Paula pulled her dark green Mazda Miata into the double driveway of her parents' home, glad for the shade of her brother's minivan. Most likely, everyone was already out back in the pool getting an early start on their respective sunburns. All of the McKenzies, including her brother's wife and children, were blue- or green-eyed blondes who burned easily, though Paula fared better than the rest. She was, however, prone to getting freckles on her arms, nose and cheeks, and that was a source of great consternation to someone who was 32 years old.
"Anybody home?" she yelled from the foyer.
"Paula?" Her father's voice called from the kitchen.
"Dad!" Without delay, the young woman went straight to her father to deliver the hug she'd been saving ever since Monday night when the shuttle launched. "Congratulations."
"Thanks, hon, but save it for when she touches down." Everyone at NASA was watchful of the re-entry this time, just as they had focused on the launches for years after the Challenger accident.
"Tell you what, I'll give you another one for that. But the launch was a beauty."
"Yes, it certainly was." Ray turned to pick up the plate of hamburger patties on the counter. At 59 years old, Ray McKenzie still boasted a full head of wavy graying blond hair and a slender physique, the latter thanks to his daily run along the beaches on the Cape.
"You want any help?
"Nah, go say hi to everyone. I've got the easy job."
"Okay, but let's talk later. I want to hear how the mission's going." Her father had a gift for translating all of the technical mumbo-jumbo into interesting stories and facts. When she was in junior high school, she and her brother Rod had made a game of getting their dad ready for the reporters by firing questions at him during dinner. The tradition had carried over to this day.
Paula walked through the open French doors to the large screened-in patio, where - as predicted - Rod and his wife Adrienne were in the pool with their 5-year-old son Josh, and 3-year-old daughter, Jordan.
"Mom!" Paula hugged her mother like a long lost relative, though they had seen each other only two weeks ago. The launch of Atlantis had brought welcome stress to all of the McKenzies, and they naturally drew closer to share it.
"I thought you were going to cut your hair." Maxine McKenzie snagged the ponytail that protruded from the back of her daughter's USS Columbia cap.
"I chickened out," Paula admitted. "But I made another appointment for the week after next."
"Pauwa!" A very wet 5-year-old wrapped his arms around his aunt's legs to say hello.
"Hi Josh!" Ignoring the fact that her nephew was dripping, Paula bent down for a big hug. Not to be outdone, her niece soon joined them, dripping as well. "Hi Jordan!"
"So now that you're already wet, you should come on in," her brother shouted from the pool. Rodney McKenzie was a building inspector for Brevard County, an important job in a coastal community that got its share of hurricanes.
"No thanks. It's still too cold for me." Today was the first day the McKenzies had used their pool since October. Though temperatures would only climb to the mid-70s, everyone was antsy to hurry spring along. "You guys doing alright?"
"We're good. Did you see the launch?"
"Of course. I even took some of the guests on the Concierge floor to the rooftop to watch it. Where'd you guys go?"
"I went to the press site," Rod answered. "Adrienne and the kids went to the causeway."
"You went to the press site?" Paula was so jealous! She rarely got to go because of work, but the press site at the Kennedy Space Center where her father worked was the best place to experience the liftoff. Situated next to the giant Vehicle Assembly Building, the press site was eight miles from the launch pad. The flagpole and six-foot high digital clock in the foreground were staples of NASA news coverage.
"The next launch is scheduled for a Saturday," her father chimed in. "Let me know if you can make it and I'll get you a pass."
"Cool!" Paula's first thought was about how nice it would be if Wynne could come along. It wouldn't be a problem getting her a pass, but it would all depend on whether or not she would be coming to town that weekend and if she could come a couple of days early.
It was a typical Saturday at the McKenzie household. Paula and Rod quizzed their dad through lunch about the mission, then she spent an hour or more on the floor with the kids before they settled down for an afternoon nap.
Maxine McKenzie had decidedly mixed feelings about her daughter's twice-monthly weekend visits to Cocoa Beach. She loved spending time with Paula, and especially liked the way the whole family stayed connected. But if Paula was here with her family, that meant she probably wasn't seeing anyone, and that made Maxine sad. In the last nine years, she had met only one woman in her daughter's life, but that relationship had lasted only six or eight months. They'd talked about it before, and Paula had explained how difficult it was to date someone when you were off only two nights a weeks. But the mother suspected it was more than that. It was almost like she'd just given up on finding someone to be with, and that she was satisfied to have her job be the center of her life.
The period after Paula graduated from high school was a difficult time in the McKenzie household, especially when their daughter opted to postpone college to travel throughout Europe for a year with a friend.
"Because this is my last chance to do this for the next 50 years!" the teenager pleaded. "I've saved enough money to live on, and we'll stay in hostels and I'll get a rail pass."
"But you've already been accepted at Gainesville. All your friends are going to college now," Maxine reasoned.
"And that's another thing, Paula. You were all gung-ho about college until you started hanging out with Shauna Golding. Now she's got you talked into running off to Europe like you haven't a care in the world." Ray McKenzie couldn't put his finger on it, but something about his daughter had changed in the past four or five months. "Are you…?"
Paula tensed with fear. She didn't want to be having this conversation. She wasn't ready. Hell, her mom and dad weren't ready.
"Are you doing drugs?" he finally finished.
Paula slumped into her chair and sighed, unable to stifle a chuckle at her father's ludicrous question. "No, Dad. I'm not doing drugs."
"Then what has changed?" His eyes were pleading, not accusatory, but concerned.
The teenager sighed again, tears pooling in her eyes. They were going to hate her for this. "What's changed is that…Shauna and I are in love with each other. And we want to go so we can be together, so we can be away from all the people who just don't understand that."
