The Inn at Oak Creek
A Starting Over Novel - Book 4
Brave. Bold. Brainy. One woman reached for the gold, one for the law, one for the university, and one ran as far from home as possible. But often, the best laid plans fall apart, and Starting Over is the only thing to do.
Molly Porter’s personal and professional dreams are over after a horrific skiing accident during a practice run with the U.S. Olympic team. Ten years later, she is developing a second career as hotel manager of the Bluebonnet Inn in Texas, far away from her New England roots. Life is as good as it can be despite her scars, some visible and some not. Molly can no longer have children.Sam Kincaid has lost three dotcom companies as well as his girlfriend, and is left with nothing except his car--and the historic hotel Molly manages. Their opinions of each other are downright low, but facing common goals brings them closer. Until Molly recognizes how much Sam wants a family of his own. She must reveal the truth, but if she does, will she be headed for another crash?
On her skis at the three-thousand-foot mark, Molly Porter paused beyond the lift station, pushed her goggles to her forehead and scanned the horizon in her usual deliberate manner. First to the left, then to the right, her eyes absorbed what Mother Nature had provided. Slowly, a smile tugged at Molly’s mouth. Beauty. Today, she was surrounded by beauty.
Snow-covered mountains glistened in the bright winter sun. Virgin snow mostly, pristine white blankets barely marred by skiers’ tracks. Overhead in the never-ending sky, small fluffy clouds were scattered across the field of blue. Molly blinked back incipient tears. No artist could reproduce the panorama that touched her soul.
She sighed with pleasure as she snapped a mental picture of the view, then tucked the memory away and shifted her attention to the challenge ahead. No, not this slope. The run down this mountainside would be for sheer pleasure, a time-out to mentally prepare herself to win the gold. Olympic gold. For her country, for her family, for herself.
She dug her poles into the hard-packed snow, shifted her weight and started her run, dreaming of what the medal would mean to Diamond Ridge, her family’s ski resort in Vermont. Mom and Dad would burst with pride, but her sister and brother-in-law would couple their cheers with an advertising campaign to grow the business yet again.
At the base of the mountain, Molly checked her watch and quickly caught up with the rest of her teammates. Respect, affection and loyalty had already bonded them into a unit. An American unit seeking a medal sweep for the United States. They were competitors, every last one of them. They were athletes, healthy and strong, both physically and mentally.
She grinned at her friend Julie, who jabbed repeatedly at her watch. “Sorry,” said Molly. “I needed my own space for a minute.”
“Find your own space later,” Julie replied. “Now get ready for a timed run.” Julie inclined her head toward the rest of the group as they made their way to the lifts.
“Not to worry, Jules,” said Molly, “I am ready. I’ve been ready for twenty-two years, my whole life. Centered and focused. Even have my number on.” Molly pointed at her vest where the number six stood a foot-and-a-half tall.
“Jeez, I don’t know why I worry about you,” Julie grumbled. “You’ve already posted the fastest time during our trial runs so far. And you’re always in total control.”
“Is that a polite way of saying I’m a control freak?” Molly laughed, unconcerned about the answer. Control was the name of the game when it was played at seventy miles an hour or more.
“Nah,” said Julie. “Maybe I wish I had a little extra.”
Molly glanced at her friend and squeezed her shoulder. “There’s nothing wrong with you or your skiing. In fact, I’ve never seen you in better form.”
A moment passed before Julie answered. “Thanks, Molly. Coming from you, it means a great deal.”
Coming from her? Molly shrugged. She wasn’t the captain of the Olympic team as she’d been of her high-school team. And Julie had only known her since they’d met at the nationals two years ago. But Molly was used to leadership, of taking the initiative. If she could inject a fraction more confidence in the other girl, so much the better for everyone.
“Our turn,” said Molly, slipping onto the chairlift, and leaving room for Julie. “Look,” she said seconds later, pointing at some men with video equipment riding the big cats partway up the hill. “Seems like we’re being filmed today.”
“Does it bother you?” asked Julie.
“Of course not,” Molly replied, a little surprised at the question. “I’m so focused on my skiing, I don’t even notice. And besides,” she added with a grin, “I like to study myself later. If I can increase my speed even a fraction of a second by doing something a little differently, I’ll do it.”
“I know, Molly,” Julie said. “We all know.” Then Julie grinned. “And we all do the same thing.”
