"I was beginning to wonder if you were planning on coming home tonight." Heather Bennett met her lover at the door, taking both the black leather briefcase and the flannel-lined raincoat.
"Sorry, my inbox was stuffed. Dinner smells good."
"It was," Heather chided. "I saved you some."
"Thanks." Wynne didn't miss the admonition. Still, she had suggested long ago that Heather eat without her rather than wait when she was late getting home, especially since she had started working much longer hours with the Orlando project.
Together, the two women walked into the small kitchen, where Heather quickly went about warming dinner in the microwave.
"I can get that, Heather. You don't have to wait on me."
"I don't mind. Go ahead and have a seat."
Wynne did as she was told, sitting on a stool at the two-person counter while the other woman prepared her meal.
"Did you get a feel for what's going to happen to your job?"
"Yeah, I talked about it with Cheryl and Ken. I don't think they're going to let me go." That was technically the truth, but Wynne wasn't ready to share her news with her lover, especially now that she was on the precipice of making some big changes in her life. Heather Bennett would be one of those changes.
"That's great news, honey." The phone interrupted their chat. "Oh, your mom called…about three times."
Wynne sighed in resignation, not for her mother's call, but because once again, Heather had failed to simply suggest that her mother try the work number. It was no secret that her lover was jealous of the time she gave to her family. Heather barely spoke to the Connelly woman, and vice versa; in her mind, Wynne's constant catering to her mother took her away from what should be her primary relationship.
"Hello…Yeah, I just walked in the door. Heather told me you'd called," Wynne covered for her lover's indifference. "That's a good idea, Mom, but I think you ought to get more than one estimate. That seems like a lot of money." On her daughter's recommendation, Kitty Connelly had decided to have the exterior of her Tudor home painted. "Sure, I'll come on Saturday and meet with them."
Heather slammed her glass down on the counter to express her anger at Wynne's easy acquiescence, and left the room in disgust.
"Okay, I'll see you about 10:30. Bye."
Wynne knew that her lover was steamed, but she just didn't have the energy to deal with it. Besides, it would never be resolved to Heather's satisfaction - that would require Wynne to sever all contact with her mother and sister - so why bother at all.
The microwave beeped and the tired woman retrieved her meal, a bowl of chicken stew. Briefly, she considered following Heather into the living room where the other woman no doubt was already absorbed in something on TV, but Wynne didn't want to deal with either the noise or her lover's foul mood. Not tonight…not again.
It was two years ago that Wynne met the stylish young woman during a party at the home of mutual friends. As the only single women in attendance, the pair was given a wide berth when they settled on a corner sofa and got to know a little about each other. Only 24 years old, Heather Bennett was pretty, average height with long curly brown hair and large hazel eyes. Her hours at the gym were apparent from her trim figure. A sales clerk for women's clothing and accessories at an upscale department store in Owings Mills, she planned a career in retail, hoping someday to make department head. Without a college degree, she doubted she could move into management.
Despite her initial reservations that Heather really wasn't her type, she accepted an invitation to have dinner with her the following week. As far as Wynne was concerned, their date was mediocre at best, so she was surprised the next day when one dozen long-stemmed red roses arrived at her office, along with another invitation to go out. The flowers must have set Heather back a day's pay!
That weekend, they took in a movie, afterward sharing a small kiss that for Wynne lacked any sort of spark at all. Certain that they had no future, the taller woman decided not to pursue a deeper relationship with Heather Bennett.
Fate changed that when, after dropping Heather off at her home, Wynne was broadsided at an intersection by a pickup that was traveling so fast it pushed her more than half a block before she came to rest against a utility pole. Rescue workers used the "jaws of life" to extract her unconscious body from the crushed Toyota Camry, but not before she writhed in agony for over an hour, staring through the shattered window at the lifeless face of the youth who had hit her. It was an image that to this day plagued the woman's dreams.
When she regained consciousness four days later, Heather was at her side, Kitty Connelly having shared the bedside vigil with this young woman who seemed to care so much for her daughter. Wynne was a mess, her left leg shattered, her skull fractured, her ribs and pelvis snapped. A ruptured spleen had nearly caused her to bleed to death in the crumpled car. She was lucky to be alive.
It was eight weeks before she was released from the hospital, and only then under 24-hour care. Heather took a leave of absence from her job and moved into Wynne's two-story townhouse, taking charge of the woman's day to day care.
When the physical therapy sessions started, it was Heather who consulted with the therapist so that she could help Wynne at home; and it was Heather who encouraged the injured woman to push through the pain to rebuild the strength and stamina she had lost. Looking back, it was hard for Wynne to imagine how she ever would have recovered without the woman's dedicated help.
Three months after the accident, Heather returned to work, but continued to spearhead the physical therapy sessions, adjusting her schedule so that she could drive the patient back and forth. Even as she worked full-time, she managed to see to Wynne's every need, cooking, bathing, keeping house. During these months of recovery, Wynne could see clearly the growing devotion and affection in this woman who had come to be such an integral part of her rehabilitation. In truth, she sometimes felt smothered by Heather's attentions.
The marketer returned to work after four months, part-time at first, but gradually resuming her heavy workload. Two more minor surgeries on her leg sidelined her for a while, but with Heather's dependable help, her rehab continued until all that remained was her nagging limp and the predictable soreness from her not-yet-mended femur.
At the eight-month mark, Heather poured out her heart to the recovering woman, confessing that she had fallen deeply in love. The lease was up on her apartment, and she needed either to sign another or to move out. That forced a decision Wynne really wasn't ready to make.
