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An experienced traveler would have known better.
Alice Potter scolded herself as she trekked up the wide stone steps of the grand hotel, panting and perspiring copiously even though the temperature had dropped since her arrival that afternoon. The walk from her quarters to the center of the resort had been longer and hotter than she'd expected.
July in Arizona! Most peoplethe smart oneshad fled north for the season. What had she been thinking?
The answer was simple. She'd been desperate to get far away from Maine. To a land of cactus and sunshine, where she could lose her old self like a snake shedding its skin. She'd expected that she would be someone different in Arizona. Someone unapologeti-cally alive.
She licked her salty upper lip. "Bi-i-ig mistake."
But was it?
"Ma'am?" prompted the doorman, a clean-cut fellow with apparently no sweat glands beneath his peaked cap and starched white coat. He'd opened the immense double doors, hand-carved slabs of wood inset with grids of glass framed by rustic black iron.
Alice thanked him and stepped inside.
The spacious lobby was an intimidating dazzle of light and activity. She paused to swipe a hand across her forehead, wishing she'd thought to bring a handkerchief. Surreptitiously she rubbed her palm on the flouncy fiesta skirt she'd purchased online. The white cotton eyelet top that exposed her indoor-pale arms and shoulders was already sticking to her skin.
She'd envisioned her arrival differentlya carefree stroll through a cool lobby populated by potted palms and lean, dark, mysterious men. Casablanca glamour by way of Phoenix luxury resort.
Instead, she was well, she was still herself.
Nervous, uncertain, alone, and now sweaty, too.
But God bless central air. She sucked in a deep breath, thinking longingly of home. The fresh salt breeze that washed over the island, the cool shade of the sheltering pines. On Osprey Island, they didn't need air-conditioning, even in summer.
For the past six years of her mother's illness, Alice had rarely been off the island. Swapping Pine Cone Cottage for a two-week stay at a desert resort condo had been the first whim she'd indulged in in a very long time.
A member of the staff walked up to Alice and introduced herself as Chloe Weston, the assistant director of hospitality. "You look lost," she said kindly.
"Overwhelmed," Alice admitted. "I arrived this afternoon and I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here."
"I see. Don't worry, we'll soon have you situated." Chloe's smile was punctuated by dimples. She wore the crisp white uniform jacket with a short black skirt and low-heeled pumps. A blond ponytail bounced up and down as she bobbed her head. "You're all checked in?"
"Yes. I'm staying in one of the condos as a guest of the owner."
"And you walked over here in this heat? Oh, my." Chloe's glance touched Alice's face, which felt damp.
She fanned herself. "I'm afraid I picked the wrong season to come to Arizona for the first time. I'm not used to the heat."
"It's terrible, I know, but never mind. There are ways to work around the tempsmorning or evening activities, afternoon siestas to stay out of the monsoons and dust." Chloe's good cheer was unwavering, even when delivering that somewhat alarming spiel. "Tomorrow I'll give you a tour of the resort. We have riding stables, a huge new water park, lovely gardens, a golf course. And, of course, the spa."
She peered more closely at Alice. "Hmm. I can usually tell just by looking what type of activities a guest will prefer. But with you, I'm not sure. Are you the spa type? Hot stone, shiatsu, mud bath, herbal wrap? Let me know. Appointments have to be booked early, even in the off-season. Spa treatments are popular with our female guests."
Alice shook her head. She didn't want massages and facials, fussing and catering.
She wanted adventure.
Everything she'd been lacking for the past six years. No, even longer than that, if she was honest. Her life before becoming her mother's caregiver hadn't been the most eventful, either. But she'd been satisfied at the time, working as a grade-school teacher in Bangor, Maine, engaged to Stewart McKinney, a wonderful guy who'd been completely understanding when she'd had to move back to Osprey Island because of her mother's diagnosis. He'd promised to wait for Alice. They'd have the rest of their lives together.
Alice had had total faith in Stewart. Right up till the moment when the proof of his unfaithfulness had been published in the engagement announcements of the Bangor News.
"No spas," she said to Chloe. She glanced around the lobby, taking in the gleaming Saltillo tiles, the high beamed ceilings and the large wrought-iron chandeliers, hung three in a row to make a major statement. The guests who strolled past looked tanned, pampered and fit, despite their advanced ages. "I want to be active."
Not passive. Never again passive.
And that was her major statement.
