"Wow, where'd you get all this energy?" Val had been watching her friend for the last half hour, roaring through her circuit like a woman possessed. Paula was taking her time with all her reps so she'd get the maximum benefit, but as soon as she'd finish, she'd moved quickly to the next machine without a break.
"I don't know. I just feel…invigorated." In truth, Paula was still savoring her night out with Wynne last week, and was full of nervous energy in anticipation of the woman's return.
"You're in love," Val pronounced.
"I am not! We barely know each other."
"That may be true, but you've been in a great mood since last week, and you've talked about the woman almost nonstop."
"That doesn't mean I'm in love. But I do like her a lot." Paula mounted the ab cruncher and started her pulls. "And I think…she likes me…too," she puffed.
"Well, what's not to like about you? You remember Kevin, the guy I was dating for a while?"
"He wanted to fix you up with one of his buddies and I told him I didn't think you'd be interested. He said, 'Aw, that's too bad. She's hot!'"
"Just…what I need…not!"
"So what do you think will happen with you two? I mean, the woman lives in Baltimore, right?"
"Yeah…but she's still…got about…four more trips here." It was hard to talk and crunch at the same time, but Paula couldn't be still. And besides, she didn't want to think about what would happen when Wynne's work in Orlando was through.
"And then what happens?"
"Don't know…we'll have to…cross that bridge…when we come to it."
"Slow down! You're making me sore," Val barked. "Are we going to run?"
"Ready when you are." Paula slid off the cruncher and grabbed her bottle of water.
"The way you are today, you'll probably run off and leave me in the dust."
"Only one way to find out," Paula yelled over her shoulder as she took off out the door in the direction of the jogging trail that ran between the condo property and the neighboring golf course. If they cut out to the sidewalk by the main roadway, they could loop around to the other side of the course, a two-mile circuit which they would run twice.
"By the way, I really like your hair that way," Val huffed as they settled into their pace.
"Thanks." And because all conversations had to eventually come back to the woman from Baltimore, Paula added, "Wynne likes it this way too."
"So you write down all of the outstanding checks here and add them up," Wynne explained. "Then subtract that from what the statement says, along with the service charges, and add any deposits you've made that aren't on here…and this number should match the checkbook."
Wynne and her mother compared the two numbers.
"Great, and what do we do if they're different?" Kitty asked.
The brunette sighed in exasperation. "Well, that means that you probably either forgot to write down a check, or that your math is wrong."
Together they pored over the account until the mistake was found, finally bringing the checkbook into balance. Despite her frustration, Wynne was pleased that her mom was working so hard to learn this.
"Mom, you have to do this as soon as the statement comes in. If you don't, you'll lose track of what you spend and before you know it, you're overdrawn." Again.
"Okay, I'll do my best." Kitty hated being so dependent on her daughter, but her husband had always taken care of these things. "What are we going to do about the car?"
The tall woman sighed. Her mother had been reluctant to get rid of the Park Avenue, as it was the last vehicle her husband had purchased. But she had never thought to put oil in it, and it finally threw a rod and bit the dust. She called Wynne from a payphone, and her daughter picked her up and arranged to have the car towed.
"It's a goner. You're going to need a new car."
"What am I going to do? I don't know the first thing about buying a car."
"I'll go with you on Saturday. We'll find something nice, something Dad would have liked." Wynne threw in that last bit for encouragement.
"Thank you, honey. I honestly don't know how I'd manage without all the things you do."
Neither do I, Mom.
"Did you see this letter from Starquest?" Rusty tossed the paper onto Paula's desk. "They're thanking us for handling their meeting, and they mention you by name."
The blonde woman chortled. "That's because I happened to be walking down the hallway when their chairman was locked out of his room in his underwear."
"Boxers or briefs?"
"Boxers, and they had 'Wednesday' stamped on the leg. But it was Friday."
"People would never believe the things we see in hotels," Rusty shook his head in amazement. "Remember that other guy who got locked out in his underwear?"
"You mean her underwear," Paula laughed. "Or the woman who…"
The phone on her desk interrupted their reminiscence, its caller ID flashing Front Desk.
"This is Paula…yeah…." She twirled around in her seat and grabbed the remote for the video camera display. "Okay, I see them…we'll be right down." Hanging up the phone, she turned to her boss. "Two busloads just pulled up with that country music band. You want to work the front desk or the bellmen."
Rusty groaned. "Bellmen." They would be here half the night again finishing up paperwork.
Wynne sat solemnly in the back seat of the cab, accustomed now to the route from the airport and no longer taking in the sights.
I should have just booked at the Hyatt, she thought. No, the problem wasn't the hotel. The problem wasn't even that Paula McKenzie had kissed her, but that she had kissed back.
For the past two weeks, Wynne had berated herself for letting that happen, knowing that her own flirtations had helped to bring it about. She had nothing to offer Paula and it was wrong to lead her on. Even if she could keep her emotional distance - and that was a big "if" - it was wrong too to give in to that temptation, because Paula was worth more than just a sexual fling.
"Oh, great," she muttered, eyeing the buses in the circle. The line at check-in would be an hour long. Wynne paid the cabbie and exited when the valet opened her door.
"Would you like me to take your bag inside?" he asked.
"No, I'll take it myself. Thank you." No way was she going to turn her bag over to the bellman. She wouldn't see it again until midnight.
As expected, the check-in line held more than 30 waiting guests, all of whom seemed to know each other. Right away, Wynne's eyes went to the petite blonde who worked efficiently behind the counter, and her breath caught with surprise at how nice it was to see her. Keeping this desire in check was probably going to be harder than she thought.