Molly returned her friend’s smile. Skiing at top form was their job. It was definitely her goal. She was at one with the mountain, in Vermont, Colorado, or here in Lake Placid, New York at the Olympic Training Center. In every season of the year, she ran to the mountains—climbing, hiking or skiing. During every school break from college during the past two years, she’d first visit her family and then head to the sky-high summits. She craved that time, that space. Her older sister, Amanda, understood it best because she’d run to the mountains too, years ago, when she’d needed solitude.
Now Molly slid from the chair, skied into the start house and waited for her turn, after Julie. She spoke to no one. Instead, she stood near the entrance, goggles in place and studied the terrain. Little by little, the people and noise around her faded until she was in her own world, concentrating only on the mountain, on what she was born to do.
“Porter, get ready.”
Molly nodded, stepped to the start gate and leaned forward into position.
She shot down the slope, legs pumping, skis gliding, picking up speed with every stroke against the snow. The wind whipped her cheeks as she banked into each turn, pushing and pushing, hoping her skill along with gravity would take a second or more off her time.
She hit sixty miles an hour, sixty-five, then seventy by the half-way point. She was on! Might even establish a new personal best. Shifting her weight, she took a turn, then headed straight downhill again.
Faster, faster and into another turn. What the...? Ice. Hidden ice. Her skis chattered and slid. Applying pressure to catch an edge, Molly leaned over hard. And then everything happened at once.
Her skis slipped out from under her, catapulting her into a backwards somersault. Her shoulder slammed into the slope, the skis now above her head. Ice tore at her cheek as she continued to slide down the mountain. Roll with it! Roll with it! She twisted to get control. Too fast. She was spinning too fast. Head over heels, she pinwheeled. Her legs tangled. One ski off, one ski still on. She couldn’t breathe. Over and over, cartwheeling, banging her head against the hard-packed snow. Her vision dimmed, blackened. Inhale! Blinking as she hurtled down the hill like an out-of-control missile, she glimpsed the orange safety fence looming in front of her, a virtual brick wall.
Good-bye, family. I love you.
Four years later...
Sam Kincaid faced a room filled with his employees and knew what hell felt like. A powerful heat. A powerful sweat. But most of all, a powerful sorrow.
He cleared his throat, hating what he had to do, and hating himself for having caused the bankruptcy. He glanced at his watch. One o’clock. By five after, they’d all know. The telling would be over.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” he began, “and thank you for being so prompt.” He hoped his voice wouldn’t crack as it did so often when he was an adolescent. Funny, how at twenty-nine, he didn’t seem so far removed from his younger self.
The room had become quiet, all eyes studying him. He tried to smile, but his effort fell short. Just like his efforts to capitalize on the dot-com revolution.
He gazed at the large group in front of him, people he had recruited, who had believed in him. They’d use him for spit when he was through.
“There’s not a man or woman in this room who I don’t respect,” he began. His voice was steady enough, but dang, if his Texas drawl hadn’t reappeared to keep his nerves company. A southern twang in a Silicon Valley crowd.
“You’ve worked hard to build a business with me,” he continued. “Toys-2-Go.com required creative energies, technical skills and an old-fashioned work ethic. And you’ve come through with them all.”
He wished he could stop right there and turn the funeral into a celebration. But folks don’t celebrate when they lose their jobs.
“The company should have succeeded,” he said. “But it hasn’t.”
Now he heard a murmur go through the room. He waited. “The bottom line is that our assets are being liquidated. Capital equipment, inventory, everything. Toys-2-Go.com no longer exists, and we are all out of jobs. Including me.”
Deafening silence greeted his announcement. He’d expected it, but the intensity contained an element of drama he wasn’t used to.
Then came the questions. Yes, they’d be eligible for unemployment. No, there was no outplacement service. Couldn’t afford it. What about Sam’s other two online companies?
Sam met their collective gaze and swallowed hard. “This is my first go-round.” His voice did break now, but he quickly coughed to cover it up. “When I leave here, I’ll be visiting Groceries-2-Go.com and then Books-2-Go.com.” He spoke the words; he heard the words, but couldn’t believe he was saying the words. Perspiration trickled down his back, and he shivered in the warm room.
The day was, without doubt, the worst day of his life. “Three years ago,” he said, almost ruminating, “we all thought the world was ours.”
“Then why?” asked Fred Marks, a customer service supervisor and one of Sam’s most loyal employees. “Why have the companies gone under?”
