"It figures my first winter here would be the worst on record," Paula grumbled as she traded her knee-high boots for the low black heels that accompanied her uniform. The eight blocks from her downtown apartment were brutal in the cold weather, but not as bad when the wind wasn't blowing.
"We ordered this up just for you," Kevin joked.
"Fine, Kevin! I can understand January and February, but this is April. Give me a break already!"
"And the best part is that this might not even be the last of it."
"Oh yeah, that's the best part alright."
The phone on Paula's desk buzzed, signaling a direct patch from security.
"Paula McKenzie," she answered crisply. "Great…12th floor…okay, one of us will be right there."
"What have we got?"
"Some guy's smoking a cigar by the elevator on the 12th floor. Says his wife won't let him smoke it in the room."
Kevin stood and pulled a quarter from his pocket. "Winner chooses?" he asked hopefully, knowing full well that his boss could simply order him to the 12th floor.
The coin sailed into the air, turning over and over until he caught it and slapped it on the back of his other hand. "Heads it is."
"I'll take care of the cigar. You get the front desk. They're getting slammed." Paula gestured over her shoulder at the video.
"That was sneaky."
"It was lucky."
"I can't believe you've never been to one of these travel and tourism conventions. You should get out and meet people, but don't talk much, okay? I'm afraid you'll get recruited and then I'd have to kill somebody," Cheryl Williams joked.
"Don't worry. I can't imagine I'd be as happy working for anybody else…but it's nice to know you're not taking me for granted." Wynne had been on the job in Orlando for nearly a year, and had continued to impress her boss, as well as CEO Ken Markoff. More every day, she felt at home in the company, and her responsibilities had grown as she proved herself again and again. Already, she had moved to an office on the building's south side.
"Believe me, I would never take you for granted." Leaning forward in the seat, Cheryl asked the cabbie, "Does it always snow this much in April?"
"I don't think this winter's ever going to end. We've had one storm after another since the first week in October…more snow than we've ever had before. At least today it's not in the single digits like it has been."
"Thank God for small favors," she groused. "Look at you, Wynne. All bundled up nice and warm. You're used to this from your days in Baltimore, I bet."
"Yeah, like he said, it's not so bad when it's in the twenties…unless the wind is blowing."
"Do you miss Baltimore?"
"Baltimore, no. I was homesick at first, but once my mom moved down, I don't think I gave it another thought." Wynne had returned to Maryland for Christmas. During that single week, a water pipe in the old house ruptured and the furnace drew its last breath. That was enough for Kitty, who proposed that she give up the house for good and move south. Wynne's realtor found her a two-bedroom unit with a garage in the nice complex where Paula used to live. The marketer was pleasantly surprised at how glad she was to have her mother close again.
The cab wound through the maze of one-way streets in downtown Denver, finally pulling into the circle in front of the Weller Regent. They were immediately met by a valet in a down jacket and gloves with a wool cap pulled over his ears.
"Welcome to the Weller Regent, ladies. Sorry about the weather, but we'll do everything we can to make your visit as comfortable as possible." The young man smiled sincerely and collected their bags from the taxi's trunk, loading them onto a cart that was whisked indoors with the bundled women close behind.
"Warmth!" Cheryl exclaimed. "How do people live in this climate?"
"They say the same thing about us in August, don't they?" Wynne followed her boss to the registration desk. In her frequent travels, she often stayed in the Weller Regent, and each time she entered the reception area, she thought of Paula McKenzie. She had learned after finally getting up the nerve to call the Orlando hotel last fall that the pretty blonde was no longer working at the WR, but the employee she spoke with was prohibited from giving out further information.
"I'm supposed to meet a couple of old friends for dinner. You're welcome to join us if you'd like."
Wynne knew Cheryl well enough by now to know that the invitation was sincere, even though she'd only be tagging along.
"I don't think so. I'm probably just going to grab something upstairs in the lounge a little later and go to bed early. But I really appreciate the offer."
"Yeah, you're the smart one. With the two-hour time change, you're going to be rested tomorrow and I'll be walking around like a zombie. Don't let me give away any of our trade secrets, okay?"
Cheryl stepped forward to the reservation counter, looking back at her assistant VP who waited patiently for the next available clerk. It was a lucky day for Eldon-Markoff when they brought Wynne Connelly on board in the corporate office. The woman was a workhorse, not to mention smart and innovative. Best of all, she had a presence about her, a demeanor that practically demanded attention. In only a year, the young executive had taken the position to a higher level than either she or Ken Markoff had envisioned, and was already sprinkling her ideas and initiatives into their sales department. No way were they going to let Wynne Connelly go to work for the competition.
When she walked up to the busy counter to check in, the tall woman couldn't help but notice that the clerk who assisted her wore a nametag that identified him as a Shift Manager. Checking her watch, she confirmed that his was the second shift…Paula's shift…in fact, he had the same job here in Denver as Paula had held in Orlando.
"Wynne Connelly," she announced, handing over her credit card.
"Yes, Ms. Connelly. I have you for two nights on our Concierge floor, king-sized, non-smoking."
