Caroline hated firsts. Her first day of school was a haunting memory of pink polka dots and tears. She still felt embarrassment and an itch on her chin from her first kiss during truth or dare with a boy who had a pubescent soul patch. And today, her first day at a new job was no different. Caroline’s palms were sweating, and she rehearsed her opening words over and over in her head. She checked her small watch and frowned. She hated waiting, which was what she’d been doing inside her new boss’s enclosed office for nearly thirty minutes.
Not one person poked their head in to check on her, but that was to be expected. Chances were no one except the assistant who greeted Caroline knew she was in the office. She tugged at the hemline of her black skirt for the fourth time since taking a seat. She knew treating herself to a new suit for her first day had been unnecessary, and her measurements had clearly changed since her last workwear purchase.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Ms. Beckett.”
Caroline jumped at the sudden deep voice behind her. She turned and recognized Ronaldo Vasquez immediately from her online research. He took a seat across from Caroline.
“It’s okay, and please call me Caroline. There’s no need for formalities,” she said, almost kicking herself. That wasn’t part of her rehearsal. Ronaldo smiled. His dark eyes turned soft, but the lines surrounding them highlighted his age. Caroline would pin him at forty-five, maybe fifty, but he dyed his goatee and thinning hair, so she wouldn’t put any money on her guess.
“Very well, Caroline. I’m Ronaldo Vasquez, and, boy, am I glad to see you.” He chuckled softly and loosened the Windsor knot of his pink tie. “I have to thank you for agreeing to start right away. I know Wednesdays aren’t the most traditional days to begin employment, but we were eager to get you started given the circumstances.” He nodded slightly.
Caroline watched his nervous behavior closely, knowing it worked to her advantage. “What are we dealing with?” Caroline slipped into work mode, which pushed all of her first-day jitters and rehearsed dialogue to the side.
Ronaldo looked momentarily surprised. “Are you sure you don’t want the introductory Travel Wisdom tour first?”
“I can learn as I go. I prefer to jump right in, if that’s okay with you.” Caroline picked up her leather briefcase. She took out a legal pad and her favorite fine-tipped pen. “Person, company, or group?”
“Are we dealing with negative press from a person, company, or group of people?” Caroline looked at Ronaldo expectantly, but he just sat back and tapped his fingertips to his lips. “Mr. Vasquez?” she said, puzzled.
He held up his index finger. “Ah, now who’s using unnecessary formalities?” Ronaldo shifted in his chair and seemed to settle in more comfortably. “I’m not sure how to answer your question because it’s a little bit of all three. I run a large travel website, so when we’re under fire, it comes from all angles.”
Caroline started to write. “Tell me about your current situation.”
“Travel Wisdom is known for our no-nonsense reviews, and that’s partly due to our top reviewer, Emma. She just knows how to walk into a place and read between the lines.”
“Emma’s last name?”
Caroline nodded but never looked up from her notepad. She recognized the name. “Is it fair to assume Emma’s more negative reviews get backlash from the hotels and resorts she writes about?”
“Absolutely. Which is why we have the best public relations specialists on payroll.”
Caroline looked up just in time to catch Ronaldo’s wink but chose to leave it unacknowledged. She turned her attention back to her notes.
“When we started this company over ten years ago, we knew we’d have to do something to set us apart from the hundreds of travel sites out there,” Ronaldo said. He stood, closed his office door, and started to pace. “We combined the search results you’d get from Expedia, the rate comparisons from Trivago, and the reviews you’d expect from Yelp. On top of that, we send out staff reviewers to experience as much as possible firsthand.” He wiped away a light layer of sweat from his forehead with the cuff of his creased shirt.
Caroline gave him her undivided attention. Ronaldo was now her boss, and if he was panicking about the state of his company, her duty was to ease his mind. “You don’t have to sell your company to me, Ronaldo. I did my share of research before I applied for this job and went back for a second round before I accepted the position. I love working in public relations, but I’m not going to join a company I don’t believe in.”
“Thank you for saying that.” He smoothed down his tie and sat back down. “This thing with Emma is,” he looked around before staring at the door of his office, “it’s a different situation for us. We’re being hit with a lawsuit this time.”
“For what exactly and by whom?”
“For defamation by the Empress Resort and Casino in New Mexico. Emma went out there earlier this year because we hadn’t done many reviews about casinos. Las Vegas and Atlantic City are popular, but we wanted to give some attention to the lesser known sights in the country. Turns out, our choice wasn’t a very good one. Here,” Ronaldo said, sliding a folder across his desk to Caroline. “There’s a copy of her review and the photos she took.”
Caroline opened the folder and read the first line of the review aloud. “‘There’s a reason why New Mexico isn’t known for their casinos or much else, for that matter.’ Ouch. Would you stand by her review?”
