Tallulah has misgivings about taking this consultant position, but the owner apologizes and begs her to stay. That night, when she goes to bed, she has a surprise visitor.
“Ms. Thompson, can we start over?” “Yes, let’s try, shall we?”
He extended his hand. “My name is Will, and I really need your help. I’m sorry I acted like a jerk. I do that when I get anxious. Right now, I’m about to have a nervous breakdown. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
She took his hand and gave it a firm shake. “Nice to meet you, Will. I’m here to help you save Hotel LaBelle. I would love a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, if you have something simple.”
An hour and two delicious buffalo burgers later— one half for Franny—Will sat with his head in his hands. “I just don’t know what to do. Emma is a hardworking woman, but she refuses to clean some of the rooms, says they have a spirit wandering in them. The construction workers are good—when they work. They have a habit of up and walking off the job if they hear of better paying work elsewhere, even though I have a contract with the company. The hotel is on the grid, but the power goes out often in the winter. I’m going to have to invest in an emergency generator. Each room has a fireplace, but some of the rooms are freezing, even when the fire is roaring. And, every now and again, I find wild animals wandering through the place.”
Tallulah pulled out her sticky notepad. “Wild animals?”
“Turkeys, deer, even a mountain goat one time.” He shook his head and stood up to clear the coffee cups. “I lock up every night, and in the morning, I find doors flapping in the wind. If I believed in ghosts, I’d say this place is haunted.”
A chill ran down Tallulah’s back. “What about your guests? What do they say?”
“The last guests I had were a couple of guys who fished all day, drank all night, and trashed the room. Supposed to stay a week. Ran out in the middle of the third night and didn’t pay their bill.”
“I have no idea. All I know is, even after repeated cleanings, their room still smells like dead fish.”
What would send two tough guys running for the hills?
She had to find out or she wouldn’t be helping the guy. “Will, what room do you have me in?”
“The best one in the house. The honeymoon suite. Claw-foot bathtub, king-sized bed, in room bar.”
“Were your fishing guests in that room?”
He looked horrified. “Absolutely not.”
“I want to stay in the same room they stayed in.”
“Naw, you don’t want that. There’s still a faint smell of fish in the closet.”
“I insist. It’s time for me to fish or cut bait.” She smiled. “Humor me.”
He shook his head. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the stink.”
It’s not the odor I’m worried about.
An hour later, after a guided tour of the hotel upstairs and down, and taking the pug out for her bedtime constitutional, Tallulah admired her room. The updated bathroom, two queen-sized beds, and flat- screen TV brought the place into contemporary times, but the carved wood-paneled walls spoke of its rich history.
Every muscle in her body screamed for a hot bath. Tallulah cranked on the faucets of the claw-foot tub, plugged her cell phone in to charge, and stripped out of her travel clothes. She stepped into the steaming water and sank down into the bubbles, closing her eyes with a sigh of contentment. Franny plopped on the rug next to the tub and snored. An hour later, Tallulah awoke to a yapping pug and tepid bathwater. She stepped over the dancing dog, dropped her flannel nightgown over her head, and brushed her teeth while the little beast cocked her head and watched.
“Let it never be said that a pug allowed its owner to brush their teeth alone.”
The nightlight cast a small yellow glow when Tallulah opened the bathroom door, headed to the bed—and stopped. A drop-dead gorgeous mustachioed man with brown wavy hair falling to the collar of his old-fashioned suit perched on the edge of her four poster. The scent of cigar smoke and whiskey wafted to her on the breeze from the overhead fan, and his shadow stretched across the quilt in an extended parody of his height.
Franny leaped at the man’s legs and barked. He reached down to pet the dog, murmured something, and she wagged her curly little tail.
Rooted to the spot, heart thrumming in her throat, Tallulah debated running back into the bathroom and calling Will on her cell phone to get his butt up to the room and explain how this stranger got past her dead bolted and chained door. She took a deep breath. Flight wasn’t an option since he blocked her path from the room. Besides, she’d have to unwrap her pug from around his ankles or leave her here with the intruder. Not a chance.
Time to put up a good fight.
“Who the hell are you?” She wanted to snatch Franny away from him, but didn’t want to get too close to this stranger. “What are you doing in my room?”
The man’s dark, intelligent eyes widened and his eyebrow quirked. “You can see me?”
“Of course I can see you. I repeat. Who the hell are you? You’re sitting on my bed as if you own the place.”
“I’m Lucius Stewart. I do own the place. I’m the proprietor of Hotel LaBelle.”