Autumn in Arborwood Excerpt – Chapter Six

With only five chapters to go in my upcoming novel, Autumn in Arborwood, I am excited to share an excerpt from the manuscript.

SPARKS WILL FLY WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE

There is absolutely nowhere on earth that Ryan Mitchell would rather be than at home, in the picturesque town of Arborwood. As General Manager of a boutique resort called the Arborwood Inn, located in the renowned lake district of Muskoka, Ontario, her career in the hospitality industry has reached its pinnacle… that is until Poke Bosworth, the Arborwood’s beloved owner, passes away. Poke has left the resort to his nephew Jake Hanley, CEO of the Manhattan-based Hanley Acquisitions and Investments. As a hardened businessman, Jake plans to treat his newly-inherited property like one of his corporate conquests – cutting “waste” and maximizing profits with a goal of selling it to the highest bidder and moving on.

It will be up to Ryan to convince Jake that the Arborwood Inn’s worth far exceeds its financial value. But in so doing, she may just unlock his iron-clad heart, and give him what he’s wanted all his life without even realizing it: community, family, belonging… and love.

CHAPTER SIX

TEN FIFTY-EIGHT. Two minutes to go-time with the new Big Man. Ryan made her way through the lobby towards the administrative wing. She strode with confidence, imagining that each heel strike of her T-strap pumps was lifting her up, up, up to shatter that glass ceiling of success hovering just above her. One hand clutched her manila file folder like a talisman, pressing it to the side of her thigh to keep the contents from spilling.

“Good morning, Mr. Hanley,” she whispered to herself, imagining her tone and enunciation. “Good morning, Mr. Hanley. I’m Ryan Mitchell. I am Ryan Mitchell. I’m Ryan—Ryan Mitchell.” Pluck, pluck, pluck went her heels on the marble floor. “Good morning, Mr. Hanley. I’m Ryan Mitchell, General Manager. Welcome to the Arborwood Inn.” Smile… closed mouth smile or flash the teeth?

The staff meeting had gone well, and she was riding a high. She’d knocked the morale boosting out of the park, if she did say so herself. She’d stood in front of a room full of nervous and anxious employees, and made them believe they had nothing to worry about. That as long as she was general manager, she’d make sure that any changes in staffing would come with plenty of advance notice.

But did she expect any changes? No, she did not. That was because it was her job to dazzle Mr. Hanley with the Arborwood’s unique achievements—which she was confident she could sell. Slowly but surely, she’d allayed the fears of her staff, and elevated their enthusiasm for this new chapter in their role as stewards of the late Mr. Bosworth’s beloved property. They, in turn, had responded with a chorus of accolades for her—both professionally and personally.

Ryan Mitchell was not one to purposely seek praise for herself. But if it landed on her doorstep… hey, she was only human, right? It felt damn good to get that kind of admiration, at least once in a while.

The staff meeting had run until shortly after ten o’clock. Upon dismissing everyone, she wandered the building, checking on one thing after another. Nothing necessary, she was just trying to keep herself visible and accessible in case Mr. Hanley appeared. She was a little surprised she hadn’t yet seen him. A rented, shiny black Audi was parked in Mr. Bosworth’s spot—it had pulled in during the meeting. She thought perhaps she’d catch him settling into Mr. Bosworth’s suite, or fixing himself a coffee from the complimentary beverage station. But according to Denise, he’d holed himself up in Mr. Bosworth’s office, and hadn’t yet been seen by anyone other than the lobby staff.

Ryan thought that a little odd. The Arborwood Inn was beautiful. It was at least worthy of a short look-round—a stroll down to the lake, perhaps, or out to the pool, or in and out of the restaurant and bar. He must be a busy man, she reasoned.

“Good luck, Miss Mitchell,” one of the maintenance staff offered as she passed. It was Earl, a man who had come here from Ecuador over twenty years ago, and who had worked at the Arborwood since it opened. Ryan had been invited to his daughter’s wedding two years ago.

She grinned excitedly and held her crossed fingers up.

Reaching the administrative wing, which was separated from the public area by a dark oak door marked with a gold plaque, she patted her cream-coloured silk blouse with her free hand where it was tucked into the waist of her black slacks.

“You’ve got this,” she breathed.

Then, she pushed through the oak door, marched down the carpeted hall, and went straight to Mr. Bosworth’s office…

Only to find the double oak doors firmly shut.

It was a jarring reminder that the portly man who was the beating heart of this place, the man who always left his doors wide open when he was in his office… was gone.

Ryan swallowed reflexively, then knocked—two quick and efficient raps.

“Come,” said the deep male voice on the other side.

