“Sir, the 2007 Gaja Barbaresco you requested,” the sommelier says as he presents it to Blain with a flourish. Blain doesn’t even look up from his smartphone, where he’s busily typing something, but he does say to me, “Go ahead and try it, Valentine.”
The sommelier turns regally to me, the neck of the bottle held delicately in one hand with the middle of the bottle resting on his forearm as he presents the label to me. I lean forward and pretend to study it with a keen eye before looking up and nodding my head.
Almost as if he pulls the corkscrew out of thin air, the sommelier makes a production of removing the cork and pouring a tiny amount into my glass. The dark burgundy color looks nice… I suppose. I pick up my glass by the stem and give it a swirl.
“You’ll love it,” Blain says, and my eyes go from the wine to him. He’s peeking up from his smartphone and giving me what I know he thinks is a charming grin. I almost smile back, but then he says, “It cost $210.”
And my smile dies and his head drops so he can go back to whatever has his attention on his phone.
I take a sip of the wine, and it tastes like wine to me. It’s a common misconception that just because you’re wealthy it doesn’t mean you have a discernible palate when it comes to expensive food and drink. Regardless, I give another nod to the sommelier and he fills our glasses, my date still focused on his phone.
“What’s so important, Blain, that you’ve had your face stuck to that phone since we got here?” I ask him after the sommelier leaves. It’s our third date and perhaps he’s feeling comfortable enough to do this to me. I did, after all, let him cop a major feel as we kissed good night after our last date, so perhaps he thinks I’m a sure bet tonight.
He doesn’t answer me right away, but eventually looks up as he tucks his phone into his jacket breast pocket. “Sorry about that. I was having my financial adviser move some stuff for me. The Dow was a little wonky today.”
I give him a polite smile. I could give a shit about the stock market. My money is old and seems to multiply just fine on its own without me checking it every five minutes.
“So,” Blain says as he rests his elbows on the table and leans in a little. “You were telling me about a possible trip to Paris soon, right?”
“That’s right.” I put my elbows on the table, lace my fingers together, and rest my chin on the back of my hands as I smile at him. “Maybe next month to do a little shopping.”
“No better shopping than on the Champs-Élysées,” he says knowingly, but yeah… he really doesn’t know. That’s for gawking tourists and such. For God’s sake, there’s a Disney and Adidas store there. But he continues knowledgeably. “I bought several custom-made suits there on my last trip to Paris.”
Yeah, probably from Hugo Boss, which you can find in large quantities right here in Manhattan.
“Actually, I prefer some of the boutique stores on Rue de Charonne,” I say before taking a delicate sip of my wine, but he doesn’t ask me about it or seem to care.
Instead, his gaze goes to my glass as I set it down and then back to me. “It’s a beautiful wine, right?”
“Mmmmm, yes,” I murmur.
“It’s the delicate hint of raspberry that gets me every time,” he says knowledgeably. Despite the fact I’m filthy rich, my taste buds apparently can’t be bought, so I just nod in agreement as he goes on about how it wasn’t the most expensive wine on the list tonight, but it was going to go well with the beef tenderloin he’d planned on ordering for us. He assured me it was the finest beef in the city.
“So how’s work going?” I ask Blain, hoping to spark interesting conversation.
“Very well,” he says with a hint of superiority in his voice that I suspect they might teach as a class in law school. “I just landed a client that will net high six figures in fees over the next five years.”
“That’s wonderful,” I praise him. “I know you can’t tell me the client, but what type of business are they in?”
“Hair care products,” he says as he reaches for the bread basket. “Very high end stuff. In fact, I’m going to switch to using it myself. I mean, if I spend four hundred dollars on a haircut, I should really be using the most expensive products, out there, right?”
And he lost me.
Of course, I’m not overly surprised he’s gushing over hair-care products. I think Blain’s hair is very important to him. It’s dark and thick, short on the sides and slightly wavy on top. It shines beautifully, and I really noticed this because as we were waiting for our table in the bar tonight, Blain kept checking himself out in the mirror. He’d turn his head this way and that, sometimes smoothing his fingertips over nonexistent stray hairs.
“…and of course, I have to have the elite gym membership at Lift. The body is a temple, right? I was just telling one of my colleagues the other day that you have to maintain your body as diligently as your stock portfolio.”
He drones on and on, every single word out of his mouth more self-involved than the last.
I tune him out. His lips are moving but my mind is far away, wondering how I can possibly be attracting men like this?
I’m a goddamned dating goddess in this city. Women turn to me to find out how it’s done and they listen carefully when I give them advice on how to find the perfect guy.
Yet in the past six months, my dating life has been absolutely wretched. It’s like I’m going out with the same guy over and over but he’s been cloned into different-looking hot packages. The package is so pretty on the outside that I figure at some point I’ve got to find the insides to match, right?
Sadly, I live in New York City, home to the biggest concentration of metrosexual men in the world. They love their designer clothes, their expensive wines, their luxury apartments, and bragging about it to anyone that will listen. Their job’s the most important one in the world, and if you look semi-interested, they’ll talk about it for hours, sometimes never even taking a breath. It’s only taken me a little over a decade of dating for me to figure it out, but I have come to the glum conclusion that there just aren’t any good men out there on the dating scene.
At least not in the city.
If this is true, it spells disaster for me, because I’m a dating and sex advice columnist. I use my own unique experiences—some failures, others major scores—to help give direction, advice, and occasionally hope to other women. Sometimes it’s sage wisdom on how to recognize a guy who only wants a hookup versus something more meaningful. Sometimes it’s an awesome sexual position I may have stumbled upon and want to share with my readers. But my dates have been so bad lately that I’m afraid my column is suffering, so I’ve got to do something to get my mojo back.
