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A moose wearing a Santa costume and hat, complete with beard, stood next to a Christmas tree adorned with moose ornaments. Where had they found a life-size plush moose? Journalist Nick Hudson looked around the airstrip office, soaking up the atmosphere. He liked Good Riddance, Alaska already. It was just what he'd hoped for and just what his blog readers would eat up. Quirky. Different.
It might be colder than a witch's tit in a brass bra, the sun had already made its brief appearance for the day, and though it was snowing outside it was cheery and toasty in here. The mingled aromas of fresh-brewed coffee, cinnamon rolls and wood-smoke scented the air.
An assortment of photos covered the wood walls. Lace-trimmed flannel curtains hung at the windows. Two old men with gray beards and baseball caps sat arguing over a chess board next to a potbellied stove. On the television set in the corner, Elvis crooned "Blue Christmas."
"Okay, Mr. Hudson"
He turned back to face the woman at the airstrip desk. "Please call me Nick."
"Okay, and I'm Merrilee." Before she'd had to field a phone call, she'd introduced herself as Merrilee Danvers Weatherspoon, the airfield and bed-and-breakfast operator, as well as the town founder and mayor.
Nick estimated she was in her mid-to-late-fifties and still carried a surprisingly Southern accent, considering she'd told him she'd been in Alaska for twenty-five years.
"Let's get you checked in and I'll show you to your room," she continued. "We're delighted you decided to join us for our Chrismoose Winter Festival." Her warm smile exuded gracious charm.
"I'm excited to be here."
"Do you know how Chrismoose began?" she asked, clearly eager to relay the story.
"Just in bits and pieces," he said. A friend of a friend of a friend had mentioned it to Nick, which was why he'd decided to come to cover it in the first place. Juliette, the bush pilot who'd ferried him in from Anchorage, had given him a little more to go on, but he still didn't have it all straight.
"It's not real complicated, but it does make a good story," she said with another smile. "There was a hermit named Chris, no one ever knew his last name, who lived out in the bush. He'd come into town about every four months for supplies. When he did, he kept to himself. He just showed up, got what he needed, and left. About fifteen years ago, when our little town was really starting to grow and expand, it was two days before Christmas and we all about dropped our jaw when Chris came riding into town on a moose."
"He was riding a moose?"
"I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. He'd found an orphan and raised it as a pet. Anyway, here he comes, wearing a Santa costume, riding through the middle of town on a moose with a bag strapped on its back."
"That must've been a sight to see."
Merrilee led him over to the wall of photographs. There in the midst of the mix was a color photo of a man in a Santa outfit on a moose. It was one of the craziest things Nick had ever seen. He grinned. "That is something else."
"Yessir, it was. And that bag on the back? Chris had carved wood toys for the children in town. He said he wanted to make sure the kids all had a Christmas, in case Santa couldn't find us out here. Every year, he'd show up and it wasn't just the kids who looked forward to it. Then one year Chrismoose day came and went and no Chris and no moose. We had a rough idea where he lived so a few of us drove out to check on him. We found him dead. We figured he'd probably passed a couple of months before. In the spring, when the snow melted, we found the moose dead, too. Because Chris had kept it as a pet and fed it, once Chris was gone it didn't know how to survive on its own. We never did find out who Chris was or if he had any family. We buried him but thought it was a shame such a wonderful tradition should die with him so our Chrismoose celebration was born. Eventually, it turned into a full-blown winter festival."
"That's a great story," Nick said.
Merrilee looked pleased with his reaction. "It is, isn't it? Now we draw quite a crowd every year. When you walk around town, you'll see all the campers and RV's parked on the outskirts of town. We get folks coming in from as far as five-hundred miles away."
"You'll find a schedule of events in your bedroom and all the businesses in town have them posted in their window." A frown wrinkled her forehead. "Unfortunately flu season has hit early and we've got a bit of a situation going on. We're telling everyone to make sure you wash your hands often and keep them away from your face." She waved her hand in dismissal. "Now enough about that. How far have you traveled to join us? We like to track these things."