Pushing the silver lever-style handle down, Ryan pulled one of the double doors open. The sight of anyone else sitting in Mr. Bosworth’s chair was unsettling. But Jake Hanley sitting in Mr. Bosworth’s chair—Jake Hanley, multimillionaire businessman with an educational pedigree as prestigious as his professional one—now that was surreal. His presence was commanding, his appearance striking—all this while doing nothing more than wearing a light grey power suit and typing on a laptop. There was not an ounce of slouch to his posture, and his chin remained level though he was looking down at his computer screen. Ryan knew the face, both from the pictures that still lined Mr. Bosworth’s credenza and from the Google search she’d done on Jake himself. He looked like a model for a photo ad about successful CEOs. No actual CEO could look this intimidating, this… inhuman.

Intimidating he may be, but inhuman he was not. And Ryan was not about to let him know her private thoughts on the matter, not if she could help it.

“Good morning, Mr. Han—” she began.

Jake held up a forefinger, silencing her.

Ryan regarded him with a raised brow. Why had he told her to come in, then, if he wasn’t ready to talk to her? That was a bit of a jerk move.

Nevertheless, she waited patiently, moving her file folder in front of her and gripping it with both hands. When he clicked his mouse, presumably sending whatever email he’d been composing, Jake looked up, fixing her with a set of clear, emerald eyes. His face was expressionless and unreadable. Unsettlingly so, and set off by a shock of dark hair cropped stylishly close.

“You are Ryan Mitchell?” he said.

“Yes, Mr. Hanley,” she replied brightly. “I am. On behalf of all the staff, I’d like to welcome you to—”

“You look a little young to be general manager.”

She paused, caught off guard. “I am aware of that,” she said.

“Are you qualified?”

“Highly. I’m happy to have personnel forward you my credentials if you’d—”

“No, thank you. What I’d like you to do is have your accounting team forward me a complete set of the last five years of audited financial statements. I’d like you to have human resources provide me with a list of all personnel—seasonal and regular—with their tenure, annual compensation, and any disciplinary documentation you might have on file. And I’d like your sales team to provide me with a year-over-year growth analysis. Have that to me end of day, please.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Ryan agreed, tamping down the growing sense of alarm that was spreading in her gut. “But while I have you, I’d love to go over some of the—”

“That won’t be necessary,” he returned coldly.

“—some of the highlights we’ve experienced—”

“Look, Miss Mitchell: I’m sure you’ve got lots to be proud of, but I have no interest in owning or operating a small-time resort. I’ll be bringing in a transition team within the next week or so, and over the next few months, my team will be cutting the waste and implementing efficiencies so that a sale is more attractive. So please just get me the information I’ve requested.”

“Efficiencies? I don’t understand. We’re quite financially profitable—”

“But not nearly as profitable as you could be. I’ve been over some of your expenditures already, and there’s a lot of waste as far as I can see.”

“Waste? Excuse me, but there is no waste—”

“Are you kidding me?” Jake clipped ruthlessly. “Miss Mitchell, if you can’t see your own wasteful practices, then I question your suitability for this job. I don’t work in the hotel industry, and even I can tell you that buying from local suppliers over ones from international networks is like flushing money down the pisser.”

“Now, look here,” Ryan fired back, her blood boiling. “You’ve spent all of a morning with us not talking to anyone about anything, and you have the gall to tell me—”

“I’ll also be trimming a lot of the fat around here. Excess employees will be the first to go. Starting with yourself.”

He might as well have slapped her.

“I—I’m sorry?” she stammered, thunderstruck.

Jake Hanley folded his hands in front of him on the desk and regarded her with a stony expression. “Please return to your office and pack your belongings. You will receive severance compensation appropriate to your tenure. But effective immediately, you no longer work here.”

With that, Jake Hanley returned his steely gaze to his laptop, effectively dismissing her from his presence.

Ryan stood gaping for a handful of interminable seconds. Was this a nightmare? The one that would have her waking up in a cold sweat only to breathe a sigh of relief that it hadn’t been real? She felt as if she’d been punched in the gut. As if someone had poured a bucket of ice water over her head and had simultaneously drained the blood from her body.

It wasn’t a dream. And the worst part was the dawning understanding that… he’d planned this. He’d called her in to do nothing but fire her today. And she’d stupidly walked, like a lamb to the slaughter, with stars in her eyes and the foolish belief that he gave a damn about what she’d been able to achieve here. The thought of it made her sick.

When she continued to stand there, dumbfounded, he glanced at her with icy indifference.
“That will be all, Miss Mitchell.”

Ryan raised her chin a fraction, matching his stare. She was fuming. She could leap across the desk and scratch his eyes out. Sob like a child and scream like a banshee.