Paula's admission took her father completely by surprise. Not so with Maxine, who had seen this day coming for quite some time. She'd watched how Paula had treated her dates so casually, and how caring and generous she was to the girls she was close to. She took on their problems, and pushed herself to be there for these girlfriends; but she'd shown no such feelings for any of the boys she'd gone out with.
"Paula…," the man struggled to find the right words, "I'm just worried that you'll lose sight of all the plans you've made for your future." Hadn't she talked about having children someday?
"I won't, Dad. I'll come back and start college next year. And maybe I'll go to summer school and make up the time."
"I was thinking about…" the other plans. He let it go.
Paula returned from Europe in early December that year without Shauna. Their relationship had been based on too few things in common, and was destined to fail, but Paula had never regretted the trip. In January, she began study at the University of Florida, graduating three and a half years later with her class in business, her concentration in hospitality management.
Still, it had taken her family almost three years to really come to grips with Paula being gay. They had hoped during that time that she would get over this phase in her life, but gradually they came to accept that she wouldn't. To this day, Paula didn't feel comfortable - or maybe it was that she didn't feel secure - about bringing girlfriends to meet her family, so it was easy to assume that she had no one in her life.
Maxine knew her daughter as well as a mother could, and something was different today - something that hadn't been there only two weeks ago. Paula was relaxed and happy, and she had hardly mentioned work at all…except for the bit about taking the guests up on the roof for the shuttle launch. Even then, she'd lost the usual serious tone she invoked whenever she spoke of her job. Maybe she's met someone.
Wynne crawled painfully across the floor in her mother's bedroom, following the extension cord to its end behind the television.
"Well, it's no wonder the fuse blew. I'm surprised you haven't burned the house down!" she muttered to herself. "Mother!"
Wynne counted seven electrical appliances feeding off two adaptors and the extension cord. More than likely, three or four at a time was enough to overload the circuit.
"What? Did you find the problem?" Kitty Connelly entered the room to find her daughter sprawled on the floor, her head behind the TV. She was glad that her oldest daughter was so handy.
Wynne patiently explained both the problem and the danger of having too many things plugged into the same outlet, especially when so many - the TV, the VCR, the lamp, the small space heater - were turned on at the same time.
"But I need all of those things. How can I read the TV listings without the light?" she asked indignantly, adding "And you don't expect me to sit up here and freeze!"
"No, but you're going to have to plug some of this stuff into different outlets." One by one, the tall woman rearranged things so that the clock radio and CD player now worked off a plug on the far side of the room, and the space heater used an extension cord that ran into the hallway.
"But that looks terrible to have that out there," the elder Connelly whined.
"It's only temporary, until you get an electrician over here to run another outlet in this room off a different fuse."
"Now that's so unnecessary. I've lived in this room for 37 years, and I never needed another outlet before."
"But you have all this stuff now, Mom." Wynne gestured at the various items about the room. When her husband died, Kitty gradually used less and less of the large Tudor house, creating her own personal space in her large bedroom. "It isn't a choice. You can't leave all those things plugged in there. It's dangerous, and besides, Sophie might come in here sometime and play with all those cords and get shocked." Invoking her niece's name would do the trick.
"I suppose you're right."
"Can you find an electrician in the Yellow Pages and tell him what it is you need?"
"I don't know if I can remember all that."
Wynne always hoped for a different answer, but she never got it. It would be up to her to find someone to come over and take care of this.
"Okay, I'll do it on Monday. But you'll have to show him what you need when he gets here." She walked her mother through the directions until she was satisfied that the woman understood. Together, they returned to the first floor of the old house, where Wynne collapsed on the couch and tried to massage the soreness from her leg.
"It still hurts you so much, doesn't it, sweetheart?" Tears sprang to the woman's sad brown eyes as she watched her oldest daughter fight the pain that dogged her every day. "You're going to have to have that other surgery or it will never get better."
"I know…I just can't do it right now, Mom." Wynne knew that the surgery to bond her splintered femur was the last procedure planned for her recovery, but she just couldn't bear giving in to the doctors again and laying up for another four to six weeks. It was especially true now that she had this added responsibility in Orlando, and besides, who would change the light bulbs and fuses at her mother's house?
"Auntie Wynne!" An excited 2-year old barreled across the room to deliver a hug and kiss to her beloved aunt. Sophie wished her Auntie Wynne could live with them too.
"Hey, angel. How's my girl?" Wynne adored her sister's child like she was her own. "How are you doing, Janelle?"
Wynne's younger sister was hot on the heels of her little girl, who had torn through the house after recognizing her auntie's Volvo in the driveway. Janelle was as much like their mother as her older sister was like their father. Like Kitty, Janelle was average height, with expressive brown eyes and auburn hair; more auburn today than it had been last week, Wynne noted. Her sister had done a six-year stint in the Navy and was now finishing up her health technology degree.
"I'm good. We've just been to the park, where somebody went on the big swing all by herself!" she bragged.
Her eyes wide, Wynne turned to the little girl. "All by yourself?"
Sophie nodded proudly.
"What a big girl you're getting to be!"
"Do you have to head back to Orlando tomorrow?" Janelle asked.
"No, this is my week to be here." Wynne found now that she had to work like a dog when she was home to make up for being out of the office so much. Her inbox was always crammed full on Thursday morning, as no one else could deal with marketing issues in her absence. In fact, she planned to work at home tonight and tomorrow afternoon to catch up.
"Will you stay for supper?" Kitty asked hopefully, knowing in advance that her daughter would decline.
"No, I need to get back home, but thanks. And I'll call the electrician on Monday, but don't use all that stuff at the same time, okay?"
