"Great! Now I'm going to smell like onions all night," the blonde woman groused as she picked the unwanted condiment from her sandwich. "Why did you even bother asking what I wanted if you weren't going to listen?"
"I got distracted," the man whined, taking an oversized bite from his roast beef sandwich. He had offered to run to the gourmet deli to pick up their dinner, both of them having grown weary of the menu from the restaurant downstairs.
"Yeah, I bet I know by what?or rather by whom. What's her name?" she teased amiably.
"Juliana," he sighed.
"I bet Juliana smells like onions."
"Careful," the red-haired man cautioned, "that's my future wife you're talking about."
"Right! What's her last name?"
Rusty Wilburn looked away sheepishly. "Don't know yet," he admitted. "But it doesn't matter, because you'll be calling her Mrs. Wilburn."
Paula McKenzie chuckled at her boss. In the three years they'd been paired up on the night shift, the two had gotten to know each other pretty well, and she knew that Rusty could fall in love at the drop of a hat. Too bad he hadn't fallen for someone who worked at a Thai restaurant. Chicken salad on rye was getting old, especially with onions.
From 3:30 p.m. to midnight, Paula and Rusty were the designated adults at the Weller Regent Hotel in Orlando. Situated only a block from the downtown convention center, the four-star hotel catered to upscale business travelers who wanted something quieter, something with a more personal touch.
At the Weller Regent, or the WR as it was called by the staff, there was no player piano in the entryway hammering out a mindless loop until the wee hours of the morning; no open cocktail bar in the lobby; nor a towering fountain or waterfall whose roar forced people standing next to one another to shout. Instead, the hotel possessed a calmer, more distinguished ambience that was perfect for those who needed a respite on the road.
Everything about the WR was plush, almost decadent. The feathered pillow-top mattresses were the finest anywhere; the towels and robes were soft and luxurious. The guest rooms were spacious, tastefully adorned with deep rich colors on cherry framed furniture. Elegant Tiffany style lamps took the place of the more generic light fixtures for a homier feel.
The WR was more expensive than most of the other downtown options, but worth it in the eyes of a weary upscale business traveler. Management kept a database of preferences from previous stays and tried to anticipate customer needs. The level of service from the well-trained staff was second to none.
While earning her hospitality degree nine years ago at the University of Florida, Paula had landed a coveted summer internship at this, Weller's oldest hotel. Immediately upon graduating, she had come on board as a night desk clerk, moving through all the departments - catering, business services, meetings, training - to the position she now held: Shift Manager. Two more rungs remained before she could move into the coveted role of hotel operations - daytime management - but it was likely she would have to relocate to move up in the chain, since Rusty, the Senior Shift Manager, had been here four years longer than she, and was next in line here in Orlando. That was her career goal, though: hotel operations and one day, her own hotel.
"Damn it!" Rusty sat up and reached for his napkin, a futile gesture against the mustard stain on his dark blue shirt.
"You did that on purpose!" Paula accused.
"I did not!"
By mutual consent, tonight was Rusty's night to deal with emergencies and customer complaints while Paula did paperwork in the second floor administrative offices. But with his shirt prominently sporting a bright yellow stain, she would have to be the one to venture out if the need arose.
Sunday nights were moderately busy, the weekend convention goers giving way to those road warriors headed for another week of business meetings. The housekeeping staff had turned over virtually every room in the last 12 hours, and Paula had spent the entire afternoon conducting inspections and completing employee evaluations. Thanks to Rusty's prolonged trip to the deli - during which she had to help out at the front desk - she was way behind with her weekly reports.
Rusty had his own pile of paperwork to resolve. Maintenance logs, inventory sheets, and vendor invoices filled his desk. If they were lucky, the staff on hand would find a way to deal with problems so both of the managers could catch up.
"Hey, look who's back."
Paula glanced at the security monitor positioned between their desks. Every five seconds, the image rotated automatically to a different camera, from the main entrance, to the front desk, to the elevator lobby on the main floor, and to the pool area. Rusty grabbed the remote and froze the angle immediately upon recognizing the woman they had watched twice before as she checked into the WR on Sunday night.
"Too bad you're practically married," Paula chided. "What would Juliana No Last Name think of you ogling someone else?" For her own part, the blonde set her work aside for the moment to watch the tall beauty exit the taxi and direct the bellman to her bags. Indeed, Paula too had noticed this guest on her first visit a month ago. Who wouldn't?
"I'm looking for someone for you now," he kidded.
Paula laughed. "While I happen to applaud your tastes in this case, I hereby relieve you of your mission. This tape will self-destruct?."
"Wonder what her story is," Rusty mused. When they had a rare moment of down time, the two would entertain one another with their made-up background stories of the anonymous guests.
"I don't know. I guess she's just your typical business traveler."
"No, I mean the limp."
The pair studied the dark-haired woman as she paid the cabbie, gathered her purse and briefcase, and hobbled toward one of the small glass entryways that framed the hotel's massive revolving door. Both managers were inwardly pleased to see the bellman respond quickly to hold the door open as she disappeared from the camera's view.
"She doesn't act like it bothers her that much," Paula observed casually. She wasn't interested in making this woman a subject of their game?that is, at least not aloud. But she had wondered silently about this beautiful enigma, going so far on her last visit as to pull her reservation record.
Her name was K. Wynne Connelly, and she was from Baltimore. She had the standard corporate rate, billed to Eldon-Markoff, a travel and tour company headquartered a block and a half from their hotel.
Rusty advanced the controls to watch the action at the front desk. Jolene Hardy and Matthew Stivich worked efficiently to check in the short line of guests, the former in the final week of her probationary period.
"Jolene's done a great job, hasn't she?" Paula asked, changing the subject as she searched the video for sight of the woman in line.
"Yeah, she caught on quick. You've really brought her along well."
