March 15 . . .
As Hope Collins squinted at the enormous airplane roaring overhead, the icy sleet from an unexpected spring storm blasted her. She closed her eyes and grimaced, setting down her two suitcases to wipe her face before grinning as a flutter rippled through her midsection.
This is the last time—no more Chicago winters or spring surprises! Bending down, she wrestled her luggage through the automatic doors and into the departures section of O’Hare Airport.
It was nearly 9 p.m. and the hall’s blinding interior assaulted her eyes after the darkness outside. Finding the reader boards for her airline, she joined the line of people snaking its way to the check-in desks. As Hope slowly made her way through, she smiled, trying to guess the stories of the people around her.
No one who knew her would ever guess what she was embarking on. Those she hadn’t already told, of course.
An hour later, she was at the front of the line, and the agent called her up. “ID, please.” His blue blazer was crisp, but he had the tired bearing of someone who had been dealing with grumpy airline passengers all day. His trim, dark-brown hair looked like he’d run a hand through it more than once. Hope handed him her driver’s license. Another plus of my new home—don’t have to worry about all the international regulations.
The agent brought up her ticket information on his terminal and brightened. “St. Croix! Oh, I’m so jealous! You definitely have the right idea. How long are you staying?”
“I’m moving there.” The three words tumbled out of Hope’s mouth as she bounced on her feet.
He set down her ID with wide brown eyes. “That sounds even better. Goodbye, Chicago winters! You know, if you’re in the mood to celebrate, we have a discounted upgrade to first class for only $100. We have some unsold seats, so the price is pretty low for this route.”
Hope hesitated before saying, “Why not? I’m sure I’ll sleep better on the overnight flight. Upgrade me!”
This is your new start—splurge a little!
He processed her luggage and printed her boarding pass. “Your ticket includes access to our Club Lounge before your flight.” He gave her directions and sent her on her way.
After a surprisingly painless pass through security, she continued to the Club Lounge. The check-in agent peered at her boarding pass as if he were a bouncer in a club looking to reject the undesirables. Finally determining Hope had a magic ticket, he gave her a big fake smile and welcomed her into the lounge. Refraining from rolling her eyes, Hope regarded the area as she walked toward the bar. She’d never flown first class before.
So, this is how the other half lives.
Armchairs were arranged in an area far larger than she’d expected. Table lamps cast a warm glow around the lounge, and several large flat-screen televisions broadcasted a national news channel with the sound off. After finding a comfortable stuffed chair near the bar, Hope ordered a glass of red wine and relaxed into the soft leather with a mouthful of velvety smoothness. It was worth the splurge.
Ninety minutes later, she sipped a glass of champagne like a celebrity after settling into her first-class seat. She smiled at the middle-aged businesswoman seated next to her.
“Business or pleasure?” The woman, who had introduced herself as Barbara, wore a navy-blue suit with a crisp white shirt and a pencil skirt. Her navy pumps matched perfectly.
Hope thought for a moment. “A little of both, I guess. I’m moving to St. Croix for a new business opportunity, but I’m hoping it will be a pleasure.” She paused. “It’s really a complete life change for me.” The flutter of excitement was back.
Barbara’s eyes sparkled. “Oh, that sounds dramatic—tell me more.”
“The short version is I’ve won a scuba diving resort there. I’m flying down now to take it over and make it my own.”
Barbara gaped at Hope before snapping her mouth shut. “I think I’m going to need the long version. Good thing it’s a long flight and we get free drinks!”
Hope smiled and took a sip of champagne. Sitting here right now, she couldn’t believe how completely her life had changed in only four weeks.
Four Weeks Ago . . .
I am NOT predictable.
Hope opened the door of the shop, the warm coffee-scented air wafting out to her as she hurried away from the biting sleet of the winter’s morning. As she frowned at the assorted pastries on offer, her mind returned to the conversation she’d had with her boyfriend, Kyle, the evening before.
“There’s nothing wrong with being predictable,” he’d said. “It’s reassuring, like a favorite pair of slippers.”
She glared at him as she crossed her arms. “I’m slippers to you? Seriously? I can be fun and spontaneous, but I’m also an adult and try to act like one. Are you saying I’m boring?”
“I didn’t mean it as an insult. Forget I mentioned it.” He sighed and went back to scrolling on his phone.
The problem was, she couldn’t forget it. She unclenched her fists and took a deep breath of caffeinated air. They had been together for nearly two years, so maybe things were getting a little stale.
