Crystal Penney hugged a pair of splitting grocery sacks and staggered into the lobby of the Gold Rush Hotel. The screen door creaked ominously behind her, threatening to leave its hinges for the third time that week. She cast a quick look back at the lopsided door and the dilapidated scene beyond it. Owning half an Arizona ghost town was even more of a challenge than she had been prepared for, and at that moment, she definitely felt overwhelmed.
She sighed heavily, her spirits lower than they had been since she arrived two weeks before. There had to be a better way of tackling the shopping than driving into Apache Junction every other day, especially in a battered, 1964-vintage green pickup truck without the benefit of air conditioning. The problem was, she couldn’t come up with any better solutions for the growing needs of the town’s guests.
The antiquated fan on the reception desk whirred noisily and blasted her with warm air. What she wouldn’t give for the cool interior of her apartment in Paradise Valley and a tub with running water. She envisioned a long, luxurious bubble bath as she dropped the heavy bags onto the desk. The back of her shirt clung to her skin like a damp paper towel and sweat beaded her forehead. Crystal wished she had pulled her hair back into a ponytail before she left that morning.
“Hi, Crystal. Did you remember the dog food?”
She turned to face him. In the eight years they’d been apart, he hadn’t matured one iota. While she’d been driving, shopping, toting and sweating, he’d been lazing yet again.
“Couldn’t you do anything more constructive than lying around the lobby while I was gone?” Hands on hips, she confronted him. “Honestly, Cody Blye, you must think you’re too good looking to work.”
Sprawled nonchalantly across the faded green silk of the overstuffed Victorian sofa she had rescued from an upstairs bedroom, Cody’s long, lean body resembled a stage prop left to enhance the old hotel’s lobby. He wore a battered Stetson hat stained and aged to perfection, a fitted denim shirt, and jeans faded to a pale ice blue that matched his eyes. Worn, dusty boots rested on the recently-polished table.
When she glared pointedly at the boots, his eyes twinkled engagingly. With a lock of blond hair hanging casually over his forehead, Crystal thought Cody looked all of eighteen years old instead of thirty-three. He was a year older than she, for heaven’s sake, and still acting like an adolescent.
He grinned disarmingly. “Tut-tut, Miss Crystal, honey. You’re shootin’ off your mouth without stoppin’ to check first.” He swung his legs off the furniture and planted his boots on the floor. “Come take a look in the kitchen before you get in an uproar.”
With that, he stood up. No, Crystal thought. Standing up wasn’t the right description. Flowed to his feet was more accurate. His body moved like molten lead beneath his clothes.
He handed her one of the grocery sacks and scooped up the other. Despite her resistance, he propelled her toward the back of the hotel. “There.” He propped open the kitchen door and ushered her inside. “Now tell me I don’t do anythin’ around here.”
He flipped a switch, flooding the kitchen with fluorescent light, and turned on the faucet over the sink. A stream of water spewed forth. “Not bad, huh?” His grin widened and took on a look of self-satisfaction. “I got the generator workin.’”
Crystal sat down heavily on one of the old wooden chairs. “I—I don’t believe it.”
Just when she thought he’d be no help at all, Cody had rallied, and masterfully. Her bubble bath was more than a pipe dream. She could have purred.
“I’ll expect no more complaints from you or the guests.” Cody’s eyes sparkled wickedly. “Doesn’t that deserve a kiss at least, Miss Crystal?” He puckered his lips and lowered his face toward hers.
“Get away from me, Cody.” Crystal leaped to her feet. Lowering her guard with him was always a mistake. He took advantage quicker than a rattler hidden under a rock. Her hands squarely on his shoulders, she pushed him away.
A snarl at knee-level told her she had committed an unforgivable sin. She stepped back carefully. “Call off your dog,” she said.
“Jackson.” Cody sounded exasperated. “The only time Miss Crystal actually touches me, you have to ruin the moment.” He looked down at the unkempt black and brown mutt standing by his feet.