Paula had mentored the new hire since her first day as a college intern. Once Jolene cleared probation, she'd be given more authority to appease guests. As it was, she still needed supervision, requiring a manager's okay to waive a charge or to make special accommodations.
"Looks like she needs a hand with that one," Rusty offered, knowing full well that Paula would have to go downstairs to take care of the obviously irate gentleman at the counter. Without the sound on the video, they relied on facial expressions, and this man was about to blow his top.
The blonde woman groaned. "I guess I should wash my hands first, since your future wife put onions all over my sandwich."
Paula stopped quickly in the ladies room to wash up and check her appearance. Today's suit - taupe linen with a navy silk top - was her favorite combination from among the four WR uniforms. In her closet hung its complement, a navy suit with a cream-colored silk blouse, and several coral tops that were worn on certain days with either suit. From time to time, the hotel updated its worker fashions, but conservative attire was the rule. After nine years of being told what to wear to work, she'd grown accustomed to it, and was grateful that the corporate directors at least had a sense of style.
From the ladies room, she proceeded down the back stairs to emerge behind Jolene at the check-in counter. A quick glance told her that Matthew had things under control on his end of the counter, but the man in front of her newest clerk was growing louder by the second.
"How can I help here, Jolene?"
"I'll tell you how you can help," the red-faced man stormed. "You can get me the king-sized bed I specifically reserved!"
Paula looked over the shoulder of her harried clerk. "Mr. Thomason, is it?"
"That's right." He was infinitely pleased to be getting special treatment from the person in charge. What he didn't actually realize was that the Weller Regent judiciously avoided "assistant manager" labels, hoping to provide assurance that their needs warranted attention from the hotel's top personnel.
"Our reservationist probably didn't make it clear at the time, but we aren't able to guarantee all room types for guests traveling alone. But let me see what I can do." In fact, it was standard practice for the reservationists to read a disclaimer that many guests simply ignored. But arguing with Mr. Thomason wasn't going to solve the problem. The manager searched a moment, then used her code to manually override the system. "I can upgrade you to the Concierge floor and waive the extra fee for this stay. In the future, if you're traveling alone, you can reserve a specific room type by booking directly onto the Concierge level," she advised with quiet authority.
Paula stepped back and allowed Jolene to complete the transaction. Spotting a familiar face next in line, she immediately shifted to an open terminal. "I can help you here."
The tall woman stepped forward and proffered her credit card. "I'm Wynne Connelly."
Oh, I know who you are. "Yes, Ms. Connelly, I have your reservation right here, a single room, non-smoking, three nights."
"That's correct." Smiling slyly, she leaned across the counter and lowered her voice. "So if I act like an ass, can I get upgraded to the Concierge floor too?"
Paula chuckled and shook her head without looking up. "I tell you what, Ms. Connelly. What if I just do the upgrade anyway and save us both the bother?"
"Oh, you don't have to do that. I was just being silly. But I appreciate the thought," the brunette said sincerely, a little embarrassed to have evoked such a generous offer. "I promise not to misbehave," she whispered.
Paula laughed, finally looking up to see the smiling blue eyes. "That's okay. We like a challenge," she joked. "I'd be happy to do it, though. I see that you're making a habit of staying with us, and we'd like to reward that."
"Well, thank you. I suppose I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, eh?"
"I wouldn't if I were you," the Shift Manager advised. "It's really a nice deal if you can take advantage of the extras. You'll have two phone lines and a fax machine, and high-speed Internet access. Breakfast is served in the private lounge from six a.m. until 10; cocktails and hors d'oeuvres are available after five; and if you want to stop by before turning in tonight, they'll have coffee and dessert until midnight."
"I'll be sure to check that out." Wynne scribbled her name on the signature card and initialed the rate and departure date.
"Did you have a nice trip into Orlando this evening?" Paula asked that question of all her guests at check-in - to be polite, of course, but also to kill time while the computer processed her commands. Tonight, though, she was also enjoying the chance to make conversation.
"It was delightfully uneventful, like all flights should be," the brunette replied. "And it was wonderful to arrive someplace where it was warm. It was snowing in Baltimore when I left."
"Well, I'm glad you're enjoying our weather, at least for tonight." Paula turned to indicate the placard behind her that displayed weather icons for the next three days. "It's supposed to rain all day tomorrow and the next day."
"That figures. I didn't bring an umbrella."
"I have one in my office. If you like, I'll send it up with a bellman later. You can just leave it at the front desk when you check out."
"Boy, you really are accommodating tonight, aren't you?" How about a backrub?
"Just that good old Weller Regent service, second to none." Listen to me flirt with this woman!
"Well, I couldn't take your umbrella. You might need it yourself. Besides, my coat has a hood."
"No, I won't need it. I lend it out all the time," Paula insisted. In fact, she had lent it only once, to a pretty flight attendant who chatted with her sweetly at check-in?much like Wynne Connelly was doing.
"Well, in that case, I accept."
"So do you travel a lot with your work?"
"A fair bit. Our headquarters is here, and it looks like I'll be coming back and forth a lot for the next few months." While I still have a job.
"Well, I'm glad that you've chosen to stay with us. We'll do our best to make your stay here at Weller Regent comfortable. If there's anything you need, don't hesitate to call, Ms. Connelly." Though it sounded official and contrived, the manager made it a point to look directly into the tall woman's eyes to convey the offer as sincere.
Wynne noticed the look, even though she recognized the standard line for what it was. "Shall I ask for you when I call?" she teased. Turn-down service maybe?
"If you like," Paula smiled, slipping a business card from her pocket. Departing from her usual business tone, she continued, "Here's my direct extension. I'll be here tonight and tomorrow night as well."
Wynne pocketed the card and smiled back at the manager. If she didn't know better, she'd swear the petite blonde was flirting with her. Okay by me. "I'm sure everything will be fine."
