My head emerges from the cool water, and I snatch a deep breath, eyes still closed as I hang on to my moment of freedom wrapped in the smell of chlorine. When I open my eyes, I spot my sister, Christa, standing on the edge of the pool, hands on hips. Her cheeks are flushed as they always are when she’s pissed off.
In a few smooth strokes, I swim to the edge of the pool to join her, offering up an innocent smile. “Morning, sis.” I blink the water from my eyes. “What brings you to the pool?”
“That’s the question I should be asking you.” She shoves a frustrated hand through her chestnut hair, the same color and short length as mine. “I can’t say I’m surprised to find you here.”
“There are disadvantages to you knowing me so well.” I lift myself from the water, droplets trailing down the curves of my body, then I pull myself onto the lip of the pool and swing my long legs onto the slick, white tiles.
“I mean it, Emma. You have to stop doing this.”
I shake my head from side to side, sending water flying in all directions. Christa steps away to prevent herself from getting hit. “I don’t get why the Baroque Hotel and Spa employees are not allowed to swim in the pool during the hottest July in years.” The Baroque is a beachside hotel frequented by tourists.
“Because it’s reserved for guests. And you’re not one of them,” Christa’s voice is a loud whisper even though, aside from the two of us, the pool area is deserted.
I don’t answer as I get to my feet. Careful not to slip on the tiles, I tiptoe to one of the beige lounge chairs, where my faded, magenta towel is resting in a heap. At least I bring my own towel instead of using those belonging to the hotel. “Look,” I run the scratchy towel over my hair, “it was just a few laps. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is, if Heidi finds out, you could get fired for this. You already have more warnings in two weeks than someone who has been working here for years.”
I lift my shoulders and let them drop again. “Heidi should really give us more freedom. Doesn’t she understand that when employees are happy, the guests will be happy?” I grab my printed canvas tote and head to the changing room with Christa hot on my heels. As soon as we enter the bright, airy room, she grabs my arm and spins me around to face her.
“Emma, if you want to keep this job, you have to respect the rules.” At twenty-seven, she’s only a year older than me but she often acts like my mother.
A small smile tips the corners of my lips. My sister, the rules follower. We are so different. Since we were kids I’ve always been the one to rock the boat. It drove our mother crazy. But mama is no longer here. She has been gone for five years. Now I can be the free person I’ve always wanted to be. At least I try.
There are already so many restrictions in Mistport, Maine. Everywhere you go, everybody is pretending. They pretend to be happy and content. If you dare show any sign of dissatisfaction with your life, people start judging you, calling you ungrateful. We should be grateful for what God gave us, they keep preaching. It’s a sin to want more than you have. I guess that makes me one of the biggest sinners in town.
Since the day I dropped out of high school, two years before graduation, I’ve felt the driving urge to leave town.
When mama died, my desire to escape became even stronger. But as I was making plans, Christa was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same kind of illness that stole mama. It felt selfish to walk away from her then. She’s my sister, the only family I have.
Now here I am, still unhappy with my life, still breaking rules where I can in order to feel alive again. Now that Christa is free of cancer, I keep asking myself every day when my chance will come, when a door will open to allow me entry into a more exciting world. But so far nothing has presented itself.
“I do want this job. You know that.”
“Then you have to act like it.” Christa releases me and crosses her arms in front of her chest. “Heidi was looking for you and I had no idea what to tell her. It’s only a matter of time before she figures out that you are at the pool every morning.”
“Stop worrying so much, Christa. Relax a little.” I pull off my tiny bikini and I’m about to jump into the shower when Christa reaches for my hand.
“You don’t have time for that. Heidi is looking for you, remember?”
“What does she want from me, anyway? She never says more than two words to me.”
“She’s still your boss. And we have some important guests checking in today.” Christa raises an eyebrow. “Unless you forgot. She mentioned it in the meeting last week.”
I lay a hand on my forehead, closing my eyes, and try to remember what the meeting was about. I had been too busy playing a game on my phone to pay any real attention to what she was saying. It’s not as if I get important tasks around here anyway. It’s not as though she can tell me how to scrub the toilets. I only got this job because Heidi likes Christa, who has been working in the Baroque Hotel kitchen since she was eighteen years old, only taking a break to recover from the cancer.
I open my eyes and study my sister’s cherubic face. “I’m sorry, sis. You got me this job and I should be grateful.”
Christa lets me go again and sighs. “It’s okay. Get dressed and go find Heidi.”
I give a small salute, but the moment she walks out, I jump into the shower. There’s no way I’ll be walking around with chlorine stuck to my skin. I spend only a few seconds under the jet of hot water before jumping out again. I dry myself off and rub Shea butter body lotion into my tanned skin. Less than ten minutes later, I’m out of the dressing room, buttoning the shirt of my tan, double-breasted housekeeping dress.
With each button, I feel more restricted, as though I’m locking myself inside a prison cell. Another day to pretend, another day to push myself through a life I’m dissatisfied with.