The old dog had straggled in from his favorite place behind the reception desk, where he lurked in hopes of scaring off potential guests with a few well-chosen snarls and a spectacular baring of teeth. Jackson’s hackles had risen, giving him the appearance of an untidy, slightly threadbare lion.
His yellow fangs made Crystal shudder. “I should have bought him a toothbrush instead of dog food,” she said.
The dog resented her presence and expressed his opinion freely and often. Despite her best efforts, he had refused to bond with her even for table scraps, so she stepped around the table to give him as wide a berth as possible.
“How about getting the rest of the groceries from the pickup for me, Cody? I’ll make lunch if you do.”
“That sounds like an offer I couldn’t possibly refuse.” He strode off.
“Take that miserable mutt with you,” she called.
Cody gave a low whistle. Jackson aimed one last, baleful stare at Crystal before trotting unhurriedly out the door with his long, stringy tail bouncing like a ragged pennant.
Crystal smiled grudgingly. She had to admire Jackson’s spirit, if nothing else. Since Cody had found him scavenging in the hotel trash a couple of days after their arrival in Cactus Station, the old dog had certainly carved himself a niche. Mostly with his teeth, she thought, shaking her head.
She stowed perishables in the humming refrigerator. Regardless of how annoying Cody and Jackson were, she had to give credit where it was due—Cody had done a fine job of coaxing life back into the generator.
She stopped to look out the window at the Superstition Mountains. Rising from the desert floor in tones of brown, rust and grey, they loomed glowering and formidable in the noontime heat. Their peaks sliced the vivid azure sky with the precision of razor-sharp knives. Heat quivered and pulsated under the relentless sun. The outdoor thermometer outside the kitchen window read one hundred and ten degrees, and the thermometer was in the shade.
She washed lettuce, took plates out of a cupboard and prepared to slice tomatoes. Where was Cody now? Crystal paused and glanced into the lobby. If he didn’t get the rest of those groceries inside pretty quick, the meat she had purchased for the evening meal wouldn’t need cooking—it would have slow-roasted in the truck.
She spotted him outside talking to a prospector, caked in dust and holding a pickaxe. Cody took a bottle of water from the case in the back of the truck and handed it to the man. Crystal shook her head. City folk got in so much trouble. They came ill-prepared for the punishing climate or the rocky, unforgiving terrain. Cactus Station needed a full-time medical clinic just to take care of the daily cases of dehydration, cuts and sprains. Maybe she needed to advertise for someone to fill that vacancy, along with a proprietor to open a general store and stop the time-consuming trips to get rations.
She dumped the lettuce into a bowl. Thinking about prospecting brought a familiar desire to head for the hills. Crystal gave herself a mental reprimand—she’d realized six months ago that her workaholic habits as a freelance geologist had bought her nothing but loneliness, and she had told herself she had to make changes in her life.
But had she made yet another mistake by taking possession of her inheritance from Uncle Dock? What made her believe she wouldn’t exchange one frustration for another by trying to make a living out of one side of Cactus Station’s Main Street when Cody had inherited the other from his Uncle Willy and apparently had no plans to redevelop it?
She knew the only reason the generator now operated was because they had to share the hotel and it was actually making money. Cody knew their profit margin could be increased by providing running water and electricity to the guests who thought they’d strike it rich in the Gold Rush Hills.
Two of them had already done so. They’d found sizable nuggets while panning the creek that fed the town’s water tank, and now the rush was on. Instead of ten people turning up to pan, Crystal and Cody had fifteen rooms rented at the hotel and another ten prospectors staying in the old boarding house down the street. Gold fever continued to draw people, and Cody was now working on the dilapidated brothel adjacent to the graveyard. Filled with vermin, bullet holes and dust, he had talked about demolishing it before need and greed threw common sense out the window.
While the rest of the newcomers waited for more permanent accommodations, they set up a tent city inside the parking lot at the other end of town. Crystal wondered whether self-preservation had stopped them squatting in the rest of what remained of Cactus Station, or if the ghost stories Cody told were more the cause. Even she had to admit that when night cloaked the town, the buildings took on a different appearance. Their decay masked, they appeared to be waiting for past inhabitants to come out of hiding and populate them again with laughter, music and altercations.
