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Authors: K.G. MacGregor

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BOOK: Just This Once
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“I suppose I should get back to work. If I don’t see you again tonight, have a safe trip home.”

“Thank you. Oh, and thanks for the umbrella. I’ll be sure to leave it at the desk.”

“You’re welcome.” Paula resisted the urge to pat the woman’s knee.

Wynne watched the manager leave, first stopping by the host’s desk to say hello to the staff and ask how things were going.
She’s good at her job.
Wynne wondered how old the woman was. With her long blonde hair and soft features, she looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties; but her poise and authority was that of someone older, more experienced in the work world. Wynne admired the same qualities in her boss Cheryl Williams, a woman in her late forties. She found those traits — and Paula McKenzie —

to be very attractive.

———

“Have you tried the plunger, like I showed you?” Wynne was growing frustrated at the futility of it all. “Then you should do that first. If it doesn’t work, don’t use that toilet anymore, and call a plumber first thing in the morning.”

The digital clock read 11:45.

“Mom, I can’t do a thing for you tonight. I’m in Orlando,” she explained. “Yes, my cell phone works here, same as always.”
Obviously
. “I know you didn’t know, but this is my week to travel. I won’t get home until Wednesday night.”

Wynne threw the covers back and stretched out for the water bottle on the desk. “No, I have to work on Thursday. I can come by Thursday night, but you should call a plumber tomorrow if the plunger doesn’t work.” With her foot, she dragged her purse closer and retrieved the ibuprofen.

“I don’t know, Mom. Maybe Sophie put something in it,” a reference to her 2-year-old niece. “Who knows?” Two tablets…make it three. “Probably a hundred bucks or so, maybe more if they have to stay a while. But what else are you going to do?” Wynne was exasperated. “You can’t just leave a toilet overflowing in the house. It’ll ruin the floor and the ceiling underneath it. Keep it mopped up and call a plumber first thing, okay?”

Settling back into bed, she cradled the phone underneath her chin. “Mom, I have to get back to sleep. I have a long day tomorrow,” she pleaded. “I know this was an emergency. Just do what I said. It will be fine….Yes, I love you too. I’ll come by Thursday night. Goodnight, Mom.”

Wynne sighed deeply as she returned the phone to its cradle for charging. One would think that Katharine Connelly — Kitty to her friends — was the most helpless person on earth. When Wynne’s father died six years ago, her mother had come completely unglued. Within a year, her house was in disrepair, her finances a mess; the woman could barely decide what to wear each day.

Wynne painstakingly balanced the household checkbook, arranged for a housekeeper to come by twice a week, and contracted with a handyman to make the necessary repairs.

On top of that, she started calling her mother two or three times during the day, just to keep her company and make sure everything was okay.

Growing up, neither Wynne nor her younger sister Janelle had realized the degree to which their mother had shaped her entire existence around their family. When both daughters left home, her devotion to her husband had kept Kitty grounded; without him, she was aimless.

Wynne had hoped for something of a reprieve last year when Janelle had moved back to Baltimore, unmarried but with a daughter of her own, Sophie. But Janelle had her hands full with nursing school, not the mention to the demands of a 2-year-old.

There was certainly one thing she didn’t mind about the travel to Orlando: it was, for the most part, a respite from the day to day worries of managing her mom’s life. It wasn’t that Wynne didn’t want to help her mother through this difficult time, but after six years, Kitty Connelly hadn’t made a lot of progress toward living on her own. Part of the problem was that 90-year-old Tudor house.

———

Paula pulled the pin on the leg extensor and reset it at 35 pounds. It was a pain following the Incredible Hulk around the weight room, but she got a small measure of satisfaction knowing that he would follow her on his next circuit and would also have to reset the pins.

“How’s work been, Val?” Val Harbison was Paula’s best friend, and the manager of Flanagan’s, a downtown sports bar. The two met five years ago at an accounting workshop organized by Orlando’s expansive travel industry. Right off the bat, they liked one another. It was easy to commiserate about the lack of a social life, as both women were locked into working evenings and weekends. That ruled out clubs and parties, and left them mostly with meeting people through work. On weekdays, the two women met to work out in the fitness room at Paula’s condominium complex. Usually, they had the place to themselves; this wasn’t the Hulk’s normal workout time.

