally had been so pumped about finally being in Alaska that she'd stayed awake for hours. Consequently she'd slept until early afternoon, but Betsy had been kind enough to feed her breakfast, anyway, so she hated to blow the woman off.
Still, she was antsy to get outside. Her digital camera was tucked into her backpack and she'd bundled up in boots, parka, gloves, and knit cap. If she stood around too long discussing prostitution with Betsy, she'd start to sweat under all those layers.
"Of course, the ladies of the night wouldn't have been out here. They would have lounged around in the parlor. That's my room now, but I've tried to keep it authentic. Want to see?"
"Well, actually, I was on my way out to--"
"It'll only take a minute."
"Sure." Pulling off her gloves, she unzipped her parka so she wouldn't roast. No point in alienating her landlady on the first day.
She felt sure Betsy had been lying in wait for her, dreaming of more human interaction. Oh, well. Betsy couldn't possibly be as bad as Mitchell J. Carruthers, Jr. Thank God she'd left that dweeb back in California.
Not that she wasn't grateful for the competent way he'd handled the details of Grammy's estate. He'd been a blessing in the first couple of months, when Ally had been too busy grieving to give a damn about paperwork. But lately Mitchell had begun to hover, just like Grammy used to. Ally was through being hovered over.
"You will not believe your eyes when you see whatI've done with the room." Betsy reached under the desk and pulled out a dome-shaped silver bell, the kind that rang when you slapped a hand down on it. "I'll leave this here in case my other guest shows up while I'm giving you the tour. I don't like to keep folks waiting, especially when they've been traveling and might need to pee."
"Someone else is coming in today?" Ally was glad to hear it. That would take some of the pressure off her to be social. In the short time she'd been here, she'd already had several prolonged conversations with Betsy.
"Yessiree." Betsy led the way toward a door that opened off the lobby. "And I'm glad for the business. Winter's always slow. In the summertime I run my ass off." She laughed. "Not so's you'd notice, unfortunately. My family's known for big ears and big behinds."
"There are worse things to be known for." But Ally had to admit Betsy was carrying on the family tradition. Underneath her black stretch pants her buns bobbled and curtsied to each other, as Grammy used to say.
"Men tell me there's more of me to love. Besides that, I'm well insulated, which is a bonus in Alaska." Betsy opened the door. "You might want to fatten up a little if you're planning on staying on a while, like you said."
"Thanks. I'll take that under advisement." She followed Betsy through the door.
"Ta-da!" Betsy swept a hand around the room.
Ally blinked. "Wow." She'd never seen anything like it except in really cheesy movies. Everything was red--red flocked wallpaper, red velvet drapes, and more red velvet covering both Victorian settees. It was like standing inside a giant model of a blood vessel, which she'd done once during a field trip in fourth grade.
What wasn't red was gold, including the player piano taking up one corner of the room and a large armoire in another corner. All the picture frames were gold and all the pictures inside the frames were nudes. Some Ally recognized as prints by famous artists, and some looked as if they'd come straight out of Playboy.
Betsy beamed with obvious pride. "Like it?"
"It's amazing." Ally didn't know if like was the word she would have used. But the room certainly was drenched in sex. "So this is how it would have looked in the early nineteen hundreds?" Minus the centerfolds.
"That's what my research tells me. I've had to make a couple of modifications for my own personal comfort." She pointed toward a door in the far wall. "Had to add on a bathroom, so I could use this as my suite."
"You sleep in here?" Ally couldn't picture Betsy curling up on one of the settees, and surely all that red would give a person terminal insomnia.
"Sure do." Betsy reached up, grabbed a handle set in the wall, and lowered a Murphy bed. The sheets were red satin and the white comforter was covered with hearts. "Look over your head."
Ally gazed up at a mirrored image of Betsy and the Murphy bed. Ye Gods. Hugh Hefner City. "Huh."
"Men love this room," Betsy said. "That's how I landed all seven of my husbands, by showing them this room." She winked at Ally. "And of course the Murphy bed and the mirror didn't hurt my cause, either."
Ally gulped and tried to erase the image of Betsy and some guy getting it on in reflected glory. "I suppose they wouldn't." Seven husbands. Betsy didn't seem totake any pains with her appearance. She wore zero makeup and it looked as if she cut her gray hair herself.
Both last night and today she'd worn her black stretch pants paired with an old plaid flannel shirt. Ally would never guess the woman had any dates, let alone enough exes to make up a basketball team plus subs. Maybe it was pheromones.
"Me and Liz," Betsy said. "Two peas in a pod, except she's Taylor and I'm Baylor. That's my maiden name, y'know. Never did see the sense in changing it when I got hitched, which is a good thing, considering how many times I've done the deed."
Ally wanted to ask what happened to those seven guys, but she didn't know how to ask without sounding like she was afraid there were seven bodies under the floorboards. Which she was.