Crystal hadn’t intended to get involved with yet another of Cody’s seemingly endless schemes. But her plans to rehabilitate the hotel into a tourist attraction had been met far quicker than she had expected, and she knew Cody’s scheming might be at the bottom of it. She strongly suspected he might have sacrificed a couple of his own nuggets to kick-start the gold rush fever.
As she opened the tuna can, she asked herself why she still felt so attracted to him. He was the same glib-talking, irresponsible man he had been when she came to stay with Uncle Dock and Uncle Willy the summer before grad school. She’d been too naïve then to see he would never amount to anything more, and she certainly mustn’t repeat the same mistake now. At the end of that summer, she reminded herself, he’d wished her luck and disappeared into the mountains without a backward glance.
Crystal mixed mayonnaise with the tuna. She’d eagerly claimed her inheritance to begin a new life. And when she’d found out Cody owned the other half of the old town, she’d thought she might find an explanation for his behavior all those years ago. She beat the tuna with gusto, wishing she could whip Cody into shape with the same ease. Some hope. She couldn’t even get him to stay serious long enough to have an intelligent conversation.
Her introspection ended when he dumped two boxes on the kitchen table.
“That’s it for the food,” he said. “I’ll take the water out back and stow it in the coolers. The generator’s got the pump goin’, so we won’t need all those bottles anymore.” He took off his hat and wiped his forehead on his shirt sleeve. “Explain to me how you’re gonna fit all this food into that old refrigerator.”
“Can’t you get the freezer working?” She tried smiling at him.
“Gettin’ friendly because you want another job done?” Blond eyebrows rose mockingly over those insolent eyes. His lips quirked. “What would you do if I repaired your side of town?” He flipped his hat onto the top of the refrigerator.
She regretted the words as soon as they’d left her mouth. Despite the intended flippancy of the remark, it hung between them with the consistency of lead.
“Is that so?” Cody folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the counter. “Sure would be one hell of a way of solvin’ the dispute over this hotel, wouldn’t it?”
“There is no dispute.”
Her face averted, she vented her anger by slashing her knife through celery stalks. That’s all Cody wanted—to claim the only building worth anything and then sell his half of the town for whatever he could get for it. Her cheeks flamed, and her eyes burned.
“Under the terms of our uncles’ wills, we share the hotel,” she reminded him, her voice as on-edge as the rest of her. “That means I cook and clean for the guests, while you’re in charge of maintenance.”
Cody snorted his disgust with the whole arrangement. He’d made no bones about his opinion of the wills or about his future in Cactus Station, which was to be as short-lived as he could possibly make it.
Crystal bit back a caustic comment. She mustn’t aggravate him when he was actually using the tool kit for something more than a place to prop his feet. “Speaking of maintenance…” With difficulty, she ignored the fact that he rolled his eyes. “If you don’t fix that freezer, we’re going to have the biggest dinner tonight that you’ve ever eaten. I made a mistake on the meat order and got double what I wanted.”
“Why didn’t you ask the store to take it back?” Cody shook his head. “You’re an intelligent woman with a fancy degree, Crystal, but you don’t have an ounce of plain horse sense.”
“I would have sent the extra back if I hadn’t asked them to cut it especially for me,” Crystal explained patiently. She chose not to comment on the gibe about her educational history. “I left the order and went to do the rest of the shopping. I didn’t notice the mistake until the meat arrived at the check-out.”
Cody sighed. “Don’t know if I can handle doin’ two jobs today.” He took his tool kit from its perch on a stool. “Might destroy my image.”
“One you’re working overtime to maintain.” Crystal sliced deftly through a dill pickle.
Cody watched, his eyes narrowed. “You bet, Miss Crystal.”
The screen door slammed back into place, leaving her glaring at torn netting instead of his broad back.
“I hate it when he calls me that,” she told Jackson.
“Go away, mangy.” She shook the knife at him since Cody was no longer within sight.