"Excuse me, Miss Connelly?"
"Yes?" Wynne turned to see a tall red-haired gentleman, more sharply dressed than most of the other staff, but an employee just the same.
"Could I ask you step to over here, please?" He reached over and lifted her bag, extracting a small folder from inside his jacket. "I'm Rusty Wilburn, the Senior Shift Manager. Miss McKenzie took the liberty of checking you in already on the Concierge floor. Here is your room key. If you would kindly stop by in the morning and allow us to swipe your credit card, we can spare you this bedlam tonight."
"You are my hero, Mr. Wilburn," she gushed, recognizing the name as the boss Paula often talked about. "Thank you very much."
"No, I'm just the delivery boy. Paula says welcome."
Wynne turned again to glimpse the blonde behind the busy counter. "Please tell her I said thank you."
"You know, we've made pretty good work of this, Wynne." Cheryl Williams sat in the floor of her office, surrounded by index cards that mapped the process of their proposed marketing plan. "I'd like to have this drawn up in a slide presentation…are you any good with that? I never had the patience to learn that program."
"I can do that. Shall I set up my laptop and lay it out?"
"Sure, why not? And then next time you come, I want to play with a few scenarios. Would that be hard to do? You know, different slides for each scenario? We're going to have to put this in front of Ken and Wendell, and it would be easier for both of them if we had it all laid out in a slide show." Wendell Martin was the vice president for investor relations. Ken, Wendell, and Cheryl would present their plan to the analysts in New York at the end of April, hoping that the cost-trimming and forward thinking would boost their stock value.
"It shouldn't be a problem, but it will take me a couple of hours," Wynne said.
"A couple of hours? You've got to be kidding! It would take Denise a couple of days," Cheryl exclaimed, the latter a reference to her administrative assistant. At once, her hand flew to her mouth as she realized that the woman whose desk sat just outside the door had probably heard her.
Wynne sniggered at Cheryl's gaffe, and at the sight of the impeccably dressed woman sitting cross-legged on the floor, her tailored skirt hiked up well above her knees. Their rapport had gotten a shot in the arm when Doug was dropped from the team. They chatted more while they worked, and even had lunch together a couple of times.
"Have you seen much of Orlando since you started coming down?"
"Not a lot. I did get out to dinner at a place called Buck's, and last week I saw a movie downtown."
"That's hardly what I call getting out. Tell you what," she said, pushing her nimble body off the floor and padding in her stocking feet to her desk drawer. "I have a gift certificate for Jack Elam's. Do you know that place?"
Wynne shook her head.
"It's the best seafood restaurant in Orlando. I won this in a raffle at the Chamber of Commerce, but my husband's allergic to seafood. Why don't you take it and ask someone to go?"
Wynne immediately thought of Paula. Though the woman had speeded her through check-in, they hadn't had a chance to connect last night. "Thank you, Cheryl."
"Do you know someone to invite? You want me to see if I can find someone to keep you company?"
"No, that's alright. I have a friend here in town that I can ask. But thank you. This is very generous."
"It's no big deal. Like I said, Jim won't eat there and I hate to see it go to waste." Cheryl slipped her shoes back on. "Listen, I have a meeting with Ken in about five minutes. Why don't I let you start working on those slides? Come on over to my desk and make yourself comfortable."
Wynne settled in as the woman left, at once feeling at home in the corner office. This was definitely the kind of career she wanted.
Paula was irked at the report left by the two previous shifts on the behavior of their country western guests since check-in. Apparently, many had stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning, prompting several complaints about shouting in the hallways and loud music. And today, the first shift housekeepers were unable to rouse them to clean their rooms, leaving three times the usual workload for the skeleton staff on Paula's shift.
It was almost 10 o'clock when she got her first chance to visit the Concierge lounge. But as she feared, her friend wasn't there. Paula had hoped they would have a chance to get together again tomorrow on her day off, but as they hadn't yet set anything up, she was afraid that she'd lost the opportunity.
Checking to see that a light was on in room 2314, Paula contemplated her options. She could knock on the door, but Wynne might not welcome such an invasion of her privacy. Besides, if one of her staff saw her and reported it, it could potentially get her fired. The better option was to call.
Rather than use the house phone, Paula decided to return to her office and was thrilled to find that Wynne had already left a message for her.
"Hi, Paula. This is Wynne. It's about 9:15, and I was calling to see if you might be free for dinner tomorrow night. My boss gave me a gift certificate for a place called Jack Elam's, and I hope you can be my guest…my driving guest, that is. Anyway, please give me a call in…2314. I'll probably be up another couple of hours. Oh, and sorry about the short notice, but I just got this today. Talk to you soon, I hope. Goodbye."
Quickly, Paula dialed the number, hoping to finish her call before Rusty returned to their office.
"Wynne? It's Paula…I was just coming back to my office to call you…I'd love to go! Why don't I pick you up at seven out front?" She paged through the organizer on her desk for the number of the restaurant. "If you want, I'll call and get us a reservation…it's kind of dressy, but not formal. A skirt or a nice pantsuit will do just fine…Can't wait. See you tomorrow at seven."
Paula smiled and sighed as she plopped into her chair. She had another date with Wynne Connelly.
At seven sharp, Paula wheeled the Miata into the circle, her breath hitching as she eyed the long-legged brunette in the black suit, the skirt well above the knee, but professional-looking nonetheless. Wynne Connelly was one beautiful woman.