Though she still felt no spark between them, she had grown to care for the younger woman, and to value the friendship they had forged from endless hours of conversation and very personal care. Heather had certainly seen her at her worst, and at 33 years old, Wynne doubted that anyone else would ever show her such devotion. Reservations notwithstanding, the women became lovers.
Almost immediately, she knew that it had been a mistake to move their relationship to a more intimate level. Their lovemaking was passionless, and something Wynne never initiated. There were times that she would nearly cry in frustration at her inability to climax, no matter what they did. She hated herself for the deception, but faking orgasms in order to end their lovemaking had become the standard.
After only six months together as lovers, Wynne had tried to talk to Heather, hoping that she might be willing to return things between them to a platonic level. But Heather had persuaded her to give it more time; that things would get better between them when Wynne put her injury behind her.
Wynne couldn't forget that this woman had practically given up her own needs and concerns to invest in her return to health, and such a sacrifice wasn't to be taken lightly. Besides, when their relationship moved to lovers, Heather had given up her own home and much of her second-hand furniture, and now had no place to go.
In the last few months, things between the women had taken a turn for the worse, or at least they had for Wynne. Heather was estranged from her parents and had little patience for the way her lover catered to her mother's needs. The more Kitty Connelly called on Wynne, the more Heather resented it, now to the point that she objected each time Kitty asked for help with something, or even whenever she wanted to stop by the townhouse. Wynne managed the strain by keeping the parties apart, but the stress of putting up with Heather's disapproval was wearing on her nerves.
Add to that Wynne's own depression at the realization of the true foundation of their relationship: obligation. Simply put, Wynne had owed the woman too much to deny her what she asked. But she would never love Heather in a romantic way, nor would she ever feel sexual attraction.
"Why don't you come watch Friends with me?" the younger woman called from the living room.
Wynne rinsed her bowl and placed it in the dishwasher. "I'm going up to bed. I'm really tired."
"Yeah, what was with that late flight last night?"
"Just a late meeting. I missed the earlier flight."
"Why don't you come sit with me and I'll rub your neck?"
"Thanks, but I think I'll soak in the tub for awhile then go on to bed." Without waiting for a reply, Wynne labored up the staircase to the second floor. Ten minutes later, she was lowering herself in a steaming bubble bath when her lover appeared in the doorway.
"Got room for me in there?"
Wynne couldn't hide her grimace at the intimate suggestion. "I'm tired, Heather. I just want to soak a while until my leg feels better then get some sleep."
The younger woman's shoulders slumped at the rejection. "I'm just trying to meet you halfway, Wynne. I know you hate the TV so I turned it off. What else would you have me do?"
The exhausted woman didn't want to play this game. "I just want to rest. I don't care if you want to watch TV."
"You act like you don't care what I do at all. You've barely said hello since you got back last night. Why is it so hard to accept that I might want to spend a little time with you tonight? You've been away from me for the last four days. Surely you don't need more time to yourself."
That's exactly what she needed, Wynne thought. "Heather, look…I'm sorry but my leg is sore and I'm tired. I have another long day tomorrow and I need to be ready for it."
"Yeah, and I heard you're not going to be around on Saturday either." Now angry, Heather shut the door loudly in retreat, leaving the tall woman to sigh deeply and slip lower into the mass of bubbles.
"What do you mean moving?" Janelle's brown eyes were wide with panic.
"Shhhh! I haven't told Mom yet." Wynne guided her younger sister into the study and shut the door. "Janelle, this is an opportunity I've wanted for a long time. It's always been my dream to achieve something like this at work. You know that. I have to take it."
"Wynne, who's going to take care things for Mom? I can't handle that. I've already got enough on my plate with school and Sophie," the younger sister pleaded frantically.
"Janelle, it isn't my responsibility to take care of Mom. She's a grown woman. She should start taking care of herself. Maybe she'll do that if I'm not here to handle every little problem."
"Now you sound like Heather."
Ouch! The truth of that was inescapable.
"I bet she's thrilled with all of this. Now she gets you all to herself," Janelle groused.
"I haven't told her about the job yet. I…I'm not going to ask her to come with me."
"I just think this is a good time to end things. We're just not…all that good together."
"I can't imagine Miss Congeniality would be good with anybody."
"Janelle, that's not fair. Heather was very kind to me when I really needed it. I don't know how I'd ever have made it through all that without her help."
"I can answer that, Wynne. Mom and I would have been there for you and you know it. Maybe if you had given Mom a chance, she would have figured out that she wasn't so helpless after all."
"I wasn't exactly in a position to make decisions for myself, was I?"
"No, but when you did get better, you let that woman take over your life," Janelle complained. "Do you have any idea how many times Heather told us not to come by because you were resting, or because you needed to focus on your therapy, or because the two of you were…busy, whatever busy meant."
Wynne's face reddened at the obvious sexual innuendo. She hated to think that Heather would have given away the privacy of that aspect of their life. Her mother had had enough difficulty with the prospect of her oldest daughter being gay without having it thrown in her face.
"Mommy!" The little voice came from beyond the door, the child obviously scurrying from room to room in her search.
"In here, sweetie." Janelle opened the study door to welcome her daughter.
Wynne was grateful for the diversion, her head spinning from her sister's reaction to the news. If Janelle was this bad, how was her mother going to take all this? And worse, how would she deal with Heather?
"So have you seen The Beautiful Woman from Baltimore?" That's the name Val had assigned her friend's new romantic interest.
"Yeah, she came over for dinner Tuesday night." Paula wasn't sure she was ready to share the details of her night with Wynne Connelly. She could hardly believe it herself - they had spent a wonderful…erotic…passion-filled night together and had seemed to connect at every turn.
"How many more visits does she have?" Both women stood before the mirror doing curls.