Kevin Ross worked efficiently to complete the check-in process. He used to hate the times when he had to fill in at the front desk, but over the last year, his new boss had helped him appreciate the opportunity to interact with both staff and guests. The front desk got the lion's share of problems and complaints and he'd learn more about dealing with them by exercising his newfound authority here. Best of all, she'd said, his example would help the younger clerks do a better job, and that paid off when they learned to handle difficult requests on their own.
"Here you are, Ms. Connelly." Sliding the key card across the counter, Ross directed her to the elevators and informed her of the perks she'd receive with her upgrade. "I hope you have a nice stay, and if you have any problem at all, please let someone know and we'll do our best to take care of it."
Wynne smiled and nodded, thinking back to the way Paula had handed her a business card, pointing out the direct extension. Flirting.
Paula hated situations like the one she was walking into. The fact that security was already involved and had called her indicated that they hadn't been able to diffuse the situation with just their presence.
Exiting the elevator, she was met at once by one of the guards. "Do you have the gentleman's name yet?" she asked, all business.
"No, and this guy is not exactly a gentleman, if you know what I mean. If I had to guess, I'd say he likes his Johnny Walker straight up."
"It's four o'clock in the afternoon, for crying out loud." Paula turned from the guard to appraise the uncooperative guest, who sat in an armchair by a potted plant - his ashtray, she observed - holding a drink in one hand, and a cigar in the other. He was a large, barrel-chested man, his tie knotted loosely but still obscuring his neck. His bulbous face was red and his eyes had that unfocused look that indeed said "I'm drunk as hell."
"Hello, I'm Paula McKenzie. I'm the manager here. They tell me that your wife won't let you smoke that cigar in your room. Is that right?"
"Goddamn right!" he barked.
"That's too bad, Mr. …." She waited a moment, but he didn't take the bait. "But I'm afraid that the city of Denver has an ordinance that prohibits smoking in the common areas of all public buildings, so your choices are pretty limited. You either have to stay in your room, or you can go to the smoking area on the second floor. Unfortunately, that's on an outside balcony."
"Or I can sit right here," he answered belligerently.
"No, that isn't one of your choices, unless you put out the cigar. I think it would be best if you returned to your room. I'd be happy to explain the rules to your wife. Maybe she'd change her mind." Her voice was calm and steady, and her face bore just a hint of an encouraging smile.
"Can I smoke in the bar?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Then I'm going to sit right here until I finish." Extracting his lighter, he relit the smelly cigar.
Paula sighed. "Look, as the manager, I have to enforce the smoking rules or I'll get in trouble with the hotel director. If that happens, I could lose my job; and if I lose my job, they might take my children away from me. Please help me here. All you have to do is put out the cigar and go back to your room."
The man looked at his drink, then at his cigar. "You mean you might get fired if I don't put this out."
Paula nodded with a pleading look.
"How many kids you got?"
"Two," she lied, "Josh and Jordan." It was handy to have a nephew and niece top of mind.
"Well, I don't want you to lose your kids on account of me," he finally acquiesced, turning to stub out the cigar in the plant.
"Why don't you let me take that?" Paula intercepted the smoking object, dousing it at once in what was left of the man's drink. "I really appreciate you helping me out on this one. Why don't you stop by the front desk when I'm working tomorrow and I'll see that you get a coupon for a free drink in the bar?"
Paula turned back to her two security guards who were waiting at the ready in case the situation had escalated. "Will you see that this gentleman gets back to his room okay?"
From the corner of her eye, Paula glimpsed the elevator door opening to allow a businessman to exit. The lighted arrow pointed upward, and she was vaguely aware of two women who remained on the car. As the doors began to close, her eyes met those of the tall dark-haired woman and she froze.
Wynne's heart pounded the very instant she recognized the hotel manager. The sensations were almost overwhelming: the tightened stomach, the shaking hands, the rapid breathing.
"Are you okay?" Cheryl noticed at once that her companion had fallen back against the side of the elevator, gripping the rail for support.
"Yes, I'm fine. I just got…queasy all of a sudden."
"You better not be getting sick. Being sick at a hotel is one of the worst experiences there is."
"No, I'm fine, really," she assured, though her voice shook in response to the adrenalin rush. So Paula McKenzie had moved to Denver.
The door opened on the top floor and both women stepped out, checking the placard to locate their rooms.
"I'm in 2116. Call me if you start feeling sick. If I'm not in, call my cell phone." Cheryl knew she was mothering her protégé, but after raising three children, it was her nature to worry about other people.
"I'm okay, honest. It was just…nothing."
"Alright, but call me if you need anything."
"I will. But go out and have a good time with your friends. Don't worry, okay?"
"If you say so."
"I say so. I'll see you in the morning. Watch the margaritas."
Wynne pushed her card into the slot across the hall from her boss and stepped inside, leaning her back against the door as it closed. Coming face to face with Paula had completely unnerved her. An array of emotions had surfaced all at once: surprise, guilt, apprehension. And desire.
Paula returned quickly to her desk, her fingers fumbling anxiously as she called up the guest register on her terminal. Scanning the details, she confirmed that her imagination wasn't at play.
K. Wynne Connelly, two-nights. Room 2117, billed to Eldon-Markoff.
So she hung onto her job after all, Paula thought. "And of all the hotels in Denver, she had to walk into mine," she murmured, understanding how Humphrey Bogart must have felt when Ingrid Bergman entered his club in Morocco.