"Whatever you say. You know I depend on you to help me out with those things."
And with everything else, Wynne thought resignedly as she stood to leave.
Kitty watched her oldest limp down the steps from the porch to her car. It nearly broke her heart to still see the remnants of that awful night when they'd nearly lost her. Since the accident, Wynne was a different person - a sadder person - and Kitty suspected that the lingering injuries were only a small reason for her melancholy.
After almost three hours online, Wynne disposed of the final message in her mailbox. Between the time she'd put in last night and this afternoon, she'd pretty much caught up enough to start the week at Gone Tomorrow Tours with her head above water. It would be another frantic week, trying to get everything done - at work, at home, at her mother's home - before heading out again next Sunday for Orlando.
Boy, had she ever changed her tune about that part of her job. The bi-monthly trips she had originally dreaded had become both a respite from the responsibility and something of an adventure, thanks in part to her new friend at the hotel. Wynne knew she had no business letting her mind wander to Paula McKenzie, but it wasn't something she could stop…or wanted to stop.
No matter how many times she told herself that Paula was just doing her job, it was hard to overlook the feeling that the pretty blonde was going out of her way to connect. Wynne fished her wallet from her briefcase and located the business card she'd been given: Paula R. McKenzie, Shift Manager. With an email address, she noted.
Paula finished the last of her report to management on the activities of the week. Since it was Sunday night, Rusty was filling in at the desk to help handle the rush. With her work done, she knew she should relieve him so that he too could wrap up his paperwork, but Paula couldn't resist using this rare time alone to check out the company's job postings. She long ago acknowledged that it wasn't likely she'd advance here in Orlando. Add to that the fact that her life - not just here at work, but all around - was growing increasingly stagnant. As much as she hated to leave this hotel, it might be time to consider making a change. Perhaps there's something open in the DC area, she thought as she logged on to the Weller Regent network.
But that could wait. She had mail from KWConnelly!
I just wanted you to know that I've followed the news of the shuttle mission very closely, and look forward to seeing its triumphant return on Friday. Thank you ever so much for including me last week in that special viewing on the roof. Honestly, I can't tell you how much that meant, or how many times I've thought of that magnificent sight since then.
I look forward to my trip next Sunday to the Weller Regent, and I hope we'll have another chance to say hello.
Thank you again,
Paula forwarded the note to the ISP she used for personal mail. If she were going to forge a friendship with this intriguing woman, she'd have to do it out of the prying eyes of their network administrators.
Paula had hoped to be working the front desk when the woman from Baltimore made her appearance at the Weller Regent on Sunday night, but it was not to be. Instead, she found herself on the 14th floor in the middle of a domestic dispute that was growing nastier by the minute.
"Mrs. Frandle, I need to know if you wish to press charges. If you choose to do that, I'll call the Orlando Police Department, and they can be here in five minutes. If you decide you'd rather not, our security staff will escort your husband from the premises for the night, and hopefully he'll cool off." Paula stood in the bathroom with the door closed watching Karen Frandle shake as she held ice to her bleeding lip. "The decision is entirely up to you."
"I don't know," the crying woman sighed. "What do you think I should do?"
"I'm just not qualified to give you advice on this. But I'll do whatever you say." I would have his ass thrown in jail.
"I'm scared if you take him away tonight he's going to go nuts on me when he gets back," she whimpered. "What if they just took him out for a while and brought him back?"
"I'm afraid we can't do that, Mrs. Frandle. Based on what we've heard and seen tonight, your husband is behaving violently, and it's our policy to remove people like that from the premises and to not allow them back." After nine years, Paula was no longer surprised at the incidence of domestic violence, even among couples who seemed to exude an air of sophistication.
"Then I guess we'll just both leave," the woman finally said with indignation. At once, she exited the bathroom and announced that they would depart.
"I'm not paying for this night!" Howard Frandle barked as he began to throw his belongings in a suitcase.
Paula stiffened for the inevitable confrontation. Like other upscale hotels, the Weller Regent's policy upon eviction with cause was to charge for the night, as it was a well-known scam by some of the more unscrupulous guests to stage incidents that would absolve them of charges. "Mr. Frandle, your credit card has already been charged. It's clearly stated in our materials that daily charges are incurred if guests fail to vacate or if they are removed from the premises after 1 p.m."
"Then I'll just call my credit card company and cancel payment."
"If you do that, Mr. Frandle, the Weller Regent will file theft charges with the Orlando Police Department, and you will be summoned to appear in court." Pay me now, pay me later.
"Let's get out of here, Karen!" he ordered. "This hotel chain will never get my business again!"
Let's hope not. Paula waited for the couple to finish packing then walked with the two security guards to escort them from the building. "Give them a parking pass, and make sure you see them leave the premises," she whispered as the foursome exited the elevator and walked toward the parking garage.
A quick look at her watch told her that she'd likely missed the arrival of Wynne Connelly, and thanks to having spent the last hour and a half in this domestic dispute, she was going to be chained to her desk for the rest of the night.
The alarm rudely jarred Wynne from a comfortable sleep at 6:15 a.m. "Time to hit the fitness room," she grumbled to herself, knowing full well that the 30 minutes she spent each day on the exercise bike was the only thing that kept her mobile.
She had been disappointed last night not to have seen or heard from Paula, especially after they had traded emails a couple of times last week. But Wynne had to remind herself that while she was at leisure at the Weller Regent, Paula was not. The shift manager probably had important things to do, and it was stupid for Wynne to be placing expectations on her time.
On her way to the bathroom, the tall woman spotted an envelope on the floor, pushed under her door sometime after she retired at a quarter to midnight. On hotel stationery, the writer had inscribed her name neatly, but with a slight backward slant. Left-handed.
