Clara Morgan is living the dream, if you can call rebranding hotels that are desperate for a new life and running any kind of marathon a dream. Which she does. But the career she loves and the endurance races that keep her adrenaline pumping have kept her too busy to put down any roots. Growing up in foster care, she’s never been able to establish traditions of her own, which may be why she’s fascinated by the rituals that generations-old family resorts are known for. She’s especially interested in the Bryant Mountain House, and not just for their secret recipe for the yummy, gooey, can’t-get-enough-of Hot Cross Buns….
Archie Bryant, the man with the Buns, is fifth generation and one-day-owner of the charming yet run-down Bryant Mountain House in Bailey Falls, New York. He’s determined to save his family’s legacy from the wrecking ball the old-fashioned way—by gritting his teeth and doing what needs to be done. There’s no way Archie will be influenced by the new hotel branding expert his father brought in to turn one hundred and fifty years of tradition on its head just to attract a faster, younger, slicker crowd. But when some of Clara’s ideas start bringing in new, paying customers, Archie can’t deny that she may have just given him a shot at keeping his resort open.
It’s sticky, it’s messy, it’s sweet, it’s Buns.
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“Not if you continue to have this newly developed comprehension problem, but yes, Clara. Partner.”
I sat across three feet of mahogany desk from inarguably my favorite adult in the entire world, who happened to also be my boss, and she just told me that if I was able to knock this next job out of the park, I’d be promoted to partner.
I breathed in, then out. In, then out. This was one of those moments—the kind you read about, the kind you remember later on in life when you reminisce about the good old days and you point to it as though it were a blue ribbon, plucking this day out of all the others and festooning it with colors and sparkles and maybe a unicorn. One day I’d look back and say that was the day my life changed. That all the hard work and hours and weekends spent in the office and missed dates and skipped parties and blood and sweat and tears became worth it because I’d arrived here, in this space and time, and I’d finally carved out a place in this world that was mine.
Barbara smiled, watching me take it all in, likely being able to see my wheels turning. She hired me five and a half years ago, took me under her wing and mentored me every step of the way. And now she was handing me the keys to the kingdom. Partner in one of the most well-known and well-respected branding agencies in the country. If . . .
“So Bryant Mountain House leaps into the twenty-first century, and I get to see my name on the letterhead?”
She nodded. “That’s the deal, kiddo.”
I breathed in, then out. In, then out.
I smiled. “I’ll head down there tomorrow.”
I didn’t own a car. Not that uncommon when you consider I’m on the road nearly 80 percent of the year, and when I was home in Boston I pretty much walked everywhere I needed to go. The nightmare traffic in Boston was enough to make me change the channel the few times I’d actually paused to watch a car commercial, wondering if I should part with some of my hard-earned dollars and finally bite the bullet.
I did love to drive, though, and took any excuse to head out onto the open road whenever a long-term job opened up. And let’s face it, long-term jobs basically described my entire life.
But now I was about to be, maybe, possibly, made partner in this career I loved so much. Was this real? Was this happening? Was this—
“Just make sure she’s full of gas, okay?”
I snapped back into the present at the Hertz rental car lot on the edge of town. I’d been daydreaming while this kid had been lecturing me on my full-tank options.
“Sure, sure, gas. Full of it. You got it.” I patted the roof of my rental, a beige four-door Corolla. Solid. Safe. Dependable. Utterly boring. “Am I good to go?” I was anxious to get on the road. It was only four hours to Bryant Mountain House, but I wanted to make sure I had time to scope things out before dinner.
“Yep, where ya headed?”
“Catskills, upstate New York . . .” I trailed off as a car inched forward out of the car wash, catching my eye. Early spring in the Northeast, when everything was sullen and gray, muddy and cold, was one of the earth’s uglier moments. But when this beautiful convertible, shiny and red and all kinds of pretty, rolled out and reminded the world what summer looked like, I couldn’t stop staring. It was bold, brash, braggy, and wholly unnecessary.
And eight kinds of fun.
The kid followed my gaze, raising an eyebrow in appreciation.
I pointed. “How much is that one?”
“Niiiiice,” he replied, his estimation of me going up a few notches. Born seven weeks premature, I’ve always been on the teeny side. Dressed in black leggings, black wellies that practically swallowed me whole even though they were the smallest size in stock, and a black rain slicker to keep the intermittent drizzle off me, I looked like I belonged in a beige four-door Corolla.
But underneath that rain slicker was a cherry-red clingy T-shirt. And underneath the leggings were cherry-red silk panties. And as I took off my ball cap and ran my hands through my hair, turning my pixie cut into short little blond spikes, I spoke through cherry-red painted lips.
“Yeah, I’m gonna need that one.”
Twenty minutes later I blazed out of Boston in my wholly unnecessary, determined to knock this job so far out of the park I might just buy one of these for my cherry-red collection, sweet-ass ride.