There had been whole days of late when Paula hadn't thought of the beautiful woman from Baltimore, but it didn't take much to conjure the image. Anytime she saw an elegant woman traveling alone, she remembered Wynne Connelly. And if one of those women spoke to her in a friendly way, she automatically invoked her most professional demeanor, a wall of resistance to familiarity. Even after almost a year, the wariness lingered, leaving her more isolated than she had ever felt. Thank goodness she had a job that she loved.
And tonight, Wynne Connelly was staying in her hotel.
Like a moth to the flame, she needed to see Wynne, to talk to her again, if only to snipe a bit and let her know that she had risen above it. People shouldn't be allowed to treat others like that and get off scot free. But she wanted Wynne to know that she was over it…even if her own shaking hands were telling her otherwise.
Wynne turned back to her notes for tomorrow's meeting, reading the paragraph for the third time, still not comprehending the words. She was situated in the corner of the Concierge lounge, looking up from time to time to admire the sunset over the Rockies. She'd held this vigil for over two hours, hoping - but doubting - that Paula would once again stop by to say hello.
It was almost nine as she finished her second glass of red wine. Paula would know where to find her, she knew, if the hotel manager would even consider speaking to her. Her last words - on the phone at the Hyatt - hadn't been harsh, but there was definitely finality in her tone.
There was so much Wynne wanted to say about what had happened. She needed to apologize not only for what she'd done, but for the way she had run away from the mess she'd made. Mostly, she wanted to tell Paula that her feelings had been real.
Suddenly, she felt more than saw the familiar face was coming her way; a fixed expression not giving away the blonde woman's mood. As it had in the elevator, Wynne's heart rate increased and her stomach fluttered in anticipation.
"Hello, Wynne," the hotel manager said formally.
"Paula…it's good to see you."
"I'm glad to see that things worked out for you with Eldon-Markoff." Paula tried to sound casual, fighting hard to conceal the emotions that the sight of this woman called up.
"Thank you," Wynne answered meekly. It was difficult not to feel as though she was under judgment. Spotting the nametag above the pocket of the black blazer, she returned the sentiment. "And I see you've made Senior Shift Manager. Congratulations."
"Yeah, I decided that I was ready to relocate." She didn't add that the circumstances of their parting had made it easier to leave Orlando. No, Paula wasn't about to say anything to suggest that their relationship had been anything more than spontaneous.
"It must have been a difficult decision, leaving your family and a hotel you liked so much."
"I like this hotel, and I'm enjoying the new job. How about you?"
"Things are good. I…." She decided against telling Paula that she too had relocated. It wasn't important now that the other woman was no longer there, and Wynne really didn't want to underscore the irony. "I really like what I'm doing now. They keep me pretty busy."
Paula wanted to say more; actually, she wanted Wynne to say more, but she didn't want to be the one to press it. "Well, I hope things keep working out for you."
"Have dinner with me," the brunette suddenly blurted.
"You've got to be kidding." Paula looked around awkwardly to see if others were within earshot.
"I'm not. Paula, I have so many things I want to tell you. Please."
"No," she answered adamantly. "It isn't necessary, Wynne. It wasn't a big deal. We got carried away and did something we shouldn't have. End of story."
Despite the words of denial, Wynne could feel the anger and hurt emanating from the woman before her. She looked away and shook her head sadly. Turning back, she held Paula's eyes with her own. "Would it help at all to tell you that I'm sorry?"
Paula could see the sadness for herself in the shining blue eyes, but she was determined not to respond to it. It didn't matter now anyway, and there was no way she was going to show how naïve she'd been. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I didn't have any expectations. When people let things happen too fast, it's easy to make mistakes."
To Wynne, the words sounded cold and calculated, but who was she to argue that it had been more than just getting "carried away" for her. The voice that started in her head the moment she met Paula McKenzie had warned her not to let it happen, but she had chosen to ignore it and like Paula said, she made a mistake. And perhaps the woman standing before her was the price of her poor judgment, and Wynne just had to let her know that she realized that.
"Paula, it was my mistake, not yours," she offered, "and what I regret the most is that I screwed things up with you."
"That you did." She hadn't meant to sound so flippant, but 11 months of stewing about it had left her bitter. Still, the sad blue eyes made her want to soften, made her want to forgive, and made her want to say that it was alright. "Look, I…need to go. It was good to see you again."
Wynne nodded. "Thanks for coming by." Soon afterwards, she retreated to her room, still wound up at having seen Paula, and deeply saddened at where they'd left things. Despite everything that had transpired, she knew without a doubt that if Paula were still in Orlando, she'd find a way to be with her. No one had ever made her feel this way.
In her office on the second floor, the blonde woman pushed her hands through her hair. The encounter had left her nearly drained. That woman upstairs made her feel things, and after this time, it still hurt.
"Paula, over here!" the graying-blonde woman shouted as she spotted her daughter coming through the terminal exit.
"Mom!" Rushing the final few steps, Paula dropped her shoulder bag and wrapped her mother in a hug. "I've missed you guys so much!"
"We've missed you too. Josh and Jordan talked about you all through breakfast."