“Absolutely,” Ronaldo said without hesitation. “At least the bit about the casinos. The comment about New Mexico in general was uncalled for. It’s a beautiful state, but the people who visit our site have come to expect that kind of brashness from Emma. She reviews what she sees, and she only saw the casino and its surrounding area.” Ronaldo’s tone was firm and defensive. Caroline observed him for a moment longer and wondered if there was more between him and Emma than she was led to believe.
“Getting the lawsuit thrown out shouldn’t be a problem.” Caroline shuffled through the photos of water-damaged ceilings, rows of broken slot machines, and people loitering in front of the building. “With Travel Wisdom’s reputation and these photos, you have enough ground to stand on.” Caroline tucked her jet-black hair behind her ears and started to pack up.
“There’s more,” Ronaldo said, looking uneasy.
I knew it. She sat back and nodded for Ronaldo to spill it.
“Emma’s extracurricularactivitiesduring her stay have complicated things.”
Ronaldo cleared his throat. “After the review was published, the Empress had a decrease in business and was forced to lay off a handful of employees. One of those employees came forward saying Emma’s attention was on them the whole time and not the resort itself.”
Caroline sighed heavily. “So she was busy with a bellboy instead of doing her job. Great.”
“Cocktail waitress, actually, but I still believe Emma produced an accurate review.”
Caroline’s pen stilled briefly before she finished. “When did you find out about the lawsuit?”
“Yesterday, but online buzz started before that. The waitress commented on the review until she finally got the attention she was looking for. After the fifth or sixth comment, we started to get a lot of emails. Most are from past resorts Emma has negatively reviewed. They’re calling for the reviews to be removed immediately.”
“That’s to be expected.”
“And a few messages from other people,” Ronaldo said abruptly. His face turned from concerned to shameful. “Hate groups are ridiculing us for condoning gay activity.” He leaned forward on his desk and folded his hands together. “I want to make myself clear when I say this is an equal opportunity workplace. What my employees do with their personal time is none of my business, but this is attracting the wrong kind of people. I don’t want my name or my company to be associated with such groups. I want everyone to feel safe and comfortable.”
Caroline’s throat tightened. She had to remind herself none of this was about her, not Ronaldo’s speech or the issues at hand. Her job was to be detached and impersonal with her focus on the big picture. She swallowed roughly and forced herself to smile. She hoped her bright red lipstick didn’t make the artificial grin look clownish. “Where’s Emma now?”
“She comes in around ten or eleven when she’s needed in the office.”
“Nice hours. Is she aware of the situation?”
“No. My assistant made sure to let Emma know we’ll be meeting today.”
Caroline nodded. She certainly had her work cut out for her. “I trust you’ll handle Emma’s reprimand, and I’ll get started with the online backlash.”
“But I don’t want to reprimand her, Caroline. Emma is a very good employee.”
“I don’t doubt that, but we’re dealing with public perception.” Caroline weighed her next words carefully. While she often considered her role within a company autonomous, she always had to behave properly around the person who signed her paychecks. “I’m not here to pass judgment on the employees,” she said, closing her briefcase. “My job is to clean up the messes they make, and from what you’re telling me, Emma will be keeping me busy.”
Ronaldo laughed heartily. “That’s true for many of us here at Travel Wisdom. That girl certainly keeps us on our toes.”
A tall blonde swung the door to Ronaldo’s office open a second later, marching in and dropping a pile of papers on Ronaldo’s desk. The slips were creased and crumpled and barely held together by a thin rubber band.
“There you go, Ronnie. Those are my expenses from my trip to the lodge up on the Finger Lakes. The people were boring, but the place was gorgeous. I got a lot of great sunset shots. At the very least, I’ll sell a few pieces.”
Caroline watched as the rude intruder tossed her long, wavy hair over her shoulder and turned to exit just as quickly as she entered.
“Speak of the devil,” Ronaldo said under his breath. “Emma, wait a minute. I want to introduce you to someone.”
“Make it quick. I have a tip about a new resort I have to follow up on before the meeting. Speaking of, what’s it about? Rich wouldn’t give me any info over the phone.”
Caroline watched keenly as Emma scanned her phone, not even looking at Ronaldo. Caroline wanted to know where this young woman acquired such large brass balls.
He looked at Caroline with a nervous smile. “This is Caroline Beckett. She’s the newest member of our PR department. I’ll be introducing her during the meeting, but since you’re here I figured I’d just introduce you now instead of then.”
Emma looked up briefly, her gaze starting at Caroline’s toes and pausing at her thighs, straining against the tight hemline of her skirt, before landing on her face. Caroline heard warning bells blaring in her head and vibrating in her gut.
“It’s very nice to meet you,” Emma said, then left the moment she finished her greeting.
“So that’s Emma,” Ronaldo said with a chuckle. “But back to you, Caroline.” Ronaldo appeared more relaxed now as he shifted back into the role of boss. “I looked over your résumé,and I have to say it’s quite impressive.”
Caroline felt humbled. “Thank you.”
“Prestigious schooling and then a job at a renowned firm immediately after graduation. I do have a question, and please feel free not to answer.”