My blog has been going strong for almost six years now, but for the first time in my writing career, I’m wondering if perhaps I’m tapped out. Or maybe it’s just time to shake up Valentine’s Couch and find something different to write about.
A different kind of man, perhaps.
“What about this?” I ask as I take the navy chalk-stripe waistcoat and hold it up for Jeremy to consider. He examines it shrewdly for a moment, then plucks it from my hand so he can look at the price tag. He doesn’t even gulp, but then again, he doesn’t need to. He’s a French, and we Frenches are ridiculously wealthy.
“Not bad,” he says, and then proceeds to put it on over the gray shirt and tie he’d chosen. “You sure this will work for the rehearsal dinner?”
I walk over to the cream silk couch where some nameless, faceless sales associate laid out champagne and petit fours for us to nibble on while Jeremy shopped. The clothing is ridiculously expensive at Bergdorf Goodman, but their service is impeccable.
“It will totally work,” I assure him.
“I like it,” he proclaims as he smooths the vest and tugs it a little past his lean hips. “So can we go now?”
“No, we can’t go now,” I tell him. “You need shoes. The rehearsal dinner is as important as the wedding. Well, at least that’s what my mom and your mom would say if they were standing here.”
Jeremy and I both shudder over the thought of enduring our mothers shopping with us for his wedding.
Totally not looking forward to it. He’s getting married to a woman I really don’t like all that much and it’s going to be a monstrous affair. All of Manhattan society will be there. It will be the same boring conversation while the women ogle each other’s designer dresses with jealousy and the men brag about how much their portfolios have increased. My mother will glare at me the entire time, because it’s a complete embarrassment that her daughter, Valentine French, writes a—gasp—sex and dating advice column, and the only way I’ll possibly get through it is by getting drunk.
“I’m thinking the brown boots we looked at on the way in,” he says casually, then his eyes cut to me through the mirror’s reflection to gauge my approval or lack thereof. Just like any good and well-bred New York metrosexual, Jeremy likes to shop and spend money, but he does have his limits.
“Those Ferragamos would look great,” I assure him with a smile, eyeing the little cakes spread out before me and knowing my hips will hate me if I eat one. “But those gray Tom Fords would be dynamite as well.”
“I thought Tom Ford was so last season,” Jeremy says in an exaggerated gay voice as he starts to remove the waistcoat. Jeremy has no clue what’s in season or not. He only knows that he likes to look fashionable and he relies on his fiancée and me to tell him what to wear.
I try hard not to roll my eyes and instead take a large sip of champagne. I love Jeremy to death. He’s not my only cousin, but he’s my favorite family member of all of them, and truly the only one who admires me for marching to the beat of my own drum. We’re only a year apart in age, went to the same college, and are really more like best friends than cousins.
We see each other for dinner at least once a week and both enjoy indulging in a shared love of clothes shopping, so we do that often as well. His fiancée, Aubrey, is completely jealous of our relationship and constantly tries to derail it by coming up with all sorts of functions he has to attend with her to strip away my time with him. These are all high-society functions that she knows I’d rather be dead than attend, and thus her nefarious plan works too. I suppose this is the reason I don’t like her all that much.
The only reason I’m going to their wedding and suffering the presence of my family and their wealthy brethren is because I love Jeremy and I wouldn’t miss out on his happy day for anything. And even if Aubrey isn’t my cup of tea, she makes him happy, so I will have to grin and bear it.
I drain my champagne glass, pull the bottle from the ice bucket, and refill it as dribbles of water dot the marble table in front of me. Jeremy cocks at eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?” I set the bottle back into the bucket and take a healthy sip from my brimming glass of bubbly.
“You never drink more than one glass when we go shopping,” he points out as he picks up his own glass and sits on the opposite side of the couch, kicking his feet up on the table. “You think it impairs your fashion sense.”
“Well it does,” I grumble before taking another sip. I wave my glass at him. “But we’re shopping for you today.”
“You’re totally going to buy that purse you were eyeballing a little bit ago when we walked in,” he says with a laugh.
And he’s right about that. The Proenza Schouler shoulder bag would go perfect with the Carolina Herrera dress I was going to wear to the wedding, which is white by the way, and chosen just so I could annoy Aubrey and my family.
“But seriously, what’s up your butt?” he asks with a grin as he flops an arm over the back of the couch. He’s very handsome, and the way his bangs flop over his forehead makes him look young and carefree. I suppose he’s just happy he’s marrying Aubrey, but for the life of me I cannot fathom why. Marriage is just so… so… confining, I guess.
With a sigh, I set down my champagne glass, because I’m actually getting a small headache and that’s really why I don’t drink more than one. I look longingly at the petit fours and then turn to Jeremy. “I’m bored.”
“Bored,” he repeats with confusion in his voice. “Of shopping?”
I lean over and punch him on the shoulder. “Bite your tongue. I’ll never get tired of shopping. But I’m tired of my life lately.”
“What in particular?” he asks as he scoots a little closer to me. This is why we are the best of friends… because he listens to me.
“Men,” I say, voicing the one thing that has been plaguing me lately.
“Want to try a woman?” he asks seriously, and then adds almost dreamily, “because we’ve got this new broker in the office and she’s gay, but she is smoking hot. And has these lips that I know would just—”
“No, I don’t want a woman,” I snap at him so he’ll focus.
“But you don’t want a man?” he asks hesitantly.
