Saturday morning . . .
The salt air of the Caribbean rushed through the open sliding-glass door with the force of a tropical storm gust and blew a picture frame on her coffee table to the floor, reminding Riley Sinclair that her second chance at life was just as fragile. Her bare feet stepped onto the warm concrete of the small balcony, and she leaned against the iron railing. Her pajama pants blew between the teal-painted slats as a soft curl swept in front of her face, its color as dark as the black tank top she wore.
She closed her eyes and breathed in, the oxygen traveling all the way to her toes. This was the smell she knew, the scent of her memories. She also knew the teasing dance that hurricanes played on the coastal waters. And this tropical paradise that she now resided in had avoided another close call in Hurricane Jesse. But rumor had it a new storm churned in the Atlantic. And though the Bahamas had avoided each storm this year, the mere chance was never good for business. She exhaled deliberately and released anything else that needed to go. The first prayer of the day was offered as the sun pressed its way through dissipating clouds.
When the discourse of her morning was over, she headed back inside to get some Dr Pepper, her new a.m. sugar kick of choice. The South knew how to grow its women proper, raise its boys to be gentlemen, and make its tea sweet. But Bahamians had no idea they were as southern as you could get, so sweet tea wasn’t a readily accessible commodity here. So she had switched to Dr Pepper.
She knew that amount of sugar probably wasn’t an ideal breakfast companion, but she figured if that was the only addiction she possessed after what she’d been through, she’d fared pretty well. She set her liquid sunshine down and turned the sleek silver shower handle upward to let the water heat up to just below scalding. When steam had taken over the shower door and made its way to the bathroom mirror, she entombed herself. As warm water cascaded over her, the low, melodic sounds of her hum reverberated through the stone bathroom. She closed her eyes and began to sing softly, letting the thickness of her alto voice take up the spaces the steam had left vacant.
The shower was over when she was finished singing. She dried off, dressed, and released her hair from a large clip; it fell to the center of her back as she glanced at her reflection in the mirror.
There were days she could see it. This was one of them.
Life had come back into her almost-thirty-nine-year-old face. It was as if she got younger with each day that moved her farther from her past. And sometimes, like today, she could actually see it in her eyes. They were alive. Even her laughter had changed. Okay, come back. And every time it arrived, she could feel it travel from somewhere in her gut. It was real. And it was wonderful. Yet still slightly foreign. But she was so grateful for it. And if it brought new lines with it, that was a fair trade. She’d trade the aged face of stress for a new one streaked with laugh lines as willingly as the gamblers here traded dollars for chips.
She gave her reflection a smile and pulled the taupe silk top over her head, then readied her face for the day. Now she was ready to face the biggest challenge of her day: waking Gabby.
The distance from her bedroom to Gabby’s was three full steps. Though at five foot two, for her, it was more like five. Even though the condo was only a little over nine hundred square feet, she and Gabby didn’t require much; plus it was right on the Atlantis property and a blessing of a deal for this season in her life. And it was peaceful. She was more than willing to sacrifice her four thousand square feet of turmoil for nine hundred square feet of peace.
The twin bed gave slightly beneath her weight as she sat down and pushed the curls that hid Gabby’s tiny face. They brushed across the Cinderella nightgown and fell over her shoulder. Riley relished this brief moment without her mouth moving. Since Gabby had learned to talk, she hadn’t stopped. That’s why Gabriella had quickly been shortened to Gabby.
She leaned over and pressed her mouth against the soft skin of her little girl’s face. Her words swept past Gabby’s ear. “Time to get up, sunshine. You’ve got to get ready for school.”
The tiny frame wriggled beneath the white down comforter. Long black eyelashes tugged at each other before they finally broke free and revealed eyes that carried as much variety of blue as the Bahamian ocean. Even though Bahamian waters could be as unique as aquamarine, as taunting as turquoise, and as regal as royal blue, they were the only waters distinguishable from space. Gabby’s eyes were able to transform as well, but Riley could recognize them from space too.
Gabby rubbed her eyes with the backs of her fists. Her mouth opened wide as she yawned away some of her sleepiness. Then she rolled over.
“Come on, Gabby. You’ve got to get up.” Riley rubbed her back. “It’s a big day, remember?”
Gabby rolled over and forced her eyes open. “I’m going to the science museum today.”
Riley stood up from the bed. “That’s right. Are you still taking Ted?”
Gabby slipped quickly out of the bed, her tiny feet dotting the carpet as she ran toward her fishbowl, where Ted resided. “Yep. I’m taking Ted,” she stated matter-of-factly in her distinctly raspy little voice.
She lifted his bowl and spun it around the room. Ted jolted from the rock he had been sleeping on, his stubby turtle legs rapidly trying to regain their positioning. “Don’t you want the little boys and girls to see you today on our field trip, Ted?” she asked.