"Great!" Chloe gave a quick clap. "Do you ride? Golf? I'd be happy to arrange an early-morning tee time."
"I don't golf." Alice pictured herself on the greens, a fumbling solo among the holiday-happy twosomes and foursomes. This was her opportunity to change. She'd rather not start out as a lonesome onesome. "But I'd love to try horseback riding. Not just a tame follow-the-leader trail ride, either. Real riding."
She could begin there and move on to more adventurous activities. Despite her major statement, even an activity as safe and easy as trail riding seemed daunting. She hadn't been on a four-legged creature since pony rides at the county fair.
"I want to gallop in the desert," she blurted. And not take a header between her mount's ears. "I want to I want to climb and dive and race and "
She stalled out for a moment before plunging on. "I came here to try everything."
"With that sense of adventure, you're certain to have a super stay." Chloe gave Alice's arm a small squeeze. "Gosh, you're my favorite kind of guest. Some of them never want to get up off their biscuits. I spend my time hunting down lost sunglasses and rescheduling pool parties. I'm really going to love planning your days!"
Alice nodded, feeling like an impostor.
But she wasn't. She'd been wanting this for a long time. She just needed to get used to the reality of her brand-new self.
"Ifyou don't get out and live a little, you'll be a fuddy-duddy at forty." Leilani Blaylock Jimenez Harrison Steen powered down the computer and slid a few stray folders into a file drawer. Then she locked the drawer and dropped the key into the oversize designer handbag sitting open on one corner of the desk.
"What's a fuddy-duddy?" teased Kyle Jarreau, who sat on another corner. "Is that something the bobby-soxers used to say?"
Clearly amused, his full-figured secretary wrinkled her nose. "Pet name for my third husband."
"The one who wore tube socks to bed."
"Exactamundo." Lani gave Kyle a measuring look as she ran a comb through her short black curls polished by silver. She pulled a lipstick from her bag. "Bet you I can snare my fifth before you find a first."
"No way. Do I look like a sucker?" Kyle shifted. The closest he'd come to marriage was standing up at the recent wedding of his best friend, Gavin. The reformed bachelor had returned from his honeymoon with a deep tan and a gloating satisfaction that turned to something like pity whenever Kyle teased him about rushing home to the ball and chain.
"No," Lani said, growing thoughtful. She blotted her bright red lips on a tissue. "You look like a man so thick he doesn't even realize he's lonesome."
"Thick, huh?" Kyle patted his midsection, kept flat by rigorous workouts in the hotel's employee gym. He spent too many hours behind his desk not to adhere to a daily exercise regimen.
Lani sighed dramatically. Ever since he'd broken up his last "relationship" without turning a hair, she'd claimed he was a hopeless case. Yet she refused to give up hope. "The operative word was lonesome."
"I'm alone, not lonesome."
"You don't have to be either. If you'd just accept the birthday party invita"
"I'm surrounded by people all day, every day," Kyle countered, even if that proved his thickness. He'd rather play obtuse than get into the same old debate with Lani, including her pushing him to make amends with his family. His secretary thought he needed to get a life. Kyle believed his job was his life.
Lani stood and hefted her bag by its shoulder strap. "If we're done for the day, I'm outta here, boss. Prospect Number Five is meeting me for drinks in the Manzanita Lounge." She paused in the office doorway, looking like a puffed-up pigeon teetering forward from her precarious perch on a pair of steep sandals. "You wouldn't care to join us? Sit and talk to real people face-to-face for a change? You know, the nonemployee kind?"
"No thanks," Kyle declined without regret. "You're done for the day. I'm not."
She clucked. "Ain't that the truth?" She pointed a plump finger at him. "I'm warning youfuddy-duddy. Before you're forty."
He waved her away, then returned to what Lani forbiddingly termed the inner sanctum, an expansive office that was his home away from home since his promotion to resort manager. In that time he'd overseen the completion of the multimillion-dollar water park, brought in Gavin as one of his assistant managers, set up a new reservations system that would soon be implemented nationwide and seen the resort's profit margin increase substantially.
True, his personal life had suffered for all the work, including his love life. Everyone had said that Jenna, his last on-again, off-again girlfriend, was perfect for him. Everyone but the two of them, which was why ending it had been so easy.
Kyle sat behind his desk. This was where he belonged. The lack of personal relationships didn't bother him, despite his secretary's concern. Especially now that his extreme dedication for the past three years was about to pay off.