The computer spit out the key card. There was really no more reason to keep the woman at the desk. Paula pushed the envelope across the counter. "This is your room number." She circled 2308 in red. For security reasons, they never repeated the room number aloud. "You'll need your key in the elevator; just insert it and wait for the green light before pressing your floor. Would you like some help with your bags?"
"No, I can manage. Thank you for everything." Wynne shouldered her briefcase and smiled gratefully at the blonde manager. Paula McKenzie, the nametag read. Pretty lady.
"You're very welcome." Very. Paula congratulated herself on her timing, quietly applauding whatever forces had come together to cause Mr. Thomason to behave like a jerk and Wynne Connelly to arrive a moment later. It was nice to have finally gotten the chance to meet the beautiful woman, and a special bonus to have the authority to dole out such a treat.
Wynne walked toward the elevator, rolling her suitcase behind her. Yes indeed, I think she was flirting. I know I was.
Moments later, she exited the elevator directly across from the private lounge. Clusters of love seats and wing back chairs held couples and small groups, all conversing softly in the dim light as they sampled the dessert offerings. It was a pleasant atmosphere and one she would try to take advantage of; provided of course that she didn't get hit on. That was the worst part about traveling alone, and the main reason that she usually just ordered room service.
Wynne studied the key for a moment and inserted it into the slot. By all appearances, the room was like those she had stayed in before, except for the fax machine and king-sized bed. The latter was certainly a welcome change, given her five foot-ten inch frame.
Methodically, she emptied her suitcase and hung up her three crisp suits, only one of which she'd ever worn. As marketing director at Gone Tomorrow Tours, Eldon-Markoff's newest subsidiary in Baltimore, Wynne usually wore skirts and sweaters or sometimes pantsuits to work. But the corporate culture was more formal in Orlando, so she'd dipped into her savings to purchase eight new suits to get her through this strategic planning project.
Most likely, she'd be keeping this travel schedule through the end of April, which was not a bad time to be leaving Baltimore for sunny Florida. After that, who knows? She might have planned herself right out of a job. At least she'd have nice new clothes to wear to job interviews.
That's what this project was all about: streamlining the marketing and sales initiatives for Eldon-Markoff. That meant crafting a plan to link the company's worldwide travel agencies and its tours. Wynne was asked to work on the plan, along with sales director Doug Messner from the Dallas travel agency office. Heading up the task force was Cheryl Williams, Eldon-Markoff's vice-president of sales and marketing. Cheryl was dynamo, a skilled leader whom Wynne admired for her ability to get things done.
But it was clear after only two trips - six days total - that sales and marketing would operate more efficiently if it were centralized. Now it was up to these three to draft a plan to make it happen. If they worked well, she'd probably get a good severance package.
A sharp knock on the door signaled the arrival of the bellman with the borrowed umbrella.
"Thank you," the tall woman said, passing the young man a couple of bills.
"You're welcome, Ms. Connelly. And Ms. McKenzie asked me to remind you about the dessert." The young man was glad to see the smile that his message had elicited.
"Please tell her thanks, and that I will go see about dessert right now."
Checking to make certain she had her key, Wynne followed the bellman back to the elevator, at once eyeing the dessert table in the center of the lounge.
"May I bring you something to drink?" a tuxedoed woman asked.
Wynne thought about it and passed, deciding she'd just grab one of the sweet offerings and return to her room. So many different treats?but she should only have one. So she took the lime tart with the strawberry on top. And the truffle.
Back in her room, the tall woman dropped tiredly into the wingback chair. It was almost 10 and she had a full day tomorrow. Her leg throbbed from the demands of her trip. Fishing in her purse, she drew out a bottle of ibuprofen. Since the accident two years ago, she carried it everywhere she went, always knowing that the leg would start to ache from deep within. A hot bath would soothe the pain and help her sleep.
Flicking on the light in the marble bathroom, Wynne silently blessed Paula McKenzie for the upgrade: her tub was equipped with massaging air jets.
Monday was shaping up like just another night at the Weller Regent.
Paula walked the hallways from end to end at least once a day, on all 23 floors. Mostly, she checked to ensure that fixtures were in working order, doors were not left ajar, and that room service trays were picked up in a timely manner, but she also kept an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. So far, she'd logged two burned out lights and one that flickered off and on. On the 23rd floor, the Concierge floor, she discovered a wallet stuffed behind a plant, likely hidden by a pickpocket who had pilfered the contents.
"Security, please," she directed softly into the walkie-talkie.
"Security here," a male voice crackled.
"I need a security officer in the elevator lobby of the 23rd floor, please." Paula was eager to get this cleared up quickly, as the sight of a security guard in the Concierge lobby might unnerve some of the guests.
"On the way. Roger out."
Three minutes later, the uniformed guard arrived and began to document the evidence in the event criminal charges might be filed. They usually weren't, but management always wanted fingerprints when possible to rule out employees. It was doubtful though that an employee would have hidden the wallet in plain view of the camera in the ceiling. Too bad about the fool that ignored the warning signs that the public areas of the premises were under surveillance.
Together, she and the guard carefully opened the wallet to confirm its contents, or rather, lack of contents. But there was a driver's license, and she immediately called downstairs to get the room number of its owner, William C. Jeffries.
"Do we have tape?" she asked the guard.
"We should. I'll check it when I go back down."
"Call me when you find something."
Moments later, Paula's knock was answered by a middle-aged man, apparently fresh from a shower in his robe and with dripping hair. The manager explained the purpose of her visit, then listened calmly as Jeffries ranted about the hotel's lack of security, demanding reimbursement and threatening to sue for damages if the thief ran up charges on his credit cards. When she assured him that the hotel had videotape that would likely show who had hidden his wallet, the irate man suddenly turned docile.
"You know, I'm probably just making a big deal out of nothing. I can cancel all the cards with just a phone call, and as long as I have my driver's license, the only real thing I lost was some cash. I guess that's the price for being careless with my wallet, huh?"
When she exited the man's room, Paula went immediately to the house phone. Some information was not suited for broadcast on a broader frequency.