"Just one for sure. If they keep her on, I guess she'll get a chance to come down every now and then."
"I take it that means you two aren't going to pursue anything serious." Val traded the 10-pound dumbbell for one twice that heavy, this time to stretch the long muscles along her shoulder and neck.
Her friend's question prompted a surprising rush of feelings - none of them very comforting. "I don't know. I guess realistically, the answer is no. But if there was a way we could work it out, I'd be willing to give it a try."
"How do you think she feels?"
"I'm not sure." Paula was pretty certain that Wynne had feelings for her, but the scope of those feelings was unclear. There was definitely something there, but outside of the utterances that poured forth during the heat of their passion, neither woman had said much of anything beyond letting the other know she was special.
"So maybe next week you should raise a stakes a little," Val suggested mischievously. "You know, soft music, candlelight…a little massage oil."
Paula blushed, now feeling guilty at holding out on her friend. She was dying to talk to somebody, and Val was really the only one she could safely say anything to. "We uh, already sort of did that."
"What!" The bar manager looked at her with both shock and thrill. "You mean you two already…?" Val made a little finger through the circle motion with her hands.
"You're so crude," she said, feigning disgust. "But yes, we…," Paula mimicked the gesture, adding, "…among other things."
On that note, Val now sported a small blush of her own. "Careful there, not too much information."
"You're the one that asked."
"So the two of you had sex and you still don't know how she feels?"
Paula found herself a little embarrassed at her friend's frank implication, but there was really no dodging it. "I don't know how to explain it. It feels like there's something there, but it's like we both know that a real relationship probably isn't feasible, so we just sort of…took a shortcut. I know she likes me. But the sex thing just happened. It really wasn't about expressing any feelings." At least it probably wasn't about feelings as far as Wynne was concerned. Paula noted the look of doubt on her friend's face. "Don't you just sometimes get…carried away with somebody who's really hot?"
"Maybe once…or twice," she conceded. "So how was it?"
Paula returned the dumbbells to the rack, contemplating her response. "I think I'm ruined for anyone else."
"Uh-oh is right."
The marketing manager was glad to be back at her desk on Monday morning. She had planned on talking with her mother on Saturday afternoon and with Heather on Sunday, but after Janelle's response, she lost her nerve. Things were so tense at home yesterday that she and Heather had barely spoken.
Cheryl Williams had obviously been working over the weekend, Wynne noted, as her email box was filled with a series of messages on the new job and the upcoming presentation.
CWilliams Presentation - final copy
Wynne downloaded this one to study later.
CWilliams New York
This was an unexpected but very welcome invitation to come to New York with Ken, Cheryl, and Wendell for the presentation to the stock analysts in three weeks.
This time, Wynne went straight to the downloaded document. It was a detailed job description, packed with the kinds of tasks in which the marketer reveled. The new job would require travel, estimated at once or twice a month at first, perhaps more later as Eldon-Markoff expanded or acquired new companies.
In addition to the contract was a draft of the official offer, which almost took her breath away: Her new base salary would be $126,000. She was eligible for an annual bonus worth up to half her salary if corporate and department goals were met, and she would also receive stock options each year.
Eldon-Markoff would pay all of her moving expenses, including real estate commissions and closing costs. She was expected to start full time in Orlando six weeks from today.
That last part lit a fire under her. She needed to contact a real estate agent to put her townhouse on the market, so she'd have to talk to Heather soon. Tonight…she would talk to Heather tonight.
PMcKenzie Your next visit
A knot formed in Wynne's stomach as she hovered the mouse over the subject line. There hadn't been a waking hour in the week since she'd been home that she hadn't thought at least once about Paula McKenzie and the exciting things they'd done, or the wonderful things she'd felt. Each time, the guilt grabbed her and pulled her back down to earth.
Well, this is my usual mid-week note - you know, the one where I say that I had a great time seeing you on your last visit and that I hope we can get together again next time to do something fun. The words are certainly true again, but somehow they just don't seem to say enough this time.
I don't really know how to say this, so I'll just blurt it out. I'm really looking forward to seeing you again, but I don't want to be presumptuous. I'm open for anything you'd like to do.
Wynne felt the tears well up, deeply sad that she'd just played it all wrong. In six weeks, she'd be moving to Orlando…single. Paula was someone she might have had a future with had she not gotten carried away last week. If she'd kept her distance and told the truth, things may have worked out; but hiding the truth about Heather at this point was out of the question. As it was, she didn't deserve to have something that nice after all.
Her best bet was to come clean and try to salvage a friendship; maybe in time, they could start over. But she couldn't deal with it before talking to Heather. She had to start putting things in order.
Paula clipped her nametag above the pocket of her navy suit and stepped into her shoes. Careful not to collect the orange cat's pervasive fur, she stretched her fingers out to scratch behind his ears.
"You be a good boy, and don't answer the door or the phone." As if on cue, the phone rang at that moment. "I'll get that."
Slayer turned around in circles several times before settling in his favorite chair, which also happened to be Paula's favorite chair.
"Hello…oh, hi Dad!" It was rare for Ray McKenzie to call his daughter, since he was at work when she was at home and vice versa. "What's up? Is everything okay?" Paula brushed a lint roller along her skirt as she talked. "Oh, right! Would it be alright if I brought a friend? I know, you need a full name and social security number." The shuttle Discovery was launching on Saturday morning and her father was offering a pass to the press site. "Can I let you know tomorrow? I'll call you…thanks Dad. Bye."
This was good. Now she had an excuse to call the woman from Baltimore, and that would ease any awkwardness either might feel about their intimate encounter. But the business card Wynne had given her was in her desk drawer at the WR, so she'd have to call from there.