Welcome back to Orlando. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to say hello last evening. We had a few emergencies and I ended up in my office until two a.m. getting my paperwork finished.
If I miss you tonight in the Concierge lounge, I'll try to call before it gets too late.
p.s. That was some landing on Friday, wasn't it?
Wynne smiled and folded the note. So she tried. I guess that's good, huh? On the other hand, it was increasingly clear that even if they were able to connect here at the hotel, Paula's job left her with little time to just talk a little. It would certainly be difficult for them to get to know each other, but Wynne wanted to try.
"Okay, I'm ready." Paula gripped the arms of her chair and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. A few snips later it was too late to change her mind. "Done?"
"I'm done with that part. You want to see?" Carla held out the long blonde ponytail.
"No! Finish it!" Paula hadn't worn her hair short since the summer she'd left for Europe.
Carla spun her around to face the mirror. "Okay, here's what I want to do…."
Wynne had put in a longer day than usual, starting the morning off at a breakfast meeting with Doug, Cheryl, and Ken Markoff, the CEO at Eldon-Markoff. Cheryl had provided her boss with regular updates on the progress of the planning committee, but until today, he hadn't actually met her crew of two.
Now she was beat, eager to head upstairs, grab a bite to eat, and settle in for an early soak in the jetted tub. Paula didn't work on Tuesdays, so she wouldn't be coming around tonight to the Concierge lounge; there was no point in hanging out there. Her vigil had been rewarded last night when the pretty blonde had stopped by briefly to say hello, and to apologize for not having more time.
Wynne rounded the corner for the elevators, stopping short when the reflection from a broad mirror on the opposite wall caught her eye. Turning to face the beauty salon in the small row of shops, she saw Paula - with short hair - draped in a black plastic cape, her eyebrows raised in doubt.
I think I need a manicure. She'd just gotten one on Saturday, but here was finally an opportunity to talk to a very captive Paula McKenzie.
"Good afternoon, is there any chance I could get a manicure?"
"Of course," answered the stylist. "Please have a seat and I'll go get Elena."
As she disappeared into the back, Wynne approached to stand directly behind her new friend, whose green eyes were wide with astonishment at the arrival of her favorite guest.
"Getting a trim?" Wynne would need a new fantasy. Not a problem, from the looks of things.
"Just a small one," Paula almost squeaked.
"I bet it'll look great," the brunette reassured. "Have you worn it short before?"
"Not since high school."
"I think it's going to look fabulous," she said again, this time in a low timber that made the blonde woman shudder.
Wynne took a seat facing the stylist's chair and readied for her manicure. It's going to look sexy as hell.
A talkative Hispanic woman soon joined them and began to make fast work of the dark-haired woman's almost impeccable nails. She and the stylist bantered back and forth, mostly in Spanish, and apparently about Paula's new do. On occasion, the blonde woman would chuckle, obviously understanding their words, but not participating in the conversation.
"They're talking about my boss, Rusty Wilburn," Paula explained. "He's in love with the girl at the Brooklyn Deli down the street."
"I know the Brooklyn Deli. I get lunch there sometimes."
"Rusty walks down there every day on his break to see this girl, but he always stops in here first to get advice from these ladies on how to act and what to say."
"So are they helping the guy, or are they setting him up to crash and burn?"
"Mostly, they're helping. But he's really bashful, so they get a kick out of telling him to say or do stuff he'd never have the nerve to do," she laughed.
Carla was almost finished with the masterpiece that was Paula's new hairstyle. She continued to jabber in Spanish, and this time, all three women laughed aloud.
"Now, she's giving me advice on my love life," Paula translated.
"This should be interesting." Indeed.
"In English, Carla. And throw in a little wisdom for our guest here," she said, indicating the tall woman at the table. "This is what I have to put up with on a daily basis."
"Okay, I was just saying that a man likes to think he's in charge, so even if he isn't you have to make him feel that way. Don't you think that's true, Miss?"
Wynne laughed in amazement. "I don't have a clue what men like, but if they need all of that, why would anybody want one?"
"Here, here!" Paula cheered, turning quickly to cast a knowing look into the beautiful blue eyes. If that meant what she thought it meant, it was definitely the right answer!
Wynne smiled back, her look a confirmation of their coded exchange. Glad we got that settled.
Paula took the offered handheld mirror to check out the back of her new style. It was short, just barely touching her collar. Carla had styled it kind of puffy on top, spraying it to stay in place; but Paula fixed that quickly by running a hand through it and shaking it loose.
"You're messing up my hair!" Carla whined.
"It's my hair, and you fixed it like a helmet. I like it to look more natural."
"Let's ask our guest." Turning toward Wynne, the stylist posed the question. "Which do like better, the elegant way I styled her hair, or the mop she chose for herself?"
Pretty hard to run your hands through all that hairspray. "I think I prefer the more natural look," Wynne answered, casting a brilliant smile to the waiting blonde. "In fact, I think it looks fantastic."
"Thank you very much." Paula turned back toward Carla and smirked, mussing her hair again for good measure.
"You hurt me," Carla pouted.
"I'll tip you and you'll feel better," Paula answered, digging for her wallet.
Wynne did the same for her manicurist, and the two ladies exited the salon together.
"So you're off today," the tall woman observed. That meant they both had free time right now.
"Yeah, Tuesdays and Saturdays," Paula answered. "Do you have to go do some work now…or anything?"
"No, could I talk you into joining me for dinner?" The brunette gestured in the direction of the Weller Regent's five-star restaurant.
Thank you God! "I was about to ask you the same thing. But not here. Are you up for a ride?"