Caroline felt panicked. She knew someone would ask her for more details on her abrupt departure from Asher Communications, but the very first hour of her very first day was a bit too early.
“What would you like to know?” Caroline said with a strained voice.
“What brought you back to New Jersey? Most people are running fromthe state nowadays.”
Caroline dropped her shoulders in relief. “I was ready for a change, both professionally and personally.” She had rehearsed this line of questioning many times. “And most of my family still lives here. I’d been in Connecticut since my freshman year of college. Fourteen years away is a lot, and as I got older, so did everyone else around me.” Caroline thought of her brother, her parents and their weathered, unchanged home. “It felt like time.”
“Well,” Ronaldo dropped his hands onto his desk loudly, “I’m very happy to have you aboard. You’ve already met Lisa, Tom, and Joy from your department. My assistant’s name is Rich, and you’ll meet a bunch of new people during our meeting.” Ronaldo paused for a moment to look at Caroline. “If you need anything, come to me or see Joy.” Ronaldo stood and Caroline took that as her cue to do the same. “Ready for your first day?”
Caroline recited the list of names for her new coworkers as Emma’s mischievous eyes crossed her mind. She gulped to quell her rising nerves. She looked Ronaldo in the eyes and fluffed her inner confidence.
Caroline really did hate firsts.
“Christie, I only have five minutes before I have to head into a meeting. You’ve been sending me messages all morning that say nothing more than ‘Miami Beach’ with a dozen exclamation points.” Emma dumped her cold convenience store coffee in the sink and gingerly touched the side of the pot on the counter to check its temperature. “Explain now and fast.” A deep huff came through the phone.
“We just got word of a new couples-only place in Miami Beach. Sounds luxurious and five-star and very sexy. Right up your alley.” Emma could hear typing. “There’s not much more information about it yet, but its grand opening is this week and I can get you in.”
Emma stopped pouring milk into her coffee. “How? I know you’re a great travel agent with awards and yada yada, but what makes you so special to get this scoop?”
Christie chuckled. “When Grandma Robinson moved to Florida five years ago, she made sure to make as many friends as possible.”
“How is Granny doing?” Emma stirred her coffee and took a sip. “Has she managed to find any neighborhood kids to stuff full of oatmeal cookies or is she stuck with all retired folks?” Emma hadn’t reminisced about her childhood in a while, but the memories of hours spent playing in the street followed by cookies at Christie’s grandmother’s house would never fade. She could practically smell the cinnamon in the air.
“I’m sure she’s feeding someone. Maybe you can find out this week? That’s if you want in.”
“You know you had me at ‘sexy’ and ‘Miami.’”
“Great. Who are you bringing?”
“It’s a couples resort, Em. Couples only. No kids and no singles.”
“Oh,” Emma said. “What about you?”
“I wish, but I can’t give such short notice for vacation, and I’m pretty sure Frankie would have a hard time with it. You know he already feels threatened by you.”
Emma covered her mouth to hold back her loud laugh. “Something I’ll never understand.” Emma and Christie had been best friends for decades, and the line between them had never been blurred. If only Christie’s boyfriend would believe that. “He needs to work on his insecurities.”
“And you need to decide who you’ll sweep away to paradise for ten days. I’m sure picking just one will be hard for you.”
Emma’s face fell. Who could she bring that would be fun? The woman she’d met at the Finger Lakes came to mind. Emma smiled as she thought of being tied to the four poster bed and how she’d love to relive that night. But that woman was in the past, and Emma didn’t know anyone who’d be available. She spotted Ronaldo waving to her in the distance.
“Can I get back to you about this later? My meeting is about to start.”
“Yeah. Just text me all the necessary information by the end of the day so I can make the reservations.”
“Thanks, bye.” Emma ended the call but didn’t move. She watched each person enter the small meeting room, only recognizing a few of the faces. No other reviewers or even a data analyst were walking in. Someone Emma recognized from Human Resources and a man with an expensive-looking suit hurried in next. She tapped her phone against her palm a few times before deciding to head in herself to find out what was going on. She sauntered into the room, all confidence in her black-on-black ensemble, and took the first open seat she spotted. Everyone was chatting amicably about the upcoming weekend and their plans. The only quiet person in the room was sitting beside Emma.
She looked briefly to her right and immediately recognized the thighs she’d spotted earlier. Emma greeted Caroline with a polite smile. “Hello again.”
Caroline didn’t say a word, and her stoic look remained. Her dark eyes held an odd combination of fire and ice.
“Okay then…” Emma sat back and drank her coffee.
“Let’s get started,” Ronaldo said from the front of the room as soon as Rich shut the door. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I not only appreciate you making time, but I also appreciate we’re all taking this situation seriously.”
Emma took out her phone and started scrolling through her contacts in search of someone who’d enjoy Miami as much as she would. Connor was a one-time thing, for sure. Lori was fun but got too attached. Terri, however, would look delicious in a bikini.
Emma looked up to find Ronaldo’s expectant eyes on her. She must’ve missed something. “What?”
