In a mad rush, a silver-haired man bustled toward the hotel elevator. A bulky leather overnight bag hung from his shoulder slapping against his hip as he dragged a wheeled suitcase across the tiled floor.
Emma Banefield hopped aside to avoid tripping over his luggage, miffed the man didn’t notice he’d practically sent her sprawling.
He jostled inside and hit the lift button. His tall and slender physique pegged him as possibly a runner, given the black Adidas jacket he wore with the triple white stripes down the sleeves. While he waited for the doors to slide shut, his disinterested hazel gaze met hers. He flashed a perfunctory grin and received her forced smile in return. On a whoosh and a ding, the elevator doors closed on his self-important smugness.
As a psychiatric social worker, Emma took pride in her ability to note physical and emotional traits in others. He wore his attitude like a crown. She turned away, dismissing him as she strolled to the reception desk of the Dulce Inn.
The inn ranked as the oldest and classiest boutique hotel in Wyatt, Arizona. She knew this for a fact having been a frequent guest at the 150-year-old establishment. Immersed in the luxury of the rich, jewel colors of the lobby, she cherished its history, storied traditions, and beauty. The solid overhead ceiling beams, interlaced in a pattern of gold and sage green, filled her with awe. Painted wall murals echoed images of nearby rugged mountains while elegant, arched doors led to an enchanting patio and garden. The hotel resonated taste and southwestern rustic charm. She loved it. What better place to observe her birthday?
The activity in the lobby had picked up since she’d checked in and gone to her room twenty minutes ago. People charged about with determined zeal like energetic ants—frantic people who had places to go and important things to do. Not the kind of guests who craved relaxation and self-pampering as she intended. Of all the qualities she appreciated about the inn, she loved and expected its stress-free tone. One could count on the Dulce Inn for its calm, orderly, peaceful atmosphere.
On her way to the front desk, she joined the brisk flow of activity as if thrust into a swirl of passengers racing to their respective gates at a busy airport. As she passed the leather Chesterfield sofas in the center of the room, a desire to curl up on a sofa, blissfully alone, cup of coffee in hand and a book open in her lap, stirred her.
Shunting aside her fantasy, she arrived at the huge block of carved oak known as the reservation desk. A couple, dressed in identical khaki trousers and polo shirts, discussed local restaurants with the head of reservations, Mr. Stonewell. She smiled, catching the attention of his assistant, Penelope Frye, a perky woman in her mid-twenties, who’d checked her in earlier. Emma remembered the woman from her visit last fall and liked her friendliness and enthusiasm.
“What’s with all the art?” Paintings and sculptures occupied easels and pedestals scattered logistically throughout the lengthy rectangular lobby.
“The hotel’s holding an art competition in conjunction with the Art Fair on the Square across the street. The winner’s going to be announced Saturday night at a dressy dinner and dance. If you’re interested in voting, drop your ballot here.” The young woman, tall enough to have played basketball or volleyball in high school, pointed to a round glass fishbowl, minus the goldfish, set on the far corner of the counter. “Best wait until all the art is set up and numbered.”
“I’ll do that.” Not far from the hotel’s front door and an excellent spot for visibility, two artsy-dressed women placed oils and watercolors out for review. “Sure are a lot of people here for a Thursday afternoon. Usually, the lobby is so quiet.”
Penelope bobbed her head covered in short, dark, loose curls. “The place is totally booked for this weekend. People come from all over the Southwest to sell and view the art and crafts. Vendors like to arrive the night before.” She wrinkled her pug nose. “You know, get the lay of the land. They’ll be awake and out at the park early tomorrow morning setting up.”