"Hello, Tim? I think we've got another hooker working the building. If you find something on the tape, let's get the OPD in and see if we can get an ID."
Wynne glanced at the check-in counter on her way to the elevators, hoping to catch sight of a friendly face. It had been a long day - most Mondays were when Sunday was spent traveling - and she was looking forward to kicking back with a book, and to making a meal out of the hors d'oeuvres in the lounge. No such luck on the friendly face front. Paula McKenzie was nowhere to be found.
The happy hour fare in the lounge had turned out to be a godsend. Room service was nice, but then her room would smell like dinner all night. Going out was even less attractive, especially alone; though she had politely refused several dinner invitations from Doug. Her Dallas counterpart was young and single, and enjoyed the fun he could have on an expense account. For that reason, he had opted to stay at the Hyatt, Eldon-Markoff's other approved hotel, calling the Weller Regent a little too uptight for his tastes. Coming from a sales background, Doug liked meeting new people and striking up conversations, thus he appreciated the atmosphere of the Hyatt's sprawling cocktail lounge on the main floor and its lively piano bar. The quiet atmosphere of the concierge lounge was more to Wynne's liking.
The tall brunette settled into a wingback chair in the corner by the window, her small plate loaded with grilled fish strips with lemon and capers, brie and crackers, and fruit. It wouldn't do to eat like this often, but it was hard to avoid calories while traveling and still get enough to satisfy her hunger. Besides, if she kept up her workout on the stationary bike - which she had to do anyway to keep her left leg limber - she could probably stave off the extra pounds.
"Do you mind if I join you?" A smartly dressed businessman held a cocktail in one hand and a plate of chicken wings in the other.
"Not at all," Wynne answered graciously. "But I have to warn you that I'm at a very exciting part of my book, so I doubt I'll be very good company." I don't plan on entertaining you, mister.
Dejected, Bill Jeffries turned to look for another seat.
"Mr. Jeffries, may I see you a moment please?" As she entered the lounge, Paula noticed the woman in the corner and smiled. "Good evening, Ms. Connelly."
"And to you, Ms. McKenzie." Wynne was quite pleased to see the familiar face, even though it was clear that the night shift manager was in the lounge in her official capacity. It was probably just wishful thinking that the woman had been flirting the night before, but it was nice to imagine it just the same. Still, it would be nice to have a friend here, especially since it looked like she'd be back at least a half dozen times or more.
After a brief conversation in the hallway, both the blonde woman and the man who had sought her company returned to the lounge. To Wynne's delight, Paula McKenzie was headed her way, and she quickly closed her book.
"What are you reading?"
The brunette held up the front cover. "It's Pamela Crenshaw's latest. I picked it up at the airport yesterday afternoon." Crenshaw had written a series of spy novels featuring a military heroine, Major Dana Grant. Each new release vaulted to the top of the bestseller list, both in hard cover and in paperback.
"Oh, I haven't seen that one. But I've read the others. Crenshaw really tells a great story."
"Yeah, but I have to admit, I think she's sort of gone over the top with the Major. It's kind of hard to believe a person can be perfect at everything."
"I'm not sure what you mean. Aren't all of your friends black belt gourmet cooks who can perform heart surgery in the dark while docking the Queen Mary?"
That sent the tall woman into a fit of laughter that delighted Paula.
"Now that you mention it, a lot of my friends are like that," Wynne agreed jovially.
"So is everything to your liking? Your room, I mean."
"Yes, it's very nice. And the lounge is very nice. Thank you so much for the upgrade. I think I'll lean on the accountant at Eldon-Markoff to let me book up here on my next trip."
"I'm glad you're comfortable. I suppose it's hard to be away from home and your family so much, so I hope we can make it a little easier." Paula was fishing, but Wynne didn't recognize the opening to take the bait.
"You do make it easier, and I appreciate it." She was having trouble deciding if Paula was being friendly and personable, or just performing her professional duties. Best to play it safe.
Paula would have liked nothing better than to order a drink of her own and pull up a chair. Not that she could do something like that at work anyway, but it also would have presumptuous as hell, she thought. Wynne Connelly was just being nice; she was probably one of those people who made everyone feel special just by talking to them.
"I suppose I should get back to work. If I don't see you again tonight, have a safe trip home."
"Thank you. Oh, and thanks for the umbrella. I'll be sure to leave it at the desk."
"You're welcome." Paula resisted the urge to pat the woman's knee.
Wynne watched the manager leave, first stopping by the host's desk to say hello to the staff and ask how things were going. She's good at her job. Wynne wondered how old the woman was. With her long blonde hair and soft features, she looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties; but her poise and authority was that of someone older, more experienced in the work world. Wynne admired the same qualities in her boss Cheryl Williams, a woman in her late forties. She found those traits - and Paula McKenzie - to be very attractive.
"Have you tried the plunger, like I showed you?" Wynne was growing frustrated at the futility of it all. "Then you should do that first. If it doesn't work, don't use that toilet anymore, and call a plumber first thing in the morning."
The digital clock read 11:45.
"Mom, I can't do a thing for you tonight. I'm in Orlando," she explained. "Yes, my cell phone works here, same as always." Obviously. "I know you didn't know, but this is my week to travel. I won't get home until Wednesday night."
Wynne threw the covers back and stretched out for the water bottle on the desk. "No, I have to work on Thursday. I can come by Thursday night, but you should call a plumber tomorrow if the plunger doesn't work." With her foot, she dragged her purse closer and retrieved the ibuprofen.
"I don't know, Mom. Maybe Sophie put something in it," a reference to her 2-year-old niece. "Who knows?" Two tablets?make it three. "Probably a hundred bucks or so, maybe more if they have to stay a while. But what else are you going to do?" Wynne was exasperated. "You can't just leave a toilet overflowing in the house. It'll ruin the floor and the ceiling underneath it. Keep it mopped up and call a plumber first thing, okay?"