"You look awful, Jolene." Paula took in the sight of her red-eyed desk clerk. The African-American woman shone with sweat, clearly the product of a fever. "You should go on home."
"I hate to leave you to do this by yourself." Matthew had called in sick tonight as well, so Paula and Rusty would have to man the front desk. It wouldn't be so bad if they took turns, since they weren't expecting a lot of new arrivals tonight.
"I'll be alright. It'll be like the old days, when I was young and carefree," Paula joked. "Go on. Go home and take something and fall into bed. And if you still have a fever in the morning, call in and ask them to schedule someone else."
"Take care of yourself." The manager immediately took over the front desk duties, which consisted mostly of answering the phone and checking in the occasional guest.
It was 7:30 before she remembered her father's invitation. Pulling up the database, she quickly found Wynne's record, which listed an Orlando number for work, and a Baltimore number for home. She could call Rusty down and run up to her desk to retrieve the other work number, but at this hour it wasn't likely she was there anyway.
Paula warred within herself about what to do. On the one hand, it was technically an abuse of her access to information to look up a home phone number for personal reasons. On the other hand, she and Wynne had slept together and you couldn't get much more personal than that! And if there was a chance that Wynne could make it down for a launch at the press site, she'd probably really be sorry she missed it just because Paula thought it improper to call her at home.
Using her cell phone, she placed the call. After four rings, she was mentally preparing to leave a callback message, when an unfamiliar female voice picked up.
Momentarily startled, Paula debated for a split second about hanging up. "Uh, hi. May I please speak to Wynne Connelly?"
"I'm sorry, she isn't home yet. I'd be happy to take a message."
A message…should she leave a message? "Sure…would you tell her that Paula called?"
"Of course. And can she reach you at…?" Heather read back the number on the caller ID.
"I'll give her the message as soon as she gets home."
Paula was surprised to find herself shaking. Who was the woman who had answered the phone? Wynne had told her about a sister, but she hadn't said that they lived together. She had never mentioned a roommate. A sick feeling crept into her gut.
The marketing manager fumbled for her front door key, dreading the night ahead. She had dragged out her workday, even buying a dinner of snack crackers and soda from the vending machine to postpone the imminent conversation with Heather. It was nearly eight o'clock when she entered her home.
"Boy, you really must have a mountain of work to stay there so late," Heather said in greeting.
"Yeah, but I'm making progress." Wynne tried to smile. This was going to be a difficult night, and it wouldn't do to let it escalate to a confrontation. Still, she knew she couldn't simply will away her lover's emotional response.
"Somebody from Orlando called about a half hour ago. I guess they all work late down there too."
"Was it Cheryl?" She had called her boss about an hour earlier to suggest one last change in the presentation.
"No, she said her name was Paula. She left a number."
The tall woman felt her chest constrict as the anxiety rose inside her. So Paula had called her at home and now knew about Heather.
"I'll…call her tomorrow. It's late."
"Well, it was only a half hour ago. I started to tell her just to call you at work. What are you guys working on?" Heather wasn't really interested in the nuts and bolts of Wynne's job, but she wanted her partner to succeed and she was willing to support that however she could.
"Sort of a reorganization. Why don't I put this away and we can talk about it." That was the segue she needed.
"Or we can talk about something else if you'd rather not think about work any more. You want something to eat?"
"No, I had a bite at my desk. I'm not really hungry. And I really do need to talk to you about things at work." She noted just the barest hint of a shake in her voice, and hoped she could keep it from getting worse. If Heather picked up on anything that suggested weakness or a lack of resolve, she'd be all over it.
Wynne hung her coat in the closet and stowed her briefcase. Heather had taken a seat on the couch in the living room, muting the TV. Wynne walked in front of the set and turned it off, taking a chair on the other side of the small room.
"What is it, honey?"
Wynne leaned forward and folded her hands, willing herself to look the other woman in the eye. Slowly, she began. "This is going to be a tough conversation, Heather."
The hazel-eyed woman shifted uncomfortably on the couch, not yet understanding what the reorganization at Eldon-Markoff had to do with her. She'd always been accommodating when it came to Wynne's work.
"Heather, I…don't think it's much of a secret that you and I haven't been connecting very well lately. In fact, it's been like this for a long time, at least for me."
"Well, you've been working long hours lately, and you've been gone a lot. I'm sure things will smooth out when things calm down at work," she offered nervously.
"I'm not as sure about that as you. I've been thinking - for quite a while, actually - that maybe we should…move on. I look back over the last couple of years, and I can honestly say that I have never felt more loved by anyone, and that I owe you more than I can ever repay for all the things you did for me after my accident." It was taking everything Wynne had to keep her voice and gaze steady as she said her piece, taking in the stunned look on the younger woman's face.
"Don't do this, Wynne."
The brunette shook her head in resignation. "But I can't be what you need…what you deserve. I've tried, Heather, for over a year, and I just can't do it."
"In other words, you don't love me like I love you," Heather said sharply.
Wynne sighed deeply and leaned back in the chair. Her lover's summation was cold, but accurate. "I'm sorry."
Tears started to pool in the woman's hazel eyes, and her voice grew small. "You know, Wynne, maybe we could get away together and take some time to enjoy each other. I don't…want to just throw away two years without feeling like we tried to fix it."
"Heather, it's not - how do I explain this? - it's not like anything is broken. It's that it never really fit to begin with. We had a wonderful friendship, but it was a mistake on my part to try to make more of it than that, because my love for you was never the deep, passionate love that both of us deserve to feel. I've really tried to love you that way, but I just can't."
"So the whole last year has been a lie for you. Is that what you're saying?" The tone of Heather's voice had taken on an edge.