“Not the men here,” I say as I wave my hand in a circle above my head.
“In Bergdorf Goodman’s?” he asks.
“Stop being purposely obtuse,” I say with an affectionate grin. “I’m tired of the men I’ve been dating. Here. In New York City.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
I huff out a breath of frustration. “They’re all the same. Predicable, even.”
“Let me guess,” he says as he points a finger briefly at me. “They’re focused on the rat race, trying to rise to the top. Career is more important than love and you’re feeling slighted. In fact, you begin to wonder if you’ll ever find true love. You long for a husband and babies and—”
“Honest to God, Jeremy,” I say with irritation as I cut him off. “Don’t you read my blog anymore?”
He snickers. “You know I do and that I’m just getting your panties in a twist.”
“Then you know it’s not that,” I say pointedly. “You know I’m not about love and settling down.”
“Then spell it out for me,” he encourages.
My gaze roams up to the chandelier hanging above us and I think for a moment as I study the sparkling crystals. I want to compose my thoughts, which have been running rampant lately.
I look back to Jeremy, who is patiently waiting for me to enlighten him. I’m pretty sure he’ll get me. I know damn well he won’t judge me, because he hasn’t yet, and my behavior has been pretty dicey over the years. He’s the only one who has supported me and has encouraged the family to let me shine rather than berate me for not falling into line. It goes without saying that the French family is as embarrassed and astounded today that Valentine French writes a sex column as they were the day they read my first post.
“Did you read my last piece?” I ask him.
“‘Will the Metrosexual Kill the Orgasm?’” he says with a nod, repeating the title. “It was good. Very witty and tongue in cheek.”
“It wasn’t meant to be tongue in cheek,” I say flatly, and his eyebrows rise sky high. “I meant every word.”
“I don’t understand,” he says as he cocks his head at me. “You essentially talked about how metrosexuals are the perfect men to date. We’re bright, successful, fashionable, and take damn good care of ourselves. Every woman loves a man with well-trimmed pubes. That’s exactly what you said, and you reminded womankind why the greatest dating in the world is right here in New York. In the end your conclusion was that metrosexuals have kept the female orgasm alive and flourishing.”
I shake my head. “No, I was being sarcastic.”
“No, you weren’t,” he says firmly. “It was cheeky but genuine, and all of your fans thought so. You had a ton of praise over that article. I mean, you’re the queen of dating the metrosexual, after all.”
“I was being sarcastic,” I insist, but then lower my gaze almost in shame. Picking at the edge of the hem of my skirt, I add softly, “At least my inside voice was being sarcastic. I’m sick and tired of them.”
“So your article defended the typical man you tend to date—a New Yorker—but you really want something different?” he surmises accurately.
With a sigh I admit, “I just feel like there’s something more I’m missing.”
“And this doesn’t have to do with love?” he asks for clarification.
I wrinkle my nose. “You know I don’t do love. But, Jeremy… I think the metrosexual did kill my orgasm.”
“Explain.” His brows are furrowed and he watches me with genuine interest, because Jeremy knows me well. I’m a man-eater. I love men. I love to date, I love to be treated well, and I love good sex. I love everything about being a single woman in New York City, and nothing evidences that more than the fact that I write an extremely popular blog on dating and sex, focusing mostly on how a man can please a woman based on my experiences. It’s so popular, in fact, I’m a bit of a local celebrity here, and I love it. I clearly don’t do it for the money, because I have gobs of that, but I do it because I love writing and I love what I write about.
I take a deep breath and let it out. “I’m tired of going out with men whose nails are better manicured than mine and who spend more on hair-care products than they do on dinner with me. I’m tired of discussing fashion trends and the best exfoliation products. It pisses me off when my dates admire themselves in a mirror anytime we pass one or they have to check their stock portfolio at least once an hour on their smartphone. I’d like their tans not to be so orange and their teeth not to be so blindingly white. It’s the same, date after date, and I’m just… tired of it.”
“You do realize you just described me to a T,” Jeremy says dryly. “Well, except the orange fake tan.”
“Yes, well, you’re my cousin and I don’t care if you’re a metrosexual or not. I’m not dating you.”
“Then what do you really want?” Jeremy prods.
I give a painful sigh. “I don’t know. Just something different. A real man, you know?”
“Again … I may enjoy all those things you pointed out above, but I do believe I’m a real man. I drink beer, belch, and even fart sometimes. I watch football and leave my underwear lying on the floor, which drives Aubrey batshit crazy, but I give her amazing orgasms, so I can say this metrosexual has it going on between the sheets.”
“Ugh,” I say in frustration as I lean my head back against the couch and stare at the chandelier again. “I’m not making myself clear.”
“I’m not getting it, Valentine,” Jeremy tells me bluntly. “Now quit beating around the bush. What the hell do you think is missing from your dating life?”
A million lies run through my head, but this is Jeremy, and he’ll call me on every one of them. And if I screw around, someone might buy that Proenza Schouler I want.
My head turns to the left and I look at Jeremy. “I want to feel really wanted. I want to drive a man crazy. I want him to look at me like I’m an oasis in the desert. I want a man who would battle an army just for the chance to be with me, and once he was with me, he’d battle a million armies just to keep me. Men here aren’t like that. It’s too easy for them. Pickings are abundant and no one has to fight for real companionship because we’re all so self-absorbed we’ve learned to do without it. I want a man who can and would take on the world for the right woman. And most important, I want that feeling that would come from having a man like that. Oh, and I’m betting a man like that would be amazing in the sack.”
“Be careful, Valley,” Jeremy chides. “You find a man like that, you’ll probably fall in love.”
