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The Wrong Girl - Chapter 1, Part 2



Ellie

*

“Dad, I really have got to go. The preparation is going to take me all day,” I made a show of tidying up my desk, hoping he’d take the hint.

“I know, Izzy. I just wanted to remind you about the golf tournament in a few weeks.” He settled into my corner chair like he had no intention of leaving. I’d intentionally made it a cozy space with tall plants and a side table so I could curl up and feel like I’d escaped. I hadn’t imagined my father would usurp it to hold me hostage when I was trying to leave.

The sigh poured from my lips like someone had punched me in the chest. “I really wish you’d listen when I ask you to call me Ellie. No one has called me Izzy for years.”

“All the same, Zach said he hasn’t heard from you in a while. Did you two have a falling out?”
My god, why was my dad discussing my love life with my ex?

“We broke up almost a year ago, Dad. You know that.”

“Well, you two seemed pretty cozy at that fundraiser a few weeks ago.”

“We’re friends, Dad. We were friends long before we dated, and we’re always going to be in the same circles. It doesn’t pay for us to be enemies.”

“Still, when I’m gone, you’re going to need someone to help run this place. Zach knows all about how a place like this should be run.”

My jaw clenched; sure, Zach knows all about it. Zach had huge plans for how he wanted to take over my family resort, which was the main reason we broke up. Not that I could tell my dad about it. He practically made Zach a member of the family ages ago, it would crush him to know what Zach’s actual intentions were.

Instead, I just answered, “I have an MBA, Dad. I’m perfectly capable of running Lodging on my own.”

“Still, I just don’t want to worry about you struggling under all the pressure, Isabelle. It’s a lot more than you think.”

“I have a pretty good idea, seeing as how I’ve been here for the last few years as your ‘Assistant CEO.’” I slammed my desk drawer a little harder than I meant to, but he was not getting the hint. At this rate he looked about ready to order a second breakfast and take a nap in my cushy chair.

“Well, it’s a lot harder than it looks.” His tone turned slightly defensive, as if I’d implied something about his ability to do the job instead of the other way around. 

I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath, letting it out before I settled my gaze directly on my father. His silverly hair and beard were perfectly neat, and the robin’s egg-blue Aspen Ridge polo he wore matched his bright eyes. He was every bit the mountain executive: neat enough to be taken seriously, but casual enough to not to be too intimidating.

“I understand the responsibilities of the position, and I believe I am well-qualified to take over when you are ready to retire, Dad.” I even managed a smile to go along with my patient-but-not-condescending tone.

Dad shifted in his seat. “Yes, about that, Izzy-”

I stood abruptly in frustration and snatched my purse. “Dad, I really have to go. I’ll be at the reception hall all day. Call if you need me.”

“Wait, honey, there’s something I want to talk to you about-”

I was already on my way out the door. “I’m sure it can wait for tomorrow, Dad.” I turned on my heel and crossed to the corner chair, bending to kiss his cheek before beelining again to the hallway.

With a final wave, I ducked through the doorway before he could call me back. “I’ll see you tomorrow!”
*
Jake
*
I strode confidently up to the reception desk, which was handsomely decorated with large polished letters spelling out ‘Aspen Ridge Lodging & Hotels’. The young woman behind the desk eyed me curiously, but smiled in greeting all the same.

“Hello, how can I help you?”

I plastered on a smile. “Good morning. I’m supposed to ask for James Tremont, Junior. He’s expecting me.” I winced at my stern voice, and the girl’s eyes narrowed slightly as if I were acting suspiciously.

“You mean JJ? Not a problem. I’ll ring him.”

“Thank you.”

While she made the call, I glanced at my surroundings. Directly behind the desk was a beautiful panoramic photo of the ski resort at peak winter season on a sunny day, taking up an entire wall. Banks of cubicles ran the length of a room tucked away to the left, and to the right appeared to be a row of larger offices disappearing down a hallway.

Sweat gathered at my collar, despite the air conditioning. I resisted the urge to tug at the fabric as my eyes roved the room and made a disturbing discovery: no one else was wearing a suit. Most people wore polo shirts with the resort logo embroidered on the chest, and the few who wore dress shirts had them casually rolled to their sleeves.

Compared to the crowd, I was way overdressed. Maybe it was a casual Friday. Don’t people who work at billion-dollar companies wear suits?