Sam’s thoughts raced. How should he answer? He could be flippant. He could go with the economic theories of supply and demand and simply admit they had too much supply and not enough demand. But that would be only part of it. They’d gone under for the same reasons that ninety-one other dot-coms closed their doors since the “revolution” began.
The big hype. The limitless possibilities on line. The excitement of the new economy. Greed. Investors had hopes of fast money, and venture capitalists had lowered their standards. Sam hadn’t seen that his companies, as well as the other failed companies, were built on a foundation of sand.
But blaming others had never been his style. His folks hadn’t brought him up that way. He took a deep breath. “We went under because I made mistakes.”
He’d been the CEO—still was—at least until the filings were completed. The bottom line was his responsibility. He should have taken more time to analyze. He should have known better. He’d earned two degrees, one in computer technology, the other an MBA from Stanford. He should have known better!
His friends at the software design company he’d worked at after his second graduation, had backed him in these online ventures. Buddies from school had invested as well. And now, not only were almost a thousand good people out of work, his friends had lost everything.
And so had he.
Sam’s shirt was totally damp when he returned to his upscale duplex that evening. With impatient fingers, he managed to pull the buttons through the holes, and by the time he opened the door, the shirt had become a crumpled ball in his fist. He tossed it on the floor and pushed his hair out of his eyes for the millionth time that day. His straight hair always seemed to be too long, falling down his forehead even a day after it was cut. Next time he’d opt for a military style.
He finally closed the door behind him and welcomed the familiarity of home, like an injured wolf returning to his lair. A safe place to lick his wide-open wounds. But was his home safe? He studied his surroundings—the parquet floors, the soft leather couch, the beautiful cherry desk in his office—and he had his answer. No. This home was no longer safe because soon it would no longer be his. Another month. Two, at best. He rented the apartment at an exorbitant rate, always too busy managing his companies to take the time to invest in a permanent home.
In the beginning, the money flowed like champagne on New Year’s Eve. Each day was a holiday. There was no rush to buy a condo or a house. That would come later like so many other dreams...
Sam leaned against the door and started to laugh. Not a happy sound. The three-year roll had been too good to be true. Suddenly, his dad’s plain-spoken voice echoed in his mind. If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. His hard-working, common sense dad had been right again.
His heart lurched as he pictured his folks back in Texas. He’d grown up just outside of Austin, where his parents still lived. Sam was their only child, their “miracle” baby,” and he’d dreamed of providing miracles for them each time he visited. Money for their retirement, for trips, for whatever they wanted.
He kicked his shirt along the hall toward the bedroom, not gaining any satisfaction in its light weight and weak resistance to his foot. He’d rather be kicking ass. Or at least a football. Instead, he donned a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes, eager to escape the depression that stalked him. A beautiful April evening beckoned.
He jogged toward the kitchen for a fast drink of water hoping that Adrienne would stop over that night, then sniffed the air. Adrienne’s perfume. A bold aroma for a bold contemporary woman. His girlfriend had a key to his apartment, a convenient arrangement. He must have just missed her. Too bad. He could have used her support today. God knew, he’d tried to provide all-out support to her this past month regarding a totally different problem. He amended the thought. His ambitious girlfriend considered it a problem. For him, her unplanned pregnancy, while a definite accident, was still classified as a miracle in his mind.
Sam stopped in his tracks at the threshold to the kitchen when he spotted the array of items on the table. He frowned. He hadn’t left anything cluttering the place. He walked closer.
A key, a tie, a plastic supermarket bag with...underwear—his underwear—and two pairs of socks... What the...? And then he noticed a note in Adrienne’s block style print. “Check your email,” it said, “and you’ll understand my decision.”
He opened his laptop and logged in. And there it was. At the top of his Inbox.
I wish you the best, Sam, but I’m flying solo now. There’s too much negative energy around you, and I can’t afford to be surrounded by failure when I’m on a fast track straight up. I’m leaving town tonight and taking care of our little—shall we say—problem. You’re off the hook. I won’t be back. My promotion came through, and I’m relocating out of the country. Please don’t try to track me down. Don’t contact me. I’m doing what I want. Good luck. No hard feelings.
He stared at the screen, dumbfounded. Would this day never end? Was he having a nightmare or an out-of-body experience? Maybe he was acting in a play?
