The young woman at the registration desk looked up. "How may I help you?"
"Julienne LaMere and Mason Sheridan checking in." My smile was as weary as I felt. The five-hour drive to Santa Fe quickly became six and a half hours with all the road work on the highway. I blessed the air conditioner in the car for keeping us from melting into puddles in the record high New Mexico heat. It was late afternoon and one-hundred-one degrees in the shade.
I was thrilled to experience New Mexico, the forty-seventh state in the union, with its strong Spanish and Native American heritage. The splendor of a grand Hacienda entryway serving as the lobby surrounded me. The adobe walls were in shades of terra-cotta and warm ochre and the doorways were all arched, giving it a festive yet old world feel. Red clay tile floors glowed under the sleek modern lights. The lobby seating area, that surrounded a curved adobe fireplace, consisted of a couch and chairs with carved pine frames and vibrant fabric of southwest design in red, turquoise blue, and jade green with a matching area rug. Potted ferns of various types and heights were scattered throughout the lobby. It looked rustic and old Spanish style, but it was posh in its unique way. I adored it after all the Italian gilt decor at my home resort.
The young lady looked around before asking, "Where is Mr. Sheridan?"
I managed, "Parking the car" before he strode into the lobby of the Enchantment Canyon Resort with a confident air. The sight of him gave me jelly knees and a fluttering stomach.
The registration clerk's eyes widened when she saw Mason and followed him as he joined me. It was the usual reaction from most women when they first saw Mason. He had a model's good looks with intense hazel eyes framed by long lashes. His dark hair was shoulder length and fell in lush curls and waves that accentuated his cheekbones and strong chin sporting a five-o'clock shadow. It all gave him a dangerous aura that drew women like a magnet.
I was adjusting to the probability that this time away together, despite my having to work, would likely provide an opportunity for us to have intimate time. Which had me a tad bit anxious. Porsche, my best friend since high school who was much more experienced in dating, kept telling me that I didn't have to fret, just let things progress naturally. But I was worried somehow I would manage to not measure up and he would realize we weren't meant together. When it came to men, I was a smidgen insecure.
After tapping keys on her terminal, The clerk's brows furrowed, and she turned to the back counter and used the phone. Upon hanging up, she turned and said, "Please wait just a moment, I need to check something on your reservation."
I'm a Manager-in-training for the Colorado Springs Resort and its owner had recently purchased this body, mind, and spirit wellness resort outside Santa Fe. I was sent to train the staff on the owner’s expectations, operating procedures, and the new software that linked this facility with the flagship resort in Colorado. Since my tab was being covered by the owner, I hoped she simply didn't understand the billing for my account. I didn't want to make her uncomfortable by jumping in to explain.
I began drumming my fingers on the hand carved reception desk when a middle aged woman with soft brown hair approached in a summery coral blazer and coordinating floral full skirt. "Ms. LaMere, I'd like to welcome you to Enchantment Canyon Resort. I'm Audrey, the Guest Services Manager. If there is anything I can do to get you settled, just let me know." She smiled warmly.
"Thank you Audrey, I appreciate the welcome." I tilted my head, "you look familiar --"
"We met at the Resort Management conference in Vail this last January. We were in a few of the workshops together." Her eyebrows danced.
Ah, we were foxhole compatriots. We were stuck at a conference in the middle of a record-breaking snowfall and dangerous blizzard in the Rocky Mountains with a killer in the resort. It's the sort of story most people don't believe when you tell them about it. I had assisted the detective investigating the deaths by passing along what gossip on motives I could uncover.
I introduced Audrey to Mason, and she took over checking us in. By the time we had our room key cards, I was looking forward to finding a Margarita and relaxing a bit. I spun around and bumped into a whisper thin woman waiting her turn behind me.
"Oh pardon me ma'am, I'm so sorry." I turned bright red from my blunder. Mason's hand was on my lower back to steady me. It flitted through my mind that this was a wellness getaway, so perhaps the woman was recovering from an illness to be so gaunt and down right boney. I needed to understand the clientele to adjust the training.
She smiled in return and in a reserved voice said, "Not a problem, dear."
Mason pushed the up arrow for the elevator. "I think we need to have a nice relaxing meal with a few drinks. Maybe sit in the pool to watch the sunset. Does that sound good to you?" Mason asked.
Down a hallway, a group of about twenty people filed out of a room and flooded the lobby. About half of them joined us at the elevator. The prior hush of the lobby was now filled with the noise of people talking over each other. I caught snippets from the people directly behind me and glanced at them.