Ted didn’t respond. He was still trying to get back to his throne.
“Slip on your clothes, and Mommy will go make your breakfast,” Riley said as she laid out some khaki shorts and a white polo. She hadn’t told Gabby that they didn’t have to wear uniforms today because it was a Saturday field trip to celebrate the end of this semester and to begin their three-week break from year-round school. She thanked God for school uniforms. They removed one morning battle. Pink ballerina outfits weren’t the best attire for first grade.
Riley headed to the kitchen. “What are you hungry for, angel girl?”
“I’m thinking pancakes would be good!” Gabby called out.
Riley laughed as she opened the refrigerator door. She kept a flourless, sugarless pancake batter in the refrigerator most of the week. A friend had given her the recipe and Gabby had no idea they were healthy. Riley had no intention of telling her.
Gabby finally bounded into the kitchen and pulled out a barstool from beneath the black granite countertop. Riley turned over the last pancake and put it on Gabby’s plate next to her glass of orange juice. She picked up her own plate and sat down beside her.
Gabby held up her hand as if Riley was about to intrude on her prayer. “I’ll bless it, Mommy.”
“Go for it.”
Gabby folded her tiny hands, where pieces of her hot pink fingernail polish clung for dear life. “God is great and God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. By His hands we all are fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread. Amen,” she announced with a bob of her head.
“Amen,” Riley echoed.
“Is Daddy coming to get me this week?” Gabby asked, half a piece of pancake hanging from her mouth.
“That’s pretty.” Riley laughed.
Gabby snickered and chewed wildly.
“No, he’s coming next Saturday. You’re going to spend the first part of your break with Mommy and the last part with Daddy.” Gabby smiled wildly; then Riley saw the light slowly dim behind Gabby’s eyes. For six, her mind worked way too hard. “Whatcha thinking?”
“That you’ll be by yourself. I don’t like you being by yourself, Mommy.”
Gabby could still get her in the deep place. Riley set her fork down. “Angel girl, you don’t have to worry about Mommy. I love it that you get to go see Daddy. And you need to spend that time enjoying him and Amanda, not worrying about me, okay? I’ve got a lot of things to keep me busy and I want you to have fun. That’s what matters to Mommy. Okay?”
Gabby had stopped chewing and begun talking, her Southern accent as thick as pluff mud, keeping Charleston always before her. “But now we have to fly to get to you. Used to, you could just drive.”
Riley placed her hand on Gabby’s exposed knee that stuck out from her shorts. “But Mommy can get to you at any time if I need to. So you just know that. Mommy’s not going anywhere. Got it? Not ever again. You can get to me anytime and I can get to you anytime.”
Gabby’s voice was solemn. “Anytime?”
Riley gave her a reassuring smile and wished for a six-year-old instead of a thirty-year-old. “Anytime. Now eat up. You and Ted have a busy day.”
Gabby jammed her fork into a piece of pancake and stuck it in her mouth. Her muffled tones came through anyway. “Ted’s going to be a hit!”
“A surefire hit.”
When Gabby’s form disappeared through the front door of St. Andrew’s School, the International School of the Bahamas, Riley could finally deal with the heaviness that Gabby’s words had blanketed over her heart. She had spent the last few years climbing out of heavy moments that were as boggy and stinky as Charleston’s marshes. Thankfully, she handled them much differently now than she had in the past. Now she plowed through them when they swept over her. She didn’t avoid them. Nor did she stay in them. She simply put her head down and didn’t look up until she got to the other side.
The second prayer of the day was made on the way to the hotel. And by the time she got there, one more moment had been experienced, grieved, and left. She was through existing. Even if living meant fording through pain, that was a journey worth taking. To her, living meant no longer hiding. Hiding had robbed her of years with Gabby, of her marriage, and almost of herself. No, there would be no more hiding.
Riley parked her car in the employee parking lot and headed toward The Cove, one of the exclusive properties on the Atlantis complex. This place took her breath away. She couldn’t imagine a day that it wouldn’t.
Towering palm trees swayed slowly with the subtle breeze of the tropical morning as she stepped into the porte cochere that welcomed guests at The Cove.
She passed a young valet. “Hey, Bart.” They had become friends on her first day.
“Hello, Miss Riley. You and Gabby enjoying your weekend?”
She smiled. “So far, so good.”
“So is this our week?” he said with his thick Bahamian accent, an accent that could move with such a quick cadence, she sometimes had to make him repeat himself.
“I’m thinking Friday would be great.”
His huge white smile took over his black face. “Well, that’s what I was thinking.” The pitch of his voice rose. “I’ll meet you at the end of the aisle.”