Self-deprecating laughter threatened to erupt in his throat. Unshed tears pressed behind his eyes, and pain throbbed throughout his body. On what scale would he measure losing the promise of a child? Losing a connected human being? And losing Adrienne? Beautiful, sensuous, violet-eyed Adrienne? A yearning traveled through him, but stopped just short of his heart. He drew a breath. Was his loss for what might have been rather than for what they had really shared?
Sam walked to the window, needing to see the sun, needing to know it still shone. The park beckoned through the glass with its familiar mile-long tree-shaded track. He needed the track tonight just as he needed to feel the sun before it faded from the sky. But instead of running his usual five laps, he’d walk them. He couldn’t run on empty.
A month later, Sam lost count of the number of meetings he’d had with accountants and lawyers, how many papers he’d signed, or how many phone calls he’d made to arrange for the liquidation of inventory. On the last day of May, he visited that inventory in the graveyard of dot-coms. A warehouse the size of eight football fields, it housed the remains not only of his products, but the inventory of hundreds of companies that had closed their doors. Legally, his visit wasn’t mandated, but he wanted to go. He wanted to see the process through to the end. And then maybe he could walk away with some of his conscience salved.
As therapy, it wasn’t great, he admitted to himself when he left the warehouse behind him that evening. Like going through nicotine withdrawal or a last goodbye. But at least the visit was over. The meetings were over. The bankruptcy filings were over. Everything was finished. He hadn’t run away; instead, he’d seen it through. He was exhausted.
And now he had to begin all over again.
As he drove back to his apartment, he sorted his priorities. First, he needed money. And second, he needed time. His financial situation was serious because he’d plowed all his profit back into his companies. He considered his best plan of action. While his first love was software—hell, he could write the stuff blindfolded—he craved the challenge of managing a complete entity. He needed to re-establish himself in order to run a high-tech business again, and that would take time.
He pounded the steering wheel in frustration. Who was he kidding? He didn’t have time. He needed an income now! Any reasonable job would do. He was still young—he still had time to make his mark. He’d start an all-out job search tomorrow.
Third priority, he needed a cheap place to live until he got back on top. He grew up living plain. He could do it again. He’d start looking for apartments tomorrow.
And fourth, he had to finally accept Adrienne’s defection. He hadn’t heard from her. Rumor had it that she’d relocated to Europe, maybe the French division of her corporation. He’d had virtually no time to do any detective work—and judging from her parting message, she wouldn’t have appreciated it if he had.
Adrienne was who she was, and she was going her own way. He could deal with that. Their relationship had certainly been affectionate and sexually intimate. But was there love? True love? He didn’t think so. It wasn’t Adrienne or her departure, that caused a hard knot to form in his middle. It was the other matter that made him wince, the other matter that he doubted he’d ever forget.
By the time he walked into his kitchen, his mind was clear. His priorities were clear. He was calm and ready to act. Ready for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough for him.
The blinking light on his answering machine caught his attention, and he pushed the button quickly. Maybe one of his buddies had come through with a job lead. But it was his dad’s voice he heard, the words coming slowly, with pauses for breaths. “Uncle John passed away today, Sam. Totally unexpected. Call when you get in.”
His hand shook as he punched the familiar Texas number. His heart raced, his mind refusing to believe. His dad’s brother was like a second father to him. He loved the man. Admired him, too. His uncle ran an historic hotel twenty miles west of his folks’ place, in the scenic and popular hill country. When his aunt died several years ago, the family thought his uncle would sell, since he and his aunt Ruth had no children. But Uncle John had surprised them. He needed to keep busy and the Bluebonnet Hotel would help him fulfill that goal.
His heart cringed at his mom’s pain-filled tone. “Hello, Mom. I just got Dad’s message. What happened?”
“Oh, Sam. I’m so glad you called. We’re all so upset. The poor man. There was no warning, nothing. A heart attack. And poof! He was gone.” Her voice broke. “Can you come home for a few days, son? We’ll plan the funeral around your schedule.”
“I’ll fly tomorrow,” he replied before slapping his forehead. His funds were too low to afford a last minute flight. “Never mind, Mom. I’ll drive down and stay as long as you need me.”
“You will? You can? But what about your job?”
“I can get away,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll be glad to see you, Sam. Very glad. Your dad and I miss you.”
“And I miss you, too.” A comfortable silence filled the airwaves for a moment until Sam thought about practicalities.