But she’d be damned if she was going to do any of that. Without another word, she pivoted on her heel and left the room, closing the door behind her with a final, dreadful click.

***

Chef Eric Blondell flipped the cutlet of pan-seared venison with near athletic precision, giving it a final coat of the truffle-infused avocado oil which he’d been developing over the past two weeks. Sliding the cutlet onto an awaiting plate, he sprinkled one pinch each of coarse-grain sea salt and minced parsley on top, then sliced into the flesh with his Miyabi birch-handled chef’s knife. Plucking the severed bit of cutlet between thumb and forefinger, he tossed it into his mouth. The still-sizzling crust made crackling noises through his open-mouthed chewing.

“Oh, man,” he sighed. “Oh, yes. Perfection. Stef—Stef c’mere. You gotta try this.”

Stefania, the Arborwood’s sous chef, set aside the stainless-steel bowl of sauce she’d been whisking, wiped her hands on the spotless white apron coving her thick midsection, and came to Chef Eric’s work station. She accepted the bit of cutlet he balanced on the end of his knife, chewed, and nodded her close-cropped platinum head.

“Truffle oil’s just right.”

“You’re goddamn right it is,” he crowed. “Ry’s gonna love it.”

At that moment, Ramona Bartolic, Arborwood’s head of housekeeping, charged through the kitchen doors.

“Hey Ro-Bo, come try this. It’s my best work yet—” He stopped when he saw the distressed expression on her usually stoic face. “Ro, what’s wrong? You okay?”

“He fired her,” Ramona said. “He fired Ryan, Eric. Just like that.”

Eric shook his head. “No. No way. Not Ryan. You sure?”

“I was standing outside his door when it happened. I heard the whole thing.”

“Well—I mean, it’s got to be a misunderstanding.”

Ramona shook her head sadly, her shoulder length, salt-and-pepper hair skimming the collar of her black button-up shirt. “It was no misunderstanding. He’d planned it—one ruthless sacrifice on the first day to send a message. She barely got a word in. Oh, Eric. It was awful.”

Eric slammed his open palm onto the metal counter top, causing the entire unit to shiver. His staff, five of them altogether, watched in horrified silence.

“That’s bullshit,” he cursed. “Who does that asshole think he is?”

“He can’t do that, can he?” Stefania put in. “Doesn’t he need cause or something?”
“Not if he gives her severance pay,” Ramona responded.

“But she can sue him, can’t she? For wrongful dismissal or something? Or constructed dismissal?”

“She might have a case. But you know Ryan. She’d never do something like that no matter how much of a case she had.”

“I knew it,” Eric spat. “I knew this was going to happen. That rich sonofabitch was going to come in here and rip the place to shreds. What the hell was Poke thinking giving the Arborwood to someone like that?”

Stefania shook her head. “I don’t want to work here if it’s not for Ryan.”

“Me neither,” Eric agreed. “In fact, that piece of shit has lost himself a head chef today, too. I’m gonna go give him a piece of my mind.”

Stefania untied the strings of her apron. “Me, too.”

“Hold up—you’re quitting?” one of his junior chefs at the back of the kitchen gasped. “Just like that? You’ll walk away from a paying job?”

Ramona passed a hand over her unlined face. “He’s already said he’s cutting several staff. That probably includes me, since management is always the first to go.”

“Let’s all head him off then,” Eric said. “If he’s going to get rid of us all sooner or later, it might as well be sooner. You think Andre will get on board?”

“Probably,” Ramona admitted. “And Denise, too. Though I don’t think we should pressure them. And I don’t think we should all march in there and quit. Let’s threaten to quit if he doesn’t bring Ryan back. If he refuses, then he’s got no one to run the inn while he looks for our replacements. Agreed?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Eric said.

“Count me in,” Stefania echoed.

Together, the three senior Arborwood employees marched out of the kitchen, on a mission to confront their new employer. How long Jake Hanley would be their employer for… well that remained to be seen.

***

Jake leaned back in his uncle’s chair, with one ankle propped on a knee. He faced away from the desk and gazed out the large windows with his cell phone pressed to his ear. The essence of executive contentment and self-assuredness.

“I’m going to need you to get someone out here by the end of the week,” he said into the device.

On the other end, his chief operating officer, Wyatt Dennison, snorted. “Wreaking havoc already, Jake? It’s only day one.”

“Yeah. You know I like to wait a day or two before I make the first statement firing. But it’s not like it’s the first time. I was on a roll. No need to prolong the inevitable.”

“The poor bastard.” Wyatt laughed. “What’d he say?”

“She,” Jake corrected.

“She? Ryan Mitchell’s a chick?”