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” I say dryly, dismissing such an idea. I’m not anywhere near ready to settle down. “I know one thing: I’m done with the men around here for a while. Maybe I’ll just take a break or something.”
“Why don’t you try a change of scenery?” Jeremy suggests as he stands from the couch. He pulls a Donegal sweater out of a box that had been placed there earlier by a sales associate and inspects the collar stitching.
“Change of scenery? You mean like a new bar or something?”
“No, like a new location. Not New York City.”
“You mean travel somewhere and sample the men there?” I ask with a laugh. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Is it?” he asks, and his tone is so serious I sit up straight on the couch to listen further. “Why not? You’re independently wealthy and you can write your blog from anywhere. You say you’re bored with everything around here, so pack up your trunks, grab your yappy little rodent of a dog—”
I lean over quick as lightning, grab a petit four, and launch it at Jeremy’s head.
A direct hit.
Jeremy turns to glare at me but doesn’t miss a beat. “—grab your cute and lovely dog, and go explore the world a bit. Maybe you can find your real man out there.”
That idea actually has some merit. It would reinvigorate my blog as well, because if I was getting bored with the city men around here, I’m sure my readers were getting bored of hearing about it.
“But where would I go?” I muse out loud, thinking of perhaps Paris or Barcelona. I think Spanish men are really sexy.
“Alaska,” Jeremy says, then pulls the sweater over his head. When it pops through, he looks at me through the mirror. “Remember Jordie Cambridge? I went on that fishing trip for his bachelor party there a few years ago.”
I vaguely remember Jeremy going on that trip. But they were fishing, and that really didn’t interest me much, so I can’t recall much about it.
“Why Alaska?” I ask.
“Because the male population is like fifteen times that of the female population. Someone like you would be a hot commodity and there’d be herds of men from which you could cull,” he says matter-of-factly. “Is this sweater any good?”
Fifteen men to every woman?
And I’m thinking big, rugged manly men who don’t give a rat’s ass about fashion or manicures, and I bet their tans are natural.
“Alaska,” I murmur to myself.
This idea definitely has merit.
I pull into the Ketchikan Terminal of the Alaska Marine Highway and park my truck. The ferry from Gravina Island has already docked and the passengers are unloading. Hopping out and locking my door, I make my way to the boat, my eyes searching for Buddy amid the people flocking down the ramp, eager to start their vacation in the great Alaskan wilderness.
Some of them will be here for the amazing salmon fishing, and others just to explore the scenic beauty of crystal blue lakes and snowcapped mountains that surround you 360 degrees. Others will make this just a short stop before they continue on to visit Anchorage or Denali. It’s the beginning of the summer tourist season, so Ketchikan’s numbers will swell. Even though its population hovers around fourteen thousand, that’s still too many people for me and why I chose to make my life in East Merritt, which is about a forty-minute trip north on the only highway that runs along the western edge of Revillagigedo Island.
I walk against the flow of people disembarking, much like a salmon swims upstream here to spawn, my eyes sweeping back and forth along the concrete dock to locate Buddy, the ferry captain. He’s been operating that boat ever since I moved to this area from Seattle seven years ago and one of the very first people I met.
Finally, the crowd thins a little and I locate him standing at the bottom of the ramp talking to a woman.
No… arguing with a woman.
And not just any woman at first glance. She looks like a fucking movie star and completely out of place.
Oh, she’s trying to look the part of an earnest tourist, wearing a bushman’s-type jacket cinched at her small waist and flaring over curved hips, but the large dark frames on her eyes and expensive-looking scarf around her neck, paired with high-heeled leather boots over tight-as-sin cream pants screams complete city girl without a clue as to where she is.
But the true kicker—the thing that tells me she’s not your ordinary tourist—is the large camel-colored bag hitched over her shoulder from the top of which pokes a tiny white, curly haired dog that’s yapping vigorously at Buddy. I can’t hear their conversation, but I can hear that damn dog.
By the way the woman’s gesticulating, I can tell she’s angry even though I can’t see her eyes behind those sunglasses. Buddy’s hands are held out, palms up in supplication as the woman waves to a mountain of luggage piled beside her and then makes a sweeping motion in the general direction of the island’s interior. The dog still yaps, but then the woman puts a hand on its little head and scratches its ears, thankfully making it go silent.
I head toward them and their conversation becomes clearer.
“Look lady… I don’t know what you expect me to do. I have to get on that ferry and head back to Gravina Island. I can’t help you get your luggage to where you need to go.”
“Then call a car service for me,” she says dramatically. “I can’t believe this town doesn’t have a damn cab in it. This truly is the wilderness.”
I lower my face to hide the smirk that overtakes my mouth, and when I have it under control, I look back up just as I reach Buddy’s side. He sees movement, whips to face me, and his expression dissolves into pure gratefulness.
The little white dog starts yapping at me.
“What’s going on?” I ask pleasantly, my eyes sliding to the woman but ignoring the dog. Still can’t see her eyes, but the rest of her is completely stunning. She’s tall and I’m guessing five-nine or so without those heels on, which still puts her several inches below my six-foot-six frame. Her long hair is a deep fiery red and hangs all around her shoulders and pours down her back in big waves that flutter every now and again in the breeze. High cheekbones, porcelain skin, and lips that are full and colored dark red.
“Hush, Sassy,” the woman croons to the little dog, and it stops barking but continues to emit a tiny growl from its throat.
“This nice lady,” Buddy says to me, but I can hear by his voice he doesn’t think she’s nice at all, “seems to be under the impression there would be transportation awaiting her here at the dock to take her to her hotel. I’ve told her there’s not, and she’s also under the impression that I can do something about it.”
