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Fiction by L.K. Campbell

Mrs. Carlyle's Second Honeymoon

“I suppose I should begin by introducing myself. I’m Celeste Adams. My late husband, Howard was responsible for what you see today. The Gran Vista Hotel was his baby—his never-ending project. He filled it with his love for these mountains and our life savings. That’s why I asked you here, Mr. Matthews. I need to make this hotel turn a profit or else, I’m going to lose it. I’ve heard that you’re the best when it comes to marketing. You come highly recommended.”

Bill Matthews, the owner of CWM Public Relations Consultants, paced across the Black Watch tartan area rug in front of the reception desk and rotated his head to each side. The tall man perched his fists on his hips and seemed to be taking stock of the mural Howard had commissioned of Grandview Overlook, the Blue Ridge Parkway milepost. On their summer getaways to escape Raleigh’s oppressive heat, they would stop at Grandview Overlook on their way home and say goodbye to the mountains…until the next time. Howard had named the hotel after it but with an international twist. He used the Spanish translation, Gran Vista. Howard was always clever and creative.

“I can see a lot of potential in this hotel,” Bill said. “Your husband went to great lengths to recreate an old mountain lodge reminiscent of the early twentieth century.”

She laced her slim fingers together. She’d lost twenty pounds since Howard’s death—a feat she hadn’t been able to manage in the years beforehand.

“Yes, that was his vision. He wanted old-fashioned charm with all of the contemporary amenities.”

His hand skimmed the varnished, black walnut check-in counter. “But many of the materials he used are much more expensive in today’s money and harder to come by than it would’ve been a hundred years ago,” he said.

Celeste swallowed the lump in her throat. “Yes, and since he was killed before we were out of the red, here I am with a beautiful hotel and lots of bills to pay.”

A slight smile appeared on his lips. “You wouldn’t consider selling the place?”

“No, that isn’t an option I want to entertain. I’d rather make a go of it if for nothing else than to honor Howard’s memory and to become financially comfortable, of course.”

Bill’s smile transformed into a grin. “Then let’s get to it. Do you have a large table where I can spread out my prospectus?”

Once inside the hotel’s conference room, he made a beeline for the windows. When Howard had redesigned the hotel’s original 1960s floor plan, she’d questioned his idea to include a conference room with a large bank of windows facing toward Grandfather Mountain. No one will be concentrating on a presentation while daydreaming about hiking the mountain, she’d told him. Her heart plummeted with the memory. Howard had lost his life in a freak rockslide while leading a group of guests on a hike. Five years after he retired from the power company and three years after purchasing the hotel. No one ever said that life was fair.

“Mrs. Adams?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, my mind wandered.”

“With that view and such a beautiful day, who could help it?”

He had kind but determined eyes and a strong chin and jaw. It wasn’t her business to ask his age but if she had to guess, she’d say early forties. Kristy Stone, who owned the nearby Evergreen Bed & Breakfast, had recommended his public relations firm. He’d developed an effective promotion package for her after rumors surfaced that Evergreen might be haunted. Celeste shivered. At least, nothing like that has happened here. As far as she knew, no one had died in the hotel to leave a spirit hanging around. Bill directed her attention to several mock-ups he’d placed on the table for magazine and newspaper advertising. An open laptop and tablet also displayed social media ad campaigns.

Oh, he’s on top of this. “Wow, you started working before we’d even met,” she said.

“I like to anticipate my client’s needs,” he said. “These are simply preliminary ideas.”

“Well, I like your ideas.”

One, in particular, intrigued her. It advertised Gran Vista as a wedding and honeymoon destination. Howard had imagined the hotel as a family vacation spot. He’d even begun planning for camping facilities and a covered picnic area on the acreage behind the hotel where a wide creek flowed past the property. Crunching her numbers after Howard’s death had taken that possibility off the table for the immediate future.

“I’m interested in this proposal.” She pointed to the social media page on the tablet. “But I have zero experience when it comes to designing a wedding venue. Will your company also help me with this?”

“When would you like to meet with our wedding location designer? From my viewpoint, you already have the perfect venue with the large deck, pool, and lawn. Perhaps you could add an arch and some rose bushes…”

“Oh, slow down, Mr. Matthews,” she said. “I need to see some figures first since money is very much an object for me.”

He removed a spreadsheet from his briefcase. Of course, he came prepared for every question I might ask. She studied the paper for a moment. Her nerves tightened. She hadn’t expected it to be so much.

“It’s difficult to imagine spending this money with no guarantee of a return on my investment.”

