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Authors: K.G. MacGregor

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BOOK: Just This Once
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Wynne had pored over her feelings for Marlene for a year or two, asking herself again and again what had made her respond so, and how could she find that same thing in someone who was attainable. As a new hire, the marketing director was nurtured by her boss, made to feel like an important cog in the company, and eventually given uncommon autonomy with regard to marketing decisions. She answered this trust with hard work and loyalty.

So why was Paula McKenzie stirring those same feelings that Marlene had evoked so many years ago? Most likely it was because she was giving Wynne special attention…and that made the dark-haired woman feel good because it was coming from someone whose authority she admired. That was the pattern, and that was why Wynne had always found it so difficult to connect with most women.

The rational part of her said that Paula was just doing her job, making guests feel welcome and at home. As for the upgrade…that was obviously a promotion to encourage guests to spend more — and in Wynne’s case, it had worked. Sure, she was invited to the roof tonight to watch the launch, but then so were all of the others in the Concierge lounge.

But another part of Wynne saw something else…interest, perhaps. There was no ring on Paula’s finger that said she had a husband or fiancé, and she hadn’t gravitated to the men on the roof. And it had seemed to Wynne that Paula genuinely liked her, aside from her professional rapport.

When she finished in the bathroom, the tall woman hung the towel on the back of the door and turned out the lights. Foregoing the usual nightshirt, she slipped nude between the cool sheets to continue thinking about Paula McKenzie.

Chapter 4

Paula pulled her dark green Mazda Miata into the double driveway of her parents’ home, glad for the shade of her brother’s minivan. Most likely, everyone was already out back in the pool getting an early start on their respective sunburns. All of the McKenzies, including her brother’s wife and children, were blue- or green-eyed blondes who burned easily, though Paula fared better than the rest. She was, however, prone to getting freckles on her arms, nose and cheeks, and that was a source of great consternation to someone who was 32 years old.

“Anybody home?” she yelled from the foyer.

“Paula?” Her father’s voice called from the kitchen.

“Dad!” Without delay, the young woman went straight to her father to deliver the hug she’d been saving ever since Monday night when the shuttle launched. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks, hon, but save it for when she touches down.” Everyone at NASA was watchful of the re-entry this time, just as they had focused on the launches for years after the Challenger accident.

“Tell you what, I’ll give you another one for that. But the launch was a beauty.”

“Yes, it certainly was.” Ray turned to pick up the plate of hamburger patties on the counter. At 59 years old, Ray McKenzie still boasted a full head of wavy graying blond hair and a slender physique, the latter thanks to his daily run along the beaches on the Cape.

“You want any help?”

“Nah, go say hi to everyone. I’ve got the easy job.”

“Okay, but let’s talk later. I want to hear how the mission’s going.” Her father had a gift for translating all of the technical mumbo-jumbo into interesting stories and facts. When she was in junior high school, she and her brother Rod had made a game of getting their dad ready for the reporters by firing questions at him during dinner. The tradition had carried over to this day.

Paula walked through the open French doors to the large screened-in patio, where — as predicted — Rod and his wife Adrienne were in the pool with their 5-year-old son Josh, and 3-year-old daughter, Jordan.

“Hey, baby!”

“Mom!” Paula hugged her mother like a long lost relative, though they had seen each other only two weeks ago. The launch of Atlantis had brought welcome stress to all of the McKenzies, and they naturally drew closer to share it.

“I thought you were going to cut your hair.” Maxine McKenzie snagged the ponytail that protruded from the back of her daughter’s USS Columbia cap.

“I chickened out,” Paula admitted. “But I made another appointment for the week after next.”

“Pauwa!” A very wet 5-year-old wrapped his arms around his aunt’s legs to say hello.

“Hi Josh!” Ignoring the fact that her nephew was dripping, Paula bent down for a big hug.

Not to be outdone, her niece soon joined them, dripping as well. “Hi Jordan!”

“So now that you’re already wet, you should come on in,” her brother shouted from the pool. Rodney McKenzie was a building inspector for Brevard County, an important job in a coastal community that got its share of hurricanes.