“Jacob!” a deep, friendly voice called out from the direction of the offices, and I turned to see JJ approaching with a wide smile. He had on a polo and khakis like the front desk girl, and a full head of more salt than-pepper hair with a neat, matching beard. “So glad you finally made it. Quite a trip from Alabama! Did the kids enjoy the drive?”

“Jake, sir,” I accepted his handshake. “They’re troopers, they did alright. They’re sort of used to moving. But it’ll be nice to put down some roots.”

“I can’t imagine.” JJ shook his head and patted my shoulder. “Thank you again for your service. We hope you like it here. Although it won’t be quite as exciting as your former career, we get to have a bit of fun. Why don’t we start with a tour? I’ll show you your new office so you can leave your briefcase, and then I’ll give you a rundown of our area of responsibility.”

“Sounds good, sir.” I followed him to a small, plain office. No expansive views of the ski hill, but it at least had a window. I could count on one hand the number of years I’d had one in my fifteen years of service.

“Okay, you’ve got to stop calling me sir, Jake. Never mind the white beard, you’re making me feel old!” JJ chuckled at his own joke.

“Yes, si—I mean, sure thing, JJ. Sorry, habits.” I clasped my hands behind my back to avoid fidgeting and squared my shoulders.

“Understandable. But you’ll soon learn that things aren’t that formal here. I’m sure you’ll settle into it quickly.”

“I’m sure I will.” I set my briefcase on the chair and turned to him. “So, when are we starting?”
He gestured me down the hallway and we made our way back to the elevators. “I thought we’d start downstairs in the hotel, then I could take you to the condo registration, and if you like we could do a full lap of the resort, maybe grab lunch at the base of Peak 7. Our portion here only covers the lodging but the whole place is run by us and the Blackwells, so it’s all sort of family business. Probably good for you to be familiar with the whole enchilada.”

“Sounds great, sir, but I meant when we would start with your daughter?”

He chuckled. “So eager to get to work! No worries, Isabelle isn’t here today, so you get a one-day reprieve. She’s setting up for the employee party.” We boarded the elevator, and he selected the button.

“Employee party?” I questioned. “Like a GI Party? That’s what we called a weekly cleanup crew.”
JJ laughed again. “No, son, like a party party. We like to treat the staff well, and employee satisfaction has sort of become Izzy’s baby. Most of them are college kids. We want them to have a good time working for us. We always have an end of the season party for summer and winter, our two biggest seasons. Besides the parties, we organize a lot of mixers and events throughout the year. We work hard, but we play hard, too. Izzy likes to plan them. She is pretty much friends with all the kids… which I suppose is part of the problem.”

“Is that what you are hoping I can fix, for her to be less friendly with the staff?” I really wanted to get a better understanding of what I was here to do, as it had all been rather vague up until now.

“Yes, and no. We want them to feel cared for, but I think sometimes Isabelle forgets that she’s not one of them anymore. She can’t be going to keggers in the dorms with the kids at night and then giving their bosses performance reviews the next day, you know what I mean? She’s got to start pulling back, acting more like a manager and less like their buddy, before I can consider handing the reins over. Aspen Ridge employs nearly a thousand people in lodging alone, so she needs to get a wider view.”

I nodded seriously. “I know exactly what you mean. It’s like when we promote a Senior Airman to Staff Sergeant. Suddenly they’re a non-commissioned officer and they can’t get away with acting like Airmen fresh from basic training anymore. For some of them, it’s a hard transition.”

“Sounds like I hired just the man for the job.” JJ grinned as the elevator doors opened. “This is our main hotel lobby, but there are seven in total that span the base of the ski resort.”

For the rest of the day, I followed along as JJ gave me a thorough tour of the main resort highlights. It was daunting to realize how many teams he had, which started with a network of VPs, plus a manager for each site, then each building, of the extensive resort. JJ filled me in on the other family he shared ownership of the resort with, which included the events center, stables, and ski hills. He and Robert Blackwell had equal shares in the business and, as they came of age, passed management onto their children with the plan of eventually handing over the reins entirely.

“So, how many kids do you plan to hand this off to? It sounds like you’ve expanded quite a bit on what your parents built with the Blackwells.”

“Indeed.” JJ leaned back in his seat and stretched. We’d stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant on the resort, and the remains of a savoury meal cooled on the plates in front of us. “My sister, Lily, didn’t want much to do with the place. She’s on the books, but really in name only. I don’t hold out much hope for her son, Blaise, either. Bit of a flake, that kid. But my eldest, James the third, is already managing mountain operations, and Robert’s eldest, Reece, works with the events center. Robert’s daughter, Estelle, seems to prefer riding the powder to working, but Robert’s certain she’ll step up, eventually.”