Paula had chosen an olive green silk pantsuit for herself, with a pale yellow top. Most of her dresses - purchased for weddings or parties - were too dressy for a simple date, especially since she figured that Wynne had packed nothing of the sort. This pantsuit was one of her favorites, and a welcome departure from the skirt and blazer she wore five days a week.
The two women made casual conversation during the short drive to the restaurant, Paula running down her list of problems with the country western group, Wynne recounting how she'd impressed her boss with the first draft of their slide presentation. The brunette folded her hands in her lap, resisting the urge to take the smaller hand as it rested in invitation on the console.
Paula sensed a distance, but it wasn't necessarily uncomfortable. It was as though they had to re-establish the familiarity they'd enjoyed two weeks ago, when their flirtations and admissions had eventually led to that kiss.
The hostess seated them at a small table for two that bordered the main passageway to the front door.
"Have you ever noticed that two women in a restaurant tend to get the worst tables?" Paula asked. "Look around. There are tables with two men, and with men and women, and they're all in the center of the room. But all three of the tables by the wall have two women."
"I'm not surprised. I've noticed that when the planes are full, women end up in the center seats. And let me tell you, I do not like center seats," Wynne scoffed.
"So you're the marketing expert. Why is it that they do that? Do they really not value women as customers?"
"Well, in some businesses they certainly do. Department stores, grocery stores, even the auto industry's finally coming around. But I think it's different with the service industry - like the travel and dining business - because the service workers tend to be younger and they're generally more intimidated by men than they are women." She nodded her head in the direction of a clean table in the center now being occupied by two men. "If they had put us at that table, the men would have been seated over here, and they would have likely complained. I think the hostess was just trying to avoid that. It might be subconscious, or it might be policy, but we didn't complain, so it got reinforced."
"That makes me want to start paying attention to what we do at the hotel. I mean, if we do something like that, it isn't intentional. But we do go out of our way to address problems, and that usually means the complainer gets rewarded, like that man at the counter the night I checked you in. I'm really going to watch that from now on."
"It may just be that women really don't complain as much at the hotel. They know what it takes to clean a room and handle small details, and they're more willing to overlook lapses because some mistakes are easy to make."
"I'm going to start complaining," Paula announced sternly, pounding her fist lightly on the table. "But not tonight. Tonight, I'm just going to enjoy the company of my lovely companion."
Wynne smiled sincerely. "And I'm enjoying your company too." It was actually nice to have a dinner companion ask her what she thought about something, and really listen to her answer. With Paula, she felt as though she had a kindred spirit, one who saw her career as more than just a job and wanted to learn as much as she could to help her do it well. None of Wynne's friends or family could fill that bill. That was just another thing she liked about Paula. Okay, that, and the fact that she looked like a million dollars tonight.
All through dinner, the hotel manager told funny stories about things that had happened at the Weller Regent over the years, leaving the marketer in stitches at times. There were just so many things about Paula McKenzie that were appealing, Wynne thought as she eyed her companion. The woman was witty, mature, ambitious - so many things that Wynne found attractive, but had been unable to find in a lifetime of looking. Paula was also downright sexy…. "I'm sorry, say that again."
"I said I know a place near Disney where we can get a pretty good look at the fireworks display if you're interested."
"That would be fun," she readily agreed. "You know, Paula, I really am glad that we've had the chance to get to know each other. Honestly, I used to dread these trips, but having a chance to spend time with you has really changed all that." Wynne gave in to what she wanted, reaching across the table for Paula's hand.
Paula took it and smiled, very glad to see Wynne close the distance between them. "You have no idea how much I look forward to your visits. I tell you, sometimes it just makes me nuts to know that you're right there in my hotel and I can't…."
"Good evening, ladies." A distinguished gentleman and sharply dressed woman suddenly appeared beside their table, causing Wynne to immediately withdraw her hand.
"Mr. Markoff, hello," she stammered.
"It's Ken, and this is my wife Rachelle."
"Pleased to meet you. And this is my friend, Paula McKenzie."
Paula leaned forward to shake the couple's outstretched hands. From her days managing the business meetings at the hotel, she recognized the CEO of the company where Wynne worked.
"You look familiar, Miss McKenzie." Realization dawned and he went on, "I remember. You run things at the Weller Regent."
"Well, I don't exactly run things, but sometimes it feels that way," she joked.
"We've always been pleased with your hotel. Oh, and Wynne, Cheryl stopped in today to show me a few of the slides you two prepared. Great job!"
"Ken, we should leave them to their dinner and get out of this aisle. It was very nice to meet you both," Rachelle offered sincerely.
"The pleasure was ours," Wynne answered, still in disbelief that her boss had walked upon her holding hands with her dinner companion. As they walked away, she quickly recovered. "Maybe we should settle the check and go."
"Of course." Paula knew what Wynne was thinking and she felt awful for her. She'd have reacted the same way had it been the CEO of her hotel chain at their table.
They hardly spoke again until they settled in the car.
"You want to talk about it?" Paula cajoled.
Wynne shook her head miserably. "No, there's nothing to say. It's not like I'm going to be working there much longer anyway. I just hope it doesn't affect my reference."
"You know, they didn't act surprised or put off by anything. In fact, I'd say they were perfectly casual about it."
"People practice that sort of thing. But it doesn't mean they don't walk away changed."
Paula sighed. She knew her friend was right. "Well there's nothing we can do about it now. Shall we go see the fireworks?"
"Do you mind if we don't? I just feel sort of…" deflated, "unsettled about it. I don't think I'd be very good company."
"Sure," Paula agreed.