"Are they here?"
"No, I came by myself. I was being selfish because I wanted you all to myself for an hour."
"Fine by me." The two women lingered in baggage claim as they waited for the carousel to deposit her luggage.
"So are you still liking Denver, honey?"
"I'm not sure I ever actually said that I liked Denver, but I really love my hotel."
"You don't like it there?"
"It's okay, I guess. It was awfully cold all winter. And those two blizzards we got in April didn't help matters. But it's actually quite pleasant right now."
"Have you had a chance to get out much?" Once again, Maxine found herself worrying about her daughter, knowing that she was giving too much of herself to the Weller Regent at the expense of finding even a modicum of personal happiness.
"A little. The Rockies are gorgeous and I've taken a few drives."
"By yourself, I suppose."
Paula shrugged. "Yeah, it's hard to find someone who's free to do something on a Tuesday or Wednesday." The red rollerboard appeared on the carousel. "Here's my bag."
Moments later, they were getting into Maxine's white Accord, bound for Cocoa Beach. Paula reveled in the warm humidity of Orlando in June.
"Can I ask you a question, sweetheart?"
"Of course," Paula answered tentatively. She and her mom rarely talked about personal matters but the tone of the older woman's voice suggested that it was going to be that kind of question.
"Do you…date anyone? I don't mean to pry, and you can tell me that it's none of my business if you want, but honey, sometimes I just can't bear to think about you being alone all the time."
Paula chuckled. If her mother only knew…. Why not? "Actually, there was someone not too long ago, but things didn't work out."
"Oh? Someone in Denver?"
"No, it was here in Orlando actually, just before I left. I met her at the hotel. She was a guest."
This revelation surprised Maxine, not only because Paula had never mentioned it to anyone, but also because it was important enough to her to bring it up here and now, over a year later. "Was it serious?"
"It could have been, at least to me," she answered honestly.
"She wasn't…single. She had a girlfriend back in Baltimore…one that she forgot to mention." Paula surprised herself by tearing up at the memory.
"Oh, Paula, I'm so sorry. Why didn't you talk to us about it?" Maxine already knew the answer to that: Ever since they'd sat in judgment the day their daughter had left for Europe 15 years ago, the subject of her love life was one they all avoided. Paula had been so quiet when she brought that one girlfriend around - Susan something or other, and Maxine and Ray took that to mean that their daughter wasn't comfortable sharing her personal life.
"I just had to deal with it on my own, I guess."
"Is that why you took the job in Denver?"
"Maybe a little. It seemed like a good time to put some distance between myself and this place. But the main reason was the job. Of course, if I had known the one here was going to open up…."
Approaching the ramp to the Beeline Expressway, Maxine briefly changed the subject. "Do you want to go check on your place?" Paula had turned her condo over to a management company to rent, hoping that someday she'd find her way back to Orlando. The tenants' lease had expired in May and the agency was doubtful they would get another renter until fall.
"Sure, we can do that. No one's living there right now, so I doubt the lights are even on." Paula started groping in her purse for the key.
Maxine turned northwest toward her daughter's condo. "Do you want to talk about that woman some more?" Whoever this woman from Baltimore was, she obviously meant a lot to Paula, or it wouldn't still prompt the tears in her daughter's eyes.
"Not really." The last thing Paula wanted to do was waste her weekend in Florida with sad thoughts. "Tell me about Josh and Jordan, and what's new with Dad."
"So what do you think? Are people going to hide their eyes when they see this?" Kitty Connelly stopped and turned to model her dark blue swimsuit. At 62 years old, she bore the slightly plump physique of one who had lived a sedentary life after having two children.
"I don't think anyone will run screaming, but they may have to reach for their sunglasses." Her mom's alabaster legs hadn't seen the sun in over 30 years.
"Very funny," the elder woman scoffed. "I'm giving myself a half-hour, then it's under the umbrella."
"I think that's a good idea." Wynne, on the other hand, was eager to work on her tan, which made the scars on her legs and abdomen less visible. She'd been out a few times in her back yard and was already sporting a golden glow. With a darker tan, her eyes seemed bluer and her hair shone with deep auburn highlights. She absolutely loved the feel of the sun on her skin.
The Connellys walked in the stifling heat to the fenced-in pool area, already crowded with others who had the same idea for escaping the summer heat. Spotting two chaise lounges in the corner by an umbrella, Wynne spread out their towels as she and her mom settled in. It was fun being able to spend time with her mom just relaxing together. The move to Orlando had turned out to be good for both of them, and Janelle was already talking about coming to Florida when she finished school.
"Did I tell you that I'm having dinner tonight with the Shumachers and one of their friends from New York? They're such nice people. She used to be a…."
Wynne was already absorbed in her book, stretched out on her stomach with the clasp of her top hanging unfastened at her sides. As she became more aware that her mother was speaking, she raised up to listen. A white sedan in the distance stole her attention as it pulled to a stop in front of the unit that used to belong to the woman she knew. She watched in utter amazement as two women exited and disappeared inside the upstairs condo. One of the women looked like Paula McKenzie!
"Uh, hello there," Kitty spoke up anxiously to get her daughter's attention. Wynne seemed completely oblivious to the fact that she had lifted up so far that her bare breasts were now visible to anyone who cared to look.
