New York Times Bestseller
Print edition published
February 2005
E-book edition
January 2014

Nerd Gone Wild

After her grandmother dies, heiress Ally Jarrett realizes that she can now spread her wings and pursue her dream of wildlife photography in Alaska. The last thing she expects is that her grandmother’s nerdy assistant, Mitchell J. Carruthers, will tag along and insist that estate details still need her attention.

Trained as a PI, Mitchell calls on his inner geek to disguise his true mission – protecting Ally from an unscrupulous uncle who has his eye on her fortune and will stop at nothing to get it. Ally’s late grandmother hired Mitchell to keep her safe, which means he must stay close. But the closer he gets to Ally, the greater the danger to his heart.

Chapter 1 & Chapter 2

“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 the history 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 certain 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 what I’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 to take 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. “I was sad when she passed. We were like two peas in a pod, except she was 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.”
“Absolutely.”
“But you see, the pool of candidates is small in Porcupine.”
“I understand.”
“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 nudes and 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 no way 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.”
“You are—”
“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. He 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, why don’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 the identity 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.

Top

Chapter 2

Mitch figured our pretty fast that Betsy was eager to get chummy with any guy with a pulse. He hoped he wouldn’t have to be too direct in his refusal and alienate her, because she probably knew everyone in town. A person like that could come in very handy.
“So, would you like to see my parlor Mitchell?” She eyed him coyly. “I guarantee you’ve never experienced anything so unique.”
“That sounds great, but I’d like to go up to my room first.” He pulled off his knit cap and reached for the room key she’d laid on the counter.
“Well, of course you would.” She beat him to the room key, snatching it from under his nose. “You’ve had a long tip, and those tiny airplane bathrooms must be cramped for a tall man like yourself.” She batted her eyelashes. “Come with me. I’ll show you the way.”
Just what he’d been afraid of. “If you’ll point me in the direction of room twenty-one, I’m sure I can find it. I hate to put you to any extra trouble.”
“It’s no trouble.” She came out from behind the registration desk, obviously ready to rumble. “Are you hungry? Technically I only serve breakfast, but considering you’ve come all the way from L.A., I’d be happy to make you something warm. A man needs good, hearty food, and the airlines aren’t serving meals the way they used to.”
In point of fact, Mitch was starving. But he had a feeling that allowing Betsy to cook him a meal would constitute foreplay in her mind. “Thanks, but I had something to eat during my layover in Seattle.” Still, his mouth watered at the idea of home-cooked food.
“I could warm up some moose-meat pie in nothing flat.”
Then again, maybe he’d survive on the hamburger he’d grabbed in the airport. He’d seen pictures of moose, and they didn’t look at all like the kind of creature he’d want to dine on. “Thanks, but I’m stuffed.”
“If you change your mind, let me know. I enjoy cooking for a man.” She started up the wooden stairs to the second floor.
Mitch hefted his suitcase and followed. So far this trip was about as nightmarish as he’d envisioned.
Betsy mounted those stairs without breaking a sweat or breathing hard. Mitch had to hand it to her. For a plus-sized woman she was in remarkable shape.
“Down this hallway,” she said, not even puffing from the climb. Mitch didn’t puff, either, because he’d worked out every night in the Jarrett mansion’s fully equipped weight room. He’d had to pick times when Ally was occupied elsewhere, because keeping in shape wouldn’t fit very well with the image of him he wanted her to have. Better that she think of him as a weakling.
“Here we are.” Betsy opened the door with the metal key.
“Uh, if you don’t mind my asking, which room is Ally using?”
She gazed at him for a moment before answering. “I wondered if it was like that. You made it sound like business, but there’s more to it, isn’t there?”
“What do you mean?” Betsy couldn’t have seen through his nerd persona that fast. Ally hadn’t, and she’d been around him for months.
“A man like you doesn’t jump on a plane and fly three thousand miles for a few signatures on a piece of paper.”
Mitch lapsed into nerd-speak. “Of course I do. It’s my job. If everything isn’t accomplished in a timely manner, then—”
“You have a thing for her, don’t you?”
Mitch spotted a way to head off Betsy’s potential advances and grabbed it. “Okay, you caught me. I adore that woman. But please don’t tell her.”