“What about the Bluebonnet, Mom? With you and Dad working your own jobs, is there anyone who can run it until we figure out what to do?”
“Yes, thank God. That’s all taken care of. Your uncle hired an assistant about two weeks ago. What timing! She’s young. Just graduated from hotel management school in the east. Maybe,” his mother said thoughtfully, “John was feeling poorly and needed someone to help him.”
“And didn’t tell you?”
“Your uncle wouldn’t have told me if he had a hangnail! Stubborn man.” Strong affection mixed with frustration in his mother’s voice.
“No,” said Sam. “Not stubborn. He just didn’t want you to worry.”
“And look what happened!”
Sam chuckled. Couldn’t help it. His mom always wanted to protect her family and fix whatever was wrong. She always thought she could make “it” better, whatever “it” happened to be. “You couldn’t have prevented this, Mom,” said Sam. “Don’t even think about it.”
“I know you’re right, but I wish...”
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Me, too.”
“Come home, Sam. We’re staying at the Bluebonnet in the meantime.”
“I’m on my way.”
Sam replaced the receiver, rearranging his list of priorities. No job searching, no apartment searching, no time for anything except some quick phone calls to his friends and getting himself back to Oak Creek, Texas, and the Bluebonnet Hotel. He laughed with a measure of irony. He might be broke, but at least he’d arrive in style. His BMW 535i was fully paid off and no one would be the wiser about his finances. Like his Uncle John, he didn’t want his folks to worry. With a little luck, they’d never have to know about his career, or the lack of it.
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Kincaid.”
Sam nodded at the young woman standing behind the front desk in the lobby of the Bluebonnet Hotel. She stood at an angle, reaching for something behind her, but her gentle voice reached him, softening her clipped vowels and Northern accent. Not Boston or New York, but somewhere on the east coast.
“Thank you,” Sam replied, nodding briefly before turning to scan the ornately tiled room. He noted the familiar wrought iron ceiling fans and wall sconces as he searched for his parents. It was late afternoon; he’d driven for almost two days non-stop, and he needed to crash. Where were his parents?
“Your folks aren’t here,” came the quiet voice again.
He swiveled around, his systems becoming alert. Was she reading his mind? “And you are...?”
“Molly Porter,” she replied, extending her hand across the desk. “The new assistant manager of the hotel, at least for now.”
She offered a firm handshake, her palm engulfed in his larger one. He assessed her quickly. Not his type. Her complexion was too pale, her face bare of cosmetics; her honey-blonde hair was pulled straight back and gathered behind her neck with a barrette. She wore a simple white cotton blouse, but it was her eyes that made him pause. They were the saddest eyes he’d ever seen. Or maybe...hopefully, they were just tired. Maybe she was tired. The past two days had to have been rough at the hotel because of his uncle’s death. But sad or tired, those big blue eyes were looking rock steady back at him.
“The new graduate?” he asked, remembering his mother’s words on the phone.
“That’s right. Cornell University School of Hotel Management.”
Great credentials, but she didn’t seem like a recent grad. Not with her calm self-possessed manner, or the patient way she waited for him to reply.
“Well, Ms. Porter,” he said, reaching for his suitcase, “which room is available to me?”
She smiled at him, and he blinked with surprise. What a difference! Beautiful. The woman was beautiful, and he was speechless. But...how? She had no style. She was nothing special. But when that smile appeared...
“I’m told we’re informal in Texas,” she said, “Call me Molly.”
She turned her head to procure a room key, and he barely controlled his gasp. A jagged scar snaked from her right temple down the side of her face all the way to her jaw. He shivered at the possibilities.
“Your parents are at the funeral home making arrangements,” she said, offering him the key. “I’ll let them know you’ve arrived as soon as they return, Mr. Kincaid.”
“Sam,” he replied. “Call me Sam. As you said, we’re informal here. Texas friendly.” He took the key and waited.
“Sorry, only have a third-floor single at the back. We’re full up. I’m sure you know the way.”
He grinned. “I certainly do.” He hefted his valise.
“Oh! One more thing,” Molly said.
Sam paused and turned his head.
“Thanks, but it’s only a visit.”
She offered another smile and waved his remark away. “Just following orders. Your folks asked me to welcome you home, so I have.”
“Then consider your mission accomplished.
She nodded. “If you need anything...”