"Oops!" Wynne lowered herself and snapped her top into place. Now sitting up, she stared at the end unit to confirm what she'd seen. After only a few minutes, the two women came out and returned to the car. The petite blonde definitely looked like Paula, but Wynne couldn't make out the features of the other woman from this distance. Whoever she was, she and Paula were certainly familiar, apparent from the casual way their arms hooked together.
The uncomfortable feeling of watching Paula McKenzie walking arm in arm with another woman gave way to curiosity. Why would Paula be in Orlando? And why would she visit her former home? Was she moving back to Florida?
"…so anyway, after dinner, we might play a few hands of bridge and see if we all hit it off. It might become a regular thing."
"That's nice, Mom."
"Paula, you look fabulous!" Jolene gushed as she eyed her former boss, decked out today in a light blue sleeveless cocktail dress with ivory shoes.
"Wow, so do you!" She beamed at her protégé, glad at once to see a familiar face.
"We miss you so much! I mean, Belinda's okay, but she's sort of…I don't know…unbending, if you know what I mean. Stephanie had to pull rank so we could all get the day off today."
"It's a tough job sometimes, Jolene. I'm sure she's trying to do what's best for the hotel," Paula cajoled. "Speaking of Stephanie, is she here?"
"I haven't seen her yet, but I'm sure she's coming."
No one who knew Rusty Wilburn would miss this day, the day Juliana became his bride. Following their honeymoon, the couple would hastily pack for a move to Philadelphia, where Rusty would take over as the Manager of Hotel Operations for the day shift - a great job in the Weller Regent chain, and one he roundly deserved, Paula thought.
She had read in the WR newsletter about her friend's promotion, and couldn't help but feel a pang of regret about her move to Denver, especially since Rusty's job of Senior Manager for the night shift - the same post she now held in Denver - was temporarily empty. Though she was tempted to ask Stephanie about it, a parallel move in the company after such a short stint wouldn't look good for future considerations. She was happy for Rusty, but envious of the one who would fill his vacant slot.
"Well, if it isn't the Prodigal Daughter!"
Paula immediately turned to the familiar voice and reached out to hug her mentor. "Stephanie!"
"How are you, hon? I've been hearing great things about you in Denver. Did I ever tell you that Vince Tolliver sent me flowers a month after you got there?"
"You're kidding!" Paula laughed. She knew Vince liked her work, but this information was pretty good leverage for the next time she wanted something from her hotel director.
"No, he's crazy about you."
"Well, I'm pretty happy there. It's a great hotel, and the people are wonderful."
"Happier than you were here?" the director asked.
Not even close, Paula thought, but Stephanie didn't want to hear that. "It's different. You know how much I love the WR here, and how much I enjoyed all the people that work there…and how much I respected my boss," she winked at that last remark.
"I figured as much. When Rusty told me he got the Philly job, I almost picked up the phone then to ask you to come back, but pulling you out of Denver so soon like that wouldn't have been good for your career."
Paula nodded. Those had been her thoughts exactly.
"But if it were a different position, a promotion to operations, perhaps…."
The blonde woman froze as she absorbed her former boss's words. Was she saying…?
"We better go grab our seats. Why don't you see me at the reception and we'll talk more?" Stephanie suggested with a sly wink. She could see by the look on her former employee's face that she was more than intrigued.
For the next hour, Paula tried valiantly to concentrate on her dear friend, whose wedding going on at the front of the small church. In the back of her mind, her thoughts were on what Stephanie had hinted. If there was any chance at all that she could come back to Orlando without risking her future at Weller Regent, she'd do it.
Two weeks passed after the mysterious "Paula sighting" at her mother's condominium complex, and Wynne was unable to get the pretty blonde out of her mind. On a hunch that her friend was headed back this way, Wynne called the Weller Regent in Denver, only to learn from a staffer that Paula was off on Wednesdays but was expected in the next afternoon. So that was all it was: just a visit to Orlando, and probably a chance to see her family. Odd, though, that she'd stopped by her old condo.
Each time she drove over to visit her family, Wynne found herself drawn to check out the end unit that had belonged to her friend. Best she could tell, it was empty. But what if Paula still owned the place, expecting someday to return? Maybe the Denver thing was just a temporary assignment.
Wynne got her answer in late August, when she happened upon the "On the Move" column of the Orlando Business Review. It was only a tidbit and she might have missed it, but the bolded name leapt out at her.
The Orlando Weller Regent is pleased to announce that Paula R. McKenzie has been promoted to the position of Manager, Hotel Operations. An 11-year veteran of the Weller Regent Corporation, Ms. McKenzie returns to her native Florida from Denver, where she served as Senior Shift Manager in the Weller Regent's newest hotel property.
"Okay, it took me a while, but I finally met someone really nice that made me think of you. You interested?" Cheryl Williams stood in her doorway, an expectant look on her face.
"Huh…?" Her thoughts elsewhere, Wynne was startled by the sudden appearance of her boss. What the hell was this woman talking about?
"I'm thinking a small dinner party next Saturday. The two of you could have a chance to meet and chat informally. If you hit it off, great! If you don't…hey, it didn't cost you anything."