His jaw flexed, a sure sign of frustration. “Have you been keeping tabs on the comments section of your reviews?”
“Do you ever?”
“No. I write reviews. It’s not like it’s my personal diary or latest fanfiction update. Comments don’t matter.” Emma turned again to Caroline. “I’ve only read a few, but that community can be brutal with their feedback.” Again, Emma received no reaction from her.
Ronaldo cleared his throat. “There’s been some negativity surrounding your review of the Empress.”
Emma scoffed and tossed her phone on the table. “The place was trash. Quite frankly, I don’t understand how it’s still in business. If anyone is looking to argue about it, they can email me directly.”
“They’re saying your review is incorrect.”
“You’ve seen the photos, Ronnie, does that look incorrect to you?”
“Then there’s no issue. I have the evidence to back my review, and all they have is their butt-hurt point of view.”
“If you’d let Ronaldo speak, you’ll see there’s more to it than that,” Caroline said.
Emma slowly turned to Caroline. “Excuse me? You’ve worked here for all of what? One hour and already you’re butting in?” Emma looked at Ronaldo incredulously. When he didn’t come to her defense, she started to put the pieces together. Human Resources, Public Relations, the boss, and a grumpy guy in a pricey suit—a lawyer. “What’s happening?”
Ronaldo finally sat and folded his hands on the table. “We’re being sued for defamation.”
“A case we’ll win.” The grump finally spoke and confirmed he was the lawyer.
“It’s still bad press,” Ronaldo said.
Caroline spoke up. “Which is for us to worry about.” No matter how smooth her voice was, it still grated on Emma’s nerves.
Emma was starting to grow antsy. “Then what’s the issue?”
“Marisol Johnson.” Ronaldo stood after he dropped the name. Emma didn’t react. “Her allegations are the resort’s best defense, and the ones that are attracting the most negative attention.”
Emma racked her brain for the memory of Marisol, and an attractive Hispanic woman in a short black skirt popped into her mind. “Marisol and I were both consenting adults who were just looking to blow off steam at the end of the day.” Her hackles started to rise, and she could feel anxiety build in her chest. “What are her ‘allegations’ exactly?”
“Your attention was on her and never the resort.” Ronaldo rubbed at his face and shifted before speaking again. “Emma, I have to ask you something, and it’s not easy for me. I need you to know I trust you and your reviews. While I do think you have fun with your position, I don’t believe you abuse it.”
Emma’s stomach sank. She’d never heard Ronaldo speak so solemnly or professionally with her. “What is it?”
“On how many of your previous trips have you…” He scratched the back of his head. “This is like having the sex talk with my daughter all over again.” Laughter sounded around the room. Emma didn’t see the humor. “How many of your trips have been active ones?”
Emma went slack jawed. “You’re asking me which past trips I’ve had sex during? Do we have to do this here?” Emma said as she looked around at the table full of people.
“Yes,” the older woman from Human Resources said.
“Helen’s right.” Ronaldo shrugged complacently.
“Oh God.” Emma dropped her head into her hands and groaned. “I can’t just remember on the spot like this.”
“How about of the last ten?” the lawyer said.
“That’s almost a whole year.”
“Try. Please,” Ronaldo said softly.
Emma mentally backtracked her past schedule with Travel Wisdom. She sat thinking, even though the answer was obvious. She didn’t want to answer too quickly, but she had to eventually. “Ten,” she said quietly.
Ronaldo widened his eyes. “Come again?”
Emma hated the innuendo that hung in the air. “All ten.”
Caroline made a sound of disgust.
“Listen,” Emma said, spinning in her chair to shoot a pointed look at Caroline, “I don’t need your judgment. What do I need to do to fix it, Ronaldo?” Ronaldo stayed silent and everyone else shifted. “Am I getting fired?”
“No, but you’ll have to sit with Helen and give some details on your other trips in order for us to look for anything else that’ll add to this situation.”
“Fine.” Emma raised her hands in surrender. “Let’s do it.”
“And you’ll be suspended for two weeks without pay while we handle this.” Ronaldo looked genuinely dismayed to deliver the news, but that didn’t soften the blow.
Emma started to panic, and not just about the pay, but about the going. She couldn’t remember the last time she wasn’t traveling or planning a trip, even well before her employment with Travel Wisdom when she scraped together the money to go anywhere and everywhere. Making a career out of it just added to her purpose.
In a frenzy, Emma said the first thing that came to mind. “But I have an exclusive in for a grand opening this week. I was going to tell you about it after the meeting. It’s a couples resort in Miami that already has a lot of buzz surrounding it. We’d be the first reviewers in.” Emma watched as Ronaldo’s face turned from stern to contemplative. Her words were affecting him. “These are the kind of reviews that make us stand out.”
Ronaldo nodded. “We’ll send someone.”
“I’m the only one who can get in.” Emma rolled her eyes at the looks of disbelief being shot at her. “A family friend is the one pulling the strings. It’s my name or no name.”