“We’ve gotten busier these last few weeks, so I guess that means the season’s in full swing.”

“Yeah, things have picked up for us too. Have you been out with Kevin?”

“Not since we did The Mouse.” The Mouse was what many of the locals called Disneyworld. “I don’t think that’s going to work out. I mean, we can only see each other in the daytime, and I just don’t want to spend all my dates at the attractions, then rushing to get to work on time.”

“I know what you mean. Knowing you have to go to work just takes the fun out of whatever you’re doing. At least I have Saturdays off.” On the weekends, Paula often visited her family in Cocoa Beach, sometimes staying over until Sunday to go to church with her mom and dad.

“I’d kill for Saturdays off. But the weekends are our busiest days.”

“Saturdays aren’t that bad at the hotel, at least at night. Most of the convention traffic gets in on Friday. I think that’s why Rusty takes off then and gives me Saturdays off. A lot of these convention goers only travel once a year, and they don’t have a clue about how to survive away from home.”

“What do they do?”

“What
don’t
they do?” Paula groaned. “They complain about the price of everything, and they never miss a chance to tell you how they do things up north. They’re like 18-yearolds when they first go away to college. They want to stay up all night and party in the halls. They smoke wherever they please. They don’t keep up with their belongings. They can’t find anything, even with a map.” Paula slowly counted her reps.

“That would drive me crazy. At least the folks that come in Flanagan’s seem to know the drill: Find a seat in front of the game you want to watch, drink your beer, and tip your waitress. Nothing to it.”

Paula recounted the story of the man whose wallet was stolen last night by his hooker, and how he’d threatened to sue the hotel until he learned that they had her on videotape.

When she’d told him that the Orlando Police Department could probably identify the woman, he’d backed off completely, refusing to press charges, effectively ending the hotel’s liability.

“Isn’t it funny how self-righteous some people can be,” Val proclaimed. “Imagine what he’d have done if you’d found it after he left and called him at home!”

“Yeah, or what if we’d called his office?”

“Really,” Val huffed. “So have you had any good looking flight attendants lately?”

“No flight attendants, but there is a gorgeous woman staying there who works at Eldon-Markoff. She came in on Sunday night from Baltimore. She’s beautiful,” Paula said dreamily, grabbing the pull-down bar for her lat reps. “And she has a limp. I’d love to know that story.”

“So does she bat for your team?”

“I doubt it. But she’s…I don’t know, friendlier than most people.”

“To everyone or just to you?”

“That I couldn’t tell you. But I swear when she checked in the other night, it was almost like she was flirting. I told her to call if she needed anything, and she said ‘Should I ask for you?’ Doesn’t that strike you as flirty?”

“Well I hope you told her yes!”

“I did. And I gave her my card. And I lent her my umbrella. And I upgraded her to the Concierge floor.”

“Good lord, woman! I’m surprised she didn’t go down on you in the lobby!” Val whispered the last part so Hulk wouldn’t hear it.

“Oh, don’t say things like that. My heart can’t take it!” Paula laughed. “I talked with her for a few minutes last night in the lounge. She’s really nice, and she’s going to be coming back and forth for the next few months. Maybe we’ll get to know each other.”

“Does she have a name?”

“She has a lovely name. It just rolls off your lips. Wynne Connelly.”

Chapter 3

The woman with the lovely name exited the taxi and reveled in the warm humid air, glad to again be rid of the Baltimore ice and snow. It was no mere coincidence that her leg felt better after being in Orlando for a day or two, and she looked forward to that.

This time, Wynne’s arrival went unnoticed by management, both of whom were on the 16
th
floor seeing to a guest who had fallen ill after dinner. The hotel’s physician on call had come to the room and diagnosed acute food poisoning. Predictably, Paula was concerned about the woman’s well-being, while Rusty was rejoicing at the fact that the woman hadn’t dined in the hotel.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, I’m Wynne Connelly,” the tall woman answered, presenting her credit card.

“I have your reservation, Ms. Connelly. You’ve booked a single non-smoking room on our Concierge floor for three nights. Is that right?”