“Ryan Mitchell’s a woman. Young, too. Can’t be thirty yet.”

“She’s green, huh?”

Jake nodded. “Green as grass. I’m surprised at Poke. Normally he’s not so soft-hearted as to promote an unqualified employee.”

“You think she was sleeping with him?”

“I dunno. Hard to say.”

“She hot?”

Jake rolled his eyes. Leave it to Wyatt to turn the conversation this way. “She’s easy on the eyes, but nothing special. I haven’t looked into the personnel files yet. Maybe they had an opening and no one to fill it. She took it well, though. I was expecting her to bawl her pretty little eyes out. But nope. None of that. She took it on the chin like a champ.”

“Hmmm. Okay, so we need a body down there to take over ahead of the transition team. Who were you thinking?”

“What about Ted?”

“Baranski or Chiu?”

Jake groaned. “God no, not Baranski. Not if I have to work with the guy. I like Chiu.”

“He’s assigned to the Futterman Glassworks account. You want me to pull him?”

“No, that’s an important account. What about Wells?”

“He’s on Avilla Imports, but that’s wrapping up if you can wait a few weeks.”

“No, I can’t wait that long. What about—”

At that moment, Jake’s office door was shoved open, and the sound of several heavy footsteps barging into this office interrupted him. He glanced over his shoulder, and was greeted with the sight of five employees. At the front of the pack was, he assumed judging by the jacket, the head chef. Jake casually swivelled his chair back around.

“Look, Wyatt, I gotta let you go. Check in with Wells, see if he can transition Baranski to close out Avilla. Let me know by end of day.”

He hung up before Wyatt answered and painted his new employees head to toe with a cool, impersonal gaze. They were a motley bunch, he decided. The one in the chef’s jacket looked angry… or like a surfer. An angry surfer with shaggy, sun-bleached hair in a chef’s jacket. The woman beside him, he already knew, was his head of housekeeping. Ramona Bartolic. But for her grey hair, one would never be able to guess what her age was, for not a line marred her strong, handsome face. He also recognized one as the finance director, and guessed at another being the head groundskeeper based on his attire. They were all ready to do battle.

Well good. Let the games begin. Jake was accustomed to these kinds of confrontations. They were a fact of his line of work. He propped an elbow on the armrest of the chair and rested his forefinger noncommittally on his bottom lip. It was a practiced, infuriatingly distant demeanor. Suze was all too familiar with it.

“I assume you’re here to discuss your former general manager,” he began in a bored tone. “If that’s the case, then you’re wasting your time.”

“You are unbelievable, man,” the chef hissed. “Do you have any idea what you’ve lost in her?”

The ageless Ramona Bartolic put a cautioning hand on the chef’s shoulder.

“Mr. Hanley,” she said. “Ryan was hand-picked by Mr. Bosworth himself. She was an asset, and your uncle recognized that.”

Jake allowed the corner of his mouth to curve upwards ever so slightly. “Asset. Right. What is she—twelve?”

“That you care about age, Mr. Hanley, is curious, since you’re only thirty-three yourself and have many impressive accomplishments to your name.”

He was impressed. Not many people took the time to find out about him before he ripped their worlds apart. But the admiration was fleeting.

“As I said, you’re wasting your time,” he informed them. “I have her replacement on his way.”

“Then you’ll have to find replacements for us, too,” stated a rotund woman, another chef, with white-bleached hair and unusual purple streaks.

This was a ploy. One he’d seen before. Jake shrugged. “Your call. Saves me the severance compensation. If you quit, I don’t have to pay you beyond today.”

He gazed at each face, expecting shock. Or at least nervousness that their ploy hadn’t worked. But to his surprise, not one of them broke ranks. They stared back at him, unmoved by his rebuff.

“Looks like you’ve got this all figured out,” he said. “Hotel jobs in this town are that plentiful, are they?”

The head chef—Jake would have to learn his name, if only to fire him good and proper—crossed his arms over his chest and smirked. “Looks like you haven’t bothered to read up on the Muskokas,” he retorted. “This entire region is a resort destination. We cover almost four-thousand square kilometres, and there’s a property on practically every corner. I’ve already got about five opportunities at other, higher-end places that aren’t twenty minutes away.”

Jake glanced at Ramona. “I came from the IGH family—that’s an international hotel chain,” she chimed in. “My contacts there remind me every year at the Ontario Hotels Association conference that they want me back. They’ve offered me a bonus if I can poach Andre.”

“It’s been a tempting offer,” the man named Andre, the groundskeeper, piped up. “And hell, Denise here can work anywhere. Doesn’t have to be hotels. Every company has a finance department that needs running.”