A partner deserved something a little special, right?
A partner should also know better than to take a sports car on twisty, windy roads still crusted with salt and ice and potholes. This is why I rarely if ever made spur-of-the-moment decisions, rarely if ever flew by the seat of my pants. I preferred to Keep It Simple, Stupid, and leave the crazytown to my best friend Natalie Grayson, and even to some extent my other best friend Roxie Callahan, who could serve up her own brand of crazy when needed.
Natalie and Roxie. The three of us had met years ago when we all wound up at a culinary school in California, all eighteen and ready for big-time changes. Roxie was the only one who actually had any real culinary skills, and while I’d enjoyed the year I spent in California, I realized early on cooking was never going to be more than a hobby, and hightailed it back to New England. Natalie was similarly disillusioned with cooking as a career, and she also headed back to her home, the island of Manhattan, which she was pretty sure belonged only to her.
Roxie stayed, made her mark in California as a private chef to the stars, and only found herself back in her tiny hometown of Bailey Falls, New York, when her career imploded over an ill-timed whipped cream turning into butter. This very butter is what changed the course of her life and made her truly appreciate her hometown, a hometown that had welcomed Leo Maxwell in the time she’d been gone, the man who was currently rocking her world.
The town’s next victim into its black hole of charm and sweet was Natalie, a city girl if there ever was one. Officially she lived in Manhattan. Unofficially she was fooling no one as she’d recently begun spending weeknights ninety miles north of her island in the company of one Oscar Mendoza, owner of Bailey Falls Creamery and the only man who could make her set one toe north of the Bronx.
And here I was, heading toward that same town, which was also home to Bryant Mountain House, the old hotel I’d been hired to rebrand, reshape, and get back in the black.
Roxie and Natalie were thrilled, convinced that once I spent some time in the quaint town, I’d fall just as in love with it as they did and decide to stay.
I never stayed. Anywhere. I loved being on the road, meeting new people, hanging my hat somewhere just long enough to sink my teeth into something that used to be incredible and needed to be brought back to life. And once that was done, it was off to the next project.
I had an apartment. I had things in it. I had my name on the mail slot.
I did not have a home.
“Keep your bags packed, kid, you’re not gonna be here long . . .”
I blinked up at her, the sunlight behind her turning her head into an eclipse of sorts, unable to make out individual features of her face but knowing somehow that her expression would be one of tired resignation. I was just one more kid in a houseful of others. With their own never-truly-unpacked bags . . .
I shook my head to clear it, squeezing the steering wheel. Partners in shiny convertibles didn’t think about the past, they thought about the future. I pulled over to grab a coffee for the road, thumbed through my travel playlist, and cued up some Fleetwood Mac.
“You can go your own way . . .”
That’s for damn sure.
Three hours later I turned off the interstate and onto the state highway that would take me into Bailey Falls and up to Bryant Mountain House. Turning off the tunes, I began to put my game face on.
This was where I needed to think, to ruminate, to imagine what it must be like to have your entire family’s history potentially subjected to a wrecking ball. When I took on a job, that is what I took on. It wasn’t just a few months of work, it was a way of life. And not just for the family but for all of the employees whose lives were typically just as tied into the history as those whose names were on the letterhead. The Bryant family was small in actual name but large by proxy. And I’d be working to save jobs for more than just the family.
The Bryants had owned this property for almost one hundred and fifty years. And like so many other family-run hotels, they’d relied too much on “but this is how it’s always been done,” which simply doesn’t work anymore in this modern age. With Yelp and TripAdvisor helping everyone make their vacation plans, reviews could make or break a place. And they’d had their share of bad reviews in the last few years. Couple that with the recent economic crisis and belt-tightening across the board for vacationers, and they were in danger of losing their beautiful hotel.
Unless . . .
* CUE TRUMPETS *
. . . they had me. Which they did. I rolled my neck, cracked my shoulders a bit, and settled in for the final leg.
I had a hotel to save.
* CUE A SECOND BUT EQUALLY IMPRESSIVE ROUND OF TRUMPETS *
“Melanie Bixby, arriving guest,” I said, leaning out of the driver’s-side window at the guard shack at the edge of the property. I didn’t even blink anymore when I used my pseudonym, it was second nature at this point. When I checked in under my real name, I never got the true sense of what was going on at a hotel. Clara Morgan was given the red-carpet treatment, Clara Morgan was upgraded, complimentary champagne was sent up almost without fail, and literally every single parking attendant/busboy/junior housekeeper went out of their way to bid good morning/afternoon/evening to Clara Morgan.
Melanie Bixby, however, was just your average guest, and always got the real story.
“Bixby, Bixby, oh sure, there you are, Ms. Bixby. Let me just grab your parking slip.” After a moment inside, he returned with a pass that he set just inside on the dashboard for me. “Now you keep that there while you’re with us, that’s how we tell the overnight guests from the ones who are just here on a day pass.”