Chuckling, I look back to the woman and stick my hand out to her, praying that tiny ball of fluff doesn’t latch on to it. “I’m Logan Burke.”
The woman’s jaw relaxes and the dog remains watchful as the growl dies down. She takes my hand, gives me a brief but firm shake, and smiles. “Valentine French. And I’m clearly in a bind.”
“Seems so,” I say with good nature.
With a pout of those pretty lips, she grumbles, “I’ve never traveled anywhere there wasn’t cab service before. I just assumed I’d be able to hail one here.”
My gaze slides down to her luggage. Five suitcases in all made of expensive-looking brown leather with a tan pattern of some sort. When I look back to her, I say, “Going to be staying awhile?”
Her smile gets bigger. “I hope so.”
“Well, if you give me a moment to load up the cargo Buddy brought me, I’ll be glad to give you a lift to where you need to go,” I tell her affably. “Or even to a car-rental place, although chances are they won’t have anything. It’s high tourist season and they’re probably out of their small stock.”
“I’d really appreciate that,” she says gratefully, and then turns to Buddy. “And I’m really sorry I wigged out on you. It’s just… I’ve not run into this before and my cousin made all the trip plans for me and I’m going to positively kill him when I see him.”
Buddy holds his hands up to stop her and then tips his hat. “No problem. Chief Burke will take good care of you.”
“Chief?” she asks curiously, her head turning back to me.
“I’m the East Merritt chief of police,” I tell her with a wink as I tap my badge clipped to my belt. “It’s in my job description that I can’t turn my back on a person in need.”
“But this is Ketchikan,” she points out with a sweet, teasing tone in her voice, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d think she was flirting. “This isn’t your jurisdiction, so that says you’re going out of your way to help me.”
“I’m sworn to protect and serve all those that come to the great state of Alaska,” I assure her, although that’s not exactly true. My duties only extend to the nine hundred residents of East Merritt, and I honestly wouldn’t have offered if she wasn’t as pretty as she is.
“Well, it’s my lucky day then,” she says, and I swear that’s a purr coming from the base of her throat. “I’m actually headed to East Merritt.”
I blink in surprise, because not many that get off that boat stay in East Merritt. For one, there aren’t a lot of accommodations, and two, there’s not much going on in our little town. It’s out of the way and quite peaceful, but mostly attracts serious hikers or fishermen who want to navigate the surrounding waters for salmon. Most of the residents work either in logging or in the commercial fishery business, which are both male-dominated professions. As such, not much culture is required in a town like East Merritt, as the fishermen and loggers pretty much just like to drink beer and shoot the shit with each other when they’re not working.
On the other hand, Ketchikan is a town filled with much more to do for a woman like her. It has art galleries, shopping, nice restaurants, and even a small theater that puts on pretty good productions, or so I hear.
“You’re going to be staying in East Merritt?” I ask to make sure I heard her right.
“Yes,” she says brightly. “Staying at Billiott’s Bed and Breakfast. My cousin Jeremy recommended it, as he stayed there a few years ago.”
Billiott’s Bed and Breakfast? Is that what Sarah’s calling her boardinghouse now?
In fairness, it is the nicest place that East Merritt affords, but it’s not exactly posh. Still, I don’t say anything because it’s not my place, so I turn to Buddy. “If you can get my stuff, I’ll get her suitcases loaded while you do that.”
“Sure thing,” Buddy says, and practically races up the ferry ramp.
I watch him just a moment before turning back to Valentine. “You wait here and I’ll pull the truck up.”
“Okay,” she says sweetly, and even her little dog looks like it’s smiling at me. “And… thank you, Chief.”
“It’s just Logan,” I tell her, not because she’s special and I’m making an exception, but because everyone around here calls me by my first name. We’re not a pretentious lot.
It takes about twenty minutes to get my cargo from Buddy—which consisted of a new radio and emergency lights for my truck—and to get Valentine’s luggage loaded into the back. For the past seven years I’ve been chief, and I’ve been driving an old Ford Bronco I’d inherited from the former chief and that had finally bit the dust a few weeks ago. It was just shy of twenty-eight years old and it led a damn good life. I had patched it up a few times over the years, but I just needed to let it rest in peace. And because there wasn’t any money in the budget for a new police vehicle, I figured my Dodge Ram would do just fine with a set of blue emergency lights on top as long as I had a good two-way radio installed. Buddy brought it over from a private drop ship at the airport for me.
It didn’t go unnoticed that Valentine actually winced when I loaded her luggage in the back of my truck, and then looked worriedly at the eastern sky starting to darken with rain, but she didn’t utter a word of complaint. I didn’t offer condolences, because I could tell that storm wasn’t going to reach us since we were headed northwest of Ketchikan.
When she settled in the front cab of my truck with that ridiculous little dog perched on her lap, we headed out for the forty-minute drive.
“So why did you come to East Merritt?” I ask conversationally, but it’s more than that. I’ve got my police senses firing on all cylinders because she is not your typical tourist. I don’t think she’s here for nefarious reason, but she’s not here for the usual ones either.
“Like I said… recommendation from a family member,” she says, and while her tone is open and outgoing, it’s sort of a vague answer too.
“Beg my pardon for saying so,” I say carefully. “But you don’t seem the type that came here to go hiking and fishing.”
Valentine gives a soft laugh filled with rich hints of feminine wiles, her hand stroking down the dog’s back as she says, “Um… no. I most definitely didn’t come for that. I just needed to get away and I have the means to do so. Thought I’d enjoy the quiet for a while, although I’m going to have to give Jeremy hell for not telling me there was no cab service.”