“Oh, I think she already knows, or if not, she’ll soon figure it out. She’s a smart girl, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that when a man chases a woman all the way to Alaska, he has a serious case of the hots for her.” Betsy sighed. “Which is too bad, because I’m definitely in the market.”
“I’m honored to know that you’d be interested in me. If I didn’t have something going with Ally, you’d be at the top of my list.” God, if that didn’t sound stuffy and boring, but it was exactly the tone he was after.
Her cheeks turned pink. “I’ll take that as a real compliment, considering our age difference. But I want you to think about this — older women tend to be far more grateful for the attention of a man.”
Mitch managed to keep a straight face. “I’m sure that’s true, and that means I’m missing out, which is my misfortune.”
“And if you don’t mind my saying so, you have an uphill road with Ally. She didn’t look especially glad to see you.”
Now there was an understatement. “We’ve, uh, had some areas of disagreement.” Ally considered him a meddling geek, which is what he wanted her to think. If she ever found out that her late grandmother had hired him as her bodyguard, she’d have a fit. He’d never met a more independent spirit.
“Well, remember, if things don’t work out, I’ll be handy, for a shoulder to cry on or something more . . . comforting.” She winked at him and walked into his room. “So this is it. If you need anything, you’ll have to come down and ask for it personally. I have phone jacks, but I ended up taking the phones out. Too much trouble with people making long-distance calls.”
One less thing for him to plant a bug in. “That’s okay. I have my cell.” Following her into the room, he left the door wide open, just in case Betsy decided to lunge, after all.
“You’d be better off using the phone at the desk. Cell phone reception is terrible here in Porcupine.”
“I don’t suppose there’s Wi-Fi?” Probably a dumb question. He took in the furnishings at a glance — old wooden dresser, double bed supported by an iron bedstead, lace curtains at a window covered in frost. The light had already started to fade. Night came early up here.
Betsy shook her head. “Nope. Not many Porcupinians bother with the Internet. Too unreliable.” She leaned closer. “Besides, all that’s just an unnecessary distraction, don’t you think? Shouldn’t you be concentrating on what you came here for, instead of worrying about business?”
“Good point.” He couldn’t very well let her know that what he came here for could be better accomplished if he had easy Internet access.
“Here are the facilities.” Betsy walked over to a door and opened it. “There’s only one bathroom for every two rooms, so you share with the person on the other side. That would be Ally.”
He blinked in surprise. The arrangement suited him perfectly, but he’d bet Ally would have a few things to say about it. “Are you sure that will be okay with her?”
“She knew when she made the reservation that all the rooms share a bath with another room. Here at the lodge, that’s what folks have to do. This is the Loose Moose, not the Hyatt Regency.”
“I understand that, but if we’re the only two people here, it seems like she could have her own bathroom.” And he could picture her demanding it the minute she realized he was on the other side of her bathroom door. Might as well settle it now and avoid a scene.
“She could, but that would mean me cleaning two bathrooms and turning up the heat for two bathrooms. Heat is expensive, and cleaning is my job in the winter. I don’t bring in a cleaning woman, on account of business being slow. I would appreciate it if you two would be willing to share.”
“I’m more than willing to share. It’s just—”
“Mitchell, for pity’s sake. Do you realize that you’re trying to change what is going to be to your advantage?”
From a surveillance standpoint, she was absolutely right, but he decided to play dumb. “How’s that?”
She blew out a breath. “I see you might need some coaching if you intend to get anywhere with Ally. Maybe that’s why she’s so put out with you. You may be a smart man when it comes to office matters, but when it comes to women, I’m afraid you’re not up to snuff.”
“Could be. You’d better draw me a picture.”
She nodded. “Only too happy to help. Even if I’m not getting any, that doesn’t mean I begrudge others their fun. See, sharing a bathroom will be cozy, almost like you’re in the same suite.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “Think of the opportunities. Her in there naked. Or you in there naked.”
“I . . . ah . . . see what you mean.” And he didn’t want to go down that road, ever.
The day he’d met Ally ten months ago she’d just climbed out of the swimming pool at the Jarrett mansion in Bel Air. He’d noted immediately that she was gorgeous.
What wasn’t to like about silky black hair slicked back from a cameo face lit with intelligent green eyes? And that wasn’t taking into consideration a figure that was an outstanding endorsement for Speedo. But he’d killed his tug of sexual interest then, and he would continue to kill it.
Lusting after Ally violated the spirit of the assignment he’d been given by Ally’s grandmother. Because of the respect he had for Madeline Jarrett, he wouldn’t let her down, even though she’d never know.