“Day pass?” I played dumb.
“Yes, ma’am, Bryant Mountain House has some of the best hiking and biking trails around. For thirty-five dollars folks can come spend the entire day in the woods. No access to the main house, but there’s a nice enough snack shack on the edge of the property for refreshments.”
“Do you get many day-passers up here? I mean, in the off-season?”
The attendant looked skyward, scratching at his beard as though divining the answer. “Not really, ma’am, no. Summertime sure, but it’s getting harder and harder to get people up here when it’s cold and rainy. Like today. We had a storm a few weeks ago that would—now would you look at that? Me running my mouth off, when you’ve got places to get to! You just stay to the right, this road will take you right on up to the resort.” He smiled companionably, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he waved me on.
“Thank you!” I called out as I rolled my window up against the chilly spring rain that had begun to fall. Heavy and sloppy, it’d be slushy ice by nightfall if it kept up.
I stayed to the right as directed and began to wind my way up up up. The road twisted and turned to the top of the mountain underneath the late-afternoon sky, which was thickening with storm clouds and an ever-increasing gloom. On my left the hillside was covered in trees and thick brambles that’d be bursting with green in a month or so. On the other side the road fell off sharply, the trees giving way every so often to showcase fallen boulders, craggy and rough. I spied a trailhead, clearly marked for guests of Bryant Mountain House, winding into the forest.
The hiking must be incredible up here.
Making a mental note to investigate the off-season trails, I continued up the hill, which at this point was quickly becoming the Mountain in Bryant Mountain House. Turning my wipers up another notch against the now-steady rainfall, I turned around the final bend and there, finally, was the resort.
At least, there was part of it. The enormity of this single structure was too great to be captured in just the windshield of my tiny, impractical, and wholly unsuited for mountain terrain sports car. But what I could see was impressive as hell.
I drove under a stand of weeping willows planted along the road like soldiers, arching across and creating a tunnel effect that in summertime must be stunning. At the ass-end of winter and the equally-as-ugly beginning of spring, the bare limbs feathered together, slick with slush and almost gnarled. Not entirely welcoming.
Shivering slightly, I continued through the archway, getting my next peek at the resort. Rising high into the air, the east wing loomed up suddenly—the real money shot being either the mountain view to the west or the lake view to the east. Six, no, seven stories climbed against the wintry sky. I slowed to a stop to appreciate the architecture—fieldstone mixed with deeply burnished redwood, green shutters, soaring high gray stone chimneys. I whistled as I hit the gas again, once more twisting into the dark woods that surrounded the property. I passed several barns, the stables, the summer garden, and glimpsed just the edge of the championship golf course.
And then the road swung me back around to the front of the resort and the edge of the parking lot. One look at how fast the rain was falling and I immediately opted for valet and gunned it for the covered entryway.
Gunning it in a rain that’s bordering on icy sleet isn’t wise in a boring beige Corolla, and it is for damn sure not recommended in a shiny red sports car with rear-wheel drive. I spun out on the last turn, my back end slipping wildly as I clutched the wheel and tried to straighten out. I overcorrected, swung wide, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a man dressed in a green slicker and matching hat gesturing, holding out his hands and yelling.
“Look out!” I cried.
“Stop!” he cried.
I thumped the curb and by mere inches missed hitting the rain-slicker guy, who threw himself to the side at the last second, tumbling into a large shrub.
“Oh my God,” I whispered to myself, everything suddenly quiet. I looked through the wipers and saw galoshes kicking in the air, the shrub branches thrashing wildly as the man I’d nearly hit fought to climb back out. “Oh my God!”
I jumped out of the car, ran over to the shrub just as he was pulling himself loose. “I’m so sorry, oh no, are you okay? I’m so sorry!”
His raincoat, emblazoned with the words BRYANT MOUNTAIN HOUSE, was caught on a limb, his hat was hanging off the back of his head by the string, and one of his galoshes had come loose.
“Oh, for pity’s sake!” he exclaimed, tugging at the branch.
“Can I help you?” I asked, reaching for the tangled limb.
“No no, I think you’ve done enough,” he snapped.
“Well, let me at least see if I can—”
“It’s fine, don’t do that—”
“I think I found where it’s stuck, just—”
“Don’t do that, it’s going to tear, it’s really fine, it’s—watch out!”
The branch tore free, taking with it half of the raincoat, thwapping him upside the head as it rustled and resettled back into the bush.
“Wow, I can’t believe that just . . . I’m so sorry.”
“It’s. Fine.” He spoke through gritted teeth.
The two of us stared at each other. I felt terrible. He looked frustrated.
I clasped my hands behind my back, looked around, then tried to smile. “So, where do I check in?”