Settling back into bed, she cradled the phone underneath her chin. "Mom, I have to get back to sleep. I have a long day tomorrow," she pleaded. "I know this was an emergency. Just do what I said. It will be fine?.Yes, I love you too. I'll come by Thursday night. Goodnight, Mom."
Wynne sighed deeply as she returned the phone to its cradle for charging. One would think that Katharine Connelly - Kitty to her friends - was the most helpless person on earth. When Wynne's father died six years ago, her mother had come completely unglued. Within a year, her house was in disrepair, her finances a mess; the woman could barely decide what to wear each day.
Wynne painstakingly balanced the household checkbook, arranged for a housekeeper to come by twice a week, and contracted with a handyman to make the necessary repairs. On top of that, she started calling her mother two or three times during the day, just to keep her company and make sure everything was okay.
Growing up, neither Wynne nor her younger sister Janelle had realized the degree to which their mother had shaped her entire existence around their family. When both daughters left home, her devotion to her husband had kept Kitty grounded; without him, she was aimless.
Wynne had hoped for something of a reprieve last year when Janelle had moved back to Baltimore, unmarried but with a daughter of her own, Sophie. But Janelle had her hands full with nursing school, not the mention to the demands of a 2-year-old.
There was certainly one thing she didn't mind about the travel to Orlando: it was, for the most part, a respite from the day to day worries of managing her mom's life. It wasn't that Wynne didn't want to help her mother through this difficult time, but after six years, Kitty Connelly hadn't made a lot of progress toward living on her own. Part of the problem was that 90-year-old Tudor house.
Paula pulled the pin on the leg extensor and reset it at 35 pounds. It was a pain following the Incredible Hulk around the weight room, but she got a small measure of satisfaction knowing that he would follow her on his next circuit and would also have to reset the pins.
"How's work been, Val?" Val Harbison was Paula's best friend, and the manager of Flanagan's, a downtown sports bar. The two met five years ago at an accounting workshop organized by Orlando's expansive travel industry. Right off the bat, they liked one another. It was easy to commiserate about the lack of a social life, as both women were locked into working evenings and weekends. That ruled out clubs and parties, and left them mostly with meeting people through work. On weekdays, the two women met to work out in the fitness room at Paula's condominium complex. Usually, they had the place to themselves; this wasn't the Hulk's normal workout time.
"We've gotten busier these last few weeks, so I guess that means the season's in full swing."
"Yeah, things have picked up for us too. Have you been out with Kevin?"
"Not since we did The Mouse." The Mouse was what many of the locals called Disneyworld. "I don't think that's going to work out. I mean, we can only see each other in the daytime, and I just don't want to spend all my dates at the attractions, then rushing to get to work on time."
"I know what you mean. Knowing you have to go to work just takes the fun out of whatever you're doing. At least I have Saturdays off." On the weekends, Paula often visited her family in Cocoa Beach, sometimes staying over until Sunday to go to church with her mom and dad.
"I'd kill for Saturdays off. But the weekends are our busiest days."
"Saturdays aren't that bad at the hotel, at least at night. Most of the convention traffic gets in on Friday. I think that's why Rusty takes off then and gives me Saturdays off. A lot of these convention goers only travel once a year, and they don't have a clue about how to survive away from home."
"What do they do?"
"What don't they do?" Paula groaned. "They complain about the price of everything, and they never miss a chance to tell you how they do things up north. They're like 18-year-olds when they first go away to college. They want to stay up all night and party in the halls. They smoke wherever they please. They don't keep up with their belongings. They can't find anything, even with a map." Paula slowly counted her reps.
"That would drive me crazy. At least the folks that come in Flanagan's seem to know the drill: Find a seat in front of the game you want to watch, drink your beer, and tip your waitress. Nothing to it."
Paula recounted the story of the man whose wallet was stolen last night by his hooker, and how he'd threatened to sue the hotel until he learned that they had her on videotape. When she'd told him that the Orlando Police Department could probably identify the woman, he'd backed off completely, refusing to press charges, effectively ending the hotel's liability.
"Isn't it funny how self-righteous some people can be," Val proclaimed. "Imagine what he'd have done if you'd found it after he left and called him at home!"
"Yeah, or what if we'd called his office?"
"Really," Val huffed. "So have you had any good looking flight attendants lately?"
"No flight attendants, but there is a gorgeous woman staying there who works at Eldon-Markoff. She came in on Sunday night from Baltimore. She's beautiful," Paula said dreamily, grabbing the pull-down bar for her lat reps. "And she has a limp. I'd love to know that story."
"So does she bat for your team?"
"I doubt it. But she's?I don't know, friendlier than most people."
"To everyone or just to you?"
"That I couldn't tell you. But I swear when she checked in the other night, it was almost like she was flirting. I told her to call if she needed anything, and she said 'Should I ask for you?' Doesn't that strike you as flirty?"
"Well I hope you told her yes!"
"I did. And I gave her my card. And I lent her my umbrella. And I upgraded her to the Concierge floor."
"Good lord, woman! I'm surprised she didn't go down on you in the lobby!" Val whispered the last part so Hulk wouldn't hear it.
"Oh, don't say things like that. My heart can't take it!" Paula laughed. "I talked with her for a few minutes last night in the lounge. She's really nice, and she's going to be coming back and forth for the next few months. Maybe we'll get to know each other."
"Does she have a name?"
"She has a lovely name. It just rolls off your lips. Wynne Connelly."
The woman with the lovely name exited the taxi and reveled in the warm humid air, glad to again be rid of the Baltimore ice and snow. It was no mere coincidence that her leg felt better after being in Orlando for a day or two, and she looked forward to that.
This time, Wynne's arrival went unnoticed by management, both of whom were on the 16th floor seeing to a guest who had fallen ill after dinner. The hotel's physician on call had come to the room and diagnosed acute food poisoning. Predictably, Paula was concerned about the woman's well-being, while Rusty was rejoicing at the fact that the woman hadn't dined in the hotel.