"I haven't intentionally misled you, Heather. But I can't manufacture the feelings you need."
"Why do you keep talking about what I need and what I deserve?" she wailed accusatorily. "I have what I need. I'm happy with you."
"But I'm not."
"So now that you're all better, you're just going to toss me out like yesterday's trash? I gave up my home, Wynne. And I got rid of nearly all of my stuff because there wasn't room for it here. What am I supposed to do now?"
"I'll…help you with whatever you need. You can take some of the stuff from here…some furniture, some linens, some dishes, whatever you need," she repeated. The older woman recalled that most of Heather's furniture was second-hand, and she had said that many of her dishes and linens were mismatched sets, hand-me-downs from her family and friends. "Early attic," she had jokingly called the décor. Wynne was willing to part with almost anything in her house - not her grandmother's china or the antique brass bed - but as far as she was concerned, Heather could have the rest of it if she wanted it.
"Can we please give this some time, Wynne?"
"Heather, I'm taking a new job in Orlando. It starts in six weeks, so I need to put the house on the market this week."
"So you're moving to Orlando. That's what this is about."
"No. It's about us, and the fact that this isn't working for me. I wasn't about to uproot you from your job and your friends when I knew in my heart that we weren't going to make it."
The two women sat quietly for long minutes before Heather finally stood. "I can't talk about this any more. I'm going for a drive."
"Heather, please. You shouldn't drive if you're upset," Wynne pleaded. "I'll…go over to Mom's if you need to be by yourself."
"In other words, you're not too upset to drive, right?" The cork that had held the young woman's emotions in check up to now had come undone. "And the reason you're not upset, Wynne, is because you've gotten everything you've needed from me. And now that you don't need anything else, you're moving on. It doesn't matter to you that I still need you."
"Knowing that I'm hurting you does upset me, and I'm so sorry. But it would be wrong of me to let you give up even more for me feeling the way I do about our future."
"What, did you get a promotion?"
"Yes," Wynne answered simply.
"So now you have a fancy job at corporate, and I'm not the right accessory. Is that it? Don't tell me, let me guess: They don't even know you're gay, I bet."
Actually, Ken Markoff probably did, Wynne realized, but she certainly wasn't about to volunteer that and have to explain how he came to know. "It's not about that at all, Heather. I don't know what they know, but I don't intend to live my life in the closet. And I would never consider a partner as an accessory to my work. Both of us deserve better than that."
"Don't keep patronizing me with your opinion about what I deserve," Heather hissed, angry tears streaming down her face as she grabbed her purse and stormed toward the door. "I'll get out of here as soon as I can. Believe me, now that I know how you really feel about me, I don't want to be here any more than you want me here."
Wynne winced as the door slammed and rattled the pictures on the walls. It was about as ugly a scene as she had imagined it would be, but all she felt right now was relief that it was over. She knew that it was only Round One, as Heather would be back, and would probably make a calmer plea for her to rethink her decision. Wynne had given no ground thus far, but her lover - check that, ex-lover - would no doubt increase the pressure for her to relent.
Saddened that things would be ending on such a hurtful note, Wynne resolved to try to make the transition as friendly and peaceful as possible. She had a healthy savings account and would gladly help Heather get set up in a new place. It would probably be difficult for them for a while, but surely their friendship was solid enough to weather this. As long as she had family in Baltimore, Wynne knew she would be coming back to visit. It would be nice to think that she and Heather could salvage something from their time together.
Walking into the kitchen for a bottle of water, Wynne saw the note on the counter, the number for Paula. A new wave of nausea passed through her as she folded the paper and stuffed it in the pocket of her skirt, doubting seriously that she would call back. What would she say? Paula had the whole picture now.
"I'm going to do my hall inspection," Paula said as Rusty settled into his chair to begin his Sunday night paperwork routine. She didn't want to watch the video this week, knowing that her boss would likely comment on the fact that the dark-haired woman from Baltimore hadn't checked in tonight. She had monitored reservations all week, noting that K. Wynne Connelly was not among their expected guests.
Wynne had neither answered her email nor returned her call. In fact, she hadn't heard one word from the woman since the morning they had kissed goodbye in her bed. Though she didn't want to accept it, she knew that she had stumbled onto Wynne's little secret - the woman from Baltimore was unavailable.
She had to laugh at herself for all the time she had spent worrying about the fact that it would be hard to overcome living in two different cities. To think that she had even found herself perusing the job listings in the DC area, only a few miles from Baltimore!
Paula acknowledged to herself that she'd been played for a fool. She wanted to be angry, but right now she felt only sorrow, hurt and embarrassment. How could she have misjudged the connection she'd had with Wynne when it had seemed so strong?
When she reached the Concierge Floor, she inspected the dessert display and proceeded to the small office area that linked the lounge with a service elevator. Rummaging through the bottom desk drawer she located a telephone directory.
"So…did the Hyatt give you a better rate?"
It took only a split second for the voice on the phone to register. "Paula. I…I wanted to call you, but I just didn't know what to say," she explained sadly.
"Well, for starters, why don't you tell me how we got this far apart in just 12 days?"
"I…," I what? "I haven't been honest with you. I…."
"Yeah, I got that part when another woman answered your phone."
"Paula, I didn't mean for you to find out that way."
"I'd say you didn't mean for me to find out at all. But it doesn't matter, Wynne. I was just calling to tell you that I'm sorry if I led you into something you didn't mean to do."
Wynne stared at the phone in her hand as the line went dead.
The agent pulled into a wooded cul de sac, stopping at the last house before the circle. Cheryl Williams had canceled Wynne's meetings for the afternoon, hooking the young executive up with a realtor who would show her properties in some of Orlando's best neighborhoods.