Both women were thinking that it was too bad an otherwise wonderful evening was ending on such a bad note.
Wynne Connelly had never been so disheartened in her life. Even as she lay immobile in a hospital bed after her accident, she knew that eventually she would recover from the worst of her injuries. All of her doctors had predicted that with a long and arduous rehabilitation, she would one day regain most of the function of her left leg; so she had never allowed herself to wallow in self-pity or defeat. At every temptation to do so, she'd remember that boy who died.
The wall clock in her small office at Gone Tomorrow Tours read 6:20, and the calm quiet from the cubicles outside her door told her that she was probably the only one still here. The days were longer now, but she'd grown accustomed to working well past dark.
Wynne turned over in her head the reasons for her discouragement, with two looming very large: her work and Paula McKenzie. Soon, she would likely be out of a job, a job she really liked. Even if her position got a reprieve, it was possible that she wouldn't be moved up the corporate ladder as long as Ken Markoff held the reins. She could potentially languish in mid-management her entire career. Perhaps it would be best if she was terminated after all, and forced to find something that held more promise.
Speaking of promise, Paula McKenzie was full of promise. Wynne had never met another woman who stirred her the way the pretty blonde hotel manager did, and if their kiss was any indication, the feeling was mutual. But Paula wasn't in the cards for Wynne, she knew. There were too many obstacles to overcome. So again, she reminded herself that she had nothing to offer but friendship.
Still, Wynne hated where they'd left things last week, not even making plans to see one another again because she had freaked out about Ken Markoff. The way she figured it, she had only two remaining trips to Orlando, and she wanted to have fun.
Slayer eyed the distance carefully between the small dining table and the bar at the kitchen, where the woman who lived here at his house was making pictures on a screen by clicking her fingers across its base. If he could get closer, he might persuade her to stop for a moment and scratch his head.
"Hi, sweet boy." Paula's right hand automatically rose to do his bidding, her left hand manipulating the mouse to log on to her internet connection. She had sent Wynne a cheery email last Thursday, hoping to ease the angst the woman obviously felt about what had happened at dinner the other night. So far, she'd received no reply.
Today, though, was different. Among her 11 new messages - including three that promised to make her penis longer and thicker - was a note from Wynne.
I'm sorry to be so slow getting back to you. As usual, there is a lot to do when I return to Baltimore, and again when I'm preparing to leave. This is the lull between those times, when only a 10-hour workday is required.
I've confirmed with E-M that I have only two remaining trips to Orlando, this weekend and again two weeks later. If I'm invited to participate in the presentation of our plan, that will be in New York, but I'm not holding my breath.
So if you can overlook the fact that I became a total basket case the last time we went out, I'd love it if we could get together again next Tuesday. Since you mentioned the fireworks at Disney, I wonder if you'd be willing to consider an evening there. I sure hope so.
Paula reread the note several times, not just to understand what it said, but to come to terms with what it didn't say. Two more visits and that would be it. Obviously, Wynne wasn't thinking past her work here in Orlando. In fact, that kiss they'd shared seemed a long time ago, and Wynne hadn't made any kind of sign at all that she wanted to go there again.
Disappointment hung in the air as Paula shut down her computer. She had been nearly certain that things had clicked for Wynne just as they had for her, especially after their kiss. Her practical side said it was probably just as well - not much you can do with a girlfriend in Baltimore when you live a thousand miles away and work at a job that gives you Tuesdays and Saturdays off. But the impulsive side was frustrated. She had hoped that they might be able to work something out.
At the very least, though, she'd made a friend, perhaps even someone she would see again if Wynne held onto her job and made occasional trips to the company's headquarters. But the idea of having Wynne Connelly as a friend wasn't as comforting as she'd hoped it would be.
Wynne settled into her favorite chair in the corner, balancing a small plate of peeled shrimp and fresh vegetables. The Sunshine State wasn't living up to its moniker and that would likely thwart her plans with Paula for an evening at Disneyworld, as the forecast for tomorrow was more rain.
Things had gone great at work today, where she and Cheryl finished the cost and revenue projections for all six scenarios of their marketing plan. They had only to rank-order their recommendations and finalize the slide presentation. On Wednesday afternoon, she and Cheryl would present them to Ken and Wendell, and Wynne would spend her final visit readying the presentation for the industry stock analysts.
"Nice day for ducks, huh?"
Wynne smiled at once at the sight of the pretty blonde. She'd been lost in her thoughts and hadn't seen the woman come in. "Hi, stranger. I was wondering if I'd see you tonight."
"Yeah, it's kind of quiet. I was hoping I'd find you here." Paula nearly melted at the sight of the warm smile. Maybe she'd read everything wrong after all.
"Thanks again for sending up that umbrella." Wynne found herself oddly nervous in Paula's presence.
"You're welcome. In fact, that's why I wanted to find you tonight. Not the umbrella, but the weather in general. We're supposed to get more of the same tomorrow, so Disney might not be a good idea."
"So what's Plan B?"
Paula hesitated while one of the hosts came to clear Wynne's plate. "You know, I like to cook," she said, keeping her voice low and trying her best to sound casual. "How would you like to come to my place for dinner?"
No. I shouldn't do that. "I'd love to. That sounds wonderful." God, this woman was irresistible.
"Great." Oh yeah, read it all wrong. All of a sudden, the electricity in the air was almost palpable. "So should I come pick you up at seven?"
"What if I got a taxi? Wouldn't that be easier? Then you wouldn't have to stop what you were doing to come get me." And we're not seen together again.