“So you see,” the head chef concluded smugly, “you let all of us walk, you have to refund bookings. Sure, you’ll probably get it up and running again in a month or so. But you won’t be looking so good to those buyers you want to attract, what with a resort that’s been completely gutted and is struggling with new and untrained staff.”

“That’s a proprietary point-of-sale system, by the way,” the mousy little finance lady, Denise, added with a self-satisfied grin. “Developed and maintained in-house. Needs passwords and knowledge to operate. Hope the customers you do keep like paying by cash and getting handwritten receipts for their purchases. How are you, by the way, at keeping paper spreadsheets?”

Well, Jake certainly hadn’t been expecting this. If this had been Calvin Hanley’s deal, there would have been an eruption of temper loud enough to reach the top floor of the resort. But Jake wasn’t his father. He narrowed his eyes, surveying his new staff long and hard, and folded his hands over his trim stomach.

“Not that I’m moved at all, but why did you stay if you had such better opportunities waiting?”

Ramona looked at him as though she were looking at a five-year-old child who had just asked why he has to wash his hands after using the toilet. If it weren’t such a patronizing look, Jake would almost have found it amusing.

“We stayed because of Mr. Bosworth, of course,” she said, slowly and deliberately.

“Being here, with Mr. Bosworth—it was like being home,” the chef confirmed. “It wasn’t about the pay, or the resume, or the opportunity. With Mr. Bosworth in charge, I never wanted to work anywhere else. None of us did. I know we didn’t know your uncle as well as you, but we loved him like family. And Ryan—he treated her like a daughter. Saw drive and ambition in her. You have no idea what she’s done for this place, and how much life and energy she brings to it. Mr. Bosworth loved that about her. Brought her up through the ranks, paid for part of her schooling and then for professional development courses almost every year. But now he’s gone, and you’re here destroying the place he worked so hard to build—and treating us all like shit in the process, I might add. So you tell me, you rich, soulless bastard… what reason do we have to stay?”

In the course of Jake’s career, he’d been called worse. He’d taken worse. Never before had it fazed him. But this wasn’t some ubiquitous consulting firm or industry enterprise. This was Uncle Poke’s pride and joy. It was no aggressive takeover, and the loyalty these people showed to his uncle, his flesh and blood, opened Jake’s eyes to the folly of his approach. He never knew this kind of loyalty could exist… and he wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea that it did.

He put the feeling to one side for the time being (compartmentalization being an essential skill in his line of work), and studied the five employees standing before him. They were right, of course. If all five of them quit, the property would be on his hands for longer than if he had their cooperation in transitioning it to new owners. It would be in shambles without anyone who knew its inner workings by the time he brought it to new buyers. Not to mention his company dealt with corporate entities, not hotels and resorts—no one on his payroll could step in and effectively take over for five losses… six, with Miss Ryan Mitchell included in the number.

This was the reason why he decided to pursue a sudden idea. It was not because there was a faint seed of doubt spreading within him that he’d overlooked something about the general manager he’d just unceremoniously fired.

Definitely not that!

All of this went through Jake Hanley’s mind in about three seconds flat. An outside observer would have no idea of the rapid fire of thoughts that had sizzled through his brain, for his expression did not change even slightly.

“Thank you for your insight, and I’m sorry that we’ll be parting ways. I’ll have my lawyer in New York draw up the paperwork for your termination. However, I would like you to work out the week.”

The chef scoffed. “No way, buddy. We’re walking now.”

The others nodded their agreement, and began to speak up, but Jake spoke over them. “I’d like you to work out the week, and if you do, I will grant Miss Mitchell an extra six months’ severance pay for your courtesy.”

They weren’t expecting that twist. It gave Jake a gleeful sense of satisfaction to see the bind he’d put them in play out on their faces. Without a word, all five turned and stalked out of his office, leaving both double doors open in a show of defiance.

They’d stay, each one of them. Jake was certain of it. If loyalty meant as much to them as he suspected, they’d do this for Miss Mitchell. Their loyalty had taken him off guard. He believed them about being willing to go—not that he knew anything about the industry in this backwards town, or district, or whatever they’d been talking about. But they spoke with the conviction of truth. Jake’s instinct for truth had been acutely honed, for he was regularly lied to in the course of an acquisition. These employees would leave for Ryan, and they would find work elsewhere easily enough. That much he knew was true.

He’d never seen this kind of loyalty before. Not in business, not even in his own family… except for Poke, of course. He was suddenly curious about the eager young woman who had inspired it. He picked up the office telephone on the desk, yanking at the fussy cord when it snared. But when he reached to dial the finance director’s number, he realized he didn’t know it. And Poke didn’t keep a secretary so there was no one to patch him through. Frowning, he dialed the toll-free number written on the dial pad that took him to the front desk.

