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SCOUT BERENSEN HAD never been beautiful, except to those who think good health, fitness and unique features equal beauty. She was a big, strong woman with broad shoulders, big hands and feet. Her figure remained good in part because of genes, in part because she'd been forced to be physically active in childhood and finally because she realized that her hot—if Amazon-scale—body was her best feature and did her best to exploit it. Her hair was an unexciting brown, and her eyebrows, if left ungroomed, nearly joined in the center. Her aesthetician in California had always shrugged. One eyebrow's common enough. Here's what we'll do....
Outside—in the Lower 48—Scout always gave her appearance intensive, focused and sometimes expensive care. And Outside was where she'd lived her entire adult life, through college until now. In fact, it was where she'd planned and hoped to live till she died. Outside, she could devote unreasonable quantities of time and money to making the absolute most of her looks and no one would raise an eyebrow—professionally shaped or otherwise.
Alaska had different standards, as she well knew. Growing up in the bush, she'd rarely considered her looks; there were other, more important areas where she hadn't measured up. When she'd finally gone to high school in town for the winter and boarded with a family there, she'd been too glad to live in town to spend much time envying petite girls with cheerleader looks, and she could at least pretend that in the bush she'd learned a host of skills that even most of her Alaskan contemporaries didn't possess. She could drive a dog sled (allowing for skunks and epic wrecks), start a fire in the rain (possibly before death from hypothermia), dress out a caribou with her father standing over her screaming imprecations (well, she'd done it once, sort of, before developing hunting-related post-traumatic stress disorder), and fly an airplane badly enough to be the only member of her family without a pilot's license. She could spin dog hair into yarn that resembled knotted twine, preserve almost any edible plant without breeding botulism, and sleep for a total of maybe twenty minutes in a night with only tree boughs between her sleeping bag and the snow. She'd been raised right—at least, her father said, he and her mother had tried—she had a keen sense of who she was (someone who stood a better chance of reaching old age Outside) and she'd learned to survive things very difficult to survive. Looks were extra.
All of that was fine until she'd fallen in love for the first time, and then she'd keenly wished she was good-looking, because her first love, which in some ways remained, fifteen years later, her keenest, had been with a male of profound good looks, and the sort of mysterious past that made him irresistible to her, if not to all women. And though he had valued her as his friend—and was willing to share a more-than-friends one-night stand—he'd gone for love to a fellow genetic celebrity, a competitive surfer born and raised in Laguna Beach.
Now, climbing out of the bush plane that had taken her to the village of McGrath, famous for being the site of Alaska's first airmail delivery and a checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail, Scout reflected that she'd come to the one place where she'd be treated as though she was just as desirable as Halle Berry or Keira Knightley. High school in Alaska wasn't that different from high school Outside. But cheerleader types grew up and left Alaska for gentler environments. So now, being adult, female, and human in Alaska, Scout was also high status. She didn't even have to be competent; showing up was adequate.
But today, no one would guess she'd grown up in the bush north of the Yukon River, only about two hundred miles from McGrath.
She was a city girl now—or looked like one. For a five-year partner in a successful business, she was rich—rich by the standards according to which she'd been raised. Wire-rimmed glasses had been traded for designer tortoiseshell rims, and then for laser surgery, no glasses. Her business partners, who were also her two best friends, said that her eyes were the color of a wolf's. Scout always replied that she'd been raised by wolves. (Bitten by many sled dogs was more accurate, although some of these had been more than a small part wolf.)
The hair she'd worn long, in two practical braids, was now bobbed at chin-length.
The pilot moved to get her pack, but Scout took it from him easily, and he lifted his eyebrows at this sign of her physical strength. "Thanks." Scout shouldered it and fastened the hip belt over the smooth stretch-khaki fabric of her bell-bottom hip-huggers. With those, she wore backpacking boots, a silk T-shirt and a flannel shirt to help keep off mosquitoes—as if that would happen. Mosquitoes were at the top of the list of things she disliked about Alaska, closely followed by sled dogs of savage disposition.
Her partner, Dana, picking her up to drive her to the airport, had exclaimed in mock horror, "You're already letting yourself go, and you haven't even got up there yet!"
Scout had assured her that she didn't intend to start chewing tobacco before the Fourth of July, at the earliest.
Of course, the reality was that it had taken her very little time after moving away from Alaska to get used to hot baths, pedicures, an occasional eyebrow wax or chemical peel, a personal trainer, and other things that her family of origin found, rather than extravagant, simply incomprehensible.