Bill nodded. “You are taking a risk,” he said. “But consider the type of business you have here. If you don’t increase your publicity budget, how long can your hotel stay open? You’re a mile off The Parkway, where your small signage isn’t enough to attract a high volume of drive-by interest. I realize, of course, that the National Park Service has you limited in that regard so your recourse is to increase your advertising. In doing so, you have to give travelers a reason to go the extra miles to get here. Make your hotel a destination and not just a place to spend the night. Differentiate yourself from the many hotels on the highway between Boone and Blowing Rock.”

She inhaled a deep breath. “I’d like to see some more specifics. Do you have examples of what has paid off in similar establishments?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Let’s have a seat, and I’ll show you the websites of some of our other clients.”

His company’s website appeared on the screen, and he clicked the tab that read, ‘Current Clients’. His finger scrolled past various businesses. She recognized some of the names from Chamber of Commerce functions she’d attended. He had clients in nearby towns and as far away as Charlotte. How many employees does he have to be able to handle this much work?

“Here’s one of our most successful clients,” Bill said. He tapped the listing, bringing up a different website. “It’s a small hotel of comparable size to yours. Take a look at their booking calendar for weddings. It’s filled for the next six months.” He stopped and tapped several numbers into the calculator app on his smartphone. “This is the average that they earn per wedding.”

Her mouth moved before the words came out. “That much?”

“And you have even nicer grounds here—not to mention that view of one of the most famous mountains in the Appalachian range. I wouldn’t mind getting married here, myself.”

With her eyes transfixed on the figure displayed, Celeste didn’t have to ask herself what Howard would do. He’d spend the money. Yet, that’s also why I’m on the precipice of bankruptcy. Since turning sixty, she’d been able to begin drawing a portion of Howard’s pension. She still had the majority of her 401k from the television station, but she didn’t want to put that into the hotel, if possible. She might not have a choice since the hotel wasn’t bringing in enough money to pay the bills plus two desk clerks, three housekeepers, a groundskeeper, and a part-time cook. Those employees—three retirees and four college students—depended on their salaries.

Like zip-lining at Hawksnest—deep breath, fingers crossed, and jump.

“Okay, let’s do it,” she said.

“You won’t regret this, Mrs. Adams.”

Two Weeks Later

Celeste stood in front of her closet contemplating her choices. The aquamarine, a-line dress is best. She laid it across the bed and removed the jeans and floral tunic top she’d worn earlier in the day. She pulled the dress over her head and yanked the zipper up her back. Considering her weight loss since the last time she’d worn it, the garment hung looser than she would’ve preferred. Still, it made a better impression than her usual—dress for comfort clothing. She accessorized it with the smoky quartz jewelry she’d purchased at a local craft fair, then took a gander at herself in the full-length mirror.

“Now, you look like a hotelier,” she said. “Ready to conduct business.”

She stepped into a pair of suede wedges and walked back to the hotel to meet her first prospective wedding client. The fact that Bill’s advertising campaign had already netted a promising response, gave her confidence that she’d made the right decision. She checked her watch and hurried her pace up the path. The bride-to-be, Emma Olson would be arriving in five minutes.

In their initial phone call, Emma had impressed her as a go-getter. Her enthusiasm and energy were apparent when discussing her plans for the wedding. Even though Emma had mentioned the name of a wedding planner, Celeste had no doubt that the young woman had full charge of every detail.

With two minutes to spare, Emma parked her red Fiat convertible in one of the baggage unloading spots near the front door. Celeste recognized the model from the many car commercials she’d produced at the T.V. station. It fit the profile Celeste had created of Emma. The petite brunette emerged from the driver’s seat and strolled toward Celeste with an outstretched hand and a broad smile on her round face. She removed her sunglasses, revealing brown eyes lightly shadowed with bronze eye makeup. Her high-end, designer suit suggested that she might hold a professional position. Celeste had yet to discover Emma’s line of work, but it would be revealed in due time.

“Mrs. Adams, it’s nice to meet you,” she said.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Miss Olson.”

Emma’s smile relaxed. “Actually, it’s ‘Mrs. Olson’,” she said. “I’m a widow. This will be my second marriage, but I prefer to be on a first-name basis.”

Celeste refrained from mentioning her own recent widowhood. No need to delve into any sad stories and spoil the mood. She held the outside door open. “Please come in. Welcome to the Gran Vista Hotel.”

Emma walked into the lobby and did a three-hundred-sixty-degree turn.

“I have a confession to make,” she said. “When I was in school at ASU, class of 2000, I worked here as a waitress in the restaurant. After I’d heard that the old Harvest Moon had been remodeled and reopened, I wanted to see it for myself.”