“A full house is good for business.” But not particularly welcomed on her weekend. Every year, to celebrate their special days, she and her sister, Nic, stayed at the hotel on their birthday weekends. This occurred once in the fall and again in the spring. Over time, the weekend getaway had morphed into a personal family tradition, a time of playful indulgence and renewed connection between them. Sunday marked her forty-seventh year and remarkably, her first birthday as a widow. Never would she have guessed she’d be a widow at forty-seven, but such was life—unpredictable. Regardless of the grief and the challenging adjustment to a world without Jonathan, she had to admit life was exceptional, most of the time. “Guess I’m lucky I reserved a room months in advance.” A wild-haired woman in a gaudy batik print caftan hefted a painting through the lobby, puffing with her labor.
“Always wise to book an early reservation. Despite our new owner, the inn remains as popular as ever.”
“Despite?” Her curiosity spiked.
The clerk laughed. Flawless, dark skin contrasted beautifully with perfect ivory teeth. “Sorry. That came out wrong.” She lowered her voice, presumably not wanting her supervisor who stood a short distance away to hear. “I meant to say we have a new owner. Jillian Jackson.” She jutted a chin toward the huge fireplace in the lobby where a striking woman in tight leather pants conversed with a man of similar age. Early fifties, she guessed.
“Looks like a tense discussion.” The statuesque woman stood with her legs braced, arms stiff at her sides, and a tight scowl on her face.
“Oh, him,” Penelope huffed with an exasperated air. “He’s not the most pleasant of men.”
The fired-up woman flung her bobbed, chin-length hair away from her face as if she might like to do the same to her companion.
“Who is he?”
“David Shaw, a hotel and restaurant critic.”
“From the Phoenix Daily? I’ve read some of his articles.”
“A big shot in Phoenix to hear him talk.” Something dinged on her computer, and the desk clerk responded with a tap on the keys.
“So, he’s going to review the hotel?”
“Mainly the restaurant. The kitchen’s in a real tizzy. Everything’s got to be so lah-di-dah.” Penelope, all long legs and arms, rolled her big brown eyes. “Sometimes, I don’t know who’s worse—Jillian or that ass…” She slapped a hand to her mouth and shot a nervous glance at Mr. Stonewell, now busy checking in a new guest.
A question tickled Emma’s tongue, but before she could speak, a phone buzzed. Penelope held up a finger. “Sorry. Can you excuse me for a minute?”
“Go right ahead.” She relaxed against the reservation counter, content to watch Jillian and David claw at each other with barbed words loud enough to hear from half-way across the room. Good manners aside, she found it difficult to snatch her gaze away from the fashionably dressed woman with her blade-sharp intensity.
“As you can see, we’re full to the brim with entrants.” In illustration, the hot-blooded owner swept an arm at the staged art in the lobby. Gold bangles on her wrist clacked and jangled with protest.
The critic smirked as a sumo wrestler might to a ninety-pound opponent. “My work compares to any of this. In fact, it’s better.” Sneering, he trolled his gaze across the nearby artwork.
The pompous jerk softened his next words. Al couldn’t make them out, but Jillian jerked as if he’d struck her.
Penelope looked up from the computer and smiled. “Now, where were we?”
She stabbed a chin at the unhappy couple. “They don’t seem to be in agreement.” She expected a full-out shouting match to erupt at any second.
In a gesture proving he cared little for social propriety, Shaw planted his smug face inches from the woman’s in an attitude bold with certainty and superiority.
Emma stiffened. She hated the powerplay some men considered their right. As if no matter how despicable their behavior, life decreed they would always win.
“Come on, Jillian. You owe me.”
The hotel owner flushed, and her nostrils flared. A hearty intake of oxygen caused her white, flounced blouse to lift and ripple. “Or what? You’ll say my restaurant stinks?”
If anything, his smile grated with a pitying air, sanctimonious overlaid with contempt. The lout gave new meaning to the word oily. A gelatinous sea urchin with spiny tentacles came to mind. The slime made Jillian’s taut, shapely body shake with anger.
“Uh-oh,” worried the desk clerk. “Clearly the fool doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. Jillian likes to get her way—no matter what.”
With undisguised satisfaction, the restaurant critic upturned his palms as if he could do nothing to change the outcome. What happened next would be up to the hotel owner. Any idiot could see he intended to get his way, a point he’d no doubt claimed on many occasions.