Ronaldo scratched his goatee. He looked between Stan and Helen. Emma was momentarily satisfied to know he didn’t value Caroline’s opinion in the matter. Everyone remained silent.
“For how long?”
“I advise against this, Ronaldo, highly,” Caroline said. “The public needs to know you’re taking this seriously, both of you.”
Emma laughed. Caroline sat with perfect posture, and her black suit was just as pristine as the crisp lilac shirt she wore beneath it. Without a doubt, Caroline took everything a little too seriously.
“I am,” Emma said. “Which is why I think it’s best for me to keep working and do what I do best.”
Caroline squared her shoulders. “As the offender, I don’t see why you think you get a say in this.”
Emma ran her fingers through her long hair to buy herself a moment. A tactic used to avoid biting off a comment she knew better than to say aloud. “Who exactly do you think you are here? I have one boss and he’s sitting right there.” Emma pointed at Ronaldo.
“Caroline’s right. We need to listen to our PR department now more than ever.” He looked between Emma and Caroline before lowering his eyes. “But I have a business to consider.” Emma looked at him with her eyes full of hope. “Which means Emma will be taking the trip to Miami, and her suspension will be determined by the state of this case when she returns.”
“Yes.” Emma pumped her fist in victory.
“You said this is a couples resort, correct?”
“Yes and don’t worry about the plus one, Ronnie. I fully expect to pay for their travel and expenses.”
Caroline chortled. “This is a set up for another PR nightmare. Will you leave the room long enough to even see the resort?”
Emma smirked salaciously at Caroline. “I don’t always need a room.”
“That’s enough,” Ronaldo said loudly. “Caroline, yet again, is right. Emma, you need to play it safe and smart. If I’m allowing you to go on this trip, I need to know I won’t have another problem on my hands when you get back.”
“You have my word.”
He shook his head. “That’s not enough.” Ronaldo picked up the pen in front of him and tapped it a few times. “If we’re all clear on the next steps to be taken, the meeting is over, and you can go. Caroline and Emma, you two stay.”
Emma remained silent as everyone collected their things and shuffled out of the room. Once the door was shut, she tried to reason with Ronaldo again. “I assure you I’ll be on my best behavior. I’ll bring someone along who’ll help me stay on track and experience everything the resort has to offer.”
“I believe you,” Ronaldo said as he rolled up his shirt sleeves.
Emma sighed in relief. “Thank you.”
“Because you’re going with Caroline.”
“What?” Emma and Caroline asked simultaneously.
“I trust you, but a smart businessman needs a safety net.” Ronaldo held his palm out toward Caroline. “She’ll be able to assess any situation that may arise and handle it with public perception in mind. I want this exclusive review very badly, but I’m not going into it blind and reckless.”
Emma started shaking her head emphatically. “No. This won’t work. I don’t need a babysitter.”
“And I’m nota babysitter,” Caroline added with her eyes fixed on Ronaldo.
“Think of it as more of a wrangler.” Ronaldo stood and started to collect his paperwork. “These are my conditions. You can accept them and go on the trip, or stay and accept your two-week suspension.” He looked at Emma sternly.
Emma stared back at him.
Caroline let out a small cough. “I suppose now may be a time for me to mention I’m not much of a traveler.”
Emma closed her eyes and questioned what God she had scorned to deserve this.
Ronaldo smiled. “You work for a travel website, surely you expected a bit of travel to come up.”
“Honestly? No, not so much.” For the first time, Caroline sounded a little unsure of herself.
Emma felt a fraction of satisfaction knowing the trip would be equally, if not more, torturous for Caroline. “We’ll be flying out Friday morning and back Monday afternoon. That’ll give us ten days.” She looked at Ronaldo and received a nod of approval.
“That’s eleven days,” Caroline said.
Emma rubbed her forehead. “I never count the last day because it’s mostly a travel day.”
“Okay,” Ronaldo said, interrupting them. “Fill out the usual paperwork and have it on my desk in an hour.” He left, and the tension in the room increased.
Emma was shocked to see Caroline slightly pale and frozen in place. She rolled her eyes. “I’m going to need your full name and date of birth for our plane tickets and reservation.”
Caroline looked up at Emma with wide eyes. “I, um.” She stopped and formed a straight, tense line with her lips.
Emma picked up Caroline’s pen and placed it atop the legal pad in front of her. “Write it down if you can’t say it.” She watched Caroline’s hand tremble as she wrote. “I hope you’re more fun than this once we get there.” She frowned when no smart retort came. Caroline seemed deeply shaken.
“Here,” Caroline said as she ripped the paper from the pad and gave it to Emma. She took three slow breaths and her professional mask fell right back into place. “Hold off on passing that along.” Caroline packed up her briefcase and stood. “I’m going to try to talk some sense into Ronaldo.” She rushed out of the room.
Emma sat back and laughed. “Good luck with that,” she said to the empty room. She turned the paper around a few times on the smooth tabletop before reading it. She took out her phone and pulled up a message to Christie.