Wynne's face brightened in agreement. "Absolutely! It would be nice to see something of Orlando besides the office, the hotel, or the airport."
"Then let's do it!"
"I should change. Can you give me a minute?"
"Tell you what. I'll meet you in the parking garage on Level 2; just go down this hallway and out the door," she pointed over her shoulder, "and up one flight of steps. Look to your left and I'll be waiting."
"Great!" Paula watched the woman head to the elevator bank before exiting out the side to the parking garage. Finally, she and Wynne were going to have a chance to get to know each other. Management at the Weller Regent would likely frown on this, but it wasn't forbidden, as long as she wasn't on hotel property.
Wynne merrily pushed through the door to her room, unable to suppress the smile she now sported. In the first place, she was going out to dinner with Paula, and that would be fun no matter what became of it. But for the bonus, she now knew that she and the very sexy blonde went to the same church, so to speak.
You shouldn't be doing this, a little voice cautioned. But damn it, it was just dinner and she was going to do it whether she should or not. There was very little in Wynne Connelly's life that wasn't an obligation or responsibility. Paula McKenzie was not.
This is how it's supposed to feel, she told herself, taking on the objections of her conscience. Through the years, Wynne had met dozens of women at parties, at clubs, through mutual friends. She'd followed up with a handful who seemed like the strong and independent type, going out a few times to see if anything sparked. When it didn't - and it never really had - she'd cool things and go back into hibernation again. On rare occasions, there'd be a sexual spark, but when she played it out, it was never attached to the kind of woman she wanted in her life.
Things were different with Paula, who was exactly the sort of woman Wynne wanted in her life. And though they barely knew each other, the spark was already there. How else could Wynne explain why she thought about this pretty blonde so much; why her breath caught when she saw that she had email from her; and why she was going out to dinner with her, even though the little voice told her she shouldn't?
Wynne slipped on the tan slacks and red sweater she'd worn on the flight down last Sunday, grabbing a blazer just in case it turned cool. Paula had been wearing black jeans and a long-sleeved white v-neck pullover, so she didn't want to be too dressed up.
Right on time, the tall woman emerged from the stairwell on the second floor of the parking garage. An engine roar got her attention as she eyed the roadster - top-down - pulling out of a space to draw to a stop in front of her. "Was this the runt of the litter?"
"Come on, it's bigger than it looks," Paula encouraged.
Wynne gamely complied, bending low to fold herself into the passenger seat. Little by little, she stretched her legs in front of her, surprised to find that they fit just fine. Leaning over the console, she peeked underneath the steering wheel. "Do you have to pedal?"
"Yes, it's how I keep in shape," Paula answered back, not missing a beat.
"You never struck me as the sports car type."
"This is probably the only thing about me that's not practical," she explained. "But I just love the way it grips the road."
"That's probably because you're so much closer to it," Wynne kidded. "Do you have to drag your foot when you want it to stop?"
"Yeah, I'll let you know when," she teased back. "Do you like ribs?"
"Are you kidding? I love ribs!"
"Great! I've got the perfect place." Paula whipped out into traffic and made for the expressway. "You warm enough? This car's got a great little heater," she shouted.
"You drive around with the top down and the heater on?" Wynne brushed her hair from her face, but to no avail.
"Sometimes," she answered defensively. Paula glanced over at her new friend's struggle with the wind. "Here, have a hat. I won't need it anymore," she grinned, running her fingers through her short hair.
The brunette noted the USS Columbia insignia, took it thankfully and pulled her long locks through the opening in the back. Now that her hair wasn't blowing all over the place, this open-air ride was rather nice. Paula had slipped on a jacket, but Wynne was comparing this to the winter in Baltimore, and it didn't seem cold at all.
Fifteen minutes later, Paula pulled into Buck's, a family style restaurant with a sports bar décor. Wynne twisted her body to climb out. "Wait, I'm having a déja vu! It's from when I was born!"
"Very funny," Paula chuckled. "So I bet you drive one of those road monsters."
"A Volvo sedan. I'd crush this thing like a bug."
"I'll have you know I'm not easily intimidated," Paula answered, tossing up an eyebrow.
"I think I already figured that out about you."
A few minutes later the women were seated across from one another in a booth, the tall wooden seat backs affording them a measure of privacy in this otherwise bustling venue.
"I recommend the pork ribs," Paula announced, "with the hot sauce if you're man enough."
"Then I'll have the pork ribs, with extra hot sauce."
"Ooooo, tough girl."
"Believe me, I am a tough girl," Wynne answered back, now arching her own brow. "And you're not easily intimidated. I sure hope we never tangle, Miss McKenzie."
Speak for yourself. "Believe me, with all the stuff I have to go through at work, the last thing I want to do on my free time is tangle." Paula went on to relate her Sunday night experience with the Frandles, and to tell a few stories about breaking up drunken parties, and even a fight or two.
"You know, that's something I noticed about you right off that first night we met, when you handled that man in front of me. You just had this air of authority about you. I really admire that in people."
"Well thank you. And I bet you're really good at what you do."
"To tell you the truth, I am good at my job. But I don't think that's going to be enough to save it." Now it was Wynne's turn to talk about work, about how the company she worked for had been acquired by Eldon-Markoff, and how she was helping them centralize the marketing operations in a way that would likely put her out of a job. "The vice president for sales and marketing is great, though. In fact, she's a lot like you in a way. I mean, both of you sort of…"
"Walk softly and carry a big stick."
Dinner arrived and both women dug in, each daring the other to add Tabasco to the already fiery barbecue sauce. The conversation was easy, Wynne thought, like they were already friends. And it was fun to see this playful side of the usually serious night manager. Paula talked again about her family, and how proud everyone was of the recent shuttle mission. Wynne told all about her mother's ineptitude around the house.