The fiery woman blazed like the sun across the desert. Her whole body vibrated, churning the air with seismic quakes. Her mouth worked furiously, tossing about her inevitable answer. “Bring your work to the lobby,” she spat. As she spun about on heels high enough to give a lesser woman a fear of heights, he grinned in victory. She stomped toward the desk, her heels cracking against the polished Saltillo tiles.
In direct line of this whirlwind, Emma had one immediate impulse. Run! But she held her ground with a posture like steel.
Mr. Stonewell had disappeared into an office off the reception area leaving Penelope to deal with this virago. The woman charged up to the desk in the manner of a particular angry French bulldog she didn’t like. All bluster and snappishness. To be fair, she could see Jillian’s concerted effort to get her emotions under control. Though her mouth remained a tight slit, she sucked great whorls of air through her nose. Her chest heaved, but in a few moments settled. Penelope, too, had braced against the onslaught, a ballpoint pen gripped in her tight fist like a weapon.
The owner inhaled one last tsunami breath, holding on to it a moment before expelling with a drop in her shoulders. “I need to speak with Grace immediately. Find her. I’ll be in the bar.” In a refined whirl lithe enough to impress any ballet aficionado, she glided away, leaving Penelope with her mouth agape.
“Wow!” Her stunned reaction precluded a clever riposte.
“I’ll say.” Penelope punched a number into the hotel phone situated next to her computer presumably summoning Grace whom Emma worried might be in for a very rough time. The desk clerk licked her plump, glossed lips, gripped the phone tighter, and after waiting a few seconds, said, “Huh.” Brow scrunched in puzzlement, she disconnected. “Wonder where she’s hiding?”
What a strange choice of word. Hiding. Since the question seemed rhetorical, she didn’t answer. “I know you’re busy,” she offered instead. “I wanted to ask—”
Before she could state her business, Penelope’s pretty face brightened as if her luck had turned golden. “There she is. Grace! Over here!” She flapped a hand like a duck shaking water from its wings.
Three people in the lobby glanced expectantly her way. Right off the bat, she excluded the frail elderly gentleman barely managing to stay afloat despite his cane. The wild-haired woman in the caftan might be a Grace contender, but at the last moment, a young woman with straight, shoulder length, dark brown hair lumbered forward. She wore a conservative business suit in an unflattering mix of dun and umber colors. The outfit bleached her already sallow complexion and did little to hide the tight skirt stretched taut across a rounded belly. “What do you need?” she asked, nearing the desk.
“Jillian wants to see you in the bar ASAP.”
The washed-out woman blinked. Her face tightened with worry and her thick brows sloped in irritation. In the next instant, she’d composed her features into a professional, neutral demeanor. “Did she say what she wants?” A facial tic jumped near her right eye.
“No, but brace yourself. She’s in a capital M-O-O-D.”
Grace sighed. “What else is new?” Shaking her head, she trudged away.
“Goodness.” Emma drew back. Penelope might not be the only employee with negative feelings about the new owner. “I wouldn’t care to be in her shoes.”
“Yeah. It’s been a little intense around here lately. But anyway, you didn’t come here for drama. Is there something I can help you with?”
Seemed like ages since she’d approached the desk. “There is. My sister, Nicole Earp will be checking in soon. When she arrives, will you ask her to join me in the bar?”
She traversed the lobby, following in Grace’s tracks.
The Azul Restaurant and Saloon, one spectacular room, employed a half-wall topped with a glass partition to separate the dining tables from the bar. The effect allowed both sections their own ambience. Patrons seated at the bar top could enjoy the stunning stained-glass windows on the restaurant’s far side as well as the 1800s stamped copper ceiling.
“Hey! Nice to see you again.” Joe Crinshaw closed the distance with a welcoming smile when she approached the bar.
“You too, Joe. Nice to be back.” Over the years, she’d grown accustomed to the head bartender’s friendly service. A great listener, he also loved to joke and entertain with amusing stories.