"Good food and steady sex," Betsy said. "That's how to get a man. Trouble is, I eventually find out they have some habit or other that I can't abide, and I have to kick 'em out."
"Oh." Ally was extremely relieved to hear they'd been thrown out and not dispatched with a kitchen knife.
Betsy laughed. "You should see your face! You thought I'd done away with all of them, didn't you?"
"No, of course not." Ally chuckled merrily, hoping to demonstrate that that had been the furthest thing from her mind.
"Yes you did. It's untamed up here, but not quite that untamed."
"I knew that."
"I have to say, though, that sometimes I felt like it.The nights are long and a man can get on your nerves, y'know?"
"I do know." Ally thought of Mitchell. But Mitchell was almost three thousand miles away. Far, far out of hovering distance.
"I probably could get away with it, though," Betsy said. "Porcupinians watch out for their own, and I make the best moose-meat pie north of Sitka. I don't think anybody would've turned me in."
"Are you ... thinking of getting married again?" Maybe the second guest was a guy, and he'd be dazzled by the red room and the mirror on the ceiling and Betsy's powerful pheromones. Then Ally could go about her business without fear of conversational ambush.
"Well, certainly I'm thinking of getting married! I can't be seen living with somebody. I have a reputation to protect. So if I want to have regular sex, I need to find husband number eight."
"But you see, the pool of candidates is small in Porcupine."
"But maybe someone will show up."
"That would be nice." Ally would live in hope. The Loose Moose was perfect for her needs, but she'd hate to spend the next few months dodging Betsy.
"Of course there's always Clyde Hammacher. He would love to get into my--" A sharp bing from the lobby kept Betsy from elaborating on what Clyde would love to get into. "That must be my other guest!"
Please let him be male, single, and susceptible to nudesand red walls. "Great. Then I'll just be on my way. I want to get some shots before the light fades."
Ally left Betsy's suite and, out of curiosity, glanced over to see if fate had provided Betsy with a candidate for husband number eight. Then she stopped dead in her tracks and stared.
Consequently Betsy bumped into her from behind, nearly sending her sprawling. "Sorry," Betsy murmured. "Didn't know you were about to put on the brakes."
Ally tried to say something, but words failed her. It couldn't be. But it was. Her worst nightmare. Mitchell J. Carruthers, Jr., was in the Loose Moose lobby.
A tall guy to begin with, Mitchell presently looked like a giant Popsicle in his neon orange parka, complete with a bright orange knit cap. The yellow pom-pom on top added another inch to his already considerable height. Then there were the fuzzy orange earmuffs.
A person would have to work hard to look that dorky, although Mitchell seemed to take to it naturally. His glasses were fogged and he was busy cleaning them with his handkerchief. Otherwise he might have noticed her gawking at him.
Betsy scooted around her and walked behind the registration desk. "You must be Mr. Carruthers," she said in a cheerful, "I like men" tone.
As much as Ally sympathized with Betsy's situation, Betsy could not have Mitchell as her next dearly beloved, because Mitchell was taking the next plane out of here. That would be absolutely necessary to keep Ally from murdering him. She didn't know any special dishes with moose meat or any other ingredient, and therefore had noway of endearing herself to the Porcupinians so they wouldn't turn her over to the cops. Mitchell had to go.
She cleared her throat. "Excuse me, but what are you doing here?"
He glanced in her direction. "Oh, hi, Ally."
Betsy glanced in Ally's direction, too, her mouth open. "You two know each other? My, now that's a coincidence."
"Isn't it?" Adrenaline made Ally light-headed. "Did you follow me up here, Mitchell?"
He tucked his handkerchief into his coat pocket. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I did."
She clenched her fists so that she wouldn't run over and start punching him. It wouldn't do much good, anyway. With all that orange padding he wouldn't feel a thing. "Why did you follow me up here?"
"Well, because there are still several loose ends concerning your grandmother's estate, and they need your personal attention."
She wanted to slap a hand over his mouth. Her heiress status was not supposed to be common knowledge up here. She wanted to make it on her own, to be accepted for herself and not the millions she was worth.
Giving him a look that she hoped would freeze his tongue to the roof of his mouth, she tried to repair the damage. "How silly. You'd think I was some kind of heiress. What a laugh."
"Grammy would spin in her grave if she knew you were wasting her money like this."
He gazed at her steadily. "It's necessary, Ally."
"All right." She didn't believe it, so she decided to call his bluff. "What is it? Papers to sign?"
"Well, yes, and--"
"Get 'em out. I'll sign them right this minute, while Betsy's checking on flights back to L.A. I wouldn't want you to waste any more time than necessary. I know you're eager to get back to warm, sunny California." After all, he'd lectured her about the inadvisability of traveling to Alaska in February, so he couldn't be happy about stepping into this deep freeze.
Betsy gasped. "You're not expecting him to go home already?" She looked crestfallen.
