Twice Shy - Sarah Hogle Page 0,1

He would avenge and protect and come back from the dead for me. Really, the only bad thing about Jack McBride is that he doesn’t exist.

A sidewinder of white light blows across the café, shattering windows. My ears are ringing, my vision patchy as it adjusts. I drop out of the clouds of my dissolving happy place and back into the here and now, which is the last place I want to be. And standing before me, with her unwelcome hand on my shoulder, is the last person I want to see.

Gemma Peterson doesn’t realize that, of course. She thinks we’re BFFs.

“Hello! Earth to Maybell!” She snaps her fingers in front of my face. “Someone threw up all over the second-floor ice machine. Projectile vomit.”

I groan. The here and now is Around the Mountain Resort & Spa, a Southern charm–infused hotel and indoor water park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. All the appeal of an old-fashioned timber lodge, but with souvenir shops, HBO, and a lazy river.

When I’m not zoning out into imaginary worlds, I’m planning fun guest activities as the newly promoted event coordinator, and then getting my ideas shot down by my co-coordinator, Christine. Up until New Year’s Day, I worked here as a housekeeper, so getting flagged down with reports of vomit on ice machines was par for the course. Unfortunately, it’s now April first and people are still running to me with these issues. It’s as if the promotion never happened.

“That’s for housekeeping,” I remind Gemma.

“Oh, you’re right! I’m just used to . . .” She bestows a huge smile on me, hooking her arm in mine as I pick up my pace down the hallway. I check the time on my phone and internally despair. My detour into the coffee shop in the sky only burned through ten minutes? I just want to go home, throw all the memories of this place into an incinerator, and sleep facedown on the couch for twelve hours. “Wanna play hooky in the arcade?” Gemma asks. “The claw machine’s actually grabbing prizes today.”

“We’ll get in trouble with Paul.”

Paul’s the Big Boss, and while it’s true that I’d probably get chewed out for losing to rigged Skee-Ball on the clock, Gemma’s his daughter and can do whatever she wants. She gets paid five dollars an hour more than I do to stand in the lobby wearing a cutesy train conductor’s costume, informing guests in an exaggerated twang that RainForest Adventures Zoo is only five miles down the road, visit the customer service desk for coupons! Then she disappears to the pool for the rest of the afternoon.

It’s hard to hate Gemma—she’s fun and bubbly. What’s not to like? After she was fired from a string of jobs, Paul got rid of seventy-four-year-old Dennis, a veteran, to make room for her at Around the Mountain. She latched on to me on day one. Gemma brings me banana nut bread samples from our resort’s breakfast bar, Sunrise in the Smokies, and is enthusiastic about everything I say even if it’s just chatting about needing to get groceries. Whenever I wear new jewelry, she zeroes right in on it with an ego-inflating compliment. The only bad thing about Gemma is tangled up in the only bad thing about Jack McBride.

For a period of two wonderful months, I thought he was real. I look at Gemma now, radiant with friendliness, and I want to adore her to bits. But I can’t.

“Did I tell you that Eric and I are moving in together?” she asks, steering me away from the direction in which I was heading. We turn left at the end of a corridor, fading out the constant loop of “Welcome to Around the Mountain Resort and Spa!” that blares from a big screen in the lobby, cartoon bear cub in a straw hat pointing at a map of entertainment options.

“I don’t have time for the arcade right now.” I strain to present myself as nice, harmless, nonthreatening, even though I wish I could be direct and assertive. Slipping up for even a moment and forgetting that Gemma has Paul’s ear is dangerous. “I’ve gotta talk to Christine.”

Gemma makes a face. “Christine’s the worst. You don’t want to talk to her.”

“I don’t want to, no, but I have some new ideas about—”

“Honey.” She laughs. “I love you, but you know it’s never happening. Christine’s too obsessed with weddings. I heard her discussing your Halloween dinner theater idea with Dad and basically she thinks that sort