Before he could answer, a door set in the wall beneath a sign that read Welcome to Gus's opened and a ponytailed blonde came barreling through, only to stop short and gape when she saw him.
"Oh my God. Oh. My. God." She blinked as if she couldn't quite believe her eyes. "Are you Nick Hudson?"
Nick laughed. Sometimes people recognized him but it was usually in New York. He certainly hadn't expected to be pegged in a small Alaskan town. "I am." He held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you "
"Teddy. Teddy Monroe." She shook his hand and then just sort of held on. "I can't believe you're here. This is wild."
Nick gently disengaged his hand from hers.
"Okay. I guess I missed something," Merrilee said. "I didn't realize you were famous, Mr. Hudson."
"Please, call me Nick, and trust me, I'm not famous."
Teddy Monroe jumped in. "Oh, yes he is. He's only the most popular travel writer at the New York Times. He travels all over the world and specializes in blogging about places that are off the beaten path. Wow, you're going to blog about us, aren't you? This is so cool!"
He grinned at her enthusiasm. "I came for the Chrismoose celebration. I thought it'd make for some interesting articles."
"Really?" If Nick hadn't been so used to studying people and reading them, he would've missed the flicker of alarm in Merrilee Weatherspoon's eyes. "The New York Times, huh? That's impressive."
"It pays the bills."
"He's being modest," Teddy said. "He started working there right after college" she looked at Nick for confirmation "at least that's what it says on your bio page."
He nodded. "I was lucky. My parents owned a diner and the travel editor for the Times used to come in. He mentored me, got me an internship while I was in school, and the rest, as they say, is history."
"I'm not a stalker or anything," Teddy said. "I just love New York. It's my goal to move there next year and study acting."
"Teddy's our aspiring thespian and quite the New York fan," Merrilee said.
"Hey, my boss used to live in New York. You might've heard of hershe was a chef there before she moved here and took over the restaurant." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the door she'd entered through. "Gus Tippens."
It struck Nick as charmingly naive that this girl from a town with one street and no stop lights would think he might know one other person in a city of millions.
"New York's so big," Ms. Weatherspoon said with a tight smile. "I'd be surprised if Nick had heard of Gus."
"Short for Augustina," Teddy said. "Just like my name is short for Theodora." She rolled her eyes. "Why my parents had to name me after my grandmother " She shook her head. "How you stick a baby with a name like Theodora is beyond me."
"Well, I'm sorry to say I've never heard of Gus but I'm looking forward to eating at her restaurant." His curiosity was piqued. "That sounds like a good story, in fact. You don't find many Big Apple chefs who move to the Alaskan wilderness and open a restaurant." It would make a great human interest angle, especially since it was a given some of his readers would recognize Gus's name or at least the restaurants in the city where she'd worked.
"And she trained in Paris," Teddy said, as if to ensure he was suitably impressed. He was.
"Did you come over for something in particular, Teddy?" Merrilee said. He had a sense she was uncomfortable with the conversation.
Teddy looked sheepish. "Oh, yeah. Gus wanted me to check if her box of truffles came in on the flight."
"It sure did." Merrilee picked up a box from the corner of her desk and passed it to Teddy. "I was going to run them over as soon as I got Nick checked in."
Teddy backed her way toward the door she'd come through earlier. "Okay, then. I guess I'll see you tonight at dinner. I meannot like that. It's just that, you'll be eating over here and that's where I work, you know, at the restaurant."
Nick was hard-pressed not to laugh but he didn't want to hurt the young woman's feelings. "Sure. I'll see you then."
She gave a little wave and pushed open the connecting door. For a brief second he caught a glimpse of a dark-haired woman with a shock of white in the front and he felt something of a shock himself. Striking. Arresting.
While the blonde had been nice, she didn't attract him. But that womanhe assumed she was Guswell, she was a different story altogether. He was definitely looking forward to dinner tonight.