She snapped a picture of Caroline’s information and started typing after the image was sent. Any way you can secure us a window seat? Emma had a lot of planning to do before they left Friday morning, and most of those plans would be ways to avoid Caroline. Her phone buzzed in her hand.
Emma chortled and rubbed her forehead before typing out her response. Far from it. My boss assigned her to me. I’ll explain it all over dinner some time.
I’ll hold you to it. It’s been too long since you’ve taken me out. Christie punctuated her message with a kissy-face emoji.
It’s these kinds of messages that make Frankie question our friendship.Emma laughed out loud when Christie’s next message was a string of the same emoji. Put the reservations in. I’ll talk to you later.
Emma rested her head against the back of her chair and closed her eyes. She had to focus on the positives of heading to Miami. With that thought she smiled. She had a wardrobe of bikinis to pack.
Caroline had such little travel experience, airports overwhelmed her. She had taken no family trips as a kid and made sure her career kept her mostly in one place. If she did have to travel, she figured it’d be for a reason so great her excitement would outweigh her nerves. Turns out that wasn’t the case for her first trip to Florida. She had tried to reason with Ronaldo. She’d tried to explain how she wouldn’t make an adequate travel companion because she’d be too worried about herself to get any work done. Her words went in one of Ronaldo’s ears and right out the other.
A hurried traveler bumped into Caroline’s back, and a rolling suitcase caught her toe when she stepped out of his way. She bit back a curse and rushed off to the nearest wall to check the damage. Sliding off her ballet flat, she was happy to see her black pedicure remained perfect. She put her shoe back on and checked the clock. Their flight was leaving in forty-five minutes, and Emma was nowhere to be seen. She decided to check in with her family one last time.
She dialed and held the phone to her ear. The ringing was hard to hear over the surrounding noise. Caroline could barely make out her mother’s voice when she answered. “Mom? Hi.” She clapped her free hand over her ear.
“What’s wrong? Shouldn’t you be in the air?”
“My flight isn’t for a little while. I just wanted to call before I boarded.”
“Well, your father’s mowing the lawn, and I’m getting lunch ready. I don’t have much time to talk.”
Caroline lowered her head. She tried so hard to not feel guilty about this trip, but her mother wasn’t making it easy. “I’m really sorry about leaving so suddenly. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Your boss made you, I know.”
“Is Kyle around?” A quick conversation with her brother would be good. When Kyle was doing well, he was Caroline’s rock, so Caroline was determined to be his when he wasn’t. “I’d like to talk to him for a minute.”
“He’s in the shower. Remember what I told you about his routine. I can’t have you messing that up just because you came back into his life.”
Caroline bit the inside of her cheek. She wasn’t in the mood to have this fight again and not in an airport. She called home in hopes of calming her travel nerves but should not have. “It was good talking to you. I’ll let you know when I land.”
As she hung up, Caroline could hear her mother yelling at her dad to wipe his feet. She stared at her phone for a moment before noticing the time and checking for Emma.
She should’ve forced Emma to exchange phone numbers before she left the office Wednesday afternoon, but everything had happened so quickly. Caroline could still feel her head spinning.
“You’ll need to pack for a beach vacation,” Emma had said as she typed on her phone. She’d been seated on the edge of the conference table beside Caroline. “Maybe one or two outfits for nice restaurants and something appropriate for going out.”
Caroline handwrote her list. “What kind of nice restaurants?”
“I have no idea.”
“How do you not know?”
Emma didn’t respond but kept typing. Once she finished, she placed her phone on the desk and looked at Caroline. “I didn’t study the website, and I honestly prefer to go in a little blind. Just pack and plan for a fun trip.” Emma picked up her phone again but kept her eyes on Caroline. “You do know how to have fun, right?”
“Of course I—” Caroline went silent. She wasn’t going to let Emma bait her. “What time should I meet you at the airport?”
“Our flight leaves at nine.”
“And how much earlier should we get there?” Caroline watched as Emma took three selfies before answering her.
“Airports recommend two hours.”
“Seven o’clock it is,” Caroline said to herself as she wrote the time down. “Should we exchange phone numbers before we go?”
“I have to get going right now,” Emma said, standing and gathering her purse. “I have a vlog post about packing to get started. See you at the airport.”
Caroline watched Emma as she strode through the office, head held high and sandy blond hair cascading effortlessly down her back. Women like Emma had always captivated her with their confidence. One thing Caroline was grateful for, however, was how infuriating Emma was. She could never find someone like that attractive.
Caroline was jolted back to the present by a gruff gentleman waving his hand in front of her face. “Are you going to use that outlet or what?” he said, pointing at the wall.
“No, I’m not.” Caroline gathered her bag and moved out of his way.Newark Airport at its finest.
She decided to head to security and wait for Emma at the gate. If Emma missed the flight, that was her problem, not Caroline’s. She placed her carry-on on the conveyer and followed security’s clear instructions. She took off her shoes and stepped through the metal detector. Pulling up her boarding pass on her phone, she felt like an accomplished rookie traveler. She was able to make it to the gate with little to no issue, and much to her surprise, Emma was already there.