"That was dry and boring, just like last year's kick-off. I need a scotch...." A woman said.
"Why do we go through this charade? Let's just wife swap and quit pretending this is for the company..." A man said.
"Connor, not everybody thinks like you. Some are here to learn and network..." A man replied.
"Don't pretend it isn't what happens at every business conference or convention." The tanned Connor replied in a clipped tone.
"Give it a rest Connor, it's mostly for Merritt to have a tax write off--" A woman said. I tucked that tidbit of information away. Merritt must be the head of this company.
"Who cares, we get to go to posh resorts and get tanned." Another man replied with a shrug of his shoulders.
Mason and I looked at each other. He took my hand and we made our way to the graceful stairway along the wall with intricate wrought iron balustrades.
From the sounds of their talk, it was a corporate retreat. You know the type where all the executives stay in luxury hotels and attend team building and company strategy meetings. But it sounded like this company had issues among its executives.
As we ascended the stairs, I looked down and saw a middle-aged man wearing an expensive white blazer, no tie, and blue jeans with a woman next to him taking notes. I guessed he was the leader of this pack, Merritt. In that brief look, I noticed several of the elevator group glared with evident scorn at him. Even the woman I had bumped into glanced over her shoulder at him with a frown.
Our room was a standard, no upgrade. It had a prominent rounded adobe fireplace in terracotta red, while the rest of the walls were a golden sand color. Around the fireplace were similar chairs as in the lobby. The rest of the room had brightly colored southwest fabric for the bedspread and curtains. We had a sliding door leading to a balcony furnished with a bistro style table and chairs. It was warm and inviting with the feel of cultural richness and I fell in love with it.
I sent out a group text with a photo of the room to my family and friends that we had arrived and were settling in. My cousin Felicia and friend Porsche teased me about time with Mason and not leaving the room. I got texts from my neighbors, a group of mature residents that kept tabs on Mason and I, they all were glad we arrived without incident. My father wanted me to call, but I replied I needed to get to the restaurant before it closed. He could be a bit over protective and I just wanted to relax.
Mason and I unpacked, freshened up, and were downstairs in record time. It was so good to move around after the drive. We strolled around the property to familiarize ourselves with the layout. The main building with lodging, restaurant and cafe, and both indoor or outdoor pools was in the center, to the left was the spa building and to right we found the tennis courts, volleyball sanded area, and trailheads to a few hiking trails that appeared to lead to a rocky hill behind the complex. The grounds had lush landscaping along the sidewalks with occasional park benches. This was a desert area, so the plants were various Palm bushes and trees, a number of flowering bushes, yucca, hardy red Bougainvillea, whispery Mexican Feather Grass, and other ornamental grasses. It was serene and comforting.
We were hungry and found the Enchantée restaurant easily. It had the same stucco walls but in a turquoise green and the southwestern archways, but the ceiling had large rough wood planks crossing it for a more rustic atmosphere. Classical Spanish guitar played and the white linen table cloths gave a sophisticated touch.
The menu had few Mexican food options along with American dishes made in a healthy reimagining in some cases, plus gluten-free, low calorie, and low carb options. We decided on an appetizer of cactus fries, I ordered the Chicken Mole and Mason decided on the meat-stuffed Poblanos with Cilantro-Lime sauce and Mock-Margaritas for both. They didn’t list alcoholic beverages on the menu. Mason whispered he would pick up some wine and mixed drink ingredients for our room tomorrow.
When our drinks arrived, Mason raised his glass, "Ma bichette, you are beautiful tonight. I'm so glad to have this time away with you." He still called me his little doe. His eyes had a heat that burned through me, and I took a few gulps of my drink to cool my cheeks. Oh my, he sure could singe me with that consuming gaze.
My voice came out stronger than I expected when I answered, "Thank you for making the time to join me. I know you had the poker tournament, but we needed the time alone..." I let myself swim in his hazel eyes.
Mason plays high stakes poker and wins regularly. He is also building his reputation as a professional photographer. In his past, he was Marine Special Forces, sniper classified, black belt fourth degree in Marine Corps martial arts and black belt fifth degree in TaeKwonDo. But he did all that to satisfy his demanding father, an Air Force General.
When we met, and up until a few months ago, he would pose as the boyfriend photographer for Hollywood and recording celebrities while actually being their bodyguard for a few weeks. This got his name out as a photographer and allowed the celebrities to keep it quiet that they had a hostile ex or a stalker. He was gone a lot while I saw celebrity gossip of him that left me wondering what was happening with all the beautiful women.