“No thanks. It’s still too cold for me.” Today was the first day the McKenzies had used their pool since October. Though temperatures would only climb to the mid-70s, everyone was antsy to hurry spring along. “You guys doing alright?”

“We’re good. Did you see the launch?”

“Of course. I even took some of the guests on the Concierge floor to the rooftop to watch it. Where’d you guys go?”

“I went to the press site,” Rod answered. “Adrienne and the kids went to the causeway.”

“You went to the press site?” Paula was so jealous! She rarely got to go because of work, but the press site at the Kennedy Space Center where her father worked was the best place to experience the liftoff. Situated next to the giant Vehicle Assembly Building, the press site was eight miles from the launch pad. The flagpole and six-foot high digital clock in the foreground were staples of NASA news coverage.

“The next launch is scheduled for a Saturday,” her father chimed in. “Let me know if you can make it and I’ll get you a pass.”

“Cool!” Paula’s first thought was about how nice it would be if Wynne could come along.

It wouldn’t be a problem getting her a pass, but it would all depend on whether or not she would be coming to town that weekend and if she could come a couple of days early.

It was a typical Saturday at the McKenzie household. Paula and Rod quizzed their dad through lunch about the mission, then she spent an hour or more on the floor with the kids before they settled down for an afternoon nap.

Maxine McKenzie had decidedly mixed feelings about her daughter’s twice-monthly weekend visits to Cocoa Beach. She loved spending time with Paula, and especially liked the way the whole family stayed connected. But if Paula was here with her family, that meant she probably wasn’t seeing anyone, and that made Maxine sad. In the last nine years, she had met only one woman in her daughter’s life, but that relationship had lasted only six or eight months. They’d talked about it before, and Paula had explained how difficult it was to date someone when you were off only two nights a weeks. But the mother suspected it was more than that. It was almost like she’d just given up on finding someone to be with, and that she was satisfied to have her job be the center of her life.

The period after Paula graduated from high school was a difficult time in the McKenzie household, especially when their daughter opted to postpone college to travel throughout Europe for a year with a friend.

“Because this is my last chance to do this for the next 50 years!” the teenager pleaded. “I’ve saved enough money to live on, and we’ll stay in hostels and I’ll get a rail pass.”

“But you’ve already been accepted at Gainesville. All your friends are going to college now,” Maxine reasoned.

“And that’s another thing, Paula. You were all gung-ho about college until you started hanging out with Shauna Golding. Now she’s got you talked into running off to Europe like you haven’t a care in the world.” Ray McKenzie couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about his daughter had changed in the past four or five months. “Are you…?”

Paula tensed with fear. She didn’t want to be having this conversation.

She wasn’t ready. Hell, her mom and dad weren’t ready.

“Are you doing drugs?” he finally finished.

Paula slumped into her chair and sighed, unable to stifle a chuckle at her father’s ludicrous question. “No, Dad. I’m not doing drugs.”

“Then what has changed?” His eyes were pleading, not accusatory, but concerned.

The teenager sighed again, tears pooling in her eyes. They were going to hate her for this. “What’s changed is that…Shauna and I are in love with each other. And we want to go so we can be together, so we can be away from all the people who just don’t understand that.”

Paula’s admission took her father completely by surprise. Not so with Maxine, who had seen this day coming for quite some time. She’d watched how Paula had treated her dates so casually, and how caring and generous she was to the girls she was close to. She took on their problems, and pushed herself to be there for these girlfriends; but she’d shown no such feelings for any of the boys she’d gone out with.

“Paula…,” the man struggled to find the right words, “I’m just worried that you’ll lose sight of all the plans you’ve made for your future.” Hadn’t she talked about having children someday?

“I won’t, Dad. I’ll come back and start college next year. And maybe I’ll go to summer school and make up the time.”

“I was thinking about…” the other plans. He let it go.

Paula returned from Europe in early December that year without Shauna. Their relationship had been based on too few things in common, and was destined to fail, but Paula had never regretted the trip. In January, she began study at the University of Florida, graduating three and a half years later with her class in business, her concentration in hospitality management.