“Thank you for calling the Arb—” began the young female voice on the other end. Jake cut her off.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s Hanley. Put me through to the director of finance.”

“Um… I’m sorry, sir. I’m not sure what you’re asking me. Do you have the right number? This is the Arborwood Inn.”

“This is Jake Hanley, your new employer,” he said impatiently, enunciating with exaggeration. “Put me through to the lady who is in charge of accounting. That’s the money. What’s her name? Denise something.”

“Oh, yes, sir. My apologies. Of course. That’s Denise Marchment. One moment, sir.”

The line beeped twice before it was picked up.

“Denise Marchment,” came the clipped voice on the other end.

“Bring me Miss Mitchell’s personnel file.”

“Not my department,” the woman shot back. “You have to talk to human resources.”

“I’m talking to you,” Jake said, begrudgingly amused. “Please bring me her personnel file, and please remember that there is an extra six months’ severance pay on the line here.”

The phone was silent for a moment, before it clicked dead. Jake chuckled to himself against his better judgment. These people certainly had spirit.

Within five minutes, Denise Marchment was at his office door. She walked up to his desk, and snapped a well-filled blue file folder onto his desk with a look of pure disdain.

“Anything else? Want me to rub your feet, too?”

“No, that’ll be all,” Jake answered. He picked up the file folder and opened the first page, refusing to entertain the woman’s attempt at insubordination.

The woman turned on her heel and left. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought her heard her whisper, Sonofabitch!

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been called that.

The contents of the folder were paperclipped and colour coded into sub-sections—tax documents, personal information, initial hire package (going back more than a decade; that was surprising), performance reviews, professional development credentials… Reading her records, Jake was forced to revise his initial assessment about her lack of experience. She may be young, but she at least had the educational background to justify being given this role. A bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Parks, Recreation and Tourism with an affiliate certification in hospitality administration specifically for hotels and resorts. Jake would not have thought such a program existed. There had been no “acquisitions” program and Wharton, no “hostile real estate development for alpha male bullies who also happened to be terrible fathers” certification at Yale.

Well, damn! He did not like changing his mind. Not that he had done that quite yet, but the whole staff at this god-forsaken place had surprised him. He packed up the file with the most current contact information for Ryan Mitchell and left the inn.

The Audi RS 5 that his assistant had rented for him was parked in the executive spot reserved for Poke. The shiny black vehicle glistened in the afternoon sun. Though it was a gorgeous car, it was by no means the nicest in the lot. A Porsche Taycan and a Bentley Continental had his rental beat. That was something else which had surprised him. He’d thought Poke’s resort quaint… probably because Calvin had always been so demeaning when he’d spoken of it. This area of the world was not the Hamptons by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clearly affluent. Jake punched the address into the built-in navigation system of his Audi, aggravated at himself for how many of his assumptions had proven to be inaccurate, and steered the sleek, black vehicle out of the parking lot.

The drive took less than twenty minutes. Ryan Mitchell lived on the outskirts of Arborwood, in a residential area that did not look quite so affluent. The houses were plain, mostly bungalows, and probably built in the nineteen forties or fifties. But they were tidy and in good repair. There was pride of ownership here, at least. Jake turned down the street which Ryan’s personal information indicated was hers. This street was at the end of a maze of blocks which was surrounded on its outer perimeter by forest. There was no car in the driveway, which did not have a garage. She did not appear to be home. Regardless, Jake pulled in, put the car into park, and made his way down the neatly kept patio stone walkway.

There was no response to his abrupt knock on the front door.

He tried again. No answer.

Turning, he caught the attention of a neighbour across the street. She was a middle-aged woman who was sitting on a porch watching two children play in the yard.

“Excuse me,” he called. “I’m looking for Ryan Mitchell. Do you know where she might be?”

“She’s at work,” the woman called back in a pleasant voice.

“I was just there, unfortunately. Do you have any other ideas of where she might be?”

“You check Ed’s?”

“Ed?”

“Her father. Over on Buckhill Line off Fire Route Fifty-Four.”

“No, not yet. Thank you.”

Jake got back into his car. Buckhill Line was listed as her previous address directly before this one. He plugged the information into his navigation system and headed back out.

The roads became noticeably rural as he drove. They were lined with deep, dense woods on either side, and the houses grew much farther apart. Buckhill Line was a cottage road—there was no mistaking it for anything else. By the time Jake pulled up to the house, he had developed a distinct Blair Witch Project sense of unease. The gravel of the unpaved driveway crunched beneath his squeaky-clean wheels, which was the only sound surrounding him other than the occasional rustle of leaves. He stepped out and surveyed the property. An unhitched tractor trailer was parked in the driveway behind a beat-up Camry. The house, a bungalow with faded red siding, was not adorned in any appreciable way, but it was adequately maintained. Colourful trees canopied the yard, which was patchy with weeds but mowed short.