"We've got to figure out something and figure it out fast," Merrilee said, trying not to panic, pacing back and forth in front of the counter of Bull Swenson's hardware store. She'd had to bide her time until he'd finished loading the final trim order for the almost-complete new community center.
Normally Merrilee found comfort in the smell of sawdust and lumber, but she wasn't feeling it now. She was too stinking worried.
Bull stroked his beard, a sure signal his wheels were turning. She'd fallen for Bull like a ton of bricks the first time she'd laid eyes on him twenty-five years ago. They'd been an item ever since.
Bull had repeatedly asked her to marry him and she'd repeatedly turned him down. When she'd left her husband in Georgia, she'd so desperately wanted to escape his cheating and lying ways that she'd packed her RV and driven as far away as she could. The day she'd wound up here, she'd known it was a special place. She'd found where she belonged.
And while she'd vowed to never marry againand meant it, once had been enoughtechnically she also couldn't because her jack-ass husband wouldn't sign the divorce papers. She'd claimed to be divorced anyway because at first she'd thought it was just a matter of months until Tad relented and signed.
However, months had turned into years and then to confess the lie had become too awkward. Tad had shown up last month and finally signed, but once the truth came out, things just weren't right between her and Bull. He told her he loved her, but he'd also told her he wouldn't ask her to marry him again. The asking would be up to her.
She wondered if things would ever be right between them again. But Nick Hudson, with his New York connection and his blog, was far bigger trouble than her and Bull's strained relationship.
Bull finally spoke. "So, he writes for the New York Times and he's already said he wants to write about Gus?"
"Yep. All this time and now when she's starting to feel safe again, to get her life back, this guy could ruin everything for her." Merrilee rubbed at her temple, feeling sick inside. "What are we going to do? If he finds out the truth " She couldn't suppress a shudder. Both Gus and Bull knew her opinion of reporters. They were snakes. Merrilee didn't trust a journalist as far as she could throw one.
"Where is he now?"
"He's out with Dalton looking around town. Dalton's grounded until his plane part comes in"
"Oh, did Juliette fly him in?"
Merrilee paced back and forth, which she knew drove Bull crazy but she was too anxious to stand still. "Yeah." Dalton Saunders was the primary pilot who made the runs out of Good Riddance and Juliette Watson filled in when there was overflow or in a pinch like now when Dalton's plane was out of commission. "Anyway, Dalton stopped by the airstrip so I sent Mr. Hudson off with him. They were getting along like a house afire when they left."
She'd found that particularly annoying. She didn't like Nick Hudson. If she was honest, it wasn't the man himself, more the threat he posed to Gus, but nonetheless she found it galling that Teddy had acted the fool and then Dalton had been chummy. If it was up to Merrilee she'd stick his butt back on the next flight to Anchorage but it was a free country and she, unfortunately, couldn't run him out on the figurative rail.
She rubbed her fingers over her forehead in a futile attempt to ward off a headache. "I assured her she'd be safe here, Bull. I can't let her down."
It had been a terrible time. Gus had been a wreck when she'd arrived in Good Riddance. She'd been engaged to Troy Wenham, son of a prominent New York politician from a long line of prominent politicians. Wealth and power had crowned them minor royalty.
According to Gus, his family had disliked her intensely from the beginning, considering her a gold digger. Troy had become increasingly controlling and Gus had broken the engagement. Infuriated, Troy had refused to accept it.
Merrilee had never pressed for details but she knew Troy had begun stalking Gus. Going to the police had proven useless in the face of his family's power and influence.
She'd switched jobs and moved. He'd followed her by tracing her credit card usage and he'd threatened that she'd never be free of him.
It had taken careful planning but Lauren Augustina Matthews had dropped off the face of the earth. Troy had never found her here because Merrilee was unknown to him. Even though the story in Good Riddance was that Gus was Merrilee's niece, she wasn't. Gus's mother, Jenny, and Merrilee had been friends since childhood. Jenny had died before Gus and Troy had met.
Merrilee had been honored when Gus had contacted her for help.