Paula nodded her agreement, drawing a pen and a business card from her pocket. Knowing that she'd already spent an inordinate amount of time talking with Wynne in the lounge, she hurriedly jotted down her address and home phone number. "Here you go. Come whenever you're ready."
"I can't wait." This would be fun, she thought, getting a glimpse of what Paula was like in her own home.
"Oh, I hope you don't mind a cat…although Slayer doesn't know he's a cat."
"Not at all, and I promise not to tell him." Wynne winked at that remark.
"Great. Then I'll see you tomorrow."
Paula watched from the living room window as the beautiful brunette paid the cabbie and started slowly in the rain toward the cover of the steps. Immediately, she started out the door to offer a hand.
"Let me take that," she insisted, grabbing the umbrella as the tall woman struggled with the rail. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Me too. I've been looking forward to this all day." That was at least partly true. Another part of her had been anxious, again asking if it was the right thing to do.
"So have I. I hope you like chicken Marsala." Paula walked slowly with the woman as she persevered to the second floor landing.
"That sounds great. Paula, this is a lovely community," she said, turning back to take in the small lake, the tropical landscaping, and the neatly arranged condominium buildings.
"Thanks. There are developments like this all over Orlando. Each one is a little different, but the idea is the same. I like this one because the clubhouse has a nice fitness room and a pool, and there's a jogging trail around the golf course next door."
"It's also very nicely laid out. The places like this in Baltimore don't have all this pretty landscaping and the buildings are right on top of each other. I live in a townhouse, and we hardly have any of this common area, let alone something so pretty as a lake." Wynne was truly impressed with the complex.
"Well come on in. Let's see if you like the inside as much." Paula led her friend on a tour through the kitchen and living room, which were hard to miss as they entered through the front door. Since she was on the second floor, she had a cathedral ceiling with skylights in the living room and dining area. In the hallway was the door that led down to the garage, a guest bedroom and bath, and finally, the master suite with a larger bath and walk-in closet. "But here's my favorite room." Paula opened the door off the master bedroom that led onto the sun porch, where Slayer lay curled on a cushioned chaise lounge.
"Hi there, handsome," Wynne cooed, stretching out a hand slowly to pet the indifferent orange beast.
But after three strokes, he was fully on his back, now quite interested in these soft new hands that adored him so. This tall person could stay.
"I'd say you have a new friend."
"He's adorable," Wynne offered, still stroking the white belly as Slayer lay in near-hypnotic bliss.
"Let's see if you say that when he tries to eat off your plate. I won't even tell you some of the other adorable things he does." But when coaxed, Paula did share a few of the cat's more colorful exploits.
"Sounds to me like he's just doing his job," Wynne defended the cat, who had followed her back into the living room.
"Figures you'd take his side. You'd be singing a different tune if he dropped a squirming lizard in your bed!"
Wynne chuckled softly, still scratching her new furry friend. "I really like this place, Paula, everything about it. I bet you're really comfortable here."
"I am. I sort of wish I'd bought a three-bedroom so I'd have a little more room, but I don't get much company. My mom comes over from Cocoa once in a while, and my best friend stayed with me when her place got tented for termites."
As she talked, Paula poured them each a glass of cabernet sauvignon to enjoy with crackers and cheese as their dinner simmered. Shaking her head in resignation, she watched as her guest shared the cheese with the now positively slutty Slayer.
The friendly cat was a welcome distraction for Wynne, who would otherwise have fumbled nervously for conversation. It was practically tormenting to be here in Paula's home, to witness her in such a casual, familiar way. The blonde was barefooted, dressed in faded jeans with a tightly fitted long-sleeved top that crept up her muscular midriff each time she moved. Wynne had never before been so aware of another woman's sensuality. Coming here was not a good idea, she now realized; but she didn't want to be anywhere else.
"Dinner should be ready," Paula announced. "Go ahead and have a -"
"Let me lend a hand," Wynne cut her off, following her host into the kitchen.
"Why don't you pour more wine? I have white on the top rack of the refrigerator if you want it."
"The red is fine with me. You want the other?"
"No, I'm fine too."
Together, they carried dinner to the table. Paula noticed as they ate that her guest gradually relaxed. She'd seemed nervous when she first arrived, almost standoffish. She wondered if that was the residue from Wynne's discomfort after running into her CEO. "So how are things going at work?"
Wynne talked about how their presentation was shaping up. "Cheryl walked through it today in her office with Martin and me. He's the assistant VP for operations. Tomorrow, she'll give it again to Ken and the guy who handles the analysts."
"What do you do next time?"
"Just wrap it all up, I guess. I suppose I'll work a couple of days with the human resources department to lay out how they might shift some of the talent around in the company. It would be a shame to lose some of these people just because their jobs are getting cut when there are others who are underperforming. I'm glad I don't have to make the final call on that one, though."
"Is your job really going to get cut?"
"Yeah, it looks that way," Wynne acknowledged.
"Do you think you'll be offered something else? I mean, surely, you're one of those people they'd hate to lose."
"I don't know, Paula," she said wistfully. "I'm not sure I want to move into just another slot. Eldon-Markoff's a great company, but one of these days, I'd like to sit in one of the big chairs, like Cheryl's. But she's only 47 years old, and she'll probably work at least another 15 years. I'd like to move up before then, so I don't really see much chance of doing that here."
"Maybe you ought to think about the hotel industry," Paula suggested.
"Yeah, or one of the cruise lines, or even another travel company. I'm not limited to just tourism, but I feel like I know the market pretty well."