"May I help you?"
"Yes, I'm Wynne Connelly," the tall woman answered, presenting her credit card.
"I have your reservation, Ms. Connelly. You've booked a single non-smoking room on our Concierge floor for three nights. Is that right?"
"Yes." Without the charges for high speed Internet access and two meals a day from room service, the upgrade was a virtual wash. Besides, Wynne didn't have the bar bill of her Dallas counterpart, so she refused to feel guilty about indulging in a little luxury at the company's expense. The tub was worth it even if she had to pay the extra from her own pocket.
Jolene handed over the room key and walked her through the procedures for reaching the Concierge floor. Wynne politely interrupted the explanation with the assurance that she was already familiar with the routine and the use of the key in the elevator.
"Would you like some help with your bags?"
"No thank you. I can manage." Wynne folded her unneeded overcoat over her arm. Turning toward the elevator, she was surprised to see Paula McKenzie rush past her toward the front door, walkie-talkie in hand.
"It's pulling in right now," the commanding blonde messaged.
The flashing red lights drew Wynne's attention to the entrance, where an ambulance had come to a stop directly in front of the door. Surprised by the sudden commotion, she watched the blonde woman calmly but hurriedly direct the attendants to a waiting elevator. Paula's "take-charge" manner was impressive; if Wynne ever had another emergency, she'd want someone like Paula in charge. Of course, she hoped to never again have an emergency like the last one.
Paula studied the Orlando Sentinel's weather report: sunny and calm, with temperatures climbing to the low seventies; tonight, clear and cool, with a low of 54 - a perfect February day.
It was a red-letter day for central Florida, and for the rest of the country too for that matter. But especially for Paula's family and all the families like hers on Florida's Space Coast. Tonight at 9:06, the shuttle Atlantis would lift off. It would be the first such launch since the Columbia disaster, and all of America was holding its collective breath.
A big orange cat landed with a thud in the middle of the newspaper.
"Hi, Slayer," Paula cooed to her baby. "What's the matter? Are you feeling neglected?"
As if in answer, the cat began to paw at the corner of the paper with his usual persistence. It was hopeless to try to continue to read, so Paula gave up.
"Let's go play," she coaxed.
The gleeful feline followed her to the sliding glass door, rearing to bolt the moment it was opened. Not that freedom lay on the other side, mind you. The door led to a porch, which Paula had enclosed last year with gray-tinted smoke glass to increase the usable square footage of her two-bedroom second-floor condo. The porch ran the length of her living room and guest bedroom, and a single glass-paned door at the end opened to the master bedroom.
As soon as the door cracked open, Slayer dashed out, crashing at once into the glass against first one lizard, then another.
"My fearless hunter," Paula chuckled. One of the bonuses of converting the screen to glass was that the cat could no longer rip into the mesh to capture his startled prey. She had grown decidedly unenamoured of his constant presentation of trophies, especially those he brought to her bed in the night.
"Get your toy!" she coaxed.
Not surprisingly, Slayer ignored her; but then, Slayer was after all a cat. He would get his toy when he was damned good and ready.
The orange cat with the big amber eyes had decided two years ago that Paula could keep him and feed him. In return, he would bring her prizes from the wild and allow his nails to be clipped on occasion. At the time, she was living in an apartment that didn't allow pets. Good thing, too, because Slayer didn't like pets. So when Paula's grandmother died and left her a small inheritance, she used it for a down payment on this condominium to have a place to call her own. Or Slayer's own, as the case seemed to be.
Paula interrupted the play session to take a call in the kitchen.
"Hello?Hi Mom." The blonde woman grew up about an hour away in Cocoa Beach, a small upscale community in the shadow of the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. Her father, Raymond McKenzie, had worked as a NASA public information officer since 1967. Neither she nor her brother Rodney shared their father's aptitude in science and engineering, but they had always been proud of their link to the space program. In her whole life, no days were more difficult than those in which the Challenger and Columbia were lost.
"Yes, I'll be watching?probably up on the roof. It's a pretty good view that high, because there aren't any lights to worry about?I don't know, maybe just by myself, but I promise I'll watch."
As she talked on the phone, she gathered her overcoat and purse and finished her preparations to go to work. Lastly, she fed Slayer, who would eat when he was damned good and ready.
"Listen, I'll call you at T minus 10 minutes to see if you've heard anything." Once the countdown was begun, it was always possible - likely even - that the NASA ground crew would build in a few holds for specific purposes, so the launch didn't always go off at exactly the designated moment. "Gotta run! Give Dad a hug for me, okay?...Yeah, I'll see you all Saturday."
Wynne opened the cover of the report that detailed the market research on co-branding the travel agency with the tour company. The findings were another nail in the coffin for the old guard at Gone Tomorrow Tours. Low name recognition made it less likely that Eldon-Markoff would preserve that brand; rather, they would incorporate it under their own moniker. At least that's what she would do if the decision were hers.
"How was lunch?" Cheryl Williams dropped her leather folder onto the conference table, ready for the afternoon's work. At 47, her collar-length brown hair was sprinkled with gray, and her small frame caused many to underestimate her toughness.
"It was fine, thank you. I feel a little guilty about enjoying your weather so much when I know that Baltimore got seven inches of new snow last night." Wynne had bought a sandwich at the deli down the street and sat outside on a bench in Eldon-Markoff's courtyard.
"Don't sweat it. Somebody in Baltimore probably deserved it," the vice president quipped. "I saw you outside. You know, you're welcome to have lunch in the executive dining room on the top floor any time you like."
"Thanks, but I think I'll save that one for a rainy day."
Cheryl checked the door and pulled her chair close to Wynne's. "Listen, I wanted to let you know how much I value your input on this plan. You've obviously worked very hard at Gone Tomorrow, and you have a real nose for this stuff."
