Authors: Carol Grace
Wallpaper paste dripped onto Mandy Clayton's hair and her arms ached from holding them over her head. When the phone rang, she was on top of the ladder in the upstairs bathroom. Dropping her roller, she scrambled down the narrow rungs and ran downstairs.
"Miramar Inn," she said breathlessly into the phone.
"How's business?" her sister asked.
"Terrible. How was your flight?"
"Awful. Complete meal service for three hundred and fifty in two hours. Lecherous old men and crying babies. And you know that pilot I told you about?"
"The one with midnight blue eyes who invited you to his room for a game of Trivial Pursuit?"
"It was pursuit all right, but it wasn't trivial, and he's married. I hate this job. For two cents I'd quit and work for you."
"That's all I could afford to pay you," Mandy said, "and you'd be bored silly. You wouldn't meet any eligible men, either. They don't come to bed and breakfasts unless their wives or girlfriends drag them."
"I wish I had someone to drag to one. By the way, has my latest Yukon Man come yet?"
"I think so."
"Could you go get it and read me some of the personals? It might cheer me up.''
"Laurie, I've got wallpaper paste all over my hands. You don't want me to smear it all over those gorgeous men, do you?"
"I'll wait while you wash your hands. I've got a twelve hour layover."
Mandy set the receiver down and went to wash her hands, muttering to herself that she didn't have twelve hours to kill, that someone might be trying to call right now and make reservations for one of her two lovely rooms overlooking the ocean in scenic Moss Beach, California.
Returning with magazine in hand, Mandy riffled quickly through the pages, skimming past bare-chested men flexing their muscles and flannel-shirted men with bulging biceps chopping wood until she came to a half-page ad with no picture at all.
"Here you go," she announced. "In big, huge letters: 'LONELY MILLIONAIRE seeks sensuous, understanding lady with good math skills to help me count my money.'"
"That's him, that's the one," Laurie said gleefully. "Tell me more."
"Well, he's a mining engineer who lives a million miles from nowhere. Are you sure that's what you want?"
"Not me. You. This one's perfect for you."
"Oh, no, he isn't. Leave me out of this. I have no interest in men. I thought you knew that."
"I know that one man told you he wasn't ready to make a commitment and then turned around and made one to your best friend. But that was three years ago. It’s time to stop feeling sorry for yourself and start thinking of others. Others who are stuck in the wilds of the Yukon, a zillion miles from nowhere. Think of how much one letter would brighten this poor—I mean, rich man's lonely days."
Mandy stared at the ad. "You realize that this whole thing could be a joke, don't you?" she asked.
"If it is a joke then you've found a man with a sense of humor. Come on, just one letter. I dare you."
Mandy took a deep breath. She never could resist a dare. From the time Laurie dared her to jump out of the apple tree when she was ten and she broke her wrist to the time her sister had dared her to jump off the high dive at the high school pool and she'd smacked her stomach so hard it had left a red mark for days. Every one of those dares had turned out badly, and yet she still couldn't resist. There was something of the daredevil left in the thirty-two-year-old woman that she'd thought was long gone. But this time there was no danger of getting hurt, she told herself. The chances were this "Lonely Millionaire" would be deluged with letters and never write back.
"Okay," Mandy said. "You know how to get to me. But just one letter. That's all."
"Of course," Laurie said soothingly. "And while you're at it, you ought to take out an ad in Yukon Man yourself. For the inn, I mean. I bet those guys are always looking for a good place for R and R.''
"That’s a thought," Mandy said.
"A good thought. Now don't forget to write the letter."
When Laurie hung up, Mandy went back up the stairs to try to make the wallpaper stick to the wall. She wanted to finish before a guest checked in, but so far she had no reservations. Instead the bedrooms stood forlorn and empty, with their handmade quilts and starched damask curtains fluttering in the ocean breeze. If she were on R and R, she would come home, she thought, pausing in the doorway to admire the tiled fireplace already laid for a cozy fire, the padded window seats and the stacked bookshelves.
She was glad Laurie wasn't there to see her staring off into space. She might think Mandy was feeling sorry for herself. But why should she be when she had everything she wanted right here, a wonderful old house and a beautiful view?
She'd put the past behind her. She didn't need a man in her life, and if she did, answering personal ads was not the way to find one. She wished Laurie realized that. Those ads were written by weirdoes, psychos and out-and-out liars. But she'd accepted the dare and she wouldn't back out now. One letter and that was it.
But the summer was foggy along the coast and Mandy had very few customers. She wrote her letter and to her surprise got one back almost immediately. Lonely Millionaire didn't sound like a weirdo, he sounded intelligent, funny and interesting. So interesting she wrote another letter and then another, until she found that she was looking forward to the mail with breathless anticipation.
The man was not only a rugged outdoorsman who could handle the Arctic weather and difficult living conditions, he seemed like a sensitive, caring kind of guy who sometimes expressed himself so beautifully it brought tears to her eyes. Other times he was outrageously funny and flippant and made her laugh out loud.
Lonely Millionaire's real name was Jack Larue and he was serious about looking for a wife. In fact, Mandy had the feeling he might possibly be considering her as a candidate ... but she knew better than that. She'd been through that, through the hope and the disappointment, and she'd never let herself hope again. Still... if ever she did love again, it would be someone like Jack.
