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Walking briskly through the small, elegant lobby of the Maison de Sol in Cannes, Gracie MacDougal noted every tiny detail, from the single wilted daffodil in the lavish arrangement of spring flowers to the fingerprints on the beveled glass in the double mahogany doors. She plucked the offending flower from the arrangement, then beckoned to the young man working behind the reception desk. André was one of her best, most dutiful employees. They'd become friends. Someday, she was sure, he'd replace her.
"André, call housekeeping at once, s'il vous plait. Take care of that window."
"Of course, madame," he said dutifully, then discreetly studied the glass to figure out what was wrong with it.
"Fingerprints," Gracie said, grinning at him.
He peered more closely at the decorative window-pane. "Ah," he said when he discovered them.
"You'll learn, André. You'll learn. Our guests expect perfection down to the tiniest detail."
"Our guests, madame, or you?"
"Perhaps you're right," she conceded. "If I'm doing my job, then the guests will take it for granted. I only wish…"
"What?" André asked, regarding her intently. "What it is that you wish?"
"I only wish our new boss cared more about the details than the bottom line."
"Monsieur Devereaux is a bit of a… What is it they say in America, a suit?"
Gracie fought a chuckle and lost. "That he is, André. He is a bit of a suit."
Handsome, distinguished, and annoying, Maximillian Devereaux was, in Gracie's opinion, more of an accountant than a hotelier. If the books balanced, he wouldn't care if there was a layer of dust an inch thick on the gleaming antique tabletops in the lobby. His attitude and the battles it engendered were beginning to take a toll.
He was the third CEO of Worldwide Hotels in the last five years. He'd been brought in to improve the bottom line after Worldwide was acquired by a larger chain to add some class to its image. Though Worldwide continued to operate as a separate division with its own corporate identity, in Gracie's view the small chain of exclusive, luxury inns was in serious danger of losing its reputation and its clientele. The wilted daffodil in her hand was symptomatic of the problem.
Less than an hour later, after inspecting every nook and cranny of the hotel, she dropped the flower on Max's desk and said just that. He peered down his long, aristocratic nose at her, glanced at the broken petals, then sighed with evident exasperation.
"What is it now, Ms. MacDougal?" he asked, as always reverting to formality to indicate his own annoyance with her.
"The flowers weren't changed this morning as they should have been," she said.
"There is no need to change them daily. We've discussed that. Every three days will be sufficient and will cut the flower budget by two-thirds."
"And our guests will find wilted flowers in the lobby and assume that if we no longer care about appearances in such a public area, we will be even more careless in places they don't see, such as the kitchen. Details like this make a lasting impression. If you doubt it, check the reservation book."
"We're booked solid for the next month."
"And this time last year we were booked solid for six months in advance," she countered. "At this rate, we'll have rooms available for every Tom, Dick and Harry who forgot to book a reservation before leaving the States."
"Don't exaggerate, Gracie."
"It's true." She studied Max intently. "You really don't see it, do you? You don't see what you're doing to this hotel, to this entire chain."
"Have dinner with me tonight and explain it," he suggested.
This time she was the one who sighed in exasperation. The man was relentless, when it came down to something he wanted, namely her. On paper, she and Max Dever-eaux were a perfect match. They were both tall—even at five eight, she barely reached his chin. Max had dashing, Cary Grant looks. Gracie prided herself on her polished, classic appearance. Max's intelligence, his quick rise in the international hotel industry paralleled hers.
But the man had no real passion for it. It was all numbers to him. Gracie cared about the guests and their comfort, the lasting impression they would take home with them. Max worried only about the size of their bill.
No, she concluded. It would never have worked. He was certainly bright enough to have figured that out for himself, but his masculine ego kept him in the game. With another man, the unwanted attention might have bordered on harassment, but there'd never once, in any way, been a hint that Gracie's job hinged on whether she said yes or no. Asking was just something Max did, pretty much like breathing.