"I think whatever company hires you on is going to be awfully lucky."
"Thank you. Now, if you don't mind, can we talk about something a little less depressing? I'd hate to suddenly get the urge to slash my wrists with your cutlery!"
Paula chuckled at what she hoped was a joke. "Oh, no, I wouldn't let you do that." More seriously, she added, "I hope you get your dream job someday, Wynne. I know I haven't known you that long, but I happen to think you're a pretty special person."
Both women looked at each other quietly, slowly pushing their hands together as they had in the restaurant.
"And I think you're special, too." Wynne was mesmerized by the calm green eyes as she laced her fingers with Paula's. No one would walk by their table tonight. With a small tug, she urged the smaller woman forward, leaning slightly herself until their faces almost touched. "Very special," she whispered, closing the distance to lightly touch the waiting lips with her own.
Again, they looked at one another, this time with dancing eyes. That kiss was the affirmation that they were more than just friends. To Paula, it was a welcome signal, one that she needed; to Wynne, it was an alarm. After a long moment, the tall woman squeezed the hand and released it, finally breaking the spell.
"So would you like more?"
"No, I'm stuffed. It was wonderful."
"How about coffee or dessert? I have lemon sherbet with raspberry sauce."
"Maybe later." Wynne was nearly overwhelmed by the sensations that the tiny kiss had wrought. What she wanted next wasn't exactly on the menu.
Paula stood and picked up their plates. "Why don't you take your wine out to the porch and grab a chair. I'll be out in a minute." She knew that Wynne had a long day coming up tomorrow, but she dreaded the signal that it was time for her to leave. They had finally taken another step in the direction she wanted to go.
"Do you want some help?"
"No, I'm just going to set these in the sink and run some water on them."
Wynne started to do as she was directed, but the pull was too strong. She followed Paula to the kitchen, standing in the archway to watch the woman from behind. The sensations from earlier persisted, and before she knew it, she had crossed the tile floor to position herself directly behind the blonde as she stood at the sink. Automatically, her hands went to Paula's waist as she lowered her mouth to the bare neck.
Paula shuddered as the hot breath tickled her ear. When the lips began to caress the sinewy muscle, her head fell back against the taller woman's shoulder. She gasped as the long fingers slid underneath her top to stroke her stomach.
Wynne was lost. She had crossed the line, she knew, but found herself powerless to resist this woman. Her right hand left the confines of the shirt to cover Paula's breast, which she squeezed softly, but with confidence.
Paula turned, eager to have her own hands caress this beautiful woman. Their lips met fiercely, with a near animalistic fervor. Paula leaned back into the counter and pulled Wynne's hips closer, and soon both women were pushing against one another.
"We shouldn't…," Wynne murmured, burying her mouth in the soft flesh behind Paula's ear.
"We're both big girls, Wynne. We don't have to stop," Paula whispered boldly. Grasping the hand on her waist, she moved toward the door, flicking off the lights as they passed through the dining room. Moments later, they were standing together in the master bedroom, the queen-sized bed cast in a glow from the bedside lamp.
The voice that had plagued Wynne since the first moment she had met the beautiful blonde had finally relented. She was on her own. Hungry to know the treasures before her, she hooked both hands beneath Paula's top and lifted it smoothly over her head.
"Come lie with me," Paula urged, tugging the taller woman's hand to the bedside, where with one jerk of the arm, she sent the spread and the top sheet to the foot of the bed. Before they sat, she made quick work of the buttons on Wynne's silk top, pushing it off her shoulders as they tumbled downward.
Both women ran their hands over newly exposed skin as they locked again in a heated kiss. Wynne's hand slipped underneath to caress Paula's back and pull her impossibly closer.
Paula reached behind the broad back and loosened the clasp on the bra, pulling the straps over the shoulders. When Wynne rose even slightly, it would fall away. Unencumbered, her hands slid across the smooth plane.
"I want to feel you next to me," the dark-haired woman whispered, releasing the clasp of Paula's bra with a simple twist of her hand. As she lifted up, she pulled the smaller woman with her, leaning back as both removed their bras. Wynne suddenly stood and unfastened her slacks, sliding them off and tossing them over the bedside chair.
Paula eyed the beautiful woman standing before her in only a burgundy thong. If she'd ever been this aroused, it must have been in a previous life. Now matching Wynne's moves, she pushed off her jeans, which dropped crumpled on the floor. Her eyes never left the hungry blue ones that watched her as she slipped her panties off as well. Reaching out, she hooked the thong with her index finger and lowered it to reveal a closely trimmed triangle of jet black curls.
The thong now removed, Paula lay back on the bed in invitation, taking in the sight of the beautiful naked woman who towered above her. If there were ever a doubt as to which woman was the top here, it was surely answered now.
Wynne felt as though her whole body was on fire. The scent of their passion hung in the air as she lowered herself to completely cover the petite woman below. Instinctively, her hips settled on a muscled thigh and she hooked her hands underneath the smaller shoulders as the rhythmic dance began.
Paula stretched her arms but couldn't reach the buttocks to pull them closer. Instead, she raised her knee, feeling her new lover's damp center against her skin.
Wynne responded to the move by pulling back, drawing alongside the other woman. Burying her face into Paula's neck and shoulder, she raised a hand to stroke a breast, gently rolling the nipple between her thumb and forefinger.
Paula moaned at the tingling sensation, her hips writhing as she sought intimate contact with anything on her lover's body. "Please."
Wynne fought the urge to rush this encounter. That wasn't right for this, not for the way she felt about this woman beneath her. Lowering her mouth, she engulfed one breast while her fingers teased the other.