That was when Jake noticed the two men sitting in the open detached garage at the end of the driveway, approximately twenty feet away from him. They lounged in cheap folding lawn chairs, watching him passively as they sipped at beer from blue and silver cans. They were a rough looking pair—one with a thatch of white hair, the other with messy brown hair that was partially invaded with gray. Both wore padded plaid jackets over white T-shirts, and worn-out work jeans. Jake had never in his life felt out of his element before. He felt very out of his element now.

What the hell was Poke thinking making a life in a place like this?

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said in his standard professional voice. “I’m looking for Miss Ryan Mitchell. She’s not at home, and a neighbour suggested I check here.”

“Oh, you’re looking for Miss Ryan Mitchell, are you now?” the white-haired man taunted, mocking his tone. “I take it you’re the sonofabitch that fired her.”

Jake groaned inwardly. Man, did word ever travel fast in this town.

“I just want to speak with her,” he said.

“Speak with her? Or speak down to her? Yeah, we heard all about how you spoke to her this morning,” the other man chimed in. “I’d give you a good punch in the nose if I had it my way. Lucky for you the wife don’t condone violence.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Jake said drily.

“What do you want with my girl?” the white-haired man said.

Ah, her father. Jake had guessed as much, but was glad to have it confirmed. This must be the aforementioned Ed. How in the hell did a woman as delicate and small as Ryan Mitchell come from something that looked like that?!

“I may have been hasty,” Jake admitted, surprising himself with the candid admission. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet with the place, now that there’s been a… change of circumstance. But I was wrong to dismiss her so quickly—”

“You fired her, fancy pants,” Ed retorted. “Don’t go sugar coating it by calling it a dismissal. She didn’t deserve what she got, and as far as I can tell, you don’t look like you deserve what you got, either.”

“You’re probably right on both counts,” Jake agreed. “Please, sir. I do want to speak with her. I want to apologize. Do you know where she is?”

The man, Ed, took a long sip of his beer, eyeing Jake the whole time. The other one looked at Ed.

“What do you say, Moe?” Ed said to his friend.

The brown-haired man, Moe (go figure… although Jake’s guess of Angus or Billy Bob was close), shrugged, and turned his disinterested gaze back to Jake.

“Seems to me we ought to tell him. Let him find her, and she can give him a punch in the nose if she wants to. She’ll do it. Trust me.”

Jake chuckled as Ed relented.

“She’s at her spot,” her father said. “Ain’t easy to find. Turn back down Buckhill Line and make a right onto Fire Route Fifty-Four. Turn left again onto Bass Lake Road. There’s a public trail entrance five minutes on your right. Walk about a kilometre in, and you’ll find a side trail that’s not so worn down. It’ll take you out to the lake. That’s where you’ll find her.”

Jake nodded, committing as much of the directions as he could to memory. “Thank you,” he said.

Ed lifted his chin in farewell. “Good luck,” he snorted.

Thirty minutes later, Jake was stumbling through the trail. At least he hoped it was the right trail. It had taken him three tries to find it in the first place—two other side trails had ended in swampy, mosquito-infested dead ends. His fashionable wingtip Oxfords and Argyll socks were soaked, and mud caked the hem of his four-thousand-dollar Ermenegildo Zegna suit slacks by the time he’d found the right path. It was a short one, and at the end of it was Ryan Mitchell. She was sitting on a fallen log with her back to the trail, still dressed in her cream-coloured silk blouse and black slacks, staring out over the water.

She was probably crying. Jake despised when women cried at losing their jobs. Such a weak reaction. He approached, prepared to ignore the tracks of her tears down her pretty face.

She’d heard him coming—she had to have. He’d been like an elephant, kicking angrily through the encroaching grass. Yet she hadn’t turned around. She continued to stare out over the water.

Jake approached, taking a seat next to her and glancing at her face as he did. She wasn’t crying. She’d simply been staring peacefully, maybe a touch forlornly, at the inn on the other side of the water.

“I used to come here with my dad all the time,” she said after a few moments of silence between them. “We’d sit here and watch the Arborwood Inn being built. We’d bring a picnic lunch and we’d watch all the people have fun and playing, and I thought, wouldn’t that just be the best place to work?”

There was no anger in her voice, no rage or resentment. Just sadness.

“You always wanted to be general manager?”