“Good morning, Hope! I saw you in line, so I made your coffee,” said the barista, Ashley, in her crisp green apron.
Hope furrowed her brow as she swept back a lock of chestnut hair. “How did you know what I was going to order?”
Ashley’s smile fell. “Oh! You always get a Grande Skinny Vanilla Latte. If you want something else today, it’s ok. I’ll make a new one.”
Hope ran her card through the reader. “No, my usual is fine. I didn’t realize I was so, uh, obvious.”
Ashley’s sunny smile returned. “We’ve got to have our routines, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Thanks.” Hope grabbed the coffee, chewing on a fingernail as she walked toward the door.
Am I getting a wake-up call here? Kyle and Ashley?
The icy sleet once again pelted her as she left the shop and headed toward her car. Pulling her coat tighter, she had much more important things to think about. You’ve earned this promotion. It’s time to prove it to Terrance.
Hope started her car, rubbing her hands together in front of the heating vents before driving the two miles to work. Pulling into the parking lot of Rosemont Inn & Suites, her trusty SUV only skidded a little. I really hate snow.
She inspected the tall building before her. Built fifteen years ago, the hotel still looked modern and upscale. The light-gray rectangular facade was broken up with rows and columns of windows. Royal-blue accent lighting was still on in the darkness.
Eduardo, the front-desk clerk, grinned from his computer as she passed by into her office. “Morning, Hope. It’s another gorgeous day.”
He soon appeared at her door, his black hair short and clean. Eduardo was thirty but looked fifteen—he complained he still got carded. “Hey, isn’t your interview today?”
“Ugh. Chicago winters are the worst. And yes, my interview is this afternoon. Assistant general manager has a nice ring to it. If things go well, your sentence with me as front-desk manager will soon end.”
Eduardo smirked. “Well, you’ve worked here forever. They’d be stupid not to promote you.”
There was a poster on the wall of a runner breaking the tape as she won a race. The caption read, Good Things Come to Those Who Don’t Give Up. “Sometimes it feels like forever, but it’s been ten years. And thanks for the compliment.”
Later that morning, Hope sat in her office looking over occupancy lists when raised voices drifted in from the front desk. She smiled at Eduardo’s soothing tone as he tried to calm a customer.
“What do you mean you aren’t giving me an upgrade? Don’t you know I’m a Gold member?”
“Yes, I see that, and we thank you for your loyalty. Unfortunately, we don’t have any suites to upgrade you to. Our check-in time isn’t until 3 p.m. If you’d prefer to wait for a better room, I can see what opens up between now and then and call you immediately.” Eduardo used the extra-sweet tone he always took with awful customers.
The man bellowed, “This is completely unacceptable!”
Ok, that’s enough.
Hope rose and approached the front desk, finding a very large and very red middle-aged man looming in front of the counter. He wore a rumpled suit, and his graying hair stuck up on one side.
She peeked at Eduardo’s computer screen to scan the details before putting on her best professional smile and introducing herself. “Hello, Mr. Goodson. Eduardo is absolutely right about no suites being available, but I have a great corner room that just opened up. Would that work? I know it’s an inconvenience, but our options are limited when checking in this early in the day.”
Goodson deflated. He’d been puffed up, spoiling for a fight. “Ok. I guess that could work. I’ve been flying all night, and it was a terrible flight.”
Hope’s face hurt from smiling so hard. “I understand completely. Red-eyes are the worst.” The fire in the hearth gave a loud pop, making Goodson jump. “I’ll let Eduardo finish getting you checked in. Our restaurant is open if you’d like to get breakfast.”
He shook his head, still grumpy. “At this point, I only want to get some sleep.”
“Our rooms are soundproof, so that should help. Please let me know if there is anything else you need. I’m here to help.” Hope handed him her card. “I’ll leave you in Eduardo’s expert hands.”
“Thank you,” Goodson said, flushing now.
Hope smiled and walked back to her office. Entitled Elite Number One handled for today. He wouldn’t be the last, but she could handle people like him in her sleep.
At 12:58, Hope walked through the door of the executive conference room with her back straight and shoulders squared. Terrance, the general manager, sat at the conference table with the food and beverage manager and the current assistant general manager on either side of him.
“Good afternoon, Hope.” Terrance smiled. “Please have a seat.” As usual, he looked like he could have stepped out of Inc. Magazine. Not a wrinkle in his suit, and his salt-and-pepper hair perfectly groomed.
After exchanging pleasantries, Lydia, the F&B manager, narrowed her eyes and asked, “What is your experience here, Hope?”