Pushing her fingers through the long dark hair, Paula pulled Wynne's head tightly to her as the woman devoured her breast. The sight of the mouth encircling her nipple made her want so much more.
"You're so beautiful," Wynne murmured as her fingers now traced the curve to Paula's hip. When her fingertips brushed the blonde curls, she was amazed to find them soft and fine, and she couldn't resist lingering there for longer than her partner could stand.
"Please, Wynne," came the desperate plea. "I need you to touch me."
Wynne's resolve to take things slowly crumbled as her fingers slipped through the warm wetness between her lover's legs. The woman beneath her cried out as she stroked two fingers inside and out, unrelenting as Paula's hips matched her rhythm. Wynne had been barely aware of the hand on her breast, but now her nipple was being pulled and pinched in tandem with her own movements. She wouldn't be able to take much more of this. With her thumb, she flicked the hardened clitoris until she felt the body underneath her grow still and rigid. "Come for me."
Paula exploded at the simple command, feeling herself tighten and pulse around the hand that filled her. Wynne's blue eyes were boring into her soul as she rode the wave, and she felt herself climbing again before she ever stilled. Clutching the tall woman's shoulders, she pushed her thigh between her lover's legs again, astounded at the wet heat she found. It was enough to tip her over the edge once again, and it was no surprise that Wynne soon followed.
The lovers lay motionless, both bodies throbbing from release. Suddenly conscious that her entire weight rested on the smaller woman, Wynne moved to pull away.
"No, stay another minute," Paula whispered her plea. The body that covered her gave her more than a physical sensation. The blonde woman had never felt this close to a lover; not to Shauna, not to Susan, women that she had loved. This connection with Wynne was as though they had known each other forever. "You feel so good."
Wynne answered her request with a deep kiss. She could still feel an occasional tremor from Paula's center as it gripped her fingers. Her lips traveled again to the smaller woman's neck and shoulder. "I could just devour you."
"Oh no, you don't. It's my turn now." In a fluid move, Paula reversed their positions, reluctantly sliding off Wynne's fingers. At once she covered the tortured nipple with her mouth, kissing, licking, nipping, and sucking. From the gasps and hisses, she knew that her touch was welcome. Now determined to have her mouth cover every inch of this beautiful woman, she left the breast and moved lower, stopping when she found a fading scar on Wynne's left side.
"What's this from?"
"They had to take out my spleen," Wynne explained with apprehension, suddenly self-conscious about the scars that covered her body.
Wynne needn't have worried, as Paula trailed her tongue along its length. As her lips traveled lower, she got a dizzying head full of her lover's luscious scent. When she reached the black triangle, she felt the thighs beneath her part in invitation. A shudder followed - whether hers or Wynne's she wasn't sure - as she finally dipped her tongue into the wet folds.
Wynne rarely revealed herself this way to anyone, not comfortable with being so exposed. But she didn't feel that vulnerability this time - she trusted Paula to share this intimacy. Reaching low, she grabbed the other woman's hand, squeezing hard as the sensations began to build.
Paula recognized the response of Wynne's hips and narrowed her focus to the swollen clitoris, sucking it gently but rhythmically between her lips.
"Oh God!" Wynne shut her eyes tightly as the powerful orgasm took her. When the waves receded, she bent forward at the waist, laying her hand on Paula's cheek. "Come up here."
Reluctantly, Paula left her treasure and moved up to claim another, covering Wynne's lips with her own. "You're amazing…and so beautiful."
"You make me feel that way." The taller woman pulled her lover directly on top of her. "Will you let me taste you like that?"
"You can do anything you want with me."
Wynne resisted the temptation to flick her tongue into the sleeping woman's ear, knowing that it would trigger anew an exhausting round of lovemaking that would leave her shattered before her workday even began. For three hours last night, they had quietly explored one another, Paula finding and kissing all of the visible scars from her accident two years ago. What the blonde woman didn't know was that her touch had begun to heal the scars that couldn't be seen.
Slayer made himself comfortable draped across Wynne's hip, his paws resting on the arm that wrapped around Paula's waist. The cat had tactfully granted them many hours alone last night, but it was now time to assert his domain.
Daylight bled through the blinds, prompting the tall visitor to look about for a clock. Beside her lover's head, the green digital display read 5:36 a.m. She had persuaded Paula to set the alarm for six, but it wouldn't be needed after all. Carefully, she resituated the big orange cat beside his mom, and extricated herself from the covers. Scanning about, she gathered her clothes and found her way to the guest bathroom.
The face that greeted her from the mirror was oddly peaceful, given that she'd broken a major rule last night. But like Paula had said, they were both big girls, and she'd have to deal with it. She just couldn't muster enough guilt to feel regret.
Quickly, she washed and dressed, then slipped into the kitchen to use the phone. The card she'd gotten from the taxi driver came in handy after all, she mused.
"Paula? Wake up, hon." Wynne sat on the edge of the bed, gently shaking the sleeping woman's shoulder.
Paula heard the voice but wouldn't let her eyes open, afraid to lose the image of the beautiful woman beside her.
"What is it? Wynne?" So she really had been here.
"I need to go soon. I called a taxi."
Paula twisted her body in the bed so she could wrap her arms around the woman's waist and lay her head in her lap. "Don't go. Last night was amazing," she mumbled, drifting off again.
"It was wonderful," Wynne agreed, meaning every word. "Paula? Did you go back to sleep?"
"No," the disheveled blonde protested, still without opening her eyes.