Jackson curled his lip and trotted away, taking the back stairs up to the second floor.
Crystal made sandwiches and added dill pickle slices to the plates. A resounding crash overhead startled her as she laid placemats on the scarred table.
There were no guests in the hotel at that time of day. Everyone was out making Swiss cheese out of the Superstitions.
“Damn dog,” she said louder. No doubt Jackson had put his dry, cracked nose where it didn’t belong. She only hoped he hadn’t broken some guest’s prized possession.
Rhythmic banging on the back porch told her Cody was busy with the freezer. If she made him deal with Jackson, he’d probably take the opportunity to abandon his chores for the rest of the day. She shoved their lunch into the refrigerator and marched up the steep stairs.
“Jackson! What have you done now?” She stopped on the landing to listen. Silence greeted her. Dust motes floated in the hot, musty air. She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. No matter how many times she swept the floor or polished the furniture, the place still smelled closed up. She took a few steps, the boards creaking in protest beneath her feet.
She heard a faint whine, but from the third floor, not the second. The attic door stood open.
Crystal stopped, puzzled. The attic door hadn’t been open since they arrived. Then she thought again. Maybe Cody had been crawling around up there while he messed with the electrical system. She tried the light switch at the bottom of the stairs. Miraculously it worked—all ten watts of it. She peered up the stairs.
She had never been able to force herself up to the third floor. Not even during the time the uncles had owned the town. Enclosed spaces gave her more than chills—she suffered from claustrophobia. Warily, she placed her foot on the first stair. It held her weight with only a mild protesting squeak.
Grasping the banister firmly, she took another step. A cobweb drifted across her face. Crystal brushed it away without thinking, and then looked at the grime already coating her palm. Wonderful. Now she was covering herself with dirt in an effort to find Cody’s horrible excuse for a pet.
Reminding herself why she had chosen not to involve Cody, she hurried up the rest of the stairs. A thick, grey blanket coated the entire attic. Crystal sneezed loudly, four times in rapid succession. Jackson barked from the farthest corner.
“Come here,” she pleaded in what she hoped was a tone suitable for attracting willful animals. “If you get hurt, Cody’ll find some way to blame me.”
Another bark answered her, but Jackson stayed hidden.
“I’ll give you a big treat,” she wheedled. “Tuna. An entire sandwich.”
He made a noise she swore sounded like a long drawn out yawn of boredom.
Annoyed, and already feeling short of breath, Crystal abandoned her attempts at coercion. “Stop fooling around and get over here!”
The dog whined plaintively.
Her exasperation changed to anxiety, and not because of the claustrophobia tightening her throat. Jackson loved tuna. He salivated even at the mention of it. He must be caught on something.
She tiptoed hesitantly past old furniture, piled up shutters, heaps of brocade drapes and rolled up, moth-eaten rugs. She brushed aside a hanging clump of muslin curtains and a shower of dust rained down on her head, bringing another bout of sneezing.
After that stopped, she wiped her eyes on a corner of her shirt. The roof sloped sharply toward the eaves and the curtains had dropped back into place, enhancing the enclosed, oppressive atmosphere. Crystal’s heart pounded in an all-too-familiar fashion. Not now. She took deep, measured breaths, but dust tickled her nostrils and she sneezed again.
Jackson’s shape loomed out of the shadows.
Crystal felt overwhelming relief. “Oh, thank goodness. What are you doing up here, you bad dog?”
He barked again, his raucous voice echoing around the rafters as he sidled past her, his body brushing her leg.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
He butted her right behind the knees.
Crystal lost her balance, arms flailing as she clutched wildly for the support of anything within reach. Her outstretched hand caught a door handle and she swung, suspended in space. Saved! She congratulated herself and tried to get her feet back under her. Jackson, obviously determined to help her break her neck, jumped, his paws landing on her shoulders.
Under the added weight, the door flew open. Something large and heavy fell out of the closet and landed on both of them. Crystal screamed desperately as they all fell to the floor.
Copyright 2017 Heather Ames