“Don’t be late,” she chided at their little joke. Then laughed from deep inside. He had been proposing marriage since she’d arrived, even though he was probably twenty years younger than she was. But now he no longer proposed marriage, only the wedding date.
She headed into the Nave, the open-air lobby of The Cove, with its thirty-five-foot teak ceiling and magnificent sculptured lines. This six-hundred-suite tower was her responsibility. Her small heels clicked on the stone flooring as she walked through the expansive walkway, then softened when they met the deep wood that encased the stone. She walked into the glassed-in guest services offices directly across the hall from guest registration.
“Hello, Mia,” she said to the newest staff member and her top assistant. Mia had arrived two weeks ago from Australia. The staff was as much a melting pot as were the guests who stayed in their rooms.
“Hello, Riley.” Her face lit up as Riley walked by. “Busy week I hear.”
“Yes. A few special guests this week.”
Mia’s long blonde locks fell across her shoulder as she pulled a leather portfolio from her black Chanel bag. With the straw market at the port in Nassau where the cruise ships came in, Riley knew that fake designer handbags ruled in most of the Bahamas. But not so much here. Fake handbags were as scorned in this luxurious environment as husbands with laptops, but both sneaked in every now and then.
She followed behind as Riley walked into her office. Mia’s long, lean legs bridged the chasm quickly. “So who are our VIPs this week?”
Riley looked down at the large desktop calendar to the names written in red ink. Three women arrived today. Three women whose arrivals had been preceded by slightly panicked phone calls: one from a detailed agent, one from a concerned parent, and one conference call from three loving and determined children.
“Let’s see here; our primary focus will be Laine Fulton, the author. She’s coming here to research for her new book.”
Mia scribbled in her notebook like a diligent student. “I hear she’s demanding,” she said in her slightly frantic way.
Riley’s ears piqued at her statement. In the two weeks Mia had been here, Riley had been slightly disarmed by her moments of childishness quickly diffused by an action of maturity. She couldn’t figure Mia out. Her outward beauty was obvious. Her reactions not so much. “You have? How so?”
“Oh, I have a friend who hosted her at a property in Dubai. She used that as the setting of her last book. She said there are as many layers to Laine Fulton as there are characters in her novels.”
“I prefer to think she’s a woman who knows what she wants. And she happens to want things a specific way. I spoke with her agent this morning and --- ”
“Mitchell?” Mia interrupted.
Riley cocked her head. “Yes, Mitchell.”
“That’s her ex-husband. And I heard he wasn’t her agent anymore,” Mia responded matter-of-factly.
“Yes, well…okay.” Riley shook her head. “Let’s stay on our toes with her this week and make sure everything runs smoothly. Her specific room requests should have been taken care of, and it sounds like she’ll be occupying a lot of my time. So if you could go make sure everything is in place, that would be great. Just in case I don’t get to go back and check.”
“No problem.” Mia continued to write. “Who else?”
“We’ve got a young lady named Tamyra Larsen. She’s a ‘Miss Something,’ but I can’t remember what her title is.”
“Not a pageant girl.” Mia scrunched her nose and shook her head. “Really?”
“I’m sure she’s delightful. And her mother called and…well, she sounded really concerned about her.”
“So we’re to babysit a beauty queen? I hear they all need babysitting.”
Riley gave Mia her best smile. “We don’t babysit, Mia. We take care of our guests. Plus, I have a daughter. I know what worried parents sound like, and this mother was worried. So, beauty queen or not, we need to keep our eyes on her.”
Mia looked up. Her blue eyes held Riley’s. “Consider it done.”
“Finally, we have Ms. Winnie Harris.”
“Yes, Dr. Harris actually, but her children said she only uses that title at school. She’s a principal at a high school in Nashville.”
“Oh, that kind of doctor.”
“Yes, that kind. And her children are really concerned about her because she has never been on a vacation alone. Her husband died three years ago and this is her first vacation without him. So it’s our responsibility to make sure she is taken care of. And she made a special request not to be able to see the Beach Tower from her room.”
Mia eyed her oddly. “Why?”
“I have no idea. We don’t ask why. We just fulfill the requests.” Riley patted her calendar and raised her head. “I believe that’s it.”
Mia closed her portfolio and stuck it back in her bag. “I’ll go check on each of their rooms and make sure they are ready as soon as our guests arrive.”
“Thanks. We’ll catch up later.”
Mia walked out of the office, and Riley sat down. She studied the three names again, making sure she had them committed to memory. She knew what it meant to a guest to be known by name. So she had made remembering a practice ever since she had gone into the hospitality business fifteen years ago. She knew there would be other guests that required her attention this week. But as of today there were only three that were demanding it. Whether they knew it or not.