"So I have to congratulate you on that little response of yours to Carla's philosophy of men," Paula teased. "How did you know I'd get it?"
"Well, I wasn't sure you would until you spun around in the chair and flashed me that big smile…sort of like the one you're wearing now."
"I had to see the look on your face, just to make sure. I thought we were on the same wavelength, but you never want to assume anything."
"What gave you the idea we were on the same wavelength?"
"Oh, I don't know. That first night we met, I just sort of got the feeling you were checking me out while I was checking you in," Paula quipped.
"You did, did you? That's because you were flirting with me," Wynne accused playfully.
"Oh, no! You were the one doing the flirting. 'Shall I ask for you?'"
"Yeah, Miss 'Here's my card with my direct extension. If there's anything you need.'"
The blonde woman raised her hands to her blushing cheeks. "This from a woman who said 'I promise not to misbehave,'" she taunted.
Wynne pursed her lips indignantly for a moment, finally looking down as she nodded her head in mock shame. "I was flirting," she admitted softly.
"I knew it!"
"But so were you."
"So was I," Paula finally confessed, and both women laughed.
As they were talking, the waitress dropped by to discreetly deposit their check.
"Well thank you for being my dinner guest," Wynne said as she covered the check with her hand. After a brief argument, Paula acquiesced and thanked her companion, vowing that she would get the bill next time.
Wynne dropped some bills in the tray, grimacing as she stood.
"Are you okay?" Paula hadn't seen that look before.
"Yeah, my leg just gets really stiff when I sit for awhile."
"Is there anything I can do? I mean besides marching you outside and folding you into my tiny car?"
"No, I think that'll finish me off," Wynne laughed.
"I'm sorry. If I'd known two years ago that we'd actually be going out to dinner, I'd have bought a larger car." The women exited into the parking lot, Paula offering her arm to steady the hobbling woman.
"And if I could go back two years, I would stop at that intersection, even though I had the right of way."
"So it was a car accident?"
"Yeah, some kid stole a truck and was trying to outrun the cops. He hit me broadside."
"That's awful! Was anyone else hurt?"
Wynne nodded sadly. "The kid was killed. He was only 15 years old. I was alone in the car."
"Wynne, I'm so sorry to hear that. And that was two years ago?"
"Yeah. I've already had four surgeries on my leg. I need to have one more, but I just can't bring myself to schedule it."
"Will it fix this pain you have?"
"It should. But I'd be out of work for about a month, and back into physical therapy three times a week. I just don't have the time to do that right now." Wynne looked down at where her hand gripped Paula's arm, squeezing a bit before letting go to climb into the small car.
"Well you definitely win the Tough Girl Award, my friend."
As she had done on the ride over, Wynne put the USS Columbia hat back on, tucking her hair just right so it wouldn't blow. "It's great you have this hat," she said wistfully, remembering the sad day the crew was lost.
"That reminds me, the next launch is scheduled for a Saturday. If it works out that you can come down on Friday, I can get passes to the press site right there at the Cape," Paula offered.
Wynne tensed a moment. A weekend trip might prove difficult to pull off. "I'm not sure. If you'll let me know the date, I'll check my calendar."
Paula had expected a more enthusiastic response, but maybe it was a real hardship for Wynne to leave her family for that long. Her mother seemed awfully dependent.
Drawing close to the hotel, Paula decided that it would be easier for Wynne if she entered through the lobby than through the garage, given that the woman's leg was obviously bothering her now. That meant the entire staff would know by tomorrow that she'd been out tonight with the guest from Baltimore. Oh, well.
Reaching over the console before they pulled into the circle, she took the slender hand and gave it a squeeze. "Thank you very much for tonight. I had a lot of fun."
What the hell do you think you're doing?
The soak in the swirling water had eased the throbbing in her leg, but Wynne was far from relaxed. The irony was that it was the fun she'd had tonight with Paula that was causing her to feel unsettled. She couldn't take this any further, but that didn't make her want it less. All night, she'd been looking across the table, wanting to kiss those lips and pull that body to hers. Only in her fantasies, one of which she was going to enjoy right now.
"What is this stuff?" Rusty couldn't hide his disgust.
"It's called edamame, and you're not supposed to eat the whole thing. Just put it between your teeth and pull out the soybeans." Paula had insisted on something different tonight, despite Rusty's pleas to return to the deli.
"If I'd wanted beans, I could have gotten a bowl of chili and eaten them with a spoon."
"Rusty, I needed a break. You can go see her tomorrow night, and maybe she'll have had a chance to miss you."
"Did I tell you we went out again last Friday?"
"Only about 12 times, but if it makes you feel better, you can tell me all about it again."
"What if we talk about your lady instead?" He gestured to the monitor, which showed Wynne Connelly climbing again from a cab and collecting her things.
Paula had been watching the clock, knowing that Wynne would arrive sometime between 9:00 and 9:30.
"She is not my lady."
"You should go on down to the desk and check her in," Rusty suggested.
"Oh, I don't think so. Every single person on staff knows we went out the last time she was here, and I'd rather not be under their microscope. Besides, Jolene and Matthew have everything under control." The view had changed to the front desk, where Paula could see Wynne standing in line, looking around. The women had traded several emails over the last couple of weeks, agreeing to a movie and pizza on Tuesday night.
"Nobody's going to think anything about it," he reasoned. "Everybody knows by now that she's a regular, and they'll just think you're friends."
"That's exactly what we are, Rusty. But I'd just prefer that people not read any more into it."