Sounds plausible, but not probable to my way of thinking, but I let it go. If she’s going to be here for any length of time, I’ll eventually figure her out. My town is way too small for her to go unnoticed, particularly by the scores of young bucks that will be sniffing around her. East Merritt is a working town, and it draws single men from all over the world for solid work. There aren’t a lot of women in these parts for them to choose from, so Miss French will be a hot commodity here.
If only half the men in Alaska are only half as gorgeous as Chief Burke—or Logan, as he told me to call him—then I’m in for a damn good trip. He wears his dark, almost black, hair a lot longer than most men I know. It curls over the tops of his ears and hangs halfway down his neck in a shaggy mess. It doesn’t look like he’s shaved in days and could possibly be growing in a beard, but the one thing I do know, those dark, slashing eyebrows make his blue eyes positively explode with brightness in the afternoon light.
I’ll admit, I was silently cursing Jeremy for recommending this place when the ferry docked and there was no transportation to take me to East Merritt. I’m not sure if it was courageous or stupid, but I let him set up this trip for me. I’m not sure if his smile was taunting or genuine when he said he had the perfect place for me to go to experience the last frontier of real men. And I’m completely uncertain about whether or not this is a good idea, but Jeremy planted the seed and I’m running with it, for better or worse. Whether I ultimately kill him or hug him still remains to be seen.
Worst-case scenario, I can always hop the ferry to the airport and leave if this ends up sucking. Of course, the extreme lack of local transportation means I’ll probably have to leave behind my five Louis Vuitton suitcases, because I’ll probably be walking back to Ketchikan, but I’ll deal with that possibility later.
We enter East Merritt, and I know this because the speed limit on the two-lane road that had water on our left and trees on our right went down to twenty-five miles an hour and the road cut in eastward a tad. There are wooden buildings on either side bordered by sidewalks, and on the left, I see a small harbor area with docks just beyond.
“Welcome to East Merritt,” Logan says as his truck creeps slowly down the main street, which I note at a small intersection is called Main Street.
“It’s… quaint,” I say, and hope that doesn’t sound offensive. Most of the buildings are painted in shades of white, pale blue, and green, and some are stained golden brown.
Rising up on the right side of the town is a mountain, and the buildings—which look to be housing—sort of climb up the slope with a road that zigzags upward to provide access. Most are one or two stories, square shaped with gently pitched roofs, and appear to be all wooden and painted paler colors or wood stained. Not a lot of variety outside of the pretty colors.
Logan brings his truck to a halt and I realize we’ve come to a stop sign. This is the first time we’ve had to stop since leaving Ketchikan. After Logan confirms that we are indeed the only vehicles here at this moment, he proceeds through. It’s nearing seven p.m. and there are several people strolling the sidewalks, mostly men, I note with very keen interest. And they all look big and burly, and flannel is the popular choice around here for sure.
Even though it’s almost seven, the sun hangs in such a way that it appears to be early afternoon on the East Coast. That’s because the sun won’t actually set until close to 9:30 p.m. tonight and I wonder how hard it’s going to be to adjust to that. Jeremy kindly warned me that sunrise was close to three a.m., so I came prepared with a sleep mask at least.
Logan drives down one more block and then pulls parallel to the sidewalk next to a wooden sign that proclaims billiott’s boarding house.
Not for the first time since I arrived, I become alarmed. “I thought this was a bed-and-breakfast.”
Logan chuckles as he turns the truck off. “Well, it has beds and Sarah serves breakfast, so…”
I gather Sassy in close to my chest and then open the door. As I get out I note this is not the charming Victorian-style, three-story home I’d been imagining when Jeremy made my reservations. In fact, it looks like no bed-and-breakfast I’ve ever seen. It’s just a large, square home with white siding and a flat front porch with no railing and no portico to protect a visitor at the door if it were raining. The only hint that charm might be involved is the two battered-looking rocking chairs to the right-hand side of the door.
I hop down onto the ground from Logan’s truck and shut the door behind me. He rounds the front of his vehicle and joins me as I take it all in.
“Not what you were expecting?” he surmises.
“Um, no… I mean yes… I mean, no it’s not what I was expecting but it’s… um… lovely,” I stammer.
Logan chuckles again and brushes past me, and I know he sees right through me. I bend over and set Sassy on the ground, and she immediately runs a few yards away from me to pee in the small green patch of front yard. Then she heads closer to the house and starts sniffing around.
A suitcase plops down on the sidewalk, startling me and I turn to see Logan pulling another one out of the back of his truck. I wince as that one is set down unceremoniously and I hope my leather isn’t getting chafed.
“You might want to keep your dog on a leash,” Logan says offhandedly as he pulls the third piece of luggage out.
“Oh,” I murmur as I try to think if I packed a leash. I mean… I have a dog walker for her in New York. And past that, she’s in my apartment with me and never leaves my side. “Is there a city ordinance or something?”
Again, Logan chuckles, and this time he shakes his head in amusement. He pulls another piece of luggage out of the back of his truck, sets it down. “No ordinance. But if you don’t keep her close by, a bear is likely to get her.”
“A bear?” I choke out in shock, then immediately turn to my dog and yell, “Sassy… come here.”
Sassy ignores me and starts to run around the side of the house, where I imagine a bear is waiting. I look frantically to Logan, who is getting my last suitcase on the sidewalk, and then frantically back to the side of the house where Sassy has now disappeared. I want to run after her, but if there is indeed a bear, I’m thinking I’ll look like a better meal option than a little three-pound dog appetizer.