"The sooner the better," Ally said. "I'm sorry you felt the trip was necessary, Mitchell, but since you're here, let's take care of everything with the expediency you so cherish so you can be on your way."
He gazed at her. "I'm afraid that won't be possible."
She tried not to panic. "What do you mean?"
"I came in right ahead of a blizzard. I was on the last plane they allowed to land at the Fairbanks airport. The man who brought me here--"
"That would be Rudy, our shuttle driver," Betsy said.
"Right." Mitchell nodded. "Rudy. Has a Ford Bronco."
"By the name of Slewfoot Sue," Betsy said. "And he also keeps chickens. Can you picture a big ol' guy like Rudy raising chickens? He does, though. Keeps them in his kitchen during the winter, so they won't--"
"Excuse me a minute, Betsy." Ally needed more information, and she needed it now, before delving any deeper into the life and times of Rudy the chicken farmer. "I want to get something clarified with Mitchell. If a blizzard has shut down the Fairbanks airport, whydon't we have a blizzard here? We're not all that far away."
"Rudy outran it," Mitchell said. "We had quite a wild ride getting here because he didn't want to get caught out there in bad weather. I'm sure the storm will hit any minute."
As if on cue, the wind began to howl through a crack in the front door. Ally wanted to howl right along with it.
"I think the storm's here," Betsy said, looking delighted. "There was mention of a blizzard coming in. This time of year, they can last for days." She smiled at Mitchell and rubbed her hands together. "Well! I guess we'd better get you checked in!"
Days. Ally stood rooted to the spot, still unable to comprehend that this could happen. Right now she could think of only one solution. "Is there a bar in town?"
Betsy managed to tear her attention away from Mitchell, who was calmly filling out a registration form. "Two doors down on your right," she said. "It's called the Top Hat. Clyde Hammacher runs it, and he calls it that because he used to dance on Broadway. Only he's not gay. A lot of those dancers are, but Clyde--"
"Yes, I believe you mentioned Clyde." He'd been the one who would love to get into something of Betsy's. "Thank you," she said, zipping her parka and putting on her gloves. "See you two later."
"If you'll wait a minute, I'll come with you," Mitchell said.
Ally closed her eyes. She was in hell. "Thanks, but I'm really thirsty, so I'm going over now. Besides, I think you should get Betsy to give you the parlor tour before you do one single other thing in Porcupine."
Mitchell looked puzzled. "Parlor tour?"
"I was just showing Ally," Betsy said. "It's worth seeing, if I do say so myself. Did you know this used to be the most famous whorehouse in Alaska?"
Ally headed for the door, abandoning the field to Betsy. If Ally couldn't get Mitchell to leave, then maybe she could get him to fixate on Betsy. Sure, he was a good fifteen years younger than their landlady, but when he got a look at that Murphy bed with the mirror in the ceiling, he might go wild. You never knew with nerds.
"I hadn't heard that it was a whorehouse," Mitchell said.
"Oh, yes. Just picture this place swarming with eager men, men who had been out in the gold fields with no female companionship for weeks. You can imagine how much they wanted--"
Ally opened the front door and a gust of wind and snow hit her in the face, nearly knocking her down. Betsy was right. Bulking up was important in this country.
"Be careful out there!" Betsy called. "Don't get blown away!"
"I won't!" Lowering her head, Ally shoved herself outside and somehow managed to haul the door closed again. Swirling snow cut her visibility to almost nothing. It was so cold that breathing made her chest ache.
She hoped to hell this blizzard wouldn't go on for days. She had things to do and people to see. Trying to photograph wildlife in a blizzard didn't make much sense, even to someone as inexperienced as she was.
Then there was Uncle Kurt, who was planning to drive up from Anchorage to see her. He'd found a wildlife photographer to be her mentor, although he was keeping theidentity of the photographer a secret, which was so like Uncle Kurt, a man who loved surprises and spontaneity. She didn't want Mitchell hanging around until then. Instinctively she knew they wouldn't get along.
By shielding her eyes, she could just barely make out the red neon outline of a top hat on a sign jutting out from a building on her right. She wondered if a bar in Porcupine, Alaska, served Irish coffee. If not, she'd drink whatever they had that would dull the impact of Mitchell showing up here.
He'd already leaked information about the inheritance, although maybe Ally had stuck her thumb in that particular dike for now. Still, his presence here would make it seem that she was worth more than she'd let on. Even worse than that, he was ruining her precious freedom.
Maybe by now Betsy had lured him into her parlor. But Ally stopped short of imagining what might happen after that. Some things were way too disturbing to contemplate.
Even if Mitchell allowed himself to fall under Betsy's spell, he would be on the next plane out of Fairbanks if Ally had anything to say about it. As Grammy's sole heir, she should have the power to send his royal nerdness right back where he came from. All she needed was clear skies.
Copyright © 2005 by Vicki Lewis Thompson.