She straightened and met Lydia’s eyes. As if you don’t know. We have lunch once a month. “I’ve worked here ten years. Four years as a front-desk assistant and the past six years as front-desk manager. I know the ins and outs of a wide variety of hotel operations.”
Terrance steepled his hands in front of him. “You’ve done excellent work here, Hope. How do you feel your current position has prepared you for assistant general manager?”
“I’m good with people. When I took this position, the front-desk associate turnover was sky high. Nobody wanted to work the front desk.” She shifted her gaze to Mark, the outgoing assistant manager who was taking over their hotel at the Denver airport. He was also the person she had replaced as front-desk manager. “I haven’t needed to hire an employee in over a year. I don’t think any other department manager here can say that.”
Hope turned back to Terrance. “The assistant manager needs to know every detail of the hotel and make sure the small things are done right. The front desk is the first point of contact for guests. We deal with everything, and I’ve just about seen it all. My department also has the highest guest-survey ratings in the hotel.”
Lydia looked impressed, and Terrance had a warm glow in his eyes.
“I’ve been here for a long time, and I’m one of the most experienced employees you’ve got. Terrance, we’ve had multiple discussions about increasing my responsibilities here. In short, I think you’d have a very hard time finding anyone more qualified for this position.”
Sitting back in her chair, Hope looked at the wall clock, surprised it was nearly 3:30. Still on a high after her interview, she smiled as her phone vibrated with a text from Kyle.
Kyle: Dinner tonight? I made a reservation at Olive Tree for 5:30. Ok?
Hope: Perfect! See you then.
Olive Tree was one of her favorite restaurants, and she was definitely in the mood for a celebration. Hopefully, he wants to make up for being an ass last night, though he might have a point. This new job could be exactly what I need to shake up my routine a little.
Eduardo ducked his head into her office. “So tell me! How did the interview go?”
“Great.” Hope smiled widely. “They still have more candidates to interview, so they won’t announce the position quite yet. But they didn’t throw me any major curveballs, and I’ve certainly paid my dues here.”
“Well, you get my vote. Ok, I’m out of here.” He turned to look at her, one hand gripping the door frame. “You’re not working late again, are you?”
“Nope. Dinner date at 5:30.”
He disappeared out the door as she rose to help with the afternoon check-in rush, happy and excited now that the tension of the interview was over.
She may have started her day in a funk, but she was confident it would end on a high note.
Hope pulled down the driver’s side visor and opened the vanity mirror. Reapplying her lipstick, she ran a hand through the slight natural wave of her shoulder-length hair. She touched up her eyeliner as her hazel eyes stared back at her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t do anything about her winter-pale skin.
Tonight was a celebration, and she wanted to look good. Kyle might not be the man of her dreams, but he was a solid, dependable guy, though a little distant sometimes. She’d certainly done worse in the boyfriend department. Stop. Do not go there. It’s been years—are you ever going to get over it?
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Some of their best dates had been at Olive Tree. Even the weather was cooperating. The sun had set, but the wind was holding off its onslaught for the moment. The restaurant had a charming, bohemian vibe, with colorful tapestries draped along the ceiling. Candles in metal lanterns sat on tables covered with brightly colored tablecloths in tie-dyed patterns.
Hope walked through the bead curtain at the front door, inhaling the aromas of garlic and fresh pasta. Kyle sat at a secluded table. With a smile spreading across her face, she made her way over. He spotted her and ran a hand over his accountant-perfect brown hair.
Kyle gestured to a glass. “I ordered you a glass of Malbec.”
“My favorite. Thanks.” She studied him. His face was somewhat bland most of the time, but tonight it was pinched. “How are you doing?”
“Fine.” His voice was strained.
Ok, I guess I’ll start the conversation.
“My interview went well, I think. Terrance seemed enthusiastic about me in the position. He had told me not to interview when this job last opened up four years ago because I didn’t have enough experience. But I do now.” Her smile faded. Kyle wasn’t listening to her. Hope tried again. “So, this is a great night for a celebration dinner. I’m trying not to get too excited, but I honestly feel like I have—”
He looked her straight in the eye as he interrupted. “Hope, stop. I’m sorry, I forgot your interview was today. I didn’t ask you here to celebrate.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he dropped his gaze to the table. “God, there’s no easy way to say this. I don’t want to continue this relationship anymore.”
At first, she didn’t think she’d heard him correctly. Then, as his words sunk in, her heart started pounding. “Wait. What did you say?”