Both women looked up as Doug returned from lunch and took his seat on the opposite side of the table. Wynne sensed that Cheryl wanted to say more, but Doug's arrival squelched any further personal talk.
"Shall we resume?"
The staff at the WR knew that this night was special for Paula, and all were willing to do whatever it took to free her up for the next hour or so. She was an understanding boss when one of them had an emergency or needed to leave early. As a supervisor, Paula McKenzie was demanding, but she was always fair and even-tempered. In her nine years at the WR, she had fired only a handful of workers, and no one disputed her judgment on those.
Paula caught the updated coverage on CNN as she grabbed her coat, cell phone, and walkie-talkie. The launch was on, T minus 22 minutes.
Wynne Connelly relaxed with a news magazine in the Concierge lounge, weary from an afternoon of deflecting Doug's objections to everything that threatened his operation in Dallas. The young man was less concerned with what was good for the overall company - not to mention the stockholders, as it was publicly traded - than he was about preserving his own turf, and that was making their work more difficult than it had to be. She didn't know how she was going to deal with one obstacle after another from him for the next 10 weeks.
Wynne was startled to see Paula McKenzie standing right in front of her. She'd been so lost in thought that she hadn't even seen her approach.
"Hi, Paula?I mean Ms. McKenzie," she stammered. "Sorry, didn't mean to be so familiar."
The blonde woman chuckled. "Paula's fine. In fact, I'd prefer it."
"Well, then, in that case, please call me Wynne."
"Oh, I don't think I can do that. It?wouldn't sound very professional to the other guests. Besides, all my staff would have coronaries on the spot," she grinned.
"I guess they're used to the formality."
"I should hope so. Listen, I stopped by to see if anyone in the lounge would be interested in going up to the roof to watch the shuttle launch. It's a great view, and it's going up in about 15 minutes."
"Wow, I'd love to," Wynne enthused. She'd just been reading about America's return to space.
"Great! You should get your coat and meet me right back here so we can go up together. I'm going to see if any of these other folks want to join us."
Secretly, Wynne hoped they'd all say no, but it was not to be. Only three minutes later, Paula was leading a line of six up two flights of stairs to a locked door on the roof.
When they started up the steps, Paula looked back to see the woman grasp the rail to pull herself up, always leading with her right leg. She had stupidly forgotten about Wynne Connelly's limp, not thinking what a hardship it might be, and was relieved that one of the businessmen had stayed back to help.
When they emerged through the door at the top of the stairs, Paula explained jovially that they were not insured for falling off the roof or through the skylights, but there was room to sit on the various three-foot-high block walls that surrounded the massive air conditioner units. Accordingly, the five other guests broke out into the same clusters they were in when she found them in the lounge, leaving her standing alone with the tall woman from Baltimore.
"Why don't we sit over there?" She gestured to an empty wall and both women began to walk. "I need to call my mother to see if it's still a go." Stepping away for a moment, Paula quickly placed her call and confirmed a six minute hold. Atlantis would launch in 12 minutes.
"Your mom follows the launches too?"
"We all do. My dad works for NASA. He's there tonight at the Cape. I'm sure they're all holding their breath right about now."
"What does he do?"
"He helps put together the press kits, and he briefs reporters on the technical aspects of the launch. He's been there through the whole shuttle program."
"Wow, it must have been exciting growing up with all that."
"It was. We're all space junkies."
"So you're from Florida? I didn't know anyone was actually from here," Wynne joked.
"There aren't many of us, I'll say that. Now the shuttle's going to launch right over there," she explained, pointing to a spot on the southeast horizon. "I grew up just to the right of that pad, in Cocoa Beach."
"So I bet you've seen a lot of these."
"Eighty-eight, to be exact. This is number 113 for the shuttles, so I've actually missed about 25 of them. But if you add in all the rocket launches, I've seen about 200."
"No, that's what space junkies do."
"Have you ever gotten really close?"
"Yeah, I've been to the press site a few times, but it's not a bad view from the beach at Cocoa. That's where my friends and I would go."
"And how many launches have you seen from up here?"
"About 20 or 30. But night launches aren't all that common."
"Well, then I really lucked out, not just because I'm here in Orlando to see it, but I have my very own expert right here with me."
"I'm no expert, but I like being close to it." Paula chided herself inwardly for liking the idea of being Wynne Connelly's very own anything. "Have you always lived in Baltimore?"
"Always." Wynne didn't mean to groan when she said that, but it still came out that way.
"Sounds like there's a story in there somewhere," the blonde woman kidded.
"No, there's not really a story. But sometimes I feel like I've gotten too settled there, like I might be missing out on something because I stayed close to home." And maybe if I left, the other Connelly women would be forced to take care of themselves. At least I wouldn't have to.
"You mean career-wise?"
"That's a lot of it. Now that Eldon-Markoff's bought up our company, I doubt my marketing role will get any bigger. In fact, if things keep going in the direction they're headed, I could be out of a job before too long."
"What would you do?"
"I'm not sure," Wynne answered honestly. "But maybe that's what I'd need: a good excuse to move out of Baltimore. And maybe I'd push myself to do something career-wise other than just go to work every day."
"Somehow you don't strike me as the kind of person that just mails it in." On the contrary, Paula got the impression that Wynne Connelly was a lot like her when it came to that old-fashioned Puritan work ethic.
"No, I wouldn't say that I did that. I guess I'd like to do more, though. And I don't think that's going to happen if I limit myself to Baltimore."
"Yeah, I can relate to that. I've passed up a few chances to move up over the years because I didn't want to leave Orlando. But if I'm ever going to break into daytime management, that's what it's going to take."
"So you really like it here?"
"Oh yeah. I mean Orlando's okay. It's a pretty quick shot over to the beach. But what I really like about this place is this hotel. If I had to name my ideal job, it would be running this hotel."
"Well, from what I can see, I'd say you're already doing that," Wynne offered, "and you're doing it very well."