"Max, I will not have dinner with you," she told him for the umpteenth time. "Not tonight, not ever. How many times do I have to say it?"
"Not even to save your precious flower budget?"
"No, Max. It's a very bad idea. You're my boss. Socializing would only complicate things. Besides, you and I don't see eye to eye on anything. We'd just ruin our digestion."
He shrugged as he always did after she'd rejected one of his invitations. "Suit yourself." He returned his attention to the paperwork in front of him, dismissing Gracie as clearly as if he'd gestured toward the door.
Maybe it was because she was tired or frustrated or angry or all three, but Gracie stared at Max's down-turned head for several minutes, then reached a decision that had been several weeks in the making.
"I quit," she said softly but firmly.
That brought his head up. "What?" For an instant, shock registered in his usually cool gray eyes.
"You heard me. I quit."
"Don't you now-Gracie me," she snapped back. "You won't listen to a thing I say. You're determined to run this chain as if it were a string of economy hotels. Obviously, I am no longer of any value to Worldwide, so I might as well take my expertise to another hotel chain where they care about appearances and service and comfort."
There was the faintest hint of worry in Max's expression, but once again he shrugged and said, "Suit yourself."
Stunned by his indifference, Gracie paused long enough to sweep that blasted daffodil up and drop it into the trash can before leaving. Tempted as she was to slam the door, she didn't want to disturb the guests by creating a scene. Even now, old habits died hard.
Back in her small suite of rooms off the hotel lobby, fighting tears, she began methodically packing. Because she moved frequently from hotel to hotel to troubleshoot problems, there was very little to pack, nothing personal needing to be shipped. She could be on a plane back to the States tonight… if only she had someplace to go.
Realizing that there was not one single destination in the entire world where someone would be waiting for her hit her like a blow. She sank to the edge of the bed.
"What now, Gracie?" she whispered.
Though her decision to quit had been far from impulsive, never once had she considered the next step. Now she had just abandoned the most exciting, rewarding, wonderful job she'd ever had, one she'd worked very hard to get. She was twenty-nine-going-on-thirty. Her last three relationships had been total disasters. All three men had ended up married to someone else—someone who stayed put—within days of breaking up with her.
The relationships weren't worth talking about, but her career, well, that was not something she was quite so willing to walk away from without a fight. She had loved the hotel business from the day she first discovered room service. In Monopoly, hotels were always her primary objective. In her mind's eye, they were always small, elegant and discreet.
Worldwide had always exemplified that image. At least until recently. Shifting gears to accommodate all of the executive changes had turned a dream job into a nightmare. She'd been right to quit, she consoled herself. It was a smart decision.
So why did she feel so lost and empty?
A knock on her door prevented her from having to come up with an answer for the inexplicable "Yes?"
"Gracie, it's Max."
"I think we should talk."
"Would you open the blasted door and let me in, please. Or do you want the entire hotel to hear our conversation?"
That caught her attention as nothing else might have. She opened the door. She did not move aside to let him in. Max was much too forceful a presence to allow herself to be alone with him while she was in such a vulnerable state. He'd tried too many times to turn business conversations into something personal for her to trust him—or herself, at the moment—in such intimate surroundings. She might not much like the man at the moment, but he had a very attractive shoulder she could cry on.
"Yes?" she said.
He peered past her to the row of suitcases. "You're determined to leave, I see."
"I told you I was going."
Ah, she thought, that was the million-dollar question. Money wasn't a problem. Her heart was the problem. The only place she wanted to be was at the center of a thriving hotel. Her parents were dead. There had been no brothers or sisters, not even an extended family of aunts and uncles she'd been close to. She'd made a few close friends in college, but over the years, thanks to so much job-related traveling, she'd lost touch with all of them.
"That's none of your business," she said, hedging.
"No place to go, huh?"
"Of course I have a place to go," she snapped. "I'm going to…Virginia." She seized the destination out of thin air, based solely on some distant, idyllic memory of a family vacation in a small beach town there twenty years before.