Riley exited the elevator of the suite tower. Laine Fulton’s room was ready to go. Everything she had requested, from the fully stocked liquor cabinet to the pistachios and the all-black M&M’S, awaited her arrival. Her entire bedroom had been rearranged at Mitchell’s request, the desk placed in front of the sliding-glass doors to give a view of the ocean. Mia had done an excellent job paying attention to every detail. Now all Riley had to do was wait for her guests to arrive.
She headed down to the Cain, the adult-only pool, to check on Laine’s poolside cabana.
A body glided up beside her. “Hey, Riley. Mind if I walk with you?”
She turned toward him, but she knew that voice. She and Christian Manos had worked side by side, he at The Reef, she at The Cove, for the last six months. Their virtually identical jobs brought them to a place of familiarity quicker than most. And that closeness had awakened things in her she hadn’t felt in a long time. That’s why she had taken to avoiding him. Her pace increased with the rate of her heartbeat. “No. Not at all.” She pushed her hair back and turned to look into his beautiful, tanned face.
“Are you coming to the meeting this afternoon?”
She could smell his cologne. The breeze carried it right up her nose. “Umm…no.” She blinked hard. “I’ve got a couple arrivals this afternoon that I’ve got to make sure get settled in okay. Mia is covering for me.” She gave a soft smile.
“The luxury of revolving guests,” he said.
“Yes, must be nice to have stationary guests.” The Reef was a property of luxury condominiums with part-time residents instead of temporary vacationers.
“Very nice. But it looks as if it will prevent you from coming to the meeting. So does that mean it would prevent you from grabbing some lunch before?” he asked, stopping short of one of the poolside towel cabanas. His six-foot-one build towered over her petite frame.
Riley stopped too. “Oh?”
He smiled, the fresh sun on his cheeks. “Yeah, I just wondered if you’d like to have lunch. But it sounds like you’re pretty busy. Seems like work is taking up all your time. So I guess maybe we could make it dinner, then.”
She knew he could see her heart beating at the base of her neck. This was a date. A date offered by a man who did something to the increase of her pulse that even running a 5K didn’t do. She knew she must look extremely awkward, standing there, mouth slightly open, but she wasn’t sure what came after this. It had been so long.
“I’m thinking…you’re wanting to say something?” The subtleties of his Greek accent were still present.
She shook her head to try to break her trance. He was almost too pretty to be a boy. And every time he got near her, heat rose to her face no matter the temperature. “Oh yeah, dinner…Well, sure. I guess…I think dinner would be nice…maybe.”
He laughed, his white teeth taking over his face. Taking it over perfectly. And they were a stark contrast to his tousled black hair. “I’m thinking, ‘Sure, I guess, nice, maybe’ is not quite the response I was hoping for.”
Riley laughed awkwardly. “I’m sorry. I…Well, you don’t need to know all of that. But I…” She breathed in deeply and sighed loudly. This was what she had been trying to avoid. “I’d like that. Dinner. Sometime. Yes. Sure. I’d like that.”
He laughed again. “Okay, I’ll take that. I was thinking maybe this evening.”
She shifted on her heels, placing her hand awkwardly on her hip, and scrunched her lips. “Oh . . . this evening…well. That soon?”
He reached out and touched her arm. The hair on her arms shot to attention. She hadn’t been touched with this effect in a very long time. Old Mr. Tucker, who directed housekeeping and loved to touch her arm, had never caused quite the same reaction.
“If tonight doesn’t work, we can pick another night.”
She knew if she hesitated, she’d talk herself out of it. “No… no…tonight would be great. But it’s probably too late notice to get a sitter for Gabby.”
“Bring her. We’ll have a blast.”
She studied his face. But the inflection of his voice had convinced her he meant it. He let his hand fall to his side. She resisted the urge to grab it and put it back. “Yeah?”
“Sure. There’s this great little place over on Nassau. It’s where the locals hang out. Is that okay? It’s really casual.”
“Gabby and I do casual very well.”
“Can I pick you up at six thirty?”
“Yeah, six thirty will be fine.”
He reached up and patted her arm again, grabbing it slightly as he did. “It will be fun. Thank you for saying yes.”
“Sure. Yeah. No problem.”
She watched as he headed around the walkway and back up toward The Reef. His brown leather flip-flops slapped against the concrete and reverberated on her insides. She bit her lip. “Sure? Yeah? No problem? Are you an idiot?” she whispered as she headed back toward her office. “You get asked out on your first date in fifteen years --- by a beautiful man, no less --- and you say, ‘Sure. Yeah. No problem.’ You are an idiot.” She shook her head and turned toward the pool. Fear dropped with a thud in her gut. It pressed harder with each step she took. By the time she reached Laine’s cabana, it had taken over, verifying one thing. She would not be going out with Christian Manos tonight. Or any night.