"Listen to me." Wynne lowered her voice. "I really must say, you throw a helluva dinner party."
Paula chuckled, finally sitting up.
"I have to go. Paula, last night was…it was just incredible. You are just incredible." It was in fact the most enjoyable night she had ever spent with another woman as far as Wynne was concerned, but she wasn't going to tell her that. She pulled the drowsy face to hers and delivered the kiss that finally awoke the sleeping beauty.
"You'll be back in two weeks?"
"I will," she promised.
It took every ounce of concentration she could muster to stay focused on Cheryl's dynamic presentation of their recommendations. Ken Markoff and Wendell Martin were impressed with the logic and the many positive implications for their company's bottom line. The stockholders were going to love it.
All day, Wynne's thoughts had wandered back to the night before, to the images on Paula's face as she shuddered her release; of green eyes that locked onto her own as she lowered her mouth to Paula's most private place; and of the sleeping innocent in her arms. She remembered so vividly the taste….
"Okay, we're done here, gentlemen. Thank you for your comments. We'll make those two little revisions, and polish it up for the analysts," Cheryl finished.
"Cheryl, now is good for me if you have a few minutes," Ken said as he exited the conference room to return to his office.
"I'll be right there," she called. "Wynne, what time is your plane?"
"It leaves at six. I suppose I should pack up my things and head out."
"Could you look into catching something a little later? I really need to talk with you, but I have to go over some things with Ken first."
Wynne's stomach knotted with anxiety. "I think there's another one around 8:30."
"Ask Denise to help you change it. I'll be happy to run you to the airport if we get pinched for time."
Wynne managed to get booked on the 8:30 flight, though she had to upgrade to first class for a guaranteed seat. Oh well, Cheryl had insisted. It was almost six o'clock before the vice president returned to her office. "Wynne, would you join us for a few minutes, then I promise to let you go."
The tall woman followed her boss back into Ken Markoff's office, her heart beating faster with every step. This is about me. They sure didn't waste any time once the plan was finished, she groused, readying herself for the axe.
At her boss's direction, she took a seat at a small round conference table directly across from the CEO. Cheryl sat down between them.
"Wynne, thank you for sticking around this afternoon," Markoff started formally. "I want to let you know personally that I really appreciate your contribution to this project. Cheryl has kept me up to date throughout the process, and has always spoken highly of your work. In fact, she told me what you'd said about working for what was best for the company and for the stockholders, and I have to say, that attitude is awfully impressive."
Wynne was starting to breathe a sigh of relief. It sounded like she was going to get a glowing recommendation from both Markoff and Cheryl Williams.
"Cheryl has been after me for a year to let her hire an assistant vice president who can manage the marketing aspects and let her concentrate more on the sales end, and we'd both like it very much if you'd accept that job. It will mean a move to Orlando, of course, but we'll pay for all that. And I hear that assistant VPs make a little more than managers, isn't that right, Cheryl?"
"It's about double, maybe a little more."
Assistant vice president. Move to Orlando. Double the salary. Here was the opportunity she'd wanted.
"So will you accept, Wynne?" Cheryl prodded.
"Of course I accept!" Wynne stood and extended her hand across the table to her CEO. "Thank you, Mr. Markoff."
"It's Ken, and welcome to the family."
"Cheryl, I don't know what to say."
The VP tossed out all formality and reached out to offer a warm hug. "I'm so glad to have you aboard, Wynne. It's going to be great working with you."
It was almost midnight when the taxi pulled up in front of Wynne's townhouse, and she was dead on her feet. In the last 24 hours, her world had been totally rocked by the very things that had brought her so much frustration over the last few weeks.
It was time for Wynne Connelly to shed the sense of duty and obligation that had plagued her life for so long. At Eldon-Markoff, she was being offered a new start, a chance to build a career at one of the top companies in the travel business. What's more, Ken Markoff had apparently been okay with what he'd witnessed at the restaurant, so she wouldn't have to fear losing her job over being a lesbian.
Her move to Orlando would force her mother to take responsibility for her own well-being. That might be tough at first on Janelle, but Wynne felt strongly that both her sister and mom would rise to the occasion if they had to.
And then there was Paula.
As she'd more fully considered the ramifications of a move to Orlando, her thoughts of the beautiful blonde caused her sorrow to the point of a near physical pain. They were "big girls," Paula had said. Did that mean that they could handle the consequences of sleeping together, no matter what they were? Or did it just mean that they gave themselves permission to enjoy, without obligation? Whatever it meant, Wynne knew that by spending the night in Paula's bed, she'd probably ruined any chance to have a real future with the woman. It was one thing to have an out-of-town fling; it was altogether different to want to turn that into something more serious. Those types of relationships were based on mutual trust, and she'd violated that before they ever began. For that, she had regrets. Profound regrets.
But it was time to look forward now.
Wynne fumbled with her key, finally getting it to work. It was too late to worry about unpacking, she thought, so she left her bags in the foyer and started arduously up the stairs to the second level, a nightlight guiding her path.
From the top drawer of her dresser, she removed a nightshirt and went into the bathroom to get ready for bed. A hot soak would feel great, but she was far too tired for that. Instead, she took three ibuprofen, brushed her teeth, and turned out the light.
Wynne eased herself into bed, settling comfortably between the sheets. A warm arm snaked across her belly to pull her closer as a silky thigh nestled between her own.
"Did you have a good trip, sweetheart?"
"Just the usual." That would be her final lie, she vowed.
As Scooby-Doo would say: "Ruh-roh!" Part 4