"This is my favorite of the houses we'll see today," she remarked. "It's four bedrooms, three and a half baths, a formal living room and dining room, an eat-in kitchen, and a screened-in patio." The house - an older Spanish-style bungalow, white with a red tile roof - definitely had curb appeal. The best part for Wynne was that it was a single story.
"This is very nice, but it's really more than I need," the tall woman said when they'd finished the tour. It would cost her thirty thousand dollars to furnish a place this large. Heather had taken her up on her offer and laid claim to the living room furniture, entertainment center, and the suite in the guest bedroom, where she'd been sleeping for the past week.
"Maybe it seems that way now, but things can change. It's a great house for children, and in a top school district."
Wynne was accustomed to such assumptions from others. To refute it would be to invite a stranger into her personal matters and she wasn't about to do that. On the other hand, one of the bedrooms would make a nice office and it would be nice to have two spares if the Connelly women came to visit.
They had done the paperwork before leaving the realty office, so both women knew that Wynne could afford this house if she wanted it. She also had a loan letter in hand from Eldon-Markoff, guaranteeing the purchase of her house in Baltimore, so the contingency wouldn't be a problem.
This house was the most expensive of the ones she'd seen, but it was head and shoulders above the rest, in that it was turn-key and in an older established neighborhood. And it wasn't far, she noted, from that nice condominium community where Paula lived.
"Okay, let's do it."
"You're in early," Stephanie remarked. Stephanie Anderson was the director of the Weller Regent, the hotel's top dog. She was a vibrant woman of 57, and a good administrator. In her 30-plus years with Weller Regent, Stephanie had mentored scores of people, many of whom had gone on to manage their own hotels or to work in the company's New York headquarters. Paula McKenzie had always been one of her favorites.
"Looking at the job openings?"
Paula was stunned at the woman's perceptive abilities. "How did you know?"
"Actually, it was just a guess, but thank you for confirming it." The woman grinned wryly as she pulled up a chair next to Paula's at the computer. "Did you see the job in Denver?"
Paula nodded. Their newest hotel was looking to hire a Senior Shift Manager, the equivalent of Rusty's position. It was a plum job in the system, and would probably go to someone with more seniority than she.
"I think you'd be perfect for it. Mind you, I wouldn't be excited about losing one of the best managers I've ever had working for me, but I'd like to see you venture out of Orlando and earn your wings. I'm not going anywhere for a few more years, but when I do it would be nice if you had some senior management experience under your belt."
Paula was awed by the praise. Stephanie was practically telling her that she had a chance to succeed her in a few years at this hotel, but only if she seized the opportunity now to gain experience at an advanced level.
"Do you really think I'd have a shot at this job in Denver?"
"I think you're a shoe-in."
The next three weeks were a blur for Wynne, traveling to New York with the folks from Eldon-Markoff, selling the townhouse, closing on the home in Orlando, and managing the move. Heather had found a very nice one-bedroom apartment near the mall where she worked, and Wynne had given her a rather large check to help her with deposits and some of the new things she would need. In one of her more ugly moments, Heather had called it "guilt money," but otherwise the tension at home had lessened noticeably. On their last day together, the two women held one another for a long tearful moment, each wishing the best for the other.
The bleary-eyed woman felt around in the unfamiliar environs and slapped the alarm. The green digital display read 4:30 a.m. Lying in the strange bed, Wynne grew more and more cognizant of her surroundings and the reason she was staying here.
What was left of her belongings, including her car, was headed into storage for a couple of weeks. For the time being, she was at her mother's house, readying for the fourth and hopefully final surgery on her battered leg.
"I appreciate this."
"It's no big deal," Val answered her friend. She was dropping Paula at the airport for her flight to Denver. "Are you nervous?"
"A little. It's been a long time since I interviewed for a job, but Stephanie grilled me yesterday for about two hours. I think I'm ready."
Val signaled for the exit off the Beeline Expressway. "You know, there's a selfish part of me that hopes you fall on your face."
"I know, Val." Paula placed her hand on her friend's shoulder. "There's a part of me that hopes I do too…for all the same reasons."
The pain was excruciating, but Wynne knew it would eventually lessen on its own. The painkillers gave her the strangest dreams, including horrible flashbacks to the accident that had led to this and the other surgeries. From the corner of her eye, she could see Kitty Connelly dozing in a bedside chair, an open magazine spread across her chest.
Her mom had actually taken the news about her move to Orlando surprisingly well, thanks to the ingenious way Janelle had thought of to break it.
"They're moving you to Orlando?" The elder Connelly woman was alarmed at the prospect of not having her oldest daughter close by to take care of emergencies. And it seemed there were so many more emergencies these days.
"That's right. Assistant vice president, and they're doubling my salary, paying for the move, everything. I really wish Dad could have been here to see this. He knew how much something like this would mean to me."
Kitty Connelly had always deferred to her husband's opinion, and if he'd have liked this, she would like it too.
"I wish he could be here too. He'd be so proud, just like I am."
And when Wynne mentioned that she was planning to have the final surgery before the new job started, her mother had insisted on taking care of her, especially since Heather had now moved out. Furthermore, she would accompany Wynne to Florida to help her get set up in her new house.
Vince Tolliver couldn't believe his luck. Across from him sat the fourth applicant for the senior manager position, a Stephanie Anderson product like himself who - in addition to her other skills - spoke Spanish. On paper, they didn't get any better than this.
"Is there a part of your current job that you don't like, Miss McKenzie? For example, the paperwork, the supervision, dealing with the public?"