"Uh, you mean…a woman?"
"Uh, yes," she mocked her assistant VP. "Isn't that what you ordered?"
Wynne couldn't stifle the laugh that erupted at the thought of her boss scrounging for her potential dates. But the thought of making small talk with a stranger under Cheryl's watchful eye held no appeal at all. "I, uh…I'm sort of seeing somebody," she lied, glancing back at the Business Review.
"Oh yeah?" Cheryl was certainly intrigued by this pronouncement. "Anyone I know?"
"I don't think so. We haven't been seeing each other long."
"Well I'm glad to hear that, Wynne. You'll keep me posted, won't you?"
"Sure." She hoped to be seeing someone very soon. Paula McKenzie was back in town!
"You wouldn't believe how good it is to see you back here. Now how do I get bumped to day shift?" Jolene asked her mentor.
"That should be easy…three to five years on the night desk gets you to catering or the business center; then another two years after that gets you to the daytime desk."
The African-American woman groaned. "I don't think I can stand Belinda for three to five more years."
Paula chuckled softly, looking about to see if the woman who had replaced her over a year ago was nearby. "You were just spoiled because I was such a pushover. You know, it takes a while to build a rapport with somebody, and she might be struggling with it as much as you are."
"I don't think so, Paula. She just doesn't seem to try very hard to get along with people."
"Let me give you a little advice here, okay? This is how things work at the WR. If your boss does something that breaks the rules, then you should file a grievance. Everything's spelled out in the handbook. But if it's just a personality clash, then you're more likely to be the one that gets judged on how it all gets resolved. I know that sounds unfair, Jolene, but that's the way it is. Weller Regent loves it when everyone on the staff gets along, but it isn't realistic to think it's going to happen all the time. If Belinda is doing her job, the WR is going to throw her all the support she needs."
"I know you're right. And I know that I can always count on you to tell it just like it is."
Paula smiled and chucked the woman's arm gently. "Like I said, you're spoiled. And I know it probably makes you feel better to get it off your chest, but I would also suggest that you try not to do that at work, or with any of the others that work here. It just gives it a life of its own, and makes everything worse."
Jolene nodded, feeling embarrassed at having shown an unprofessional side of herself to this woman she respected so much.
"But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't speak up if you think you're being treated in a way that's against our employment practices. And if you aren't sure about it, you can always come to me. Just try to be discreet, okay?"
Paula was finishing up her first day back on the job in Orlando. What Jolene didn't know was that Stephanie had already briefed her on what she considered an alarming number of informal complaints regarding the night Shift Manager, and with Rusty's post now open, the WR needed to follow up on those, as the person just hired to take his place was now Belinda's immediate supervisor. Without a moment's thought, Paula offered to fill in a few nights to help smooth the transition and Stephanie immediately took her up on it.
But right now, it was 4:30, a half hour since her shift ended, and Paula was eager to get home. For the next few days, home was her parents' house in Cocoa Beach, an hour and 15 minutes from the WR. Her furniture was en route, and while the WR was willing to put her up for free, she had Slayer to consider. The 30-hour drive in the small convertible had traumatized him, and it didn't feel right just to leave him on his own with her parents.
Paula had to admit that it was pretty fabulous to walk into a house filled with lively conversation and the aroma of dinner. The last year in Denver had left her feeling lonely and isolated, and she'd finally admitted to herself that she had overreacted to the dismal ending of her short affair with Wynne Connelly. She needed to give her social life a little attention, and now that she was working the day shift, she might even be able to get out and meet people.
"You're getting to be a fixture here, Wynne. What's the matter? Didn't pay your light bill?" Kitty teased.
"Very funny," her daughter answered. "Did you ever stop to think that I might just enjoy your company?"
"I'm not complaining. I like seeing you this much," Kitty assured her eldest daughter. The elder Connelly had undergone something of a transformation after moving. It wasn't just the fact that the condo association now took care of many of the things that worried her so back in Baltimore. It was also that she'd left behind the reminders of the pain and sorrow that had shrouded her after losing her beloved husband. Here in Orlando, she had started to make friends again, friends who hadn't known her only as Dr. Connelly's wife.
Wynne felt a little guilty at her mother's questions, and vowed to come clean eventually; but for now, she kept to herself the purpose of her frequent visits. The sight of the moving van as she pulled into the complex today made her spirits soar, but it was the white sedan in the garage instead of the green Miata, and that worried her more than a little. It might mean that Paula hold sold the place or was renting it again, but her familiarity with this new woman in the white car was unmistakable. Was it possible that the two were moving in together? That was certainly disconcerting.
"Look at all you've done!" Paula was ecstatic to walk in and find her furniture in place, the kitchen and baths set up, and both of her beds dressed in crisp clean sheets. The closet by the entryway held a stack of cardboard boxes, broken down flat for the recycle bin.
"I didn't know what you wanted to do with all your books and pictures, so I left them in their boxes on the porch. Oh, and I hate to tell you this, but everything you own needs to be ironed." Maxine McKenzie was sprawled on the couch, the red-stained plate nearby a telltale sign of the pizza she had ordered.
"Mom, I can't believe you did all this. You must have worked all day."