* * *
Fall came and the fog lifted and Mandy went back up the ladder in the bathroom to attack the wallpaper again. She closed the bathroom door and turned on a rented machine from the hardware store. Steam filled the air and the wallpaper dutifully began to curl around the edges. She picked up the scraper and hacked at the wall with a vengeance. Somewhere in the distance there was a knocking—no, a pounding on the front door.
Her pulse quickened. Could it be...? Was it possibly...? No, it couldn't be a guest, it must be the meter reader. She turned off the steamer, closed the door behind her and ran down the wide, varnished stairs to the front door.
"Coming," she called, sliding the last few feet on the soles of her cotton espadrilles and flinging the door open. Miracle of miracles, it was a guest. No meter reader ever wore a bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses. She gave him her most dazzling smile, and he took off his glasses and stared as if she were a ghost appearing out of nowhere instead of a frazzled woman who was just breathless from running down the stairs.
She ran her damp palms down the sides of her jeans. Suddenly she was aware of her hair, steamed into a mass of frizz, her huge shirt stained with goo and her old blue jeans ripped at one knee. No wonder he was staring. He was wondering if he'd come to the right place. In the brochure she'd been photographed in a long skirt and a hand-knit sweater, looking calm and gracious. She cleared her throat and opened her arms.
"Welcome to Miramar Inn," she said. "I'm Mandy Clayton."
The man took a step forward. "Any vacancies?" he asked in a voice as deep as limestone.
Any vacancies? Did the tide come in every day?
"Why, yes, I think so. Something overlooking the ocean. Actually, everything overlooks the ocean. Would that be all right?"
"For how many nights?"
"I'm... not sure. Could I let you know on that?"
Mandy smoothed the wrinkles in her jeans, wishing she'd had time to slip into something more hostess-like, wishing she sounded more professional and not so desperate, as if he were the first guest to appear in weeks, which he was.
She held the door open for him and he followed her inside to the living room, where he signed his name in her register: Adam Gray. Then she invited him to have a cup of coffee in the kitchen, where he stared out the window at the dark blue sea beyond the cliffs.
"Nice view," he observed. But his gaze left the ocean and shifted to her oversize shirt, her snug-fitting jeans and her untidy hair. She stood perfectly still and held her breath. A shiver ran up her spine despite the warmth of the sun streaming in the window. She wanted to say something, but her lips were numb. It was the shock of finding an unexpected guest on her front steps after all this time, she told herself firmly; and not the fact that he was the best looking man she'd seen in months, maybe ever.
"Decaf?" she said at last, grabbing a large white apron from the hook on the wall and wrapping it around her as if it were a shield from his penetrating gaze.
"Regular," he answered.
When the coffee was brewed she filled two mugs and pushed the kitchen door open with the toe of her canvas shoe. She was proud of her patio. The afternoon sun warmed the bricks she'd laid and the fence sheltered it from the brisk ocean breeze.
"I hope it isn't too cold out here for you," she said, putting the mugs on a small metal table.
He smiled and her heart did a double somersault. She'd never seen a smile transform a face like that. His sensuous mouth curved and laugh lines appeared at the corners of his eyes. She felt as if she'd said something wonderfully witty, but she didn't know what it was.
"Hardly. I just came down from the Yukon Territory, up near the Arctic Sea."
"The Yukon...as in Yukon Man?" she asked, stupefied.
"That's right. That's where I saw your ad."
"Oh, oh, of course. My ad." She didn't ask if he'd ever appeared in Yukon Man himself. It was obvious he wasn't the kind of man who needed to advertise for a woman. But if he did, he ought to be on the cover. He was everything the rugged Yukon man should be: granite-jawed with deep-set eyes that viewed the world with interest, and high cheekbones bronzed from the midnight sun. If only this was what her pen pal Jack looked like. But that was wishful thinking, and unworthy of someone who was more interested in character than outward appearances anyway.
"This is a silly question," she continued, "but I don't suppose you know a Jack Larue up there in the Yukon?"
He smiled again and her knees threatened to buckle. She hoped he had no idea the effect that smile had on her. "Afraid not. It’s a big territory."
"Oh...right. I know that. So, you're here on vacation?"
"Business actually. I'm a geologist and my home office is nearby in Menlo Park. I thought I'd take a few days off before I report, and soak up some California sunshine at the beach." He sat down in a chair next to the table and stretched his legs out. "Tell me, Mandy, how's business?"
He could have stayed for a week and not asked that question. It was the one question she didn't want to answer.
"Actually, summer is our slow season," she confessed. "But things really pick up during the fall with the good weather." She crossed her fingers behind her back and sat down across from him.
"I'm lucky to get a room, then. The weather's great, the view's spectacular, and I guess there are some interesting things to see around here."
"Oh, absolutely." She beamed at him. Here was the perfect guest. He liked the place to begin with, and if he liked it maybe he would spread the word around the Yukon and more men would come and she'd be booked ahead of time, earn money and make a go of it. "In fact, I'll make a list of attractions for you, like the Winchester Mystery House, Great America and, of course, our own beach and tide pools."
"I was hoping you'd be able to show that to me in person," he said, looking at her intently over the rim of his coffee cup.
She paused. "Well, that depends..."
"On how busy you are. I understand that. It’s just that I'm so bad at directions I'd probably get lost on my way out of your driveway."
"Even to the beach?"
He drew his eyebrows together, then pointed to the ocean straight ahead of them. "That way?" he inquired.