When Madeline was dying of cancer, she’d hired him to pose as her personal assistant. Four months ago she’d passed on, leaving a will that officially commissioned him to handle the estate. Unofficially he was to safeguard Ally. Orphaned at a young age, Ally had become the focus of her grandmother’s life and the ultimate recipient of the Jarrett fortune, making her a very wealthy young woman in need of protection.
Enter Mitch, who covered his PI and bodyguard status by disguising himself as a nerd. He wished the pretense hadn’t been so easy to maintain. In no time the routine had come back to him. Once again he felt like the skinny eighth-grader he used to be, the one with bad eyes, good report cards, and a fondness for detail. In high school he’d bulked up, bought contacts, and let his grades slip. Goodbye, geek, hello, cool dude.
Now he’d reversed the process, and it had been discouragingly simple to do. Apparently you could take the boy out of Nerdville, but you couldn’t take Nerdville out of the boy. After all his efforts to turn himself into James Bond, he’d slipped into the role of Bill Gates in no time. Fortunately, Ally wasn’t attracted to nerds.
“So all you have to do,” Betsy said, “is let Ally know that she’ll be helping me out by saving the cost of heating and the work of cleaning. She’s a nice person. She won’t want to make extra work or waste resources.”
“Okay, I’ll try that.” He even thought it might work. Ally was a nice person. She’d put her own life on hold for some time because her sick grandmother had craved having her near.
Mitch wasn’t surprised that Ally wanted to escape now that the need for hanging around the mansion was gone. He just wished she hadn’t decided to escape up here. It could be a coincidence that Kurt Jarrett lived in Alaska, but Mitch didn’t think so. He guessed that Ally had been in contact with her step-uncle, who had to be stewing because he’d been cut out of the will.
“Then I’ll go on downstairs,” Betsy said. “Holler if you need anything.” She patted his arm on her way out the door.
Mitch waited until he heard her footsteps on the stairs before he closed and locked his bedroom door. After throwing his ugly orange parka on the bed, he went into the bathroom and tried the door into Ally’s room. It was open.
The security in this place sucked. No one should be required to share a bathroom with a stranger, and apparently that happened at the Loose Moose on a regular basis. The wrong kind of bathroom-mate could steal you blind.
But for him, this setup was ideal. He could bug at will. Her bedroom was similar to his, only with a slightly different type of wooden dresser against the wall, an iron bedstead with more curvy scrollwork, and another color and pattern for the comforter. Without warning, he had a sudden, potent image of Ally naked on that bed, fingers wrapped around those curved iron pieces while he. . . Wow, where had that come from?
Wherever it had come from, he was sending it right back, plus the erection that had come along for the ride. His job was to protect Ally from gold diggers, not turn into one. It would look like the fox guarding the hen house, and if she didn’t immediately see it, someone would inevitably point it out to her.
Mitch looked in the closet and noticed two decent-sized suitcases on the floor. She had a couple of light weight jackets hanging in the closet, along with several long-sleeved cotton shirts. The dresser was stuffed with sweaters in various colors of the rainbow, sweats, and jeans.
And underwear. He didn’t spend much time looking at the underwear. Dangerous territory considering that little flash of sexual urgency that had taken him by surprise. Maybe Betsy had created a monster with her suggestive comments.
In any case, Ally had enough clothes to last her a while, especially if Porcupine had a Laundromat. She hadn’t brought a single skirt, or anything to dress up in, for that matter. That figured. She was here to tramp around in the snowy woods and take pictures of whatever showed up.
Returning to the bathroom, Mitch found her toothbrush and toothpaste on the counter beside the sink, along with a hairbrush, some lotion, and a tube of lipstick. Unless she’d taken all her makeup with her in her backpack, which didn’t seem likely, she hadn’t brought anything on this trip except lipstick.
That fit with his image of Ally. She was the type to travel light, unwilling to let anything, or anyone, slow her down. That was why she resented him so much. She saw him as an anchor. And he was more of an anchor than she guessed.
The bathroom had no tub, only a shower stall. He pulled back the plastic curtain decorated with moose and canoes. Her shampoo and conditioner sat on a ledge in there, along with a razor. He would have taken her for a girl who got herself waxed. Then again, waxing might not be an option in Porcupine. Maybe she’d thought ahead.
When a picture of Ally in the shower shaving her legs wandered into his misbehaving brain, he got rid of it faster than he had the naked-on-the-bed scene. If he kept disciplining his mind this way, soon he’d think of her in a strictly platonic way. Or at least, that was the idea.