"It's not like anyone will care if you're gay, Paula. Everybody knows that Matthew is, and no one gives him a hard time. Management isn't going to fire you, not with their non-discrimination clause."
"I know all of that on the surface, but you know what? If I come out to these people, the next time I have to reprimand someone, it'll be because I'm a fucking dyke, as if that makes my authority less valid. I'd rather it just be none of their business. Besides, it isn't like I have a personal life to keep private anyway."
The pair watched Jolene complete the check-in process for K. Wynne Connelly, who then turned toward the elevators. Rusty advanced the camera to capture that view, and they stared in silence as she stepped aside for passengers to depart, then disappeared as the door closed.
"At the very least, you should give her a call," he coaxed. Rusty liked his coworker a lot, but he couldn't understand why on earth someone who had so much to offer would keep to herself as Paula did. In the three years that they'd shared the night shift, he'd gotten to know her pretty well, and she'd only mentioned one casual girlfriend in all that time. Part of the problem, he knew, was their awful work schedule. Lucky for him that Juliana too worked the evening hours, and then, only part time.
In other words, when she was alone, he thought. He'd think of a reason to make himself scarce in a half-hour or so.
Wynne opened her briefcase and spread her materials out on a corner of the conference table. It was a quarter till nine; usually they started promptly at 8:30, but there was no sign that anyone else was even here. A feeling of dread swept over her as she feared that she'd gotten her weeks mixed up, or that they'd canceled this week and she'd forgotten.
"Good morning, sorry I'm late." Cheryl Williams bounded into the room with her typical exuberance. "Listen, we're going to move into my office to finish this up," she explained as she helped Wynne collect her papers.
"Is Doug already here?"
"No, Ken and I decided that it would be best to proceed with just the two of us. That might mean an extra trip for you, but then again, we may be able to move through things a little faster with less discussion."
She meant fewer objections from Doug, Wynne knew.
"I'll be happy to do whatever you need, Cheryl."
"I know that about you, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it." She led them into her corner office, where coffee and breakfast rolls were already set up. "I didn't get a chance to eat this morning, so I hope you don't mind. Help yourself."
"No thank you. I ate at the hotel."
"So how do you like the Weller Regent?"
"It's very comfortable. And it's quiet. I like that."
"So do I. There's a nice one in Washington, but the one in New York is my favorite. They also just opened a new one in Dallas and another in Denver."
"I haven't had the chance to try those."
"And speaking of Dallas, I'm sure you're wondering why we decided to take Doug out of the loop with regard to the marketing plan." Cheryl's eyes held a conspiratorial twinkle.
"I could guess, but I'd rather not."
"You're very diplomatic, Wynne. And you'd probably be right. It just seemed increasingly difficult to push ahead with Doug's constant objections, especially once it became apparent that he was opposed to anything that might weaken his own stature."
Wynne nodded in understanding. That was Doug in a nutshell.
"That makes me want to ask why you haven't had the same reaction." The words hung in the air for a moment, but before Wynne could answer, she continued. "It's become obvious - almost since Day 1 - that the streamlined sales and marketing plan is going to take away some positions, and yours is certainly at risk. You've seen that, but you don't seem to fight it at all. Why is that? Are you eager to be rid of Eldon-Markoff?"
"No, not at all. It's just that centralization is what's best for the company and the stockholders, and that's who I work for. I can sure see the handwriting on the wall, but that doesn't change what's a good business decision. What I know about Eldon-Markoff is that it's a fair employer, and I only hope to be treated fairly." Well, there you go. My job's definitely on the block.
"You will be, Wynne. If you've worried about that at all, let me put your fears to rest."
Paula pulled into the circle in front of the Weller Regent, waving politely to the valet crew. Wynne was waiting outside, and a young man hurriedly stepped forward to open the passenger door.
"Hello, Miss McKenzie. You ladies have a nice evening."
"Hi, Justin. Thanks." Paula shifted the car into gear and slowly edged out into traffic. Tonight, the top was up, as it had rained earlier in the day. "Hello again, Miss Connelly. Are you enjoying your stay at the Weller Regent?"
"Most certainly, Miss McKenzie. I especially like the way the hotel staff coordinates my entertainment schedule."
Paula grinned at her companion. She'd thought Tuesday night would never get here!
"So what are we going to see?"
The driver explained their choices and they settled on an action adventure flick that had gotten pretty good reviews. It turned out to be a pretty good story, and the special effects were spectacular.
But Wynne got distracted about halfway through and could barely concentrate on the film. Instead, she became focused on the fact that she wanted to hold Paula's hand. She'd told herself ever since her last trip to Orlando that the only way she was going to allow herself to socialize with this woman was if she kept things at a "friend" level, but now that they were here in the dark theater, linking her fingers with those of Paula McKenzie was about all she could think about. Finally, she picked up the drink from the cupholder they shared and moved it to her other side, raising the chair arm between them. In a not-so-subtle move, her hand crept over into Paula's lap until the younger woman grasped it with her own, entwining their fingers and squeezing. Ahhhh!
When the picture let out, the pair walked arm in arm to a small pizza restaurant nearby, Wynne limping slightly at the stiffness from sitting still for so long.
"You want to walk a little bit before we go in?"
"Yeah, that might be a good idea," Wynne agreed, though not liking the fact that her injury was dictating the course of their evening.
"Listen, I appreciate your being understanding about our not having much contact at the hotel. It just wouldn't look right. The tongues are probably already wagging anyway, but I don't want to give them anything to talk about at work."
"It's okay, Paula. I wouldn't want our friendship to create a problem for you at the hotel."
So it's a friendship. That hand-holding thing was just…what the hell was it?
"Are you out at work?" Wynne asked, interrupting Paula's musings.