“I know what to do. Thanks.” Too impatient to wait for an elevator, he strode to the closest staircase and started to climb while he sorted his impressions. Interesting woman. A little strange though, or maybe intriguing. Seemed competent behind the desk, but time would tell.
Curious, he looked back to observe her once more, and froze in place. Molly, in a long, flowing green and white print skirt, was slowly limping her way—long step, short step—across the wide lobby floor. Long step, short step.
He gaped at her uneven progress. Poor woman, but for God’s sake! What had his uncle been thinking? She may have the smarts, but certainly not the stamina to manage a busy, successful hotel. He shook his head. Changes would have to be made.
So that was the son Irene and George Kincaid were so proud of. Molly shrugged as she walked back to her office. He hadn’t struck her as anything special. Keeping in mind that the Kincaids were the older-than-average, doting parents of an only child, she decided to reserve judgment. She had to admit, however, that on the outside, Sam was a hunk. A six-foot, broad- shouldered, honest and true male hunk. Under the scruffy beard and shank of black hair that flopped into his intense dark eyes, Sam exemplified the male of the species in the prime of life. She hoped his interior profile was as handsome.
Impulsively, Molly glanced over her shoulder toward the staircase. Gotcha. Her eyes caught his and in his expression she saw...pity. She felt herself stiffen, her mouth harden and her eyes blaze. She hoped she scorched him with her stare.
With a slow, deliberate motion, she lifted her chin and turned her back, continuing on her way. Self-pity had almost defeated her in the past, and sometimes in the middle of the night, its tentacles still threatened to pull her under. But she’d finally conquered it during the past year—at least she’d made a start—and she wouldn’t let an outsider’s opinion undo her achievement.
She scanned the lobby as she walked, impressed with the Old World charm John Kincaid had maintained through the years. She would have enjoyed working here with him, a hotelier through and through, concerned about his guests and the quality of service the hotel provided. They had started to forge themselves into a strong management team. A long sigh escaped her. Poor guy. And as for her, well, she’d keep her suitcases half-packed despite the standard six-month contract she’d signed with John. Who knew what would happen to the hotel now?
She laughed at the irony of her situation. Her family had been against her taking this job and leaving Diamond Ridge, their ski resort in Vermont. Not after almost losing her four years ago. And not after going through hell to bring her back to life. They’d nursed her and cajoled her; they’d pushed, they’d pulled, they’d praised, they’d scolded, they’d cried, they’d laughed—in short, they’d fought like demons to make her well after the accident, when all she wanted to do was die. They simply refused to let her.
And when she was finally on her feet, they’d pushed her again. “Finish your degree. Go back to school.” Deep lines etched her dad’s face. He’d aged twenty years in two and he wasn’t a young man anymore. Her mom, also, had more gray hair than Molly cared to acknowledge.
Molly hadn’t needed a diploma to work at Diamond Ridge, and she hadn’t wanted to return to school. But when she looked into the faces of the people she loved and who loved her, and when her older sister, Amanda, said, “make new friends, be around young people, start over,” she knew she had to go. Not for her own sake, but for theirs.
Cornell University in upstate New York was close to home, and her family had heaved a collective sigh of relief about her proximity to them. Later, they sure hadn’t wanted her to find a job almost two thousand miles away! But Molly wanted out of snow country, away from the mountains, away from the joyful tumult of the busy slopes.
She settled back into the chair behind her desk, her fingertips absently stroking the scar on her cheek. It didn’t bother her. She’d trade her fractured bones for a dozen more scars in a heartbeat. For strong legs she’d trade anything. Damn! She’d been an athlete! An Olympian! Even now, the rage of injustice surged through her blood and her hands fisted on the desk.
If only she could undo that day. If only, she hadn’t skied so fast. If only she could blame someone or something. But it had been an accident. For cripes sake, a stupid accident. And no if onlys were going to change the outcome.
Snap out of it. Now! She focused on the paperwork in front of her and felt her tension slowly dissolve. Soon she was absorbed in the weekly reports from each department—Reservations, Catering, Housekeeping, Facilities, Staffing and Public Relations. She and John Kincaid had been reviewing the reports before his death. He’d been eager for her to learn as much as possible, and she’d appreciated his attitude. Work was therapy for her, a weapon against depression. As long as she was on the payroll, she’d continue to do her job at the Bluebonnet Hotel.