He needed to get over to the Top Hat bar, though. From the way she’d skedaddled out of the lodge, she’d been eager to tip back a few, and he didn’t want to deal with her when she was sloshed — sloshed because she was ticked off about his arrival, to be more precise about it.
Moving faster now, he returned to his room and unzipped his suitcase. For now, he’d install one listening device under her bed. That way he’d be alerted to her movements. He was back in her room attaching the bug to the leg of the bed under a decorative skirt when a paralyzing thought came to him. What if she liked to masturbate?
Oh, hell, she probably didn’t do that, and he had a one-track mind to even be thinking such a thing. Or if she did do that normally, she’d be too tired from all her adventures in the snow and trying to take pictures of wild animals to think about sex. But she had Betsy for a landlady, and Betsy lived and breathed the subject.
All righty then, if she masturbated, so be it. He’d deal with that when it happened. Surveillance meant sometimes hearing things that made you uncomfortable, even things that made you feel horny. On the PI side of his business, he’d come across plenty of sexual situations — a man with more than one woman, a woman with more than one guy, men with men, women with women, and even men and/or women with animals.
He was tough. He could handle a simple masturbation scene if the need should arise. Bad choice of words. If the need came up. That was no better. Shit. He’d just do it. No problem. Part of the job.
One bug was enough for now. He had a nifty little gizmo to plant in her backpack when he got the chance, a personal sort of LoJack that would allow him to trace her anywhere she went. He’d wanted to plant it before she’d left for Alaska, but he couldn’t risk TSA finding it when she went through security.
Her grandmother had been worried about fortune hunters in general, but she’d been specifically worried about Kurt Jarrett. With Madeline dead, Ally was the only person standing between Kurt and the Jarrett fortune. If anything happened to Ally, Kurt, the only remaining relative, would get it all. That meant Mitch had to be very alert and very cautious. Extremely cautious.
At last he was ready to head to the bar. Putting on the orange parka, the orange knit hat with the pom-pom, and the earmuffs was a humiliating experience. He’d searched the discount stores until he’d found this hideous ensemble and whenever he had it on he tried to avoid seeing any reflection of himself anywhere.
Leaving on the lamp atop the dresser, he exited the room, locked up and pocketed the key. He wasn’t surprised upon descending the stairs to find Betsy ensconced behind the registration counter once again.
“Just take a minute to see the parlor,” she said.
“I really should get over there and find out what Ally’s up to.”
“It’ll only take a minute. Maybe it’ll inspire you.”
Mitch took off his earmuffs and unzipped his jacket. “If we make it quick.”
Ten minutes later, Mitch emerged from the parlor biting the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing. Entertainment in Alaska must be severely limited if Betsy had snared seven men with that over-the-top setting.
“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” Betsy said, following him out.
“Mm.” Mitch nodded energetically, not trusting himself to speak.
“Good luck with Ally. I’ll probably be over there in a little while, myself. Most everyone in Porcupine usually ends up at the Top Hat before the night is through.”
Mitch cleared his throat. “Then I’ll see you later, Betsy.” Bracing himself, he opened the door. The wind cut right through him and it felt as if icicles were piercing his eyeballs. The temperature had dropped at least another twenty degrees since he was out here last.
With great effort he closed the door behind him, located the Top Hat by the jaunty neon sign, and started toward it. He hated cold weather, hated snow, hated sleet, ice, cold wind — all that winter nonsense. That’s why he’d moved from Chicago to L.A. eight years ago.
Then he’d struggled to build his investigative and personal protection business in sunny Southern California because he simply could not tolerate the idea of going back to cold weather. Now look at him. Freezing his ass off in Alaska, for God’s sake.
The job wasn’t supposed to be like this. When Madeline had hired him, he’d pictured keeping an eye on Ally in Southern California. Where it was warm. He hadn’t known about this Kurt Jarrett/Alaska angle.
Grumbling to himself, Mitch took off his glasses because they were crusted with ice. The clear-lens glasses were only for show, anyway, part of his nerd disguise. He wore contacts. He couldn’t afford to go with prescription glasses because if they happened to come off in a tight situation he’d be nearly blind.
The door to the Top Hat opened out, and he had to give it a mighty pull to conquer the wind wanting to keep it closed. When he jumped inside, the door slammed behind him with a loud whack.
Nobody noticed. Everyone was too busy clapping and cheering for the woman dancing on top of the bar. The woman was Ally.

Copyright 2001-2014 Vicki Lewis Thompson
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