We had broken up for a few months until working the issues out. He only does bodyguard work for men and openly as hired muscle now, so I don't have to be reading about him in celebrity gossip magazines. But getting time without my cousins, or Aunt Regina and Uncle Lars, or Mason's sister Marissa intruding was a serious challenge.
He took my hand and kissed the back, never taking his eyes from mine. Gulp. "I jumped at the chance for us to get away, without our families interrupting every romantic moment."
We'd had several close calls. Once with my cousin Felicia when we were getting amorous on my couch and another time with Marissa walking in on us at Mason's. Something was always spoiling the moment. Maybe that was part of my anxiety about our upcoming alone time, the anticipation after several disruptions!
Our food arrived and was perfect. With each bite and sip of Margarita I relaxed. I had tonight with Mason before starting tomorrow with the employees. I could feel the possibilities with each smoldering glance from Mason that reached down to my toes.
We both enjoy watching people, and the corporate meeting folks in the restaurant provided subtle drama. We had plenty to entertain us with this bunch. Close to our table was the man I believed was the top dog, Merritt, with an exotic beauty that must be his wife. Up close, he was tanned with a still trim physique but signs of thickening around his middle sneaking up on him. His companion was easily twenty years younger, almond eyes, long legged, pushed up cleavage on display, and olive complexion. She was the closest to a modern Sophia Loren I had ever witnessed. But they seemed to ignore each other.
Mason looked at me and said, “The tension is thick in here. These executives seem pretty scandalous.”
I leaned closer and whispered, “I think the guy in the white blazer is their boss, Merritt. He and his wife seem far more interested in others than each other.”
“She seems to be making eyes at that man across the room there.” He waved his fork to Connor from the group at the elevator earlier who mentioned wife swapping. “I need a cigarette after watching those two,” he finished. He didn’t even smoke.
But I understood. “Well, her hubby is just as bad. I think he is sexting with that man’s wife two tables to his left,” I whispered.
We watched as Merritt would text on his phone and then watch for a reaction from the woman at the other table. She read the text and dipped her finger in her wine glass and stroked it down her cleavage and suggestively licked her lips while looking at him.
We grew tired of the soap opera around us and talked about Mason’s plans for some photography outings while I worked with the resort staff. He wanted to get photos of the sandstone crags of Abiquiu geological formation at sunrise, unique desert cactus, and a desert lightning storm, if nature cooperated. Often he had to wait patiently for the perfect conditions to get that stunning photo like you see in ads or in calendars. He would be busy during the days since Abuquiu was a few hour drive one way. That worked out fine since I would be training during the day and we would at least have the evenings together.
We finished dinner and made our way to the lounge for some dancing nice and slow in each other’s arms. I had regained some energy from dinner and relaxing. I may have given a sigh of contentment, swaying to the live music with my head against his shoulder. It was so right, so perfect in his strong arms with his cologne of leather, patchouli, and sandalwood swirled together, enveloping me.
After several songs passed with us oblivious to any other living being, just wrapped up in each other, we stepped outside to stroll in the golden glow of a nearly full moon before heading to our room. We walked hand-in-hand until we were surrounded by the landscaping and the shimmering moonlight through the trees. Mason stopped and wrapped his muscular arms around me.
“I am so grateful for you in my life. I hope I never take you for granted or forget to tell you how important you are to me.” He kissed me, sweet and slow. He drew me closer, and the kiss deepened. I slid my hands up his chest and around his neck. My head and heart were spinning.
I felt something brush my foot. Don’t spoil the moment LaMere, focus on the kiss. I succumbed to the kiss again. It had probably been a rabbit startled out of its hiding spot, right?
After another moment of blissful necking, my foot was brushed again before a hand - yes, a hand - grasped my left ankle. I let out a yelp and jumped. Mason pulled back and looked into my eyes.
“A hand just latched onto my ankle!” I don’t know why I was whispering, whoever owned the hand knew they had me in their grasp.
We shifted and looked down to see an arm in a soiled white blazer reaching out from the bushes along the pathway. The blazer glowed eerily in the moonlight. The hand at the end of the arm was attached to my ankle. I shook my foot, and the hand slipped away. Mason released me, took a hold of the arm, and dragged Merritt, face up, out of the foliage. He had an ancient looking arrow of wood protruding from his chest and blood drenched his shirt. Mason bent down and placed two fingers to his throat.
Merritt’s head twitched, and he breathed out a few words, “It’s the curse. I can’t believe it, the curse got me.” And he seemed to deflate like a balloon leaking air until he went flat, like the animating force had left him.
What curse is he talking about? Oh my, I may never kiss again.