Max said it as if he weren't quite familiar with the state or even the country it was in. He'd obviously been in Europe way too long. Maybe she had been, too.
"Yes," she said, warming to the idea. "It's lovely there this time of year."
"How in hell do you know that?"
"It's spring," she said. "It's lovely everywhere in spring."
"Of course," he said wryly. The worried frown was back between his brows. "You'll stay in touch?"
"In case you decide you want to come back, of course."
"I won't," she said with certainty. Whatever happened, whatever she decided to do with her life, she would not come back to Worldwide as long as it was in the hands of Maximillian Devereaux.
"You'll always have a job with us," he said anyway. "Remember that when you tire of watching the dogwood and the cherry blossoms bloom."
"I'd keep the flower references out of the conversation, if I were you. Flowers are what brought us to this impasse, remember?"
"You'll be back," he said with arrogant confidence. "You and I have unfinished business." His gaze settled on her and lingered. "Professional and personal."
She refused to be shaken by the intensity of his gaze, but only because there was no responding, wild leap of her pulse. She stared straight into his eyes and slowly shook her head. "Don't bet the wine cellar on it, Max."
And then she slammed the door in his face. Forever after, she thought she would remember with a great deal of satisfaction his thoroughly stunned expression. She doubted Max could recall the last time a mere mortal, especially a woman, had ever said no to him and not left the door open for a yes.
Gracie checked her bank balance and gave herself five months—the rest of spring and the entire summer— to pull herself together. She made that decision on the plane. Then, exhausted and emotionally drained, she slept the rest of the way to Washington.
At Dulles Airport, she bought a map, rented a car and started driving east on the Beltway, turning south on I-95 to Fredericksburg then heading east again. Seagull Point was a tiny speck on the map, tucked between Colonial Beach and Montross, right in the heart of history as the guidebooks liked to say.
Passing gently rolling farmland along the Rappahan-nock River, she began to have her doubts. Would she be able to survive for long in the middle of nowhere? True, the dogwoods were blooming in profusion, their white and pink blossoms standing out against the budding green of giant oaks. Tulips and the last of the daffodils bobbed in the lilac-scented breeze. The scenery was idyllic, but the only town she passed through, King George, was hardly a metropolis. There wasn't even a traffic light in the middle of town. She barely had to slow down until she hit the intersection with Route 205 and made the turn toward Colonial Beach.
Pausing at the next red light at Route 301, she considered turning left and heading north, across the Potomac River Bridge, back to D.C. or maybe Baltimore. Instead, though, she kept going, determined to follow the plan she'd set for herself. Making plans, seeing to details, was something at which she excelled. It was why, until recently, she'd been such a valued Worldwide employee. She was organized to a fault.
By three in the afternoon she'd found a small hotel on the Potomac River. No one would ever confuse it with a Worldwide property, but it was clean and the mattress was firm, just the way she liked it. It would do until she could find a rental property for the summer, she concluded.
By five she'd finished a take-out carton of Kung Po chicken, showered and watched the early news out of Washington. Though she'd intended to shift her body onto local time by staying awake until nine at least, by five-thirty she was sound asleep. Naturally, because of that, she was wide awake before dawn.
Years of starting the day while others slept made the early hour seem almost normal. Except there were no lists to make, no calendar to check for meetings, no details to see to. There was absolutely nothing demanding her attention and no reason at all to get out of bed.
"Go back to sleep," she coached herself, forcing her eyes shut and trying to stay perfectly still. She willed herself to relax. After fifteen increasingly restless minutes, she realized she didn't know how.
"Tomorrow will be better," she promised herself as she dressed and headed out to find someplace serving breakfast.
Over scrambled eggs and toast at the Beachside Cafe, she read the Washington Post. As she lingered over coffee, she dug in her purse for paper and made a list of things to do, starting with contacting a real estate agent about available rentals. She wanted something small, facing the river so she could sit on the porch and drink her morning coffee or her evening tea and watch the play of colors on the water.
"More coffee, miss?"