Paula thought for a moment about how best to answer the hotel director's question. "I suppose I'm like everyone else. I hate to have to discipline a worker, but the positive interactions with staff overwhelmingly outweigh the negative ones. It's the same way with troublesome guests." That was a good answer, she thought, but Tolliver waited for more. "Okay, the paperwork is a pain," she admitted with a chuckle.
Tolliver laughed. He liked a manager with a sense of humor, knowing that someone like that usually worked well under stress. He had it on Stephanie's authority that Paula had a real talent for handling problems without letting things escalate. And he also knew that Stephanie wouldn't have kept a staffer for nine years if she couldn't handle paperwork.
"You know, our weather's a little different here," he cautioned.
"I'm looking for a change," she answered simply.
"Thanks, Mom. I really appreciate this." Wynne pulled her crutches from the back seat and leaned them against the car door.
"Are you sure you don't want me to come up with you?"
"No, that's okay. I can hang this strap on my shoulder…."
"Wynne!" An excited Cheryl Williams rushed to meet her. "I'm so glad to finally see you here."
"Hi, Cheryl. Uh, this is my mother, Kitty Connelly."
Kitty leaned across the seat to say hello.
Cheryl pushed her hand inside the car in greeting. "Really pleased to meet you. We think the world of your daughter."
Wynne blushed like a schoolgirl on a date. Carefully, she pulled herself up and positioned the crutches beneath her arms.
"Let me take that," Cheryl stopped her, grabbing for the heavy briefcase. "Thanks for the delivery. I can take it from here." She waved to Kitty, who drove off slowly in her daughter's Volvo.
"Thanks for your help."
"You're welcome. Are you sure you're up for this already?"
"I'm sure that I'm about to go insane. Please let me stay today, even if you change your mind and fire me," she quipped. She loved her mother dearly, but they had spent nearly every waking hour together for the past three weeks.
"Okay, but we've decided not to pay you."
"…and that your new office will be beside the copy machine."
"…and that Denise will be your secretary."
"You're cruel, Cheryl Williams."
"I know, but two of those weren't true."
"Denise," she sighed.
"She can handle your needs for now. You can pick out some seminars and send her on company time if you want. If things don't work out, come see me."
Wynne knew that she would make things work out. Denise was deficient, but she was dedicated and willing to learn.
The elevator deposited the pair on the top floor, where Wynne followed her boss to the west end of the building. Three slots in from the corner was a small office, its outside wall solid glass. An executive desk with a return for her computer faced the door. A bookcase, work table and three chairs packed the room.
"I know it's not the Taj Mahal, but it's your very own space. If you want to move things around, just buzz Denise and she'll find some muscles."
"It's great. I'm going to love it."
"After you've been here a while, you'll move up in the pecking order. In a year or two, you can move to a side that doesn't get the afternoon sun. That's when you'll know you've hit the big time."
"You're forgetting I'm from Baltimore. I don't even plan to stand in the shade."
"I'll remind you of that."
On that note, Cheryl departed for her own corner office and Wynne struggled to her chair. Already, a stack of folders filled her inbox. Settling in, she reached for the first one. She was thrilled to be here.
"Wow, Paula! If you think I'm going to say no to that, you're out of your mind!" Kevin Ross was ecstatic at his new boss's offer: She would take Tuesday and Wednesday off each week and he would have both Friday and Saturday. A person could practically have a life with the weekend free.
"Not that it's permanent, mind you. But I'd like to be here on the busy days until I get acclimated to the hotel and the staff."
"Well, you'll get no argument from me," the young man said happily. "Take all the time you need."
Paula liked her new co-worker quite a bit. He had spent the last two years running the business services center, and had also done his time in catering. He'd been on the job as Shift Manager for only two months when her predecessor left to take a job with Ritz-Carlton.
"So what do you do for fun in a place like Denver?" she asked.
"I don't know. I'm married. I don't ever get to have any fun."
That caused them both to laugh.
"So I've just granted you weekends off and you're going to waste them?"
"No, are you kidding? It means that Pam and I can actually go out of town once in awhile, skiing, or camping, or up to Estes Park. Of course, that also means I can't get out of going to spend time with my mother-in-law in Pueblo," he lamented.
"You can always tell her that you're on call," Paula suggested.
"I like the way you think, Paula," he chuckled.
"If it's alright with you, I'd like to handle the room inspections today. I just need to get a feel for how everybody works."
"Knock yourself out. You want me to start the inventory?" Kevin was eager for the chance to do more of the management tasks.
"No, I'll do that when I get finished. Why don't you monitor the front desk and maybe pop in on the valet staff a little later?"
"Whatever you need." He was really going to like working with Paula McKenzie.
Paula started her inspection on the third floor, one floor above their meeting rooms. By the time she reached the Concierge floor, she was satisfied that the housekeeping staff was solid, and was glad to know that her first shift counterpart ran a tight ship. That would make her job easier.
The Concierge lounge hosts were setting up for happy hour, much as they did in Orlando, and as they did throughout the Weller Regent chain. The hotels weren't interchangeable - they were certainly unique in décor - but the major amenities were designed to be consistent from one hotel to the next. The Denver WR featured a Southwestern theme, the furnishings rustic, but comfortable. Here in the lounge, the windows opened out onto a spectacular view of the snow-capped Rockies, quite a contrast to the flat cypress expanse of Orlando.
The cozy arrangement of chairs in the corner conjured for Paula an unwelcome image of a tall, dark-haired woman. In fact, Wynne Connelly had become an irritating staple of her thoughts of late, especially on the long drive with Slayer to their new home almost two thousand miles away.
There was no denying the hurt she'd felt when she learned that she'd been no more than a dalliance.