“Could you…” I stammer, and then point to the side of the house. “Could you get her for me?”
Logan throws his head back and laughs, and when he looks back to me, his blue eyes are shining so bright with amusement my face flames red. He thinks I’m absolutely ridiculous, and while it doesn’t happen often in my life, my ego takes a bit of a hit.
“Forget it,” I snap at him, and take a purposeful step onto the lawn, intent on running down my wayward dog and praying to all that is holy there’s not a bear back there. Sadly, my four-inch heel sinks into the sod, but before I can free it and take another awkward step to save my dog, Logan’s hand comes to my arm. His grip is gentle but halting.
“I’ll get her,” he says in a soft rumble, and it sounds so sexy my girlie parts start to tingle. “You go on up and knock on the door so Sarah knows you’re here.”
I nod and then his hand is gone. I don’t move, though, and shamelessly stare after him. He walks away with an easy, loping grace despite how big he is and disappears around the house.
When he’s gone, I throw up another prayer that he and Sassy are safe from bears, and then set myself a reminder to tear Jeremy a new one for sending me somewhere where my dog could get eaten. Stepping back onto the sidewalk and turning to the front door of the house, I’m surprised to see it open and a woman standing there. She’s not exactly heavy, but she’s not thin either. I’d call her… um… stout. Yes, that’s it. She’s wearing a pair of jeans, a blue and black flannel shirt with sleeves rolled halfway up her arms, and her gray-tinged blond hair is pulled back into a bun. She’s not wearing any makeup, but her eyes are staring at me kindly. If I had to guess, I’d say judging by the heavy lines in her tanned face she’s in her early sixties at least, but she looks tough enough that she could wrestle a bear if need be.
“You must be Miss French,” she calls out from the door, and then waves her hand for me to come in.
I turn to grab one of my suitcases, which thankfully has wheels, but she yells out, “Leave it. Logan will bring them in.”
So I leave it, and I also think it’s both strange and kind of really cool that the chief of police gave me a ride here, is now off rescuing my dog, and will carry my luggage in for me. I wonder if I should tip him or something.
Feeling somewhat secure for the moment, I walk up the small concrete walkway to the front porch where Sarah waits with a warm smile on her face.
When I reach her, her hand shoots out and I shake it. She pumps my arm vigorously, and for a brief moment I’m afraid she’ll dislocate my shoulder, she’s that strong. But her brown eyes are warm and inviting when she says, “Good to meet you. It’s going to be so nice to actually have another woman here.”
“Another woman?” I ask curiously as she steps back into the house and motions me inside.
She shuts the door behind us and says, “Well, the only boarders I usually get are guys coming into the area looking for work. Once they sign on somewhere, they get permanent lodging and move on.”
“Oh,” I say as I look around what seems like a regular living room. Well, one I’d imagine a homemaker in Alaska might have. Big, sturdy couches in heavy wood and a faded blue, green, and gold plaid design that has clearly been around awhile. A corner recliner in dark green wool and heavy pine furniture. The walls are wood paneled and there’s an honest-to-goodness moose head mounted above the fireplace mantel.
Sarah must notice me looking at it and proudly announces, “Shot him almost fourteen years ago.”
“Um… that’s um… amazing,” I say, completely faltering over the appropriate compliment, since I can’t imagine shooting anything. I’m not a vegan, and I like meat, but I absolutely don’t want to kill it or know about killing it.
Sarah chuckles and turns to the staircase. “Come on up. I’ve got your room ready.”
I follow her up a set of creaky stairs to the second floor, which has a long hall with two rooms on either side and one at the end directly ahead of us. All of the doors are closed. She leads me to the first door on the right, but before she opens it, she points at the others. “Across from you is Mike. He’s new here. Trying to pick up some steady work as a fishing guide. Beside him is Rusty, and across from Rusty is Portman. They’re both loggers.”
Before I can even respond or process the fact I’m on a floor with three men, Sarah slides a key into my door and opens it.
I’d sort of gotten the hint that this was not going to be on par with the Ritz when we pulled up, and nothing about the interior changed that suspicion. There’s a full bed with a plain wooden headboard on one wall, a dresser on another wall, and a braided wool carpet covering most of the worn plank flooring. There’s one nightstand with a small lamp, and the window has no curtains but a set of plastic blinds shielding the interior from some of the light.
Sarah hands me the key and says, “I’ll clean your linens once a week and there’s a coin-operated laundry back in Ketchikan if you need to wash your clothes. Breakfast is a simple affair but will be ready at six a.m. I don’t serve lunch, and dinner’s at six p.m. You already missed that, and those are some hungry boys living here, so there aren’t any leftovers I can offer you. But you can grab a good meal tonight at The Wounded Caribou, which is just a block farther up Main Street.”
My stomach rumbles the minute she mentions I missed dinner, and my head is trying to process the fact I have to be up a six a.m. if I want to eat breakfast. But I can handle this. I’m going to consider it an adventure, which is the only way I’ll keep myself from killing Jeremy when I get back to New York.
I take the key and give Sarah an appreciative smile.
“This looks great,” I praise her, then ask, “but there’s not a bathroom with this room?”
Because every bed-and-breakfast I’ve stayed in—which granted was only one and that was on a weekend trip to Vermont with a hot neurosurgeon who wanted to talk about brain surgery the entire time we weren’t having sex—had a private bathroom.