Two days later, after his uncle’s funeral, Sam stood next to his parents in the comfortable lobby of the hotel greeting visitors and accepting condolences. He’d shaken a least a hundred hands so far and more people were coming in.
“John had so many friends,” Irene Kincaid whispered. “After all the years in the same town, his business friends became personal ones.”
Sam nodded and wished all the friends would leave quickly. His mother looked tired, and his dad’s shoulders were bent with a heavy load of grief. No question, the brothers had been close, and his dad’s heart was breaking now.
“Why don’t the two of you sit down for a while,” he suggested, glancing around the room. Love seats and sofas coordinated with the old-fashioned decor, and he tried steering them toward the closest couch.
Irene shook her head. “No, dear. Molly’s set up the grand ballroom for lunch. Just a simple buffet.”
Sam nodded, resigned to another couple of hours making polite conversation. With seating for 200 people, their grand ballroom was the size of a normal party room in a modern hotel. Sam had a feeling that every one of those seats would have an occupant today. With his arm around his father’s shoulders, he escorted his parents to the ballroom.
“Oh!” Irene paused at the entrance. “Molly did a wonderful job. I think John would have approved.”
Vases of seasonal flowers and a variety of foods covered three long buffet tables, while round dining tables sported pale pink cloths with a pitcher of iced tea in the center. In the middle of the room, a table larger than the rest held a reserved sign next to a colorful bouquet. Sam led his parents directly to it.
“My brother took a liking to Molly,” said George Kincaid. “And maybe she took a liking to him, too. She once told me that John reminded her of her dad.”
Sam grunted. His uncle was gone; Molly’s feelings about him didn’t matter anymore. But he had to admit, her arrangements for the luncheon would have done John Kincaid proud.
“Sit for awhile,” Sam suggested. “I’ll bring you something.” Relieved when his parents acquiesced, he made his way to the buffet and filled a plate from the pasta table with tossed salad, garlic bread and penne pasta with house marinara sauce. He filled a second plate with honey glazed ham, smoked turkey breast, potato salad and two dinner rolls before bringing the selections to his parents. Now they’d be able to choose whatever they wanted. Whatever they could manage to eat.
As he returned to the buffet table to prepare a plate for himself, he saw Molly standing to the side, speaking to a server. The young man nodded and left. Then a woman approached her; they shook hands and soon were in animated conversation.
A long flowing skirt and short sleeve blouse tucked in at the waist seemed to be Molly’s self-imposed uniform. A pair of sandals adorned her feet, nails polished a bright red. A neat package. Self-contained.
She hadn’t noticed him yet. Just as well. For the last two days, he’d wanted to see her in action on the job, but except for brief moments he hadn’t run into her. Now he watched. He watched the staff defer to her; he watched visitors chat with her. And he watched her hold on to the back of a chair as she spoke with them.
How in tarnation could she run a business requiring the physical energy a hotel demanded? She should be sitting in one of the chairs, not holding it. And why was he getting so upset?
“Good afternoon,” he said when she was alone again, his voice harsher than he intended.
She turned quickly. Recognition, then wariness, crept into her eyes. She didn’t smile. “Good afternoon. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to attend the memorial service.”
“I see you were busy.” He nodded in the general direction of the whole room. “Thank you. It looks good. I guess you know how to manage.”
She caught his eye. “Yes. Yes, I do.” Her voice was quiet but emphatic. He’d have to be a stump of wood not to realize she was sending him a message. But why? And then he remembered the first night he arrived when she saw him watch her cross the lobby.
He winced inwardly. No one appreciated being pitied. Well, it wouldn’t be the first apology he’d offered lately. “Have you eaten yet, Molly?”
Her eyes widened, her brows raised. Good. He’d caught her off guard. Maybe he’d have a chance to redeem himself.
“I’ll have a meal later.”
She stood in front of him tall and proud, her posture as straight as a ruler. He wondered if the effort caused her pain. “Please have lunch with me,” he asked.
Now her mouth opened slightly. He’d surprised her again. Must have been the “please.”
She stared at him for so long, he had to force himself not to squirm. “Why?” she finally asked. “Why do you want to have lunch with me?”
“I owe you an apology.”
Now her chin hit the floor and Sam almost laughed. He’d thrown her off balance three times. Then her mouth curved into a full smile, and her somber blue eyes sparkled with mirth. Stunned at her loveliness, Sam dropped his empty plate. Who had surprised whom? She’d gotten the better of him without even knowing it.