Emma’s graduation date put her age in the early-to-mid-forties, but she didn’t look it. Celeste would have thought she was no more than thirty-five.

“I worked here during a wonderful time in my life, and I hope this new marriage will begin another such time.”

“Oh, what a sweet thought,” Celeste said. “I hope it will be, too.”

“I can’t believe the differences you’ve made,” Emma said. “There used to be a gold-colored carpet on this floor, and you could see the trail guests had blazed from the check-in desk to the elevators.”

Celeste chuckled at her own memory of that carpet. “The first time my husband and I toured the place with the real estate agent, I cringed when I saw the carpeting. We wasted no time taking it out of here and good riddance to it.”

She stopped speaking when she felt her voice crack. Upon first laying eyes on the hotel, she’d felt as if she’d been transported fifty years into the past, and she’d expressed those concerns to Howard. Bringing this old building into the present-day will be a monumental task. Howard’s confident attitude and contagious enthusiasm could always win her over. We can do it, Ceecee. We’ve always dreamed of this and now, it’s ours.

“The hardwood flooring is a hundred times better,” Emma said.

As much as she wanted to brag about the painstaking operation of obtaining and installing the salvaged oak flooring, Emma’s time was valuable. They needed to get down to business.

“As you probably already know, having worked here, our four-story building can accommodate at least sixty guests. Four suites occupy the top floor. The second and third floors have eight rooms each—two king-sized, four doubles, and two standards,” Celeste said.

“The wedding is going to be small,” Emma said. “Fifty guests, at the most, but we won’t need accommodations for that many. I grew up in Lenoir. As you probably know, it’s only twenty miles away. My parents and most of my family still live there, and they’ll be driving up for the wedding. We’ll need rooms for out-of-town guests—my brother and his wife, my sister, my fiancé, Wes Carlyle, and his sons and their wives. Of course, I’d like to reserve the honeymoon suite for our wedding night.”

Wes Carlyle? Why does that name sound familiar? I’ll have to look him up later.

“Let’s look at the room chart on my office computer, and you can choose the rooms you’d like.”

Celeste motioned Emma to go ahead into the office. Her desk clerk, Maddie glanced at Celeste and gave her a thumbs up. She left the office door open and went around behind her desk to wake her computer with a wiggle of the mouse. Having worked with computers from her first job forty years earlier, she had no trepidation about using one. She’d witnessed their evolution from large mainframes to modern-day tablets and smartphones. She navigated the programs and apps with ease. She called up the room chart for the dates Emma had given her in their initial phone conversation.

“Bring your chair around, Emma so we can look at this room chart together.”

Emma rolled her chair next to Celeste’s. “I don’t think we have to follow archaic rules of having a bride’s side of the hotel and a groom’s side,” she said with a chuckle. “We can mix them up.”

“Fine with me,” Celeste said. “Do you want standard rooms or king-sized for your siblings?”

“My sister will be by herself. She won’t mind having a standard room. Put my brother and sister-in-law in a king-sized room. As far as Wes’s sons and their wives, let’s do king-sized. If I put them in standard rooms, I’ll probably never hear the end of it.”

Hmm, do I sense some contention between Emma and her soon-to-be step-children? Celeste clenched her teeth together to keep from asking a nosy question or interjecting a comment. She clicked the blocks to reserve the rooms. Emma removed a credit card from her purse and placed it on the desk next to Celeste.

“I want to go ahead and pay the deposit on everything today,” Emma said.

“Sounds good. Let me get the totals for you.”

A few mouse clicks gave her the figures she desired, but her curiosity screeched at her to have one more question answered.

“What type of work do you do, Emma?”

“I’m a writer,” Emma said. “I wish I could say a successful one but sometimes, I think I’m doing it for my own enjoyment.”

She showed Emma the total cost of her wedding package, and the young woman didn’t even blink. Her late husband must have left her well off.

“Would you like to take a tour now?” Celeste asked. “You can see the rest of our renovations, and I’d appreciate hearing your opinion as a former employee of the older establishment.”

“That would be nice,” Emma said. “But I can already tell you this will be perfect. Everything is going to be perfect.”

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Description: Arnold Penny gathers his family at The Gran Vista Hotel to inform them of an offer to purchase the popular tourist destination, Granny Belle’s Apple Orchard. He intends to accept the bid and distribute the proceeds among them but chaos ensues. One family member returns after forty years of being presumed dead and doesn’t find a warm welcome home. Another family member dies in a manner reminiscent of an old family curse. Was it a freak accident or was she murdered?

Category: Fiction, Mystery, Cozy

Release Date: December 26, 2023

Words: 49,067

ISBN: 9798201937973