But Scout was not wedded to these things, and she already felt a familiar relaxation seeping through her at the thought that within a few weeks she wouldn't be bothering to paint her nails or wear mascara or...
That's not why you came up here.
She'd come to McGrath to do a job. To establish a business office, then to branch out. In short, to continue to make piles of money. She had not come back to Alaska to stay. Her time here was temporary, and she had agreed to come because she and her partners had decided she was the best person for the job.
Her first glance at the area near the airstrip was what she'd expected. A few—very few—rather spindly conifers, two Quonset huts with sled dogs staked outside, barking at her, barking at the plane. Town reached out to her as she left the airstrip. More dogs, four-wheeler training devices, dogs in nearly every yard, sleds leaning against cabins and old Victorian-type houses and 1950s-style summer dwellings that had been beefed up for year-round occupation. A few small western-looking storefronts, rustic and charming. A modern post office, out of place beside a wood-sided general store. A total absence of city planning of any kind.
She found the real estate office easily and wondered, when she reached it and peered at the property listings, if there was anywhere that wasn't doing a booming business in property sales. She saw a house for sale for $150,000, and while she considered "Victorian" a loose description for the building in question, she was surprised that property in McGrath, Alaska, could hope to earn so much.
The Realtor's name was Graham Pork. He did not resemble a pig, which Scout thought must've been the saving grace to such a name. He wore his dirt-colored, silver-salted hair long, with a long, thick, elaborate mustache. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses hid his eyes. His secretary, who was, Scout had learned, also his wife, kept her short yellow hair fluffed out in a way that must have been achieved with a curling iron or hot rollers. She did have more of a porcine look than her husband, but she'd kept her maiden name, Angela Frye. "You must be Scout," she exclaimed in the Texas drawl Scout remembered from their many phone conversations, during which Angela had expressed fascination with the Harmony Agency and the services it offered. Well, dear, she'd finally opined, you might have more luck with an escort service. There's no shortage of money, and men up here would certainly pay for companionship, but as for teaching them how to behave—well, they'll sign up, all right, but I doubt you'll make much headway.You know what they say about Alaskan men, don't you, dear?
Yes, Scout knew. She suspected she knew all the things said aboutAlaskan men and about the women too.
"Your boxes arrived," Angela said, "and Graham hung up your shingle like you asked, and we set up your answering machine the way you said. You know, you don't look at all like I expected."
Scout figured it was better not to ask her to clarify this. "You look like you're from the city, and here you told me you grew up in the bush, so I was expecting something completely different."
"Illusion," Scout replied. "I've eschewed handkerchiefs and silverware my whole life."
Graham brought Scout the keys to the downtown building she'd rented. "I'll take you over there," he said. "I hope you'll like it, but you're from Alaska, so you know how things are."
Trying to give an encouraging smile—and hide her doubts about "how things are"—Scout followed him out the door, carrying her heavy pack, striding easily down the sidewalk of two-by-fours until it ended. Then they walked on the dirt road.
Yes, McGrath was like a hundred other bush villages. A general store with a post office, a bar, a laundry and a one-story structure beginning six feet above street level, that called itself a hotel.
Her building was nestled against another high wooden sidewalk, rammed up beside a diner called The Tug. A mushing reference, to the tugline. Scout gritted her teeth. This was a mushing town, which she suspected might be the downfall of the Harmony Agency's ambitions for McGrath, but they'd chosen the town, in part, because racing kennels meant money. Still, Scout guessed that if it came down to a team of sled dogs or a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, the dogs would win.
When she'd announced to Dana and Victoria, her partners, that she might make the same choice—and I don't even like the vicious mutts—Victoria had advised, You might want to keep that sentiment to yourself.
Of course, neither of her business partners had actually accused her of not having worked through her own issues with men. But sometimes Scout thought that was just because they didn't dare.
Scout had issues with men from which there truly was no healing.
As Graham fitted the key in the front door, a wooden affair with a rather picturesque four-pane window that looked like an invitation to a very cold winter, Scout gazed up at her shingle. It hung from the awning that extended over the sidewalk above both her building front and that of The Tug. The diner seemed busy. A bearlike giant grunted, "Graham," to the Realtor as he ducked in the door. It smelled like fried food, all-day breakfast, hamburgers, the kind of food that made Scout suddenly acutely hungry.
Her sign read:
THE HARMONY AGENCY BRINGING HAPPINESS TO INDIVIDUALS THROUGH THE WORLD OF FULFILLING RELATIONSHIPS Scout Berensen, PhD, MFT, Life Coach Individual, Couples and Family Counseling
Mail Order and Dating Service Life Skills