“Yes.” Without the charges for high speed Internet access and two meals a day from room service, the upgrade was a virtual wash. Besides, Wynne didn’t have the bar bill of her Dallas counterpart, so she refused to feel guilty about indulging in a little luxury at the company’s expense. The tub was worth it even if she had to pay the extra from her own pocket.

Jolene handed over the room key and walked her through the procedures for reaching the Concierge floor. Wynne politely interrupted the explanation with the assurance that she was already familiar with the routine and the use of the key in the elevator.

“Would you like some help with your bags?”

“No thank you. I can manage.” Wynne folded her unneeded overcoat over her arm.

Turning toward the elevator, she was surprised to see Paula McKenzie rush past her toward the front door, walkie-talkie in hand.

“It’s pulling in right now,” the commanding blonde messaged.

The flashing red lights drew Wynne’s attention to the entrance, where an ambulance had come to a stop directly in front of the door. Surprised by the sudden commotion, she watched the blonde woman calmly but hurriedly direct the attendants to a waiting elevator. Paula’s “take-charge” manner was impressive; if Wynne ever had another emergency, she’d want someone like Paula in charge. Of course, she hoped to never again have an emergency like the last one.

———

Paula studied the
Orlando Sentinel
’s weather report: sunny and calm, with temperatures climbing to the low seventies; tonight, clear and cool, with a low of 54 — a perfect February day.

It was a red-letter day for central Florida, and for the rest of the country too for that matter. But especially for Paula’s family and all the families like hers on Florida’s Space Coast. Tonight at 9:06, the shuttle Atlantis would lift off. It would be the first such launch since the Columbia disaster, and all of America was holding its collective breath.

A big orange cat landed with a thud in the middle of the newspaper.

“Hi, Slayer,” Paula cooed to her baby. “What’s the matter? Are you feeling neglected?”

As if in answer, the cat began to paw at the corner of the paper with his usual persistence.

It was hopeless to try to continue to read, so Paula gave up.

“Let’s go play,” she coaxed.

The gleeful feline followed her to the sliding glass door, rearing to bolt the moment it was opened. Not that freedom lay on the other side, mind you. The door led to a porch, which Paula had enclosed last year with gray-tinted smoke glass to increase the usable square footage of her two-bedroom second-floor condo. The porch ran the length of her living room and guest bedroom, and a single glass-paned door at the end opened to the master bedroom.

As soon as the door cracked open, Slayer dashed out, crashing at once into the glass against first one lizard, then another.

“My fearless hunter,” Paula chuckled. One of the bonuses of converting the screen to glass was that the cat could no longer rip into the mesh to capture his startled prey. She had grown decidedly unenamoured of his constant presentation of trophies, especially those he brought to her bed in the night.

“Get your toy!” she coaxed.

Not surprisingly, Slayer ignored her; but then, Slayer was after all a cat. He would get his toy when he was damned good and ready.

The orange cat with the big amber eyes had decided two years ago that Paula could keep him and feed him. In return, he would bring her prizes from the wild and allow his nails to be clipped on occasion. At the time, she was living in an apartment that didn’t allow pets. Good thing, too, because Slayer didn’t like pets. So when Paula’s grandmother died and left her a small inheritance, she used it for a down payment on this condominium to have a place to call her own. Or Slayer’s own, as the case seemed to be.

Paula interrupted the play session to take a call in the kitchen.

“Hello…Hi Mom.” The blonde woman grew up about an hour away in Cocoa Beach, a small upscale community in the shadow of the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. Her father, Raymond McKenzie, had worked as a NASA public information officer since 1967.

Neither she nor her brother Rodney shared their father’s aptitude in science and engineering, but they had always been proud of their link to the space program. In her whole life, no days were more difficult than those in which the Challenger and Columbia were lost.

“Yes, I’ll be watching…probably up on the roof. It’s a pretty good view that high, because there aren’t any lights to worry about…I don’t know, maybe just by myself, but I promise I’ll watch.”

As she talked on the phone, she gathered her overcoat and purse and finished her preparations to go to work. Lastly, she fed Slayer, who would eat when he was damned good and ready.

BOOK: Just This Once
8.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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