Julia made her way up the two flights of steep stairs to her apartment, straining from the weight of the four bags of groceries she carried along with her pocketbook. This was one of the times she hated living on the middle floor of an old house.
She dropped the bags with a thud in front of her door, searched her pocketbook, found her keys, and unlocked her door. After kicking the door shut behind her with her foot, she dragged the bags into the kitchen and started unpacking the items into the refrigerator and tiny closet she used as a pantry.
She’d lived there for a decade already. It had been twelve years since she’d left Boston and moved back to Long Island. At first, she’d shared an apartment with Kelvin over in Edgewater. He’d moved to New York with her, unwilling to leave her when she was so alone and at rock bottom. Between her emotional devastation at the hands of her ex, breaking away from her unsympathetic family, and her small income, being roommates helped her slowly get back on her feet. He worked several gigs on Long Island and in Manhattan, piecing together enough to be able to live on his earnings. She found a quiet office job and a good therapist. For two years, they lived together, until she’d healed enough for him to feel she was fine on her own. He moved to Astoria, and she moved to Blue Harbor.
She loved Blue Harbor, with its seaside New England–type charm. A sleepy town dotted with tiny shops, restaurants, boutiques, and charming old houses, she’d dreamed of living there as a kid. Now, completely on her own, she could. Her landlords, a kind couple twenty years her senior, owned the tremendous old house and lived on the bottom floor. She rented the second floor, and another tenant lived on the top floor. She felt safe there. It was quiet, and although she was alone, there were people nearby.
When the last of the groceries were stashed away, she washed her hands and looked around. She’d given notice at her job the day before, and in a show of petulant anger, her shortsighted boss had told her to just leave. It had been sad to say such a rushed good-bye to her coworkers, but as she’d left the gray, stifling office, she’d done so with a smile and a rush of elation. The new chapter of her life was going to be exciting. Getting paid to do what she loved most, and getting paid handsomely. But she wouldn’t be starting the job at the hotel for another two weeks. Her errands all completed, she found herself with nothing to do. It was a strange, almost unsettling feeling.
Leaning against the small table that was shoved against the wall, she drank down a glass of water and looked to the window. It was a beautiful afternoon. Golden sunlight poured in through the gauzy white curtain, splashing on the three pots of African violets on the windowsill and bouncing off the pale yellow walls. She moved to the living room and turned on the air conditioner wedged into one of the two windows.
It started to hum and she sank down onto her couch. A glance at the answering machine showed no messages. She reached for her Kindle, curled up into the cushions, and played a few rounds of Words With Friends with the random strangers she’d challenged.
After the games were finished, she sighed. At this time tomorrow, she’d be in the city, getting a personal tour of the new hotel from its debonair, charming, and gorgeous owner. Thoughts of Dane Harrison floated into her mind, but she swatted them away. It was a shame, because she would have loved a few rounds of sheet gymnastics with him. But no, that would never happen.
What to do? Randi was at work, and Kelvin was spending the day at the beach with his new boyfriend.
Though she was a voracious reader, she didn’t feel like reading. She didn’t mind being alone, she’d gotten used to it over the years. But sometimes she longed for company. Restlessness, laced with threads of anxiety, stirred inside her. She looked around aimlessly at the periwinkle walls, the framed artwork, her bookshelf, her few precious framed photos on the top shelf. She’d done her best to make her home feel cozy and warm. But there were times she couldn’t escape the quiet emptiness there, the loneliness of her life. And suddenly, this was one of them.
With new determination, she rose from the couch and went to her bedroom. She stripped out of her sundress and changed into a tank top and loose shorts. The SPF 70 sunblock was in her small bathroom, and she slathered it all over her arms, legs, chest, face, every inch of pale skin that was exposed. She grabbed her big floppy sun hat, her iPod, and her keys, and left to go for a walk down by the water. The sight and sounds of the Long Island Sound always had a way of soothing her soul. She’d just make sure to stay away from the park; the sound of happy children playing would break her heart when she was in a melancholy mood like this.
The next day, as Julia emerged from the cab, her heart began to beat a little faster. Excitement and anticipation fired up all her senses. It was a gorgeous early June day in New York City, warm but not too hot yet, with the sun shining from a clear, bright blue sky. A few trees dotted the length of the sidewalk, and a soft breeze made the emerald leaves flutter and sway. The cacophony of city sounds—traffic, horns blowing, human voices—seemed to fade around her as she looked up at the entrance to the impressive soonto- open Hotel Alexandra.
This was really happening.
She removed her wide sunglasses and tucked them into her large shoulder bag, shuffling around inside it for a mint. As she chewed it up quickly, she tried to calm her suddenly rapid breathing and swept her hair back from her face. The contracts had been signed and delivered two weeks before, her photo shoot and press kit arranged and completed the week before. In two short weeks, she’d be the headlining singer at this sleek Manhattan hotspot. It was surreal. Her head hadn’t stopped spinning. And now, between the warm weather, her meager breakfast, and her nerves, she wondered if she’d even make it through the tour of the hotel Dane had invited her for—maybe she’d pass out instead.
She pushed her way through the glass revolving door and into the lobby. Thankfully, it was cool, the welcome air conditioning flowing over her skin. She crossed the lushly carpeted floor to the main desk, smiling at the woman behind it. “Hi. I’m looking for Dane Harrison. I’m supposed to meet him here.”
“Ms. Shay?” the woman asked.
“He was here five minutes ago, but had to take a call. He asked if you’d be kind enough to wait and he’d be right back.”
“Sure. Could you just point me toward a ladies’ room while I wait?”
Julia took the opportunity to survey her surroundings as she headed to the restroom. This would be her workplace, after all. From what she could see, the hotel was striking. Modern but not trendy, everything from the luxurious furnishings to the décor spoke of crisp elegance, style, taste, and big-time bucks. Dane Harrison had obviously spared no expense in the design and decorating of his newest hotel.
She washed her hands, fixed her hair, and touched up her makeup. The slight humidity in the summer air had made the waves in her hair more pronounced, but at least the expensive product she’d used had tamed the deadly frizz she’d suffered from as a kid. Her clothes had barely wrinkled, for which she was grateful. The sleeveless royal blue silk top and white pencil skirt still looked fresh. Her open-toe white wedge sandals were comfortable but attractive. She took a deep breath, released it, and stared into the mirror.
Forty-one, Jules. Took forty-one years to get to this place. You survived. It’s your turn.