The blue-haired, old woman in the floral, polyester dress across the street curled her thin lips in a sneer at the sign in front of me then turned her judgmental gaze on me, looking me up and down with a scowl that only deepened as she recognized me.
“Montgomery.” She snarled my last name the same way people of this town had been saying it for generations. Whether she knew my first name or not was inconsequential. I was a Montgomery, and that was all that mattered.
I turned away from her, avoiding confrontation the way I’d learned to do when I was a studious, goal-driven teen. It typically worked a lot better than snarling back and spouting obscenity-laced rebuttals, the approach my brothers always took. That only reiterated the town’s opinion of us.
Despite the less than friendly welcome, I couldn’t help the smile that lifted the corners of my mouth and turned my normally-serious expression into one of pure pleasure as I watched the installer put the final, finishing touches on the impressive stone and metal sign. With a flourish, he pulled out a rag and rubbed away a smudge, polishing the last shiny, silver letter of the words Sweet Bay Resort and Spa.
I’d already built an online empire and amassed a fortune, but opening this resort in my hometown was the crowning achievement of a 30-year life spent clawing my way out of poverty and scorn.
My moment of fulfillment was interrupted by the sound of a cane tapping across the road, alternating with the rubber thump of orthopedic shoes and the wheezing huff of indignation. The intensity of her approach made me question my decision to give my bodyguard a few days off. The woman started talking before she reached the sidewalk where I was standing.
“You have some kind of nerve coming back here and building that tourist trap monstrosity in your own hometown.” She put one veiny, wrinkled hand on her hip and waved the other one in my face.
I gritted my teeth and launched into the spiel I’d been practicing ever since I first contemplated building this resort. I knew I’d have to face my fears and defend myself. I couldn’t hide like a child anymore. “Mrs. Cotlier, this town is dying. The younger generation is moving away in search of better opportunities—”
She interrupted, giving me a pointed look. “We’re better off without some of them.”
I ignored the personal jab and continued my defense, “—and the older generation doesn’t have the resources to maintain the economy.” I gave her the same pointed look. She probably hadn’t bought anything besides groceries and prescription medicine in over a decade, if her wardrobe was any indication.
“This ‘tourist trap’ as you call it will bring an influx of jobs and revenue that Sweet Bay desperately needs. And more tourists means more income for all the local businesses. Like your daughter’s candy shop.”
I knew Candy’s Confections had shut down several years ago, but that only proved my point. A little town like Sweet Bay needed to bring in business from outside if it was going to survive in the modern world. And the quaint, coastal town was the perfect location for those seeking a quiet retreat in a picturesque setting.
I could see the transformation play out in my mind. The resort would bring tourists, eager to spend their money in the downtown shops. Businesses would prosper, creating more jobs, and soon the town would be flourishing. And everyone would attribute the revitalization to me, a loathsome Montgomery. It was a win for both me and the town. But persuading the locals to look past their aversion to outsiders, and their distain for me in particular, and envision the potential benefits of the resort was going to be a challenge.
“You’re going to ruin this town, is what you’re going to do. We’ll be overrun by dirty, noisy tourists who have no respect for Sweet Bay, just like you. Nothing good ever came from a Montgomery.”
I couldn’t help it. I’d heard the insult one too many times. I undid the button on my $25,000 Ermenegildo Zegna bespoke suit and propped my hands on my hips, revealing my 18 carat gold, monogrammed cufflinks. “Are you aware that I’m the founder and CEO of FlightPricer, the world’s largest online travel metasearch engine and fare aggregator?”
Mrs. Cotlier huffed. “Sounds like a lot of gobbledygook to me. I’ve lived 82 years without any of that online nonsense and I see no use for it now. All that computer is good for is looking at pornography! Is that how you made all that money, selling nudie pictures?”
I closed my eyes and let out my breath slowly, counting to ten. There was no point trying to explain it to her. I might be one of the richest and most successful businessmen in the country, but in Sweet Bay, I would always be a lowlife Montgomery. Why did I think building this resort would change that? When I had control of my emotions again, I opened my eyes and plastered on a smile.
“No, Mrs. Cotlier, I sell vacations. I’d offer you a discount, but I know you have no reason to take one since you live in Sweet Bay. It’s already the perfect vacation destination, isn’t it?”
She didn’t fall for it. Instead, she snorted and tottered off, her support hose sagging.
My mood soured, I stalked up the walk to the resort entrance. Majestic arcs of water sprayed from a three-tiered fountain in the center of the drive, and tall palm trees and lush, tropical plants that had cost a mint to ship in flanked the stone columns that held up the grand, arched entryway. They, like everything else, had been carefully selected to present an image of opulence that guests craved.
Glass doors rolled back for me, welcoming me into the luxurious foyer. Sunlight shined down into the space from large skylights, making everything except for the textured stone walls gleam, from the teak wood floors to the thick, glossy, green leaves of the various succulents that gave the space a fresh, exotic feel. I sighed at the soothing sound of falling water that tinkled from a waterfall wall behind the check-in desk. The flow ran off into a large koi pond where fat, orange and white speckled fish swam lazily like they, too, were on vacation.
Cushiony sofas and chairs upholstered in elegant fabrics with a tropical theme were arranged in clusters around the lobby, but I sat down on the low, stone wall of the koi pond and took several long, deep breaths as I ran my hands through the cool water, trying to calm my nerves. A few fish swam up to investigate my fingers.
