Tallulah is intrigued by the idea of having a million dollar budget to work with. When she arrives, however, she finds she has her work cut out for her.
A million dollar budget intrigued her. How could she refuse? She’d never been to Montana. And Will, or WWIII as she liked to think of him, hadn’t balked at her price or her terms, including bringing Franny. The GPS directed her to continue on Interstate 90W, skirting the town. At the Yellowstone River, she found a dilapidated sign and the dirt road leading to her destination.
“Oh, baby, I think the owner has some ’splaining to do. That sign is awful. And how are you supposed to get down a dirt road in bad weather.” She shook her head and jotted a note on her ever-present yellow sticky pad. “Good thing we have a four-wheel drive.”
Franny, too short to see over the dashboard, was spared the sight of the run-down wraparound porch, tires serving as planters for bedraggled flowers, and a rusty pickup truck parked in the middle of the driveway. The place looked like a junk dealer’s lot. All that was missing was a barking dog chained to a post.
“This is even worse than I imagined. Hotel LaHelle would be a better name. Maybe he hasn’t seen us yet. We can just back up and—”
A middle-aged man with a ponytail, leather vest, a paunch that drooped over his jeans, and cowboy boots bounded out the front door. He tripped down the steps, righted himself, and shoved his head through her open window.
“Ms. Thompson? Aren’t you a pretty little lady? What a sight for sore eyes! Welcome to Hotel LaBelle!”
Personal space was obviously a foreign concept for her new client. She leaned away from the close talker, his garlic-laced breath, and his unwelcome compliments. “You must be Mr. Wellington. Please, allow me to get out and do a walk around the grounds with my dog.”
He yanked the car door open. “Of course, let me get your bag and take it to your room. When you’re ready, come on in and we’ll have a beer.”
“Coffee, please. I never drink while I’m working.” Her instincts screamed, this guy is bad news! But her checking account yelled, you spent the money already! She grabbed her bag, sticky notes, and pug. “See you in thirty minutes.”
The further away she got from the owner, the better she felt. Her muscles, knotted in a fight or flight response, relaxed as she walked along the winding river and gazed at the islands dotting the water. A startled wild turkey gobbled and flapped his wings at the little dog. Unaware that she was half the size of the bird, Franny raced after him, her curly little tail wagging, stopping only when Tallulah tugged on the leash.
“That’s enough excitement for you today.”
The river view and surrounding lands were the saving grace for this hotel. Make that a positive sticky note. She had to give him some good feedback along with the bad. Front and back, the exterior, the curbside appeal, if you will, had all the charm of a hillbilly hideout, without the handsome hillbilly. She would need to set some very strong boundaries with Wellington—who could very well be nicknamed Smellington at this point. Yuck.
Reluctance dragging at every step, she climbed the front stairs, entered the structure, and gasped.
The long, smooth registration desk appeared to be made of highly polished mahogany, as did the walls and ceiling. Carvings of trees, waterways, and mountains rose across the surface of every wall. Peeking between the trees were deer and turkeys. Fish leaped out of the river and clouds scudded over the mountains. Turning in a slow circle, Tallulah absorbed the genteel grandeur of the lobby. Well, this was getting a lot better, she thought as she jotted more positive notes.
Next to the gleaming wooden stairs, metal lattice work surrounded a wooden box that comprised the elaborate cage elevator. On the second floor, railings on three sides formed a gallery from which the rooms’ occupants could view the entire lobby. Just as she completed her slow circuit and note taking, a woman with long dark braids exited a hotel room, a cleaning basket in one hand and a vacuum in the other. She needed to interview that woman and any other staff Wellington had on site.
“See anything you like?” The owner appeared in front of her and waggled his eyebrows. Tallulah hoped he wasn’t referring to himself. “Sure you don’t want something stronger than coffee?”
She tucked the notes into her purse. “Mr.
“Please, call me Will.” He grinned, exposing crooked yellow teeth. One more strike in a growing list of unappealing pitches. “As in, where there’s a Will, there’s a way.”
Okay, time for the talk.
“Mr. Wellington, please behave in a professional manner with me.”
His face fell. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to be friendly.”
“Friendly is a handshake and a polite hello, not leering at me or wiggling your eyebrows.”
At the top of the stairs, the maid burst out laughing. “I told him not to pull that crap on you. Would he listen? No. Thinks he’s a ladies’ man like the original owner, ‘Love ’Em and Leave ’Em Lucius.’ ”
Tallulah looked up at the woman. “And you are?” “Emma Horserider.”
“Emma is just fine.” She grinned displaying even white teeth.
“Okay, I see. I’m Tallulah Thompson. Mr. Wellington called me in to help him save his hotel. I’m only here for a week. I would love to chat with you.”
Emma shot the owner a hard look. “Happy to do it—just not now and not here.”
Tallulah was dying to hear the backstory on this one. “Good, you tell me when and where, and I’ll meet you.”
Emma nodded. “You ever been to Little Big Horn?”
“No, this is my first trip to Montana.”
“There’s a restaurant, a trading post really, just outside the park. You can’t miss it. A huge arrow points to it. I’ll meet you there tomorrow at noon.” Emma turned to Wellington. “If you really want to save this place, you need to behave. This woman is here to help you. Sit down, shut up, and listen.” Emma stomped out the front door.