Emma stood so cavalier and unaffected as she waited to board the plane. She was scrolling through her phone, oblivious to Caroline watching her. Caroline stared and felt her anxiety be slowly replaced with annoyance. She cleared her throat loudly as she stepped up to Emma.
“Oh, hey, you made it. I thought for sure you would’ve beaten me here.”
Caroline clenched her teeth. “I’ve been here for two hours.”
“Where?” Emma checked the time on her phone. “I’ve been here for forty-five minutes.”
“I was waiting for you up front by where I checked my luggage.”
“You checked your luggage?”
Emma’s head fell back. “That’s going to waste so much time when we get there.”
“You’re the one who told me what to pack!” Caroline blew out a long breath and ran her fingers through her hair. She could feel her bangs standing up comically. She looked up to the speaker overhead as it announced their flight was boarding. “You fit everything you needed into your carry-on?”
Emma held up her small, worn piece of luggage. “Everything.”
“You said we needed to pack for dinners, going out, and beach days,” Caroline said in a near growl. The crowd jostled her as they started for the gate. She tried to make her nervous legs move smoothly as she followed Emma. “I barely had room for shoes and sunscreen.”
Emma laughed loudly. “I didn’t realize I’d have to teach you Packing 101. You should’ve watched my vlog.” She showed her boarding pass to the ticket agent and motioned for Caroline to do the same. “You pack the bare necessities and buy toiletries and sunscreen when you get there.”
“Isn’t that more expensive?”
Emma actually stopped in line and turned. “We’re going to Florida, not Jamaica. There’s a Target by the airport.”
The people behind them bumped into Caroline and sent her into Emma’s body. She smelled of lavender. Caroline pushed away quickly and whispered a flustered apology. They continued their slow walk onto the plane, and Caroline’s heart started to speed up. She had only flown one other time in her life, fifteen years ago. The rows of seats grew narrower with every second she stared.
“We are…” Emma led the way and pointed. “Right here.” Emma took the window seat, which left Caroline to take the middle.
Caroline copied Emma and stowed her carry-on after unpacking her earbuds and the book she chose to travel with. She knew she’d be much too nervous to read, but having a tangible distraction in her hands was helpful. She counted through her breathing as people filed past their row. Caroline crossed her fingers and toes and hoped the seat beside her would remain empty. All hopes were dashed a second later as a husky man plopped down with a grunt. Caroline looked forward and swallowed hard.
Just as the passengers settled, a video started to play on the screens in front of them. An attendant at the front of the plane echoed the video. Caroline half listened to the announcement while the rest of her concentration was on the smells and the sounds of people chatting and groaning all around her. Her palms began to sweat, and she wiped them on her black yoga pants.
“Not a fan of flying, huh?” Emma slid her oversized sunglasses on her face and laid her head back.
Caroline hated how relaxed she looked. “It’s just been a while.”
“It’s more than that. I can sense traveler’s fear a mile away. The woman in front of us, the guy across the aisle, and you. You all ping my radar.”
Caroline sighed. “Fine. You’re right. I don’t like confined spaces or planes.”
“Flying is easy.” Just as the words left Emma’s mouth, the plane jolted into motion. “Here we go.”
Caroline wanted to know how Emma could be calm. Her chest tightened as they ascended. She kept her eyes closed until the plane leveled out and remained steady. Caroline looked at Emma again and wondered how she could seem so blissful. She shifted her gaze to the window and wished she could get lost in the expansive skies instead of the heavy breathing of the guy next to her.
“Maybe we should talk about our game plan,” Caroline blurted out. She was desperate for a distraction.
“I’m used to traveling alone and prefer to listen to music.”
“Well, we can’t have electronics on yet, so humor me. What’s the plan?”
Emma lolled her head to the side and looked at Caroline. She pursed her full lips, appearing deep in thought. “We get to the resort and have a good time.”
Caroline’s frown deepened. “That’s it?”
“That’s how I do what I do.” Emma looked up as the Fasten Seat Belts light went off. She unfastened the buckle and was about to pop in her earbuds when Caroline reached out to stop her.
“You don’t think this trip should be treated a little differently considering the circumstances?”
Caroline’s eyes nearly bulged out. “No?”
“I have a system, a way of doing things, and I plan on sticking to it because that’s what my followers expect of me.”
“The people who read your reviews don’t know what to expect of you right now.”
“They’re not my followers.” Emma didn’t elaborate until Caroline shot her a pointed look. “I blog, vlog, post on every social media outlet, and take a lot of destination photos I sell on my website. People follow me everywhere I go from their little screens,” Emma said, holding up her phone for emphasis. “I have clothing and jewelry companies who send me free products just to drop their names in a post or two while I’m away. Believe it or not, I’m working from minute one.”