The lobby was quiet and empty at the moment, but soon it would be filled with happy vacationers eager to enjoy the amenities that the resort had to offer. I could already hear them, their voices like the ka-ching of a cash register. This venture would succeed, just like my other business, and eventually, the people of Sweet Bay would come to appreciate what I had done for it.
I looked out the glass wall on either side of the check-in desk that provided a panoramic view of the sparkling, aqua pool, the grassy lawn, and beyond that, the golden sand and iridescent, teal water of the Sweet Bay shore. Boats bobbed in the harbor, and gulls soared and dived against the puffy, white clouds in the bright blue sky. I pictured myself sailing around the bay, the gently waves lulling me into relaxation.
Sweet Bay was a beautiful jewel, hidden away where very few even knew of its existence. But I intended to polish it and put it on display so the world could see its value. Once they knew about it, people would come from all over to enjoy the serene beach resort.
Once my anger had cooled, I stood up, dusted off the seat of my slacks, and marched down the hall to my office, intent on diving headfirst into the plethora of tasks necessary to complete before the resort could open. I mentally scrolled through the list of things I needed my assistant to work on today.
Her high, saccharine voice echoed down the hallway. I had to get her in the habit of shutting the door since it was unlikely I could get her to lower her screeching voice an octave or two. I winced against the auditory assault until I heard what she was saying. Then my irritation turned to anger.
“The boys are just dying to get out of school so they can spend the summer here, playing in the pool.”
I stomped over to Leanne’s desk, cluttered with matching, floral desk accessories, kitschy knickknacks, and frames filled with pictures of sticky, smiling children. Her cheerful expression fell when she peeked up at me through stiff, curled bangs. “I gotta go, Mandie. I’ll talk to you later, ‘kay?”
She dropped the phone into the cradle and gave me a wide smile. “Can I do somethin’ for ya, Mr. Montgomery?”
I wanted to ask if she’d completed the list of tasks I’d given her yesterday, but there was something more important to discuss first. “Leanne, do you intend to bring your children here to play, unsupervised, while you work?”
She fiddled with a pen topped with a plastic daisy in a way I found excessively annoying. “Well, they wouldn’t be unsupervised. I mean, that’s what the lifeguards are for, right?”
I spoke slowly and calmly so she would understand. Obviously, she wasn’t as intelligent as I assumed. “No, they’re for the safety and peace of mind of our guests. And the pool is for their enjoyment, not for the staff’s children.”
“Oh, okay, well, I guess I’ll just have them spend the day in the playroom.” She waved a hot pink manicured hand.
I stared at her for a long moment. Was she really that oblivious? “The playroom is for guests, as well.”
She crossed her arms over her polka dot blouse and looked around like she was actually considering having them play in the office all day. “Then where are they supposed to go?”
“Leanne, this resort will staff over a hundred people once it’s fully operational. If I let everyone bring their children, there’d be no room for the guests. You’ll need to leave your children at home when you come to work.”
She stared back at me like I was the crazy one. “I took this job because I thought it would be a great place for the kids to hang out this summer. Are you sayin’ I can’t bring them here at all?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but daycare is not one of the benefits of this position.”
She stood up and propped her hands on her round hips. “Well, if I don’t get to bring my kids here, what do I get?”
I gawked at her. “A salary!”
She huffed, opened her desk drawer, and pulled out a bright blue, faux leather purse then opened it up and started putting her knickknacks in it.
“What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I can’t work here if I can’t bring my kids. Who’s gonna watch ‘em?”
“So, you’re leaving? Now?”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Well, there’s no sense stayin’. School will be out for spring break in a couple days. I can’t work if I can’t bring my kids. You know, nobody liked the idea of me working here, but I said, no, it’ll be great. All these fancy amenities. But you don’t care about makin’ life better for the people of Sweet Bay, all you care about are those tourists you plan to bring in here. Well, good luck getting the townsfolk to work for you if you aren’t gonna treat ‘em right. I thought maybe you’d be different, but you’re just a no-good Montgomery.”
With that, she slung her purse strap over her shoulder and stomped out. I stared after her, dumbstruck. I wasn’t being unfair or unreasonable, was I? I never promised her childcare or any other benefits. It was an entry-level position. I thought I was being generous offering her two dollars over minimum wage.
She had no experience, after all, other than wrangling her three children. She’d actually listed home management on her application and put her husband down as her employer. But sadly, that made her the most qualified of all the applicants.
When I’d agreed to hire locals instead of bringing in my own staff as one of the conditions required by the town council, I underestimated how difficult it would be to find qualified employees. I hadn’t remembered just how small of a town Sweet Bay actually was. As a child, this small-minded town was my whole world. It was only after I moved away that I realized not everyone had a natural bias against me because of my family.
The list of things I needed an assistant for loomed over me. I didn’t have time to search for and train another one. I thought for a long moment about calling her back, agreeing to let her bring her children, but that was a precedent I couldn’t afford to set. I just hoped Leanne didn’t poison the pool of potential candidates with her disgruntled opinion.
I pulled out my phone and searched for the number to the Sweet Bay Employment Agency, hoping by some miracle there was someone available to start ASAP, before Leanne started spreading gossip about what a horrible employer I was.