Sarah doesn’t laugh at me, which means my question’s not all that ridiculous, but she’s very matter-of-fact when she says, “That’s the door at the end of the hall. The boys usually shower right when they get home from work, so you should have it all to yourself in the morning. The lock’s busted on it and I haven’t gotten it fixed yet, but I told those boys at breakfast today that a lady was arriving and they had to knock before they went in.”
I swallow hard, not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, the prospect of brawny, hot men sharing a bathroom with me has some appeal on a very base level, but on the other hand, I’m a bit pampered when it comes to my bathroom privacy. I have all sorts of creams and lotions and makeup that I’ll need to spread out. How can I possibly exist with three outdoorsmen in one bathroom?
But before I can even answer my own question, Sarah’s turning around and walking out of my room. I follow her back down the stairs, immediately noticing Logan standing at the bottom with my dog, who starts wiggling with excitement in his arms when she sees me. All five of my bags are crowding around him in the foyer.
When I reach the bottom floor, he hands Sassy to me.
“Thank you so much,” I say as I nuzzle her soft neck.
“No worries,” he says pleasantly, and then nods at Sarah. “Everything okay with you, Sarah?”
“Just fine, Logan,” she says cheerfully. “Had a touch of gout in my right foot last week but it’s on the mend.”
“You better get in to see Doc,” he replies with concern. “You know they have medicine for stuff like that.”
Sarah rolls her eyes at Logan and then turns to me with a wink. “All you young folk think medicine cures everything. Not nothing a little apple cider vinegar won’t take care of.”
My eyes look past Sarah to Logan and he shakes his head at me with a smile. Then he nods down to Sassy. “Make sure you keep her on a leash when you’re outside so she stays by you.”
I nod, but then feel pressed to ask for assurances. “Are, um… bears prevalent?”
Sarah snorts. “This is Alaska, honey.”
Logan gives me another smile, this one reassuring. “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them, and shouldn’t come near you. But your dog is a different matter.”
“Okay,” I say thickly, my heart beating fast over the thought of Sassy getting eaten. “Is there a pet store where I can buy a leash?”
Sarah laughs heartily. “We’re not that sophisticated around here. But I’ve got some thin rope in my shed out back. I’ll help fashion a leash for you.”
“That would be lovely,” I say weakly, just starting to realize I’m probably way out of my depth here.
“Well, enjoy your visit Miss French,” Logan says, going very formal on me. Before I can insist he call me Valley, which is what most of my friends call me, he nods at Sarah. “Good night, Sarah. See you around.”
“’Night, Logan,” Sarah says cheerfully, and then he’s gone.
“Cute dog,” Sarah observes.
“Thanks for letting me bring her,” I say. When Jeremy offered to plan my trip, my only real prerequisite was that I wanted to bring Sassy. I could be here for a few weeks and I couldn’t bear to be parted from her that long. In hindsight, I also should have insisted he put me in a Ritz-Carlton—which gladly accepts dogs—but that’s on me I guess for not being diligent in checking behind him.
“So what’s your deal, honey?” Sarah asks as she walks into her living room and takes the corner recliner. She kicks up the footrest and leans back with a contented sigh.
Because it seems she wants to chat, I follow her in and perch my butt on the edge of one of the couches. The pillows are so deep they sort of suck me in as I hold Sassy on my lap. “My deal?” I ask once I wiggle around and feel more secure.
“Why is a girl like you in a roughneck place like this?” she explains.
“Oh, well… I’m just taking a vacation,” I hedge, because I have no intention of telling anyone I’m here to sample the local dating scene and hopefully write some kick-ass blog articles about my adventures. I have two working theories. I’ll be convinced either that the men back in New York will never measure up, or that I should be entirely grateful for them. Either way, it’s going to be fun finding out.
Sarah shakes her head and looks at me shrewdly. “Nah. There’s a story there.”
“A story?” I ask with my mind racing. I didn’t think anyone would question a simple vacation, but I’m also realizing this isn’t your normal vacation destination for a woman like me.
“A story,” she reiterates. “Like I said… women like you don’t come here for vacation.”
And I know deep down she’s right. When the nicest accommodations for me and my Louis Vuitton luggage is Billiott’s Boarding House where I’m sharing a bathroom with a fishing guide and two loggers, and I’m on constant watch so my dog doesn’t get eaten, there’s no doubt I’m out of my element.
So I tell her the first thing that comes to mind. “I’m getting over a bad breakup.”
Sarah’s eyes turn soft. “Oh, honey.”
“Yeah… we’d been seeing each other for years, and he wouldn’t ever propose, and then… well, I found out the reason was because he had another woman in another state. Well, another family actually. He was married.”
I actually wince internally over that whopper of a lie, all while being slightly impressed with my details. I wanted my story to sound pathetic enough to drive me to this godforsaken place.
“Men are bastards,” Sarah says with venom. “Pure bastards.”
I nod. “Total bastards.”
“So you decided to get far away,” she concludes.
I nod again.
“To let your broken heart heal among the majestic scenery of the Alaskan wilderness,” she adds.
And, yeah… that sounds good. So I nod again. Sassy lays her head down on my lap and goes to sleep.
“What you need is rebound sex,” she proclaims, and I find myself starting to nod now out of habit, but then I catch myself.
“What?” I exclaim, then shake my head. “No.”
While I’m not ruling out sex with the right man, I damn well don’t want Sarah thinking that’s what I need. That’s my business and mine alone, and only in the right circumstance.
“Well, honey… just so you know, if you do want rebound sex, all you have to do is walk down Main Street. Trust me… it will find a pretty girl like you in no time.”
I smile inside. It’s going to be like picking apples off a tree.