Still, it had taken her family almost three years to really come to grips with Paula being gay. They had hoped during that time that she would get over this phase in her life, but gradually they came to accept that she wouldn’t. To this day, Paula didn’t feel comfortable — or maybe it was that she didn’t feel secure — about bringing girlfriends to meet her family, so it was easy to assume that she had no one in her life.

Maxine knew her daughter as well as a mother could, and something was different today — something that hadn’t been there only two weeks ago. Paula was relaxed and happy, and she had hardly mentioned work at all…except for the bit about taking the guests up on the roof for the shuttle launch. Even then, she’d lost the usual serious tone she invoked whenever she spoke of her job.
Maybe she’s met someone
.

———

Wynne crawled painfully across the floor in her mother’s bedroom, following the extension cord to its end behind the television.

“Well, it’s no wonder the fuse blew. I’m surprised you haven’t burned the house down!”

she muttered to herself. “Mother!”

Wynne counted seven electrical appliances feeding off two adaptors and the extension cord. More than likely, three or four at a time was enough to overload the circuit.

“What? Did you find the problem?” Kitty Connelly entered the room to find her daughter sprawled on the floor, her head behind the TV. She was glad that her oldest daughter was so handy.

Wynne patiently explained both the problem and the danger of having too many things plugged into the same outlet, especially when so many — the TV, the VCR, the lamp, the small space heater — were turned on at the same time.

“But I need all of those things. How can I read the TV listings without the light?” she asked indignantly, adding “And you don’t expect me to sit up here and freeze!”

“No, but you’re going to have to plug some of this stuff into different outlets.” One by one, the tall woman rearranged things so that the clock radio and CD player now worked off a plug on the far side of the room, and the space heater used an extension cord that ran into the hallway.

“But that looks terrible to have that out there,” the elder Connelly whined.

“It’s only temporary, until you get an electrician over here to run another outlet in this room off a different fuse.”

“Now that’s so unnecessary. I’ve lived in this room for 37 years, and I never needed another outlet before.”

“But you have all this stuff now, Mom.” Wynne gestured at the various items about the room. When her husband died, Kitty gradually used less and less of the large Tudor house, creating her own personal space in her large bedroom. “It isn’t a choice. You can’t leave all those things plugged in there. It’s dangerous, and besides, Sophie might come in here sometime and play with all those cords and get shocked.” Invoking her niece’s name would do the trick.

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Can you find an electrician in the Yellow Pages and tell him what it is you need?”

“I don’t know if I can remember all that.”

Wynne always hoped for a different answer, but she never got it. It would be up to her to find someone to come over and take care of this.

“Okay, I’ll do it on Monday. But you’ll have to show him what you need when he gets here.” She walked her mother through the directions until she was satisfied that the woman understood. Together, they returned to the first floor of the old house, where Wynne collapsed on the couch and tried to massage the soreness from her leg.

“It still hurts you so much, doesn’t it, sweetheart?” Tears sprang to the woman’s sad brown eyes as she watched her oldest daughter fight the pain that dogged her every day.

“You’re going to have to have that other surgery or it will never get better.”

“I know…I just can’t do it right now, Mom.” Wynne knew that the surgery to bond her splintered femur was the last procedure planned for her recovery, but she just couldn’t bear giving in to the doctors again and laying up for another four to six weeks. It was especially true now that she had this added responsibility in Orlando, and besides, who would change the light bulbs and fuses at her mother’s house?

“Auntie Wynne!” An excited 2-year old barreled across the room to deliver a hug and kiss to her beloved aunt. Sophie wished her Auntie Wynne could live with them too.

“Hey, angel. How’s my girl?” Wynne adored her sister’s child like she was her own.

“How are you doing, Janelle?”

Wynne’s younger sister was hot on the heels of her little girl, who had torn through the house after recognizing her auntie’s Volvo in the driveway. Janelle was as much like their mother as her older sister was like their father. Like Kitty, Janelle was average height, with expressive brown eyes and auburn hair; more auburn today than it had been last week, Wynne noted. Her sister had done a six-year stint in the Navy and was now finishing up her health technology degree.

BOOK: Just This Once
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