Caroline fell silent. She should know more about Emma, her new work partner, but she didn’t have time to research a trip and a person before leaving. “I didn’t know that about you.”
The look of smug satisfaction on Emma’s face fueled Caroline’s immature side.
“But what about Marisol?” Caroline quirked an eyebrow, the sharp arch turning dangerous.
Emma chuckled and turned her head to look forward. “I make sure to have some personal time.”
“There will be no personal timeof that nature during this trip. Got it?” Caroline didn’t mean to sound so disgusted.
Emma pushed her sunglasses on top of her head. “Is this you being a professional, or are you being judgmental?”
Caroline gawked. “A professional, of course. I don’t care what you do with your life.”
“Sure sounds like you do.”
“I care about how your actions affect the company. That’s it. And this time around, your every action could have a direct consequence. So please, keep it in your pants.” Caroline flipped her paperback open to chapter one, turning the pages loudly. She wanted to play a video game, but she knew Emma would pick on her if she did. She unbuckled her seat belt with a huff and started to read. Barely three words in, and she had something more to say.
“Especially on this trip where we’ll be surrounded by couples. The last thing Ronaldo needs is a claim that you’re a home-wrecker.”
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the term.”
“Yes, I am.” Emma’s expression turned incredulous. “If I were to hook up with a married person on this trip, I’d be the bad guy?”
“To the public eye? Yes.”
“And to you?” Emma waited a beat for Caroline to answer. “Of course, you’d blame the mistresses.”
“The person they cheat with could say no, sure, but the one who breaks the vow is the guilty party.”
“Speaking from experience as a mistress?”
Emma shrugged. “Maybe.”
Caroline watched the easy expression on Emma’s face and her stomach turned. Memories of her ex-girlfriend, Ann, filled her mind. Four years together, the home they built, and the way it all tumbled down the moment she caught Ann with another woman. That pain would never fade.
“You’ve been cheated on,” Emma said with the same tone game show contestants use when they answer trivia.
Caroline shook her head. “I’m done talking about this with you. I’ll never understand your point of view, and you definitely won’t understand mine.”
“Fine.” Caroline put her book away and made a show of putting in her earbuds and connecting them to her phone. She closed her eyes and started one of four meditation apps she had downloaded for the trip. The mild voice in her ears instructed her to breathe slowly and evenly. She imagined a spring breeze and flexed her toes, ankles, calves, thighs, and hands in time. But Caroline couldn’t keep her attention on the meditation steps when Emma kept shifting and laughing beside her. With a grunt of annoyance, Caroline closed her meditation app and chose to listen to music instead.
Caroline was three songs into the latest Taylor Swift album when the plane dipped slightly, enough to get the attention of every passenger on the plane. Especially Caroline, who gripped the armrest with such ferocity, her short nails left a mark.
“It’s fine.” Emma’s voice barely broke through the music. Caroline jumped when Emma touched her arm. She looked at Emma with alarm. “It’s fine,” Emma repeated.
Caroline pulled one earbud free from her ear before speaking. “How do you know that?” She scanned the rest of her nearby passengers in search of another panicked face, but no one seemed to care.
“I fly, a lot, and there’s almost always at least one little bump along the way.”
Caroline’s eyes widened, and she failed to breathe before asking, “At least one? You mean that’ll happen again?” She finally inhaled. “I hate this. I hate flying. Oh my God, I have to do this again to get home.” She started rubbing a firm circle into the center of her forehead. Caroline could feel the panic rising in her chest. Her palms were sweaty and her muscles tense. “Why did this have to be my first assignment? What did I do to deserve this?”
“You need to relax,” Emma said coolly as she flipped another page in the home décor magazine she was reading. “No wonder your face always looks like that.”
Caroline stilled. The plane’s cabin was eerily quiet. She turned her head slowly toward Emma. “I beg your pardon?”
Emma did a double take before studying Caroline thoughtfully. “Your face matches your attitude.”
“What does that even mean?” Caroline said, her pitch rising with each word.
“Always annoyed, pinched, disturbed—get it?”
“That is so rude!”
“It’s not rude. I’m just stating my observation.”
“You should keep it to yourself.”
“Ladies,” the older gentleman beside Caroline said. They whipped their heads around at the same time to stare at him. “Would you mind lowering your voices a bit? You’re getting quite loud.”
Caroline was mortified. She turned to Emma and scowled. “And now you’re making a scene,” she whispered harshly.
“No, I’m not. I’m helping you.”
“You’re—” Caroline paused. Her patience was fading. For the sake of the gentleman beside her, she took a moment to gather herself and lowered her voice. “You’re doing no such thing.”
Emma’s full lips turned up slightly. She looked at Caroline smugly. “The plane has dipped two more times.”
“No, it didn’t.” She looked to the guy beside her for verification, and he nodded. “It did?” When Caroline turned back to Emma, her nose was once again buried in her magazine. The aggravation was a miracle distraction, but regardless of how well it worked, her ire wouldn’t dissipate as easily as her anxiety did.