“Not specifically. I just wanted to work there. Doing anything.”

“Why?”

She considered a moment, twisting her delicate mouth to one side in a way that was oddly endearing.

“Arborwood is home,” she said. “This town, this place… it’s everything to me. That’s why I went to school locally. So I could keep living here. So I could keep working here. Everything I’ve done is so that I could stay here for the rest of my life. There’s no place in the world I want to be more.”

Jake raised a sardonic eyebrow. “From what your friends tell me, you’ll land another local job with no problem.”

The twist of her mouth turned into a self-satisfied smirk. It made Jake want to chuckle; it was an effort to hold it in.

Ryan nodded, her clear, hazel eyes fixed on the inn. “It’s not my career I’m worried about.”

“That’s the only thing people worry about.”

“Maybe where you come from, that’s true.”

Jake had the odd sensation of having been reprimanded. And feeling slightly ashamed at it. He frowned, unnerved by the way this young woman had put a dent in his emotional armour.

“What, then?”

She shrugged her slight shoulders. “I don’t know how well you knew your uncle. From the way he talked, you were all so close. If that’s true, then I’m having trouble understanding how you could turn your back on his dream so quickly. This place was everything to him—second only to you and your brothers and sisters.”

Another surprise—she’d known about him and his siblings? He never considered that Poke might have talked about him to his staff. That was something he’d never have encountered if this were a typical acquisition. His gaze followed hers, to the inn across the water.

“I get that you don’t want to run an inn,” Ryan continued. “I think Mr. Bosworth was hoping you would learn to love it as he had. But if you can’t, or don’t want to, then I don’t begrudge you selling the place. I just don’t understand why you have to tear it to pieces in the process when he worked so hard to build it up into something that meant so much to him.”

Jake swore long and eloquently to himself. The five employees who had confronted him had caught him off guard with their effective ultimatum. But this little whippet of a girl who looked as though she should be slinging a backpack over her shoulders on her way to a college class… she’d managed to make him feel like a complete ass.

This was new territory for Jake, and he didn’t like it. But at the same time, he had a business to unload. And it looked as though it was going to require more from him than he’d thought.

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t want to run this place. I wouldn’t even know where to start without your help and the help of your senior staff. I should have taken the time to understand what I’ve got first, before tearing it apart. I was wrong.”

“You sure as hell were,” she agreed.

“I read your file, Miss Mitchell. I hadn’t realized you were as well-educated in hospitality management as you are. Neither had I realized that Mr. Bosworth encouraged your education and even paid for it.”

“I’m not the only one he did that for,” she said.

“Oh?” Jake glanced sideways at her. “Who else?”

“Denise. Our finance director. When she started here, she was a payroll clerk. Had nothing more than a community college certificate in payroll administration. Mr. Bosworth paid for her to upgrade her education. Paid for her to complete her certified general accountant designation.”

“CGA—I was unaware of that.” That was an impressive leap, he didn’t mind admitting. “Why do you think he did it?”

“He told me why,” she replied. “Loyalty. It was an investment. Look at Denise and me both—we are qualified out the wazoo to go off and climb the career ladder now that we’ve got schooling that he paid for. But we stayed here. We’re dedicated to seeing this place succeed. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Obviously, there is nothing written in stone that anyone he helps has to stay, but most do, for a while at least. Long enough for him to have recouped his investment. We get credentials we didn’t have to invest in financially, and he gets staff that he doesn’t have to pay nearly as much as if he’d brought someone this qualified on board from scratch. It was a sound business decision that didn’t feel at all like a business decision. It was a decision he made with heart. Because he had a huge heart—as you know.”

Jake did know. He knew and he often overlooked it. And right now, he felt like a complete heel for the truth being so subtly rubbed in his face by this woman, this girl who didn’t even reach his shoulders and was more than half a decade younger than him.

“Look, Ryan—can I call you Ryan?” She nodded. “I’m sorry for my haste and the distress it caused you. I’d like to start again, if you’ll let me. Will you come back and help me learn the ropes around this place? Help me get a feel for what my uncle created and loved so much?”

He was certain he had this in the bag. He’d been charming and just the right amount of apologetic.

A wry smile touched her lips. “Sure—if it comes with a raise.”

“Is that so? You think you have that kind of leverage, do you?”

She shrugged, that playful smirk returning to her lips. “Apparently, I’m giving up an extra six months’ severance compensation to keep working for you. I have to make up the difference somewhere.”

He laughed at the lighthearted quip, feeling more lighthearted himself than he should… considering that she’d just put the screws to him.

“Fair enough. We’ll figure out the details.”

He pulled out his mobile and texted Wyatt Dennison: Cancel Wells.

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