My first stop is the staff room, where I throw open the window to let out the overwhelming smells of perfume and hairspray. Then I use a boar bristle brush to tame my hair, while watching the small TV someone had forgotten to switch off.
On the screen is an Obsession Inc. commercial, urging women in abusive relationships to reach out for help. As I slick my lips with clear lip gloss, I mumble the last seven digits of the phone number that I’ve come to know by heart from how often I hear it. “555-0154”.
Apart from lipgloss and a little mascara to liven up my green eyes, I don’t wear much makeup.
Done getting dressed, I flick off the TV and drop the remote onto the cushioned bench next to a plant with dead tips. At that moment, Heidi barges in, her eyes wild, her red curls packed into a bun so tight her forehead is wrinkle-free.
“Emma, for God’s sake, where have you been?” She lays a hand on her heaving chest. Her lips are pinched in a thin line across her face. She’s wearing her favorite navy blue, striped dress suit today. It’s an important day for sure. “Don’t tell me you’re late again.”
I shake my head. “No. I was here early, just—”
“Stop.” Her tone is sharp as she waves a dismissive hand. “We’ll discuss your behavior later. Today you’re on reception duty.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Reception?”
“Last week I told you all that the Neon Production Company is coming to shoot a film in town. The entire team chose to stay here. They arrived a few minutes ago.” She pats her hair. “Anyway, Cora was meant to be at reception today, but she called in sick, and Janelle is on vacation. Instead of your cleaning duties, I want you to take her place.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s simple.” Her voice is sharp. “All you have to do is make sure the guests get what they ask for.”
I can’t stop the smile that creeps onto my face. I don’t have to scrub toilets today. What fun. Being a receptionist was actually the job I had applied for, but Heidi, after hearing around town that I’m not a very reliable employee, had offered me the cleaning job instead. It had been a take it or leave it kind of offer. Since I had no other options, I took it, planning to stay only a couple of weeks, as I had done at my many previous jobs.
“Can you do the job or not?” Heidi dabs a sheen of sweat from her forehead.
“Yes.” I square my shoulders. “I’d love to.” I’d worked as a receptionist last year at the Slumber Motel, even though I was fired after a week when I rejected a guest who was trying to hit on me.
“Good.” She crosses the room—spreading her honeysuckle and jasmine perfume— toward the closets and throws one of them open. She pulls out a uniform reserved for receptionists and hands it to me. “This should fit. Put it on, and get out there. It’s time to put that pretty face to use.”
I change into my new uniform—black pants, with a white shirt and moss green vest—unable to keep the smile off my face.
By the time I walk out of the staff room, I’m still smiling. I come to a halt in the doorway leading into the reception area. The lobby is filled with people in suits and cameras are flashing everywhere. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, I spot more people outside, lining the sidewalk.
A black stretch limousine is parked in front of the hotel. The moment my eyes land on it, excitement races through me. I’ve never seen this much excitement in Mistport before. Neon Production must be a big deal. I can’t help wondering whether there will be well-known celebrities staying in our little town of less than three thousand residents.
For the first time in a while, my heart lifts and adrenaline shoots through my veins at the thought that I’ll be on the front line to experience something fun for a change.
Three men in suits enter the lobby, trying to shield a man in jeans and a white shirt from the crowd. He must be some huge celebrity to cause this much buzz in Mistport.
I can’t see his face, but he has raven hair with sprinkles of gray glinting in it. I lift myself off the floor as much as possible to get a better look, but I only get the side of his face before he disappears into the elevator, leaving the cameras clicking behind him.
As soon as the elevator closes, Heidi returns to me, her face all smiles. “I have already checked the group into their rooms. They booked the entire second floor. All you have to do is make sure all their needs are met. Is that clear?”
“If anybody from that floor calls reception, I want you to be here. Don’t mess this up, Emma.”
“Got it. You don’t have to worry.” I lower myself into the black desk chair and position my body in front of the computer, a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see the celebrity. But then again, he’s going to be here for a couple of days, I think. “How long will they stay?”
“Three days. And we want them to have the best experience possible.” Heidi says as she watches the crowd melting out of the lobby. “This will put the Baroque Hotel on the map for sure.”
“Who was the man followed by bodyguards? Was he an actor?”
Before I can get a response, Heidi rushes off to talk to a man with a briefcase.
I sit back and move the mouse to bring the computer screen back to life. I consider checking my emails, when next to a bowl of green tea fragranced potpourri, I catch sight of a stack of glossy black and gold pamphlets on the counter. Their elegance stands out from the other pamphlets belonging to local restaurants and other businesses.
I reach for one of the elegant pamphlets. When my gaze takes in the words, my breath catches in my lungs.
Three extras urgently needed for the filming of Ragged Waves.
My gaze slides down the rectangular page, taking in every piece of information and then, without thinking, I shove one of the pamphlets into my back pocket, my mouth dry from excitement.
What if this is it? What if this is the door I’d been waiting to open for me? What if this is the key that unlocks me from my Mistport prison?