"Not really. I mean, Rusty knows, but he's probably the only one." Paula went on to explain what she and her boss had talked about only two nights ago, and why she thought it best to keep private things private. "Of course, they're probably all speculating about you and me now anyway."
"Then maybe I should rent a car next time," she offered.
"I hate to have you do that. I should just get over it."
"No, I understand how it is, really."
"What about you? Are you out?"
"Mmmm, yes and no. The folks at the Baltimore office know, the ones who aren't clueless, that is. But I'm not out at Eldon-Markoff. I don't know how they'd feel about it, and I'd be afraid it might have an effect on my references."
"Surely, companies don't think that way anymore."
"You're probably right, but a lot of people still have their prejudices, and a reference might come down to one of those people, not a company policy."
"Yeah, but we do it to ourselves, you know. When we hide in the closet it's like saying we know we're doing something wrong."
"That's a good point." They had circled the block and now stood again in front of the restaurant. "You ready to eat?"
"Sure, let's go."
Dinner conversation turned again to the subject of being out, this time, with their families. Paula related the story of how she told her parents, and their subsequent reaction.
"Even today, I don't think they're very comfortable with the idea. I've never really brought anyone around to the house, except Susan. She and I saw each other for a few months, but it never got really serious."
"How did your parents react to seeing you with someone?" Wynne asked.
"They were nice to her, but…kind of stiff. She wouldn't notice that, but I did. The thing is, though, I don't know if they were reacting to Susan, or to the idea of me with Susan."
"Have you ever talked with them about it?"
"Yeah, I've talked with my mom a little. She just says that she wants me to be happy. She wishes I could find a person to give my attention to, instead of the Weller Regent."
"Yeah, I guess parents are like that. I think they all want us to be happy, once they get over deciding what should make us that way."
Paula clinked her beer mug with that of her companion. "I'll drink to that. What was it like with your family?"
Wynne chuckled. "Well, it's kind of a funny story now, but it sure wasn't at the time."
"Something tells me this is going to be good."
"It was when I was in college at the University of Maryland. I was living at home, but I met this woman who lived near campus, and I started staying nights at her place. Mom went on and on about what a nice friend Judith was." Wynne stopped her story to take a drink.
"But then they started getting suspicious, right?"
The brunette shook her head. "Oh, no. It was much more melodramatic than that. You see, in college, your professors don't happen to care if you go by your middle name. They always call you by your first name, and mine is Katharine. But Judith didn't know that it was also my mom's name, and during summer vacation when she was home in Connecticut, she sent me this card with a picture of two naked women, and just as a joke, she addressed it to Katharine W. Connelly. Mom opened it and nearly had a heart attack, and of course she showed it to my dad. Then at dinner, she tossed it in front of me and Janelle grabbed it and started laughing her ass off. Mom was just glaring at me with her arms folded across her chest, and Dad was like 'pass me the potatoes.'"
"Oh, that's hilarious."
"As I said, it's funnier now than it was then. Mom stayed on my case for the next three years or so. Every woman I mentioned, she'd ask if that was my girlfriend. Finally when I told her yes once, she dropped it. But I have to give the woman credit - she's come around."
"Yeah, I give my mom and dad credit too. They're okay, and I'm pretty comfortable with them."
The waiter dropped off the check, and this time Paula insisted that it was her turn.
"I should probably get back to the hotel. It's almost midnight, and I have a breakfast meeting at 7:30."
Paula offered her arm as an escort and the two women walked slowly back to the parking lot. When they reached the car, they stopped, Paula guiding the tall woman to sit on the rear fender. "You know, there's one real big drawback to me having to drop you in front of a busy hotel."
She's going to kiss me.
Indeed, Paula stepped closer and placed a hand lightly on Wynne's shoulder. "Is this okay?" she whispered as she slowly lowered her head.
Wynne raised her hand and cupped the blonde head, pulling the lips toward her own. She had tuned out that voice telling her she couldn't have something as nice as this. Their kiss was coy at first, but soon, both women were breathing hard, open-mouthed as their tongues danced with a tentative passion. As her free hand made its way to Paula's hip and beyond, a pair of passing headlights stopped them short.
Stepping back, Paula looked into the dazzling blue eyes and smiled. "I really liked that, Wynne."
"Yeah, I could tell," the dark-haired woman said huskily. "So did I."
The women gazed for a few more moments into one another's eyes, both sensing a deep satisfaction at what they had just shared.
"I guess I should get you home."
"Then I suppose one of us should move."
"Oh, that would be me," Paula answered, stepping back to allow Wynne to stand. She unlocked the passenger door and held it while the tall woman slipped in.
Too bad about that manual transmission, Paula thought. She wanted to hold Wynne's hand again, but she needed both hands to drive in this downtown traffic. The hotel was only a few blocks away.
"So…are you coming back in two weeks?"
"That's still the schedule."
"The next launch is the last weekend in April. If you have a chance to check your calendar, let me know if you think you can be here and I'll get an extra pass to the press site."
"I forgot to look, but I will," Wynne promised. That was almost six weeks away, but she doubted she could swing it. There were just too many variables.
Paula wheeled the Mazda into the curved driveway. "Have a nice day at work tomorrow and a safe trip home. I had a really good time with you tonight."
The valet opened the passenger door. "Thank you. Me too."
I'm in such trouble here.
Wynne readied for bed, her head swimming with the memory of Paula's mouth on hers. If that kiss was indicative of what else they might offer one another, it wasn't going to be easy to say no. But she couldn't do this, no matter how much she wanted to. This was getting too complicated.
Bet she "thinks" about stuff tonight too. <bg> Part 3