"Thanks, but I'm only helping to hold down the fort at night. I don't get to make the real decisions that affect how things are done. But that's my goal, and like I said, I'll probably have to relocate if I'm ever going to see it."
"Who knows? Maybe things will work out."
"Maybe?but I'm not holding my breath," Paula lamented. "Hey guys, two minutes!"
The women settled back in anticipation of the spectacular show, each glad for this occasion to get to know a little about the other. Though their jobs were very different, it was interesting to realize how much they had in common, at least from a career standpoint. It was nice to think they might be able to forge a friendship, even if it fell away when Wynne's work in Orlando was done.
"There it is!" Paula shouted, pointing to an orange glow on the dark horizon. A bright yellow burst slowly became a towering stream that arced across the night sky.
"Wow!" That was all that Wynne could articulate.
"Yeah, pretty amazing, isn't it?"
"Wow!" The woman from Baltimore had never grasped the reality of the space program until just this minute. Sure, she'd read the news, especially the coverage of the disasters, but seeing that trail of fire gave it a personal meaning she'd never felt before.
In less than three minutes, it was gone, the glowing orange vapor trail its only visible remnants.
"That was one of the most magnificent things I've ever seen," Wynne gushed with obvious emotion. "I mean, it was almost surreal thinking about those seven astronauts riding on the top of all that fire. I just?I don't know, it's like I just kept thinking about the people in it."
"That's the same way I see it, and the way most of the folks at NASA see it." Paula was both astounded and pleased to see Wynne so moved by the experience. Most people never looked past the thunderous rocket to see the humanity, which was to Paula and her family the heart and soul of the space program.
Wynne laid her hand on the shoulder of her new friend. "Paula, I can't thank you enough for bringing me up here tonight. I'm going to remember this for a very long time."
"I'm really glad you were here. Not many people get it like you did, you know, that it's not just a bunch of technology strapped onto a giant Roman candle."
"Well surely after the Challenger and Columbia, people can see past all that."
"They do for a while, but then they start to take it all for granted again. Believe me, that never happens at our house."
"I don't think it's ever going to happen again at mine," Wynne said sincerely. "Really, thank you for this."
"You're welcome," Paula answered smiling. "Well I, uh?suppose I should be getting back to work." What she really wanted to do was sit up here on the roof for a few hours and learn all about this woman from Baltimore.
"That's too bad. It would be nice if we could just go have a drink." It was a bold statement and Wynne knew it, but she had an inkling that Paula would be receptive, at least to the idea of talking more; but the point was obviously moot, as she was on duty.
"I really wish I could." The hotel manager meant that and more. You probably wouldn't ask if you knew what I really wanted. "Maybe it'll work out sometime so that we can."
The men had started to gravitate toward the top of the stairs, waiting for their escort to unlock the door.
"So why do you keep this door locked?" a man asked jokingly.
"Aliens," Paula deadpanned. "We've had a real problem with them coming in this way. They slip into the Concierge lounge and load up on the hors d'oeuvres," she continued, "sometimes they walk out with six plates, one in each hand."
Wynne stepped out of the bath, wrapping up at once in a large fluffy towel. Her leg and hip felt wonderfully relaxed, and if she went right to bed, she probably wouldn't even need to take the usual ibuprofen.
It would be great to have a tub like this one at home, she thought, but neither of the bathrooms in her small two-bedroom townhouse would accommodate a tub that large. Too bad, though. It was funny that she slept better here in a hotel than she did in her own home. Then again, there was nothing funny about that at all, she thought dismally.
Wynne had called home before her bath to check in and to report her excitement about witnessing the launch. Her mom seemed to be managing fine on her own this trip, as Janelle had been able to stop by and look in.
As she readied for bed, the tall woman's thoughts turned back to her evening on the roof with Paula McKenzie. There were many things about the night shift manager that were overtly attractive: she was undeniably pretty, with her long blonde hair, bright green eyes, and petite figure; and she carried herself with an air of authority that, for Wynne, was almost irresistible. Too few women that she knew had that trait - Cheryl Williams was certainly an exception. Wynne not only admired it, but wanted too to emulate it.
But there was something about Paula McKenzie that was not overt, something that beckoned Wynne's attention right away in a way she hadn't felt since her last crush almost eight years ago. Interestingly, that had been yet another strong independent woman: Marlene Cox, the owner of Gone Tomorrow Tours. Over time, that crush ran its course and dissipated, thanks in no small sum to the looming reminder of Marlene's husband. There was nothing to be gained from pining for a happily married straight woman.
Wynne had pored over her feelings for Marlene for a year or two, asking herself again and again what had made her respond so, and how could she find that same thing in someone who was attainable. As a new hire, the marketing director was nurtured by her boss, made to feel like an important cog in the company, and eventually given uncommon autonomy with regard to marketing decisions. She answered this trust with hard work and loyalty.
So why was Paula McKenzie stirring those same feelings that Marlene had evoked so many years ago? Most likely it was because she was giving Wynne special attention?and that made the dark-haired woman feel good because it was coming from someone whose authority she admired. That was the pattern, and that was why Wynne had always found it so difficult to connect with most women.
The rational part of her said that Paula was just doing her job, making guests feel welcome and at home. As for the upgrade?that was obviously a promotion to encourage guests to spend more - and in Wynne's case, it had worked. Sure, she was invited to the roof tonight to watch the launch, but then so were all of the others in the Concierge lounge.
But another part of Wynne saw something else?interest, perhaps. There was no ring on Paula's finger that said she had a husband or fiancÚ, and she hadn't gravitated to the men on the roof. And it had seemed to Wynne that Paula genuinely liked her, aside from her professional rapport.
When she finished in the bathroom, the tall woman hung the towel on the back of the door and turned out the lights. Foregoing the usual nightshirt, she slipped nude between the cool sheets to continue thinking about Paula McKenzie.
Wonder what she's thinking?. Part 2