"Not all day. The truck didn't get here until about two o'clock."
"What did you do all morning?"
"I scrubbed the bathrooms and the kitchen…swept out the garage. Oh, and I cleaned all the windows."
"You're kidding! And I thought I had a rough day!" Paula had worked a double shift, filling in as promised in the Senior Shift Manager post while the new hire settled in. "You get to name your reward."
"You mean that?"
"Anything you like. You want a professional massage? A manicure and a pedicure? Name it."
"Okay. What I want is for you to start living more of your life away from that hotel."
Paula looked at her mother perplexed. "You mean not work as much?"
"Yes, but more than just not being there. Now that you're working on the day shift - at least as soon as you get through this temporary duty - I'd like to see you start having more fun, start doing things with friends, maybe even meet somebody."
"From your lips to God's ears, Mom," Paula said sincerely.
Maxine sat up, surprised at her daughter's easy agreement. "Really?"
"Yeah, really. I've been thinking about it a lot." The younger woman kicked off her shoes and sat down in her favorite chair, tucking a foot underneath her. It was almost midnight and both of them were beat, but ever since the talk they'd had when she'd come back for Rusty's wedding, Paula realized that she really wanted to start sharing more of her personal life with her family. It felt good to be able to connect with her mom this way, and she liked to think that when she did meet somebody special, they'd be happy for her. "I'm going to make a real effort to get out and meet people."
"Do you have a lot of…women friends?" Maxine meant lesbian friends.
"No, but I think the most important thing is just to make friends - all kinds of friends. Eventually you start to meet people here and there who you have things in common with, and then you meet their friends, and their friends, and so on. But I'm serious, Mom. I'm not going to live every minute of my life for the Weller Regent. This last year has really taught me the consequences of not having a life outside of work."
Her mother smiled. "I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that, honey. I guess all parents want to see their kids happy, but I've been a little selfish about that. I've wanted to see you happy with somebody, not just at work. Your dad and I are really proud of what you've accomplished at the Weller Regent, but it would pale next to seeing you in love with somebody."
For some reason, Paula blushed as she thought about of being in love. Clearly, she had further to go with feeling completely comfortable talking about this stuff with her mom, but it was sort of freeing in a way. That said, she hoped her mother would never ask about her sex life.
"We should go to bed. Don't you have to be at work early?"
"My shift starts at seven," Paula answered, standing wearily. "I really appreciate everything you did today. You should sleep in tomorrow, okay? I'll come down and pick up Slayer after work."
"I might take you up on the sleeping in part, but don't worry about Slayer. He can stay with us as long you need."
"But I'll miss him, and besides, he'll be excited to get back to his old haunts. I bet the lizards line up on the window to see him. They'll all be fat, though, because they haven't had any exercise in a year."
The white car was gone today. A green Miata with Colorado tags sat in the open garage, and Wynne caught a glimpse from afar of a petite blonde woman lugging flattened cardboard boxes across the parking area to the recycle bin. After one more trip, she backed out of the garage and was gone.
"What do you keep watching out there?" Janelle asked.
"Just…somebody moving in."
"Somebody in particular?" Kitty walked into the living room, now interested in her oldest daughter's answer. Since that day at the pool, she too had noticed that Wynne was keeping a watchful eye on the goings-on at the end unit of the first building.
Lying to and about Paula McKenzie had already caused her enough problems. Wynne knew she should just come clean. If she were going to try to pull the hotel manager back into her life, everything needed to be in the light of day.
"Yeah, it's somebody I know," she confessed. "You remember when we first looked at this place I told you that I knew someone who used to live here?"
"That's who it is. She moved to Denver right after I got the job here, but I guess she held on to her place. Then I read that she'd been promoted and was coming back."
"Is she a friend of yours?" her mother asked.
Wynne sighed. "She used to be. But I…screwed things up."
If Kitty was surprised at this, she didn't show it. "Why don't you tell me about her?" Pulling a chair up to the window, she waited for the details. She didn't want the glossed-over version.
"Okay, her name is Paula McKenzie and she works downtown at the Weller Regent. That's where I used to stay when I was coming back and forth. We got to be friends and we…went out a few times." Hopefully, her mother wouldn't press for more than that.
"So what happened?"
What exactly did happen? "We just…. What happened was that I didn't really expect to have the feelings that I had, or for her to feel the way she did about me. It started as something casual and it took off."
"Isn't that what you wanted to happen?" she asked, not yet getting the picture.
"Well, there was Heather…," as if that explained it.
"Oh," Kitty said simply, as she started to comprehend. "So this was going on while you and Heather were still…together." Her tone was one of understanding, not judgment.
"Yeah," the dark-haired woman confessed, not quite believing that she was having this kind of conversation with her mom. "But then when I found out about the VP job, I realized that I'd screwed up by not being more upfront about my situation. It wouldn't have mattered if we'd kept things on just a friendship level, but we didn't."
"Why was that was a problem? You split up with Heather before you moved down here."
Wynne shifted uncomfortably. "That's right, but the things between Paula and me happened when I was coming down here, when I was still living with Heather. They didn't know about each other. Before I got the job offer, I never figured we really had any possibility of making anything out of it, so I just didn't see the point. But then she called the house one night and Heather answered the phone…."