“Where’s your partner in crime?”
“Oh, Nic will be along in a few minutes.” She set her purse down and slid onto the bar stool.
“As I recall, you two celebrate your birthdays here twice a year.”
“What a great memory you have.”
He rested a hand on the bar top, seeming eager for conversation. “You two always get the…” His brow creased. “Chocolate martinis.” His affable smile lifted in a tease. “You’re one of the Chocolate Martini Sisters.”
She laughed. “Is that what you call us?”
“Always helps to connect the drink to the customer. Speaking of which, can I get you one?”
“As much as I love them, I’ll wait for Nic. In the meantime, do you have a cup of coffee? Black.”
He headed down the bar, his steps muffled in black sneakers. The man couldn’t be much older than forty-five or fifty, a little gray creeping into the black hair. If she had to describe him, she’d say sun-tanned, pleasant, and kind.
Wondering if Nic had left a message, she drew her cell phone from her purse. No messages. Not from Nic or Emma’s twenty-one-year-old son, Liam, who’d gone to Yosemite for the weekend to mountain climb. Intending to call him again in a few minutes, she set the phone on the bar. Please, she prayed. Don’t get hurt. And don’t you dare climb El Capitan. The thought of losing Liam after losing her husband would be unbearable. She’d never get over it. With a fortifying breath, she shook off the worry and rotated on the wooden bar stool, enjoying the prism of colorful light from the stained glass.
The restaurant stood empty of customers at this hour, but a few guests drank at the bar. The wait staff prepped the room for dinner soon to begin. Jillian sat at a corner table. Grace stood before her, hands clasped behind her back, the accused before a judge.
“Here you go.” Joe set her steaming coffee on the bar top.
“The woman with Jillian,” she asked. “What’s her job here?”
“That’s Grace Boxer, the events coordinator.”
“So she’s responsible for weddings, conferences, and any special events held at the hotel?”
Tension circled about the two women, and she figured David Shaw coiled somewhere in the center.
“Have you seen his work?” Grace asked Jillian on a loud note heard across the room. “It’s shoddy and borders on pornographic.”
The owner waved a dismissive hand setting her bracelets jangling again. “Don’t be such a prude.”
Grace recoiled, her shoulders rolling inward like a pill bug. “To include his work cheapens the contest. People will think it favoritism.”
“Give me a break. If his stuff is as bad as you say, he’ll never win. Besides, no one will make the connection to his full-time work as a critic.”
The events coordinator worried her lip and shook her head. “People aren’t as dumb as you think they are.”
Bracing an elbow on the table, the owner leaned forward and pointed a liver-red fingernail. “Don’t forget. You work for me. Not the other way around. I want to see his items in the lobby within the hour.”
Grace’s mouth opened, then clamped shut. Cheeks crimson, she whirled about to rush away and bumped right into the man Emma had seen on the elevator.
“Whoa,” he cried, hands out to brace against the blow.
The eyes of the woman widened as if shocked. Any color she possessed drained from her ashen face as she stared at him. A moment later, she darted around him sprinting like a spooked fawn.
Joe appeared and cut off her exit. “Hey, Grace.” His quiet voice strummed with a calm reassurance. “Don’t let her get to you. It’ll be okay.”
Her eyes cut like sharp glass. “Mind your own business, Joe.” Lips compressed, she slipped past him and fled the bar.
The bartender watched her flee, and when she’d left, flicked an annoyed glance at Jillian.
The owner didn’t seem to notice or care about the upset employee. She left quickly via the restaurant’s front door, focused on the cell phone in her hand.
Emma took a hurried sip of coffee, unsettled by the disharmony she’d witnessed. With her husband gone, she’d experienced more than the usual trials of daily life. She’d counted on the historic, subdued mood of the Dulce Inn to help her relax. To feel less like an android and more like a human who could actually laugh. Not an hour into her stay, she judged the hotel’s dissonant atmosphere vastly different from previous visits and felt a pang for yet another loss.