“And Isabelle is primed to take over all of lodging?” I asked. “Based on what you’ve shown me, that seems like more than one person’s work. Especially for someone who likes to be so hands on.”

“I think we manage pretty well with our team of VPs, but that’s where I need you to help her, Jake.” He leaned in and slapped me on the shoulder. “She needs to be less hands on, and try as I might, I can’t seem to get that into her head. She’s almost never in her office. If she wants to take over for me, she’s got to be in meetings with the VPs, approving payroll, signing off renovation projects. Instead, I’m far more likely to find her out with the landscaping crew planting flowers.”

“Right,” I nodded. “She needs to transition to a macro view of the business, and right now she’s fully in the micro.”

“You’ve got it.” JJ checked his watch, then wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin. “Well, I’ve got some meetings to attend tonight. Why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon off? Or even better, go to the employee party tonight. I’ll have Larissa at the desk send you the address. It’ll give you a chance to see how we run things here, maybe make a few friends. It’s sort of a send-off for seasonal workers, but most of our full-time staff should be there as well.”

“Okay, what time would you like me in tomorrow?” I followed him outside to the golf cart we’d used for the tour, and we zipped off toward the offices the second I claimed my seat.

“Tomorrow?” He guffawed. “Son, tomorrow’s Saturday. I’m going to be working on my golf swing. We’ll see you first thing Monday.”

“Don’t I need to sign forms with HR, or fill out a payslip?” I clung to the side of the cart to avoid spilling out. It didn’t seem pertinent to mention that I assumed he wanted me to start on Friday because I’d be there through the weekend. Hence why I’d sent my kids to their grandparents.
“Nah, we already started your salary, and you can fill out paperwork on Monday. Go to the party and have a good time. Make some friends! We want everyone to feel like part of the family here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I told you, stop making me feel old. JJ is fine.”

“Yes, s—JJ.”

“Better.” He grinned and gave me a twinkly blue-eyed wink.

JJ dropped me directly at my truck, insisting there was no need for me to get my briefcase before I left.

I drove home in a daze, my mind churning on how I could make myself invaluable and earn a permanent place here. Aspen Ridge was a dream come true when it came to working environments. Everyone seemed genuinely happy, and JJ greeted everyone we passed, a lot of them by name. It was easy to see what he meant about it being a family business.

A text popped up on my phone just as I pulled into the drive, with a detailed message from Larissa about how to get to the employee party. Obviously the suit would not be appropriate, but I honestly didn’t know what to wear for an end of season employee party at a billion-dollar resort. I concluded neat jeans and a button-down shirt were appropriate for the brand new five-million dollar events center.

It’s always better to be a little overdressed as opposed to under dressed.

Even if it was a little uncomfortable.

*

The doubts started as soon as I parked in the lot. All the crowd heading toward the fancy events center was young—like fresh out of high school young—and the dress code appeared to be flip-flops and backwards baseball caps. The sun had long since disappeared behind the mountains, and twilight shadows were verging on darkness, stars already appearing in the sky.

Although I wasn’t sure what I was expected to do here, JJ had asked me to attend and make friends. Honestly, I had nothing better to do on a Friday night, and the kids were happy at their grandparents’ house. I decided it was an opportunity to see more about this ‘treating staff as family’ thing JJ was so proud of. I steeled myself for the culture shock and followed the others from the parking lot toward the building.

Once I got through the main doors, I glanced around at the stunning facility. They had built a marvel—it was modern and clean in the lobby, but it still had a decidedly cozy mountain feel. The employees streamed through a second set of double doors with loud rhythmic music pouring out.

To the right, a woman who was decidedly older than the crowd and clearly pregnant struggled with a heavy cart laden with boxes and platters of food. She had a giant crystal bowl of punch, covered with saran wrap, balanced on top of a cardboard box, and was trying to keep it from tipping over while she pushed the cart.

“Ma’am, let me help you.” I crossed the lobby and picked up the bowl.

“Oh, thank you.” She smiled. “But please don’t call me ma’am. That makes me feel old.”

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard that today,” I laughed. “My apologies, it’s a habit. I just left the Air Force, and everyone is ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’, no matter their age. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Well, that makes me feel a little better.” She resumed pushing her cart, and I followed her to the double doors. “I’m Alyssa. I manage the events center.”