"And that ruined everything," Kitty finished.
"Well, it was certainly the last nail in the coffin. I'd already made up my mind that I had to tell her, sort of no matter what happened, but I was hoping that we could find a way to maybe step back and start over. But when she found out on her own, things just sort of fell apart, and the next thing I knew, she'd moved to Denver."
The two women sat quietly in the living room, both reveling somewhat at the unusual closeness they felt. The last time they'd had a heartfelt conversation like this was when Kitty had asked her daughter if she'd done something to cause such a problem for Heather. Wynne had tried to explain away her lover's rudeness as a product of her upbringing, but in the end, she'd conceded that there was no legitimate reason for Heather to treat her family that way. But she'd assured her mother that Heather would never come between them.
"So does the fact that you're watching her again mean that you're still interested?"
Wynne nodded solemnly. "It's been a year and I haven't really been able to get her out of my mind…or to stop kicking myself."
"I can't believe how out of shape I am," Val wheezed as they rounded the final turn and headed back toward Paula's condo.
"You and me both. This air seems so heavy," the blonde woman complained, out of practice with running in the heat and humidity. She'd gotten used to Denver's mile-high climate, even though that meant running indoors on a treadmill for much of the winter.
"You sure you don't want to go back to the night shift? It would be better for my health and body image."
"Not a chance. This is what I've been working toward for 11 years."
"Yeah, I envy you. But I guess as long as I stay in the sports bar business, I'm never going to get to have a normal life."
"Then switch jobs," Paula advised, puffing as her tired feet continued to pound the paved jogging trail.
"Easy to say, but what would I do?"
"Are you kidding? You could manage a restaurant anywhere in town. You might not make as much to start as you do at Flanagan's but you'd get to have friends, and go out at night. What's the point of making all that money if you can't ever do the things you want to do?"
"I really like Flanagan's, though."
"Yeah, I know, and I like the Weller Regent. But I'm not going to let it take center stage any more. I want more out of life than just a good job."
"Yeah, me too, I guess. Turning 30 really made me start thinking about it more."
"You could always wait like I did until you start pushing 35, but then you'd have lost another five years with nothing to show for it." The women reached the end of the path, where they both gratefully stopped, bending over with their hands on their knees. "You want to come up for a drink?"
"No, I have to go. Some of us still have to work Saturdays," Val groused.
"You really ought to think about finding something new. Did I tell you that I joined a women's volleyball league?" That was in fact Paula's first step at creating a social life.
"Yeah, that's cool." Val held her car door open a moment before getting in to allow cooler air to circulate inside. "So when do we get to do this again?"
"I'm off tomorrow, Monday, and Tuesday. Then I work 10 days in a row. It's going to be hard to get on a schedule to work out together, unless you can come over on the nights you're off."
"We'll see. I've really missed seeing your red face nearly every day."
"I've missed you too, Val. I'd give you a mushy hug, but you're all sweaty," she laughed, making a face.
"You got it. Maybe I'll stop by Flanagan's some night."
"Do that. Your drinks are on the house."
Paula wearily climbed the stairs and entered her condo. A shower would feel great, but first she needed something cold to drink. Had she not stopped in the kitchen, she'd have missed the small knock on the door.
"Forget something?" she called as she returned to the entry. The sight of Wynne Connelly nearly stole her breath.
"Wynne." It was all she could say as the shock registered. The long-legged beauty stood before her, looking tanned and relaxed in shorts and a white sleeveless top.
"I, uh, moved here to Orlando while you were gone," she began. "And I read in the paper last week that you were back at the Weller Regent."
"You moved here?" This was unbelievable.
"Yeah, right about the time you left. Eldon-Markoff made me an assistant VP," she explained. Wynne had hoped for an invitation to come in but it was not forthcoming. Either she had underestimated Paula's anger toward her, or the blonde woman still wasn't fully convinced that what she was seeing was real.
"This is…I don't know what it is."
"It's good to see you again. Really good."
"Anyway, the reason I stopped by was to make sure you knew about this." From the pocket of her shorts, the tall woman pulled a folded blue flyer announcing a Labor Day picnic next weekend for those living in the condo complex.
"You live here?" This conversation was growing more bizarre by the minute.
"No, I live across the highway, in a house off Terrell Drive. But my mom lives here…right over there in Building 4," she pointed to the building nearest the community pool.
The stunned look on Paula's red sweaty face was priceless.
"She moved down here last March, and I thought she would like it here," she continued. "She does. She likes it very much. So I was hoping that you were planning on coming to the picnic so you can meet her, now that she's your new neighbor."
Paula took the flyer and studied it. She had gotten one in her mailbox and made a mental note to put in an appearance, even if only for a few minutes; Labor Day was usually a day for family things in Cocoa Beach. "I, uh…I think I have other plans."
"Well, I understand. But I hope you'll reconsider. I'd really like for my mother to meet you." On that note, the blue-eyed woman smiled and turned back toward the stairs. "And it's really good to see you again," she called as she slowly descended.
Finally assured that she wasn't hallucinating, Paula watched as Wynne made her way back to her mother's building. Her limp was much better, and she looked fabulous.
Think they'll get it right? Part 6 (conclusion)