"I don't know what to say." The words replayed bitterly in her head. There really was nothing to say, unless there was some other explanation than the obvious. And clearly, that wasn't the case or it would have surely been put forth. But Wynne had played the game so well that Paula had been nothing short of stunned by the other woman on the phone. The hardest part was that Paula had been convinced that Wynne had shared her feelings; and that left her with an uneasy feeling that she couldn't protect herself from being taken for a fool in the future.
Unless of course she just kept to herself.
And that's what the move to Denver was all about. It wasn't a new start. It wasn't really even the job, though that was a means to an end. For Paula, it was more about moving to a place where she didn't know anyone, and where she didn't want to know anyone. If she focused on doing a good job, she could soon move up to an operations post; if not here, then somewhere else.
"If you want, you can start sleeping on the sofa in my office. Just keep your PJs in the bottom drawer of my desk."
Wynne looked up to find Cheryl standing in her doorway on Tuesday afternoon, briefcase in hand.
"Really, Wynne, the rest of us go home by this time, sometimes a little sooner even. Have we given you too much to do or are you just slow?" The last bit was meant to be teasing, but the executive could tell right away that her joke had fallen flat.
"No, I…you were just kidding, right?"
"Right," she assured, dropping her briefcase to take a seat across from her assistant VP's desk. "I'm going to have to tell my husband about you. He won't believe there's someone who gets here before I do and stays until after I'm gone."
"I'm in the middle of drawing up this branding campaign. Do you think we might have a few thousand in the budget for a couple of focus groups?"
"Sure, we can move it out of advertising if you think we need it."
"I do. I'd feel better if we had some sort of disaster check before we launched this."
"That's a good idea. Now go home."
"I just want to finish this…."
"I'm waiting. We're going to walk out together so I can verify that you're leaving." The older woman was serious.
"Okay," Wynne sighed, closing her folder.
"And no taking it home to work on," the executive chided as she watched her protégé move to place the folder in her briefcase. "That would defeat the purpose of pushing you out of here."
Together, the pair exited to the parking lot where Cheryl followed the younger woman to her car.
"How's your leg?" The limp wasn't nearly so pronounced as it had been before the surgery, but it was still there.
"It's a lot better. I'm still doing physical therapy, but they're starting to think I've reached the ceiling."
"Does it hurt much?"
"Not like it did, but I doubt I'll ever be pain free."
"That's too bad." Wynne had told Cheryl the awful story of the accident.
"I've gotten used to it." The pair stepped into the elevator. "Look, I said I'd go. You don't have to escort me, you know."
Cheryl chuckled. "Seriously, Wynne…I don't want to see you burn yourself out. I know there's a lot to do, but no one expects you to get it all done the first year you're on board. If you plan on being in this for the long haul, you need to get out and build a whole life here in Orlando, not just a work life."
"I know, Cheryl. I will." Actually, the idea of venturing out to explore the social scene in Orlando always led her to thoughts of Paula, and that triggered feelings of guilt and sadness. She'd been thinking a lot lately of the small blonde hotel manager, and wasn't at all interested in the idea of meeting someone new. "Believe it or not, I'm having a lot of fun at work right now."
"I can tell, and I appreciate all you're doing. But take it from an old pro: Save the best of yourself for your personal life, not your job."
Wynne nodded in understanding.
"You know, Wynne, we're a family here at Eldon-Markoff. Now I don't mean to be nosy, but if you aren't seeing anyone special, I'd be happy to host a couple of dinner parties to give you a chance to meet some single men, you know, professional men."
The tall woman forced a smile and looked away. She had hoped that Ken Markoff had already shared the tale of seeing her with Paula, holding hands in the restaurant. Apparently he hadn't, or she wouldn't be facing this awkward moment.
"Cheryl, thanks but…I'm really not interested in meeting…men."
"But you…oh. Women?"
The dark-haired woman nodded nervously. "But to tell you the truth, I'm really not interested in meeting anyone at all right now. I'm still sort of coming out of a relationship that didn't end well. I'd just like some time."
"I understand. But if I come across any interesting women - I'm not sure where, but you never know - I'll probably mention it, whether you're ready or not."
"Fair enough," Wynne agreed.
"Okay, this is as far as I go. I expect you to drive off, not just circle the lot until I'm out of sight so you can sneak back in."
"Scout's honor. See you tomorrow." Wynne started up her Volvo and backed out from her assigned space.
Instead of turning into her own neighborhood, she continued toward the condominium community where Paula McKenzie lived. Today was Tuesday, Paula's day off, and the thought of getting a peek of the hotel manager from afar was tantalizing. It wasn't exactly stalking - it was more like…unobtrusive observation, just checking up.
Slowly, the Volvo wound past the small lake, turning left toward the buildings that overlooked the neighboring golf course. Wynne's breath caught at once as she realized the garage door directly beneath Paula's end unit condo was open. But the car inside was not the dark green Miata; it was a red sedan of some sort. Quickly, she scanned the parking lot for the familiar car, continuing until the road ended.
Wynne turned around and proceeded back the way she'd come, slowing dramatically in front of her friend's place. She watched in confusion as the car began to back out, its passengers a couple, presumably husband and wife, and with a plainly visible child's car seat in the back.
The woman in the Volvo stopped to get her bearings, double-checking in her mind the details of her one visit to Paula's home. This was the location she remembered, and the number on the side of the building was the one she recalled giving the taxi driver.
Wynne returned to the condominium complex the following day, as well as the next, both on the way to work and on the way home. When the weekend came, she paid one final visit, again spotting the family in the sedan.
Paula McKenzie didn't live here anymore.
Well there you go: A day late and a dollar short! Part 5