“Jake, nice to meet you. Today was my first day, and the boss said to come to the party, so… here I am. Do you normally handle the food, as the manager?”

She laughed breathlessly. “No, not usually. But we wanted the staff to have the night off, so I figured if they made all the food, I could get it inside for them. We try to let everyone have a chance for fun. I just underestimated how many trips it would take, and how tired I’d be.” She gestured to her belly. “They really take it out of you. You have kids?”

My throat seized up, and I swallowed to clear it. “I do, actually. Two.”

“This is my first. I’m already planning to stay home once I have the little one. I just didn’t realize the last few months would be so much harder. I really appreciate your help.”

“Not a problem at all. I’m happy to assist.” I followed her through the open doors and to an enormous banquet table, already half full. Despite the loud music and flashing colorful lights, most of the crowd was standing around the bar set at the far side of the room, opposite the dance floor. There were small tables set up, but people were milling about, socializing.

Happy to have an excuse to avoid that exact scenario, I helped Alyssa unload the cart, and two more like it, until the buffet was filled. I escorted her back to the kitchen despite her assurances she was fine.

“Are you going to the party?” I asked, hopeful. She was closer to my age, and it was always nicer to know someone when you walked into a crowded room.

“Lord no,” she laughed. “My ankles are two times their normal size and all I can think about is propping my feet up at home. But I can introduce you to some people before I leave, if you want?” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, obviously uncomfortable.

“No, you’re exhausted. You should get off your feet. I’ll be fine. I’ll just tell them I carried a watermelon or something.”

She glanced around the kitchen in distress. “Oh shoot, did I forget something? My mind has been swiss cheese the last couple of months, I swear…”

My cheeks heated. “I’m sorry. It was an attempt at a joke.”

Alyssa stared at me with a blank expression. “Why would a watermelon be funny?”

Cheryl always instructed me not to tell jokes because I sucked at it. I thought she just didn’t have a sense of humor, but maybe I should have listened.

“You know, from the movie Dirty Dancing? Baby sees the guy juggling three watermelons, and she helps him bring them to the employee party, then when Johnny asks what she’s doing there she says ‘I carried a watermelon.’ Because she didn’t belong there, right?”

Alyssa’s eyes narrowed, my only indication that she was trying to understand. “Yeah… I probably wouldn’t open with that one. Or with the ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ thing. Just say ‘Hi, I’m Jake.’ It’ll work about 100% better, promise.” She gave me a wide smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Jake. I’m sure I’ll see you around. Thanks again!”

With that, she shooed me out of the kitchen and waddled to the exit door.

Squaring my shoulders, I lifted my chin and marched back into the party. I made a beeline for the bar, and ordered myself two shots of jack to soothe my nerves, and a long-neck beer to sip.
The party was sliding into full-swing mode now. People crowded the banquet tables, moving in groups through a set of doors leading outside that I had missed earlier. There was a large deck filled with tables and strung with Edison lights. I’d taken up residence at the furthest end of the bar, tucked into the corner, but most of the other drinkers were in a huddle closer to the dance floor.

A lot of them were dancing. Some in pairs, but most were in the awkward group circles that reminded me of high school prom. A fast-tempo song with a rhythmic beat pumped from the artfully concealed speakers, and the bass thrummed through the soles of my feet. My eyes traveled casually over the dancers while I sipped my beer, and instead of becoming more comfortable, I just grew more convinced this was a dead end. Everyone here had to be seasonal employees—they looked barely old enough to drive, let alone have a year-round job. A few slightly older people slipped out the doors with plates of food, and it occurred to me that people in management—or at least people closer to my age—might have hidden out there.

Just as I’d resolved to try my luck with the outdoor crowd, my eyes landed on a woman in a short red dress, and all thoughts of leaving immediately flew from my brain.

She was in a group of other people; although she was still young and beautiful, she was clearly older than her peers. Her long blonde hair was damp with sweat, sticking to her bare back and neck, but as she spun around, her wide smile betrayed zero discomfort. 

My heart thumped in my chest—this woman was like a glimpse of life and freedom that seemed so far removed from the world I lived in. My eyes were glued to her form. I couldn’t stop watching her. There was something so… free about her, and envy made my throat too thick to swallow. She didn’t have a care in the world; she was just living her best life in this one moment. 

What I’d give to feel that way. I couldn’t remember a time where my life wasn’t filled with duty, obligation, and responsibility.

And then, as if hearing my silent plea, she turned and locked eyes with me.
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