For months, the prospect of the impending performance review had been a spur in his side, propelling him forward with single-minded devotion. It was the homestretch now. He couldn't afford to slow up for a single stride.
He removed his suit jacket and cuff links. He loosened his tie. He took his cell phone out of his pants pocket and switched over to voice mail before tossing it aside. The device skidded across the surface and glanced off the single framed photograph on the desk.
Automatically, he reached out to right the photograph of his familya group of ne'er-do-wells if ever there was one. Its presence on his desk was Lani's doing, a replacement for Jenna's head shot. Also an irritating distraction. Abruptly he thrust the photo away, facedown.
A tap of the mouse brought his computer out of sleep mode. He sat and rolled his chair closer to the desk. Time for serious work.
After forty-five minutes studying the monthly reports from his department managers, Kyle stopped to straighten and stretch. He relished these early-evening hours, with his staff gone home and the Prince Montez East Coast management offices shut down. As long as there were no emergency calls from the evening concierge, he could get a lot of work accomplished. Normally he dove into it with gusto, putting in another two hours before his empty stomach forced him into calling room service.
But not this evening. Lani's words nagged at him.
Kyle stood and moved restlessly around the sparsely furnished space before pausing at one of the three tall windows that overlooked the stone courtyard and Moorish fountain at the center of the resort complex. Towering palms lined the long curve of the main road, as well as the various paths leading away from it. In the distance, beyond the foothills, was the humpbacked crest of Camel-back Mountain, cast blood orange in the fading sun.
He was unaccountably distracted by the vista. When was the last time he'd noticed a sunset?
He turned suddenly and grabbed the picture off his desk, relocating it to one of the nearly empty shelves in the storage unit along one of the unadorned walls.
Kyle didn't bother much with the trappings of his positionan expense account, a company car and driver, the large office for work and the luxury suite for sleep. They were valuable only for the air of success they gave him. That, admittedly, he savored.
From the shelf, the faces of his family mocked him. Think you're a big shot?
"Hell, yeah," he said softly.
What about us? Didja forget us?
He swung away. Hadn't he done enough for them? Late-night calls to lawyers, arguments mediated, loans that would never be repaid. Strings pulled, jobs acquired, christenings and bail hearings and holidays attended, each one invariably ending in an argument.
Lani was wrong. He'd put in plenty of face-to-face time. Real people were highly overrated.
There was a staccato rap on the door. Gavin Brill thrust his head inside. "Hey, Jarreau. I'm on my way home."
"Give my best to the wife." Kyle's gut seized. He must be hungry.
"Sorry, man." Gavin raised his eyebrows. At a scarce five-six, he was eight inches shorter than Kyle, but considered handsome by the women around the office. They swooned over his jet-black hair, blue eyes and Hollywood profile. "I'll be too busy giving her mine."
"No one likes a braggart."
Gavin grinned. "I can't help it."
Kyle scowled; this was their act. "How many times did you call her today?"
Gavin had married Melina, one of their former reservation clerks. A cute little brunette who thought he was the sun and the moon and all the stars, too. Her adoration seemed cloying to Kyle, but he gave the couple allowances to be sappy newlyweds. Not that he'd admit it to Gavin.
The man's grin widened. "Only eight. You owe me twenty."
"Yeah, but how many times did she call you?"
"That wasn't part of the bet."
"A technicality," Kyle said, but he took out his wallet. "I only have a hundred."
Gavin gestured with his head. "Walk down with me and we'll change it at the front desk."
"You know I'm good for the money."
"C'mon, bud. Don't be a stick in the mud."
First a fuddy-duddy and now a stick in the mud?
"I can offer extra incentive," Gavin said. "Your unexpected arrival will put the fear of authority in the new night concierge. I hear he's been hell on the staff, trying to prove himself."
"Sounds like he has the right idea."
To demonstrate that he wasn't a fuddy, let alone a duddy, Kyle didn't bother to roll down his sleeves and put on his jacket. They walked past the elevator to the stairwell and jogged down four flights, neither willing to break the pace.
"Melina says " Gavin pushed through the staff door that opened onto a hidden corner of the vast lobby. He'd missed more than a few of their workouts lately and was trying not to pant. "Her friends at the desk"
"Not my concern," Kyle interrupted so the guy could inhale. Unless the minor problem had potential to grow into a larger issue, he'd learned to let his department managers deal with petty staff complaints. "Remember the chain of command."