Kyle was walking back to the main house with his project’s environmental manager, Mack Beal, and architectural engineer Randall Green, as Jon Kramer, his property manager, stalked toward them. From the man’s scowl, Kyle wondered what additional bad news he was bringing.
“I’m sorry, Kyle, but all the cabins have extensive termite damage and dry wood rot, and they will have to be torn down and replaced as will the main house.“Rand was saying.
“And the water supply and septic is decades out of date, there is no way it can be brought up to EPA standards without replacing it.” Mack added.
“Just get the estimates done. I want green plans in my in-box by Monday. We are starting as soon as we can. What is it Jon?” Kyle almost growled.
“She’s back,” Jon announced.
Rounding the corner, the luxury rental Kyle had gotten for Antonia Ballard while her BMW was being repaired, sat next to his Hummer. He almost turned and walked the other way, but he could see her waving at him from the front window. He lifted his hand and waved back with his best smile, muttering under his breath, “Jon, you’re fired.”
The property manager just laughed at him, “You say that every time a female gets past the gates.”
“Because they all want the same thing,” Kyle gritted out through his smile as his hand dropped back to his side.
“A little piece of the mutli-millionaire developer’s ass,” Rand teased.
“That and a big piece of the developer’s wallet.” Retorted Kyle as he rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses.
Rand scoffingly laughed, “At least you still got the looks to have them falling at your feet or on any other part of your body that might be sticking out.”
Mack smirked, “Enjoy it while you can, Kyle. You don’t have to marry them.”
“Mack, you know there is only one woman in the world I want to marry, or falling on any part of my body, and she isn’t the one who waved at me just now.” Kyle nodded pleasantly like he was having good discussion with his crew.
Rand gave him a sly grin, “She’s a looker. Throw her a dinner, have a tumble, and then you’re out. How bad can she be?”
“Sophia level bad,” Kyle pointed out, and then the two men who had worked with him since he took over his father’s company sixteen years ago and the one who had been with him a decade groaned in sympathy. They had all dealt with the shrewish Greek drama queen, who seemed to find their friend wherever he was working in the world.
Kyle started forward but his men just stood there. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked annoyed, when they all shook their heads. He glared at them. “You’re all fired.”
They just laughed and headed back to the one sturdy cabin that was converted to the construction office, leaving him to his fate facing Antonia alone. Friends like them, who needed enemies to throw them under the D-cup bus.
“You look stressed, Kyle. Is everything okay?” Antonia cooed.
“Nothing that an extra ten million and a bulldozer won’t fix. What are you doing here, Ms Ballard?” He asked drily.
“Oh I just came to see if you would like to have dinner?” She smiled blindingly.
“You’re asking me to dinner?” He scoffed but she just nodded and he realized she was serious. “Um... I actually am having dinner with someone else.”
“Oh really, someone I know?” She pried.
“Yes,” was all he answered, sitting down in the chair behind the ancient desk.
She eyed him in a disappointed way and shook her head. Her tone was judgmental, “Don’t tell me you’re pining after Ice Cold Coach Wallace too. You know she and Sheriff Tanner have been an item for years. Every year he asks her to marry him and every year she says no. Honestly, there is something wrong with a woman who does that to a man like him.”
“Perhaps they are just friends and let the gossips believe whatever they want,” Kyle retorted tartly.
Antonia laughed, “Oh Kyle, you’re so funny. Everyone knows they’re an item, and they probably always will be. Those poor girls being raised by an unwed mother, who just keeps flaunting her indiscretions with the sheriff to the whole community. Oh but then you’re an ‘old family friend’. You knew her years ago so you probably know what kind of woman she is. Really you need someone more reliable, someone like me.”
Kyle gaped at her, shocked by her outlandish suggestion, and then he started to laugh, really laughing in a way he hadn’t laughed in years. She stared at him, offended.
“Forgive me, Ms Ballard but you don’t know anything about Camille and Tank, and obviously far less about me. I think it would best if you found someone else to be your Mr. Number four, I am not interested.”
“How. Dare. You.” Antonia huffed.
“No, how dare you. You keep showing up at my property uninvited, you insult my intelligence, my good friend who is a law enforcement officer, and the woman I love. Tank told me how he and Camille ‘date’ to fend off the desperate divorcees of the county. I am guessing you are their queen bee.” He smirked at her wounded expression.
“You love her?” She sounded disbelieving.
“Yes, I love her. I have loved her for 15 years, and I will never stop. I will get her back and I even have the Sheriff’s blessing. She has given me the two greatest gifts of my life and I will never be able to repay her. A husband jumper like you has nothing to offer me that would compare. Now, Ms Ballard, if you would be so kind as to leave my property,” Kyle stood, leaning forward menacingly across the desk. “Unlike you, I have work to do that doesn’t involve lying on my back.”
Antonia slapped him, it barely tingled and he smirked, remembering when Camille had punched him, he had almost seen stars.
Jon cleared his throat from the door, “Uh boss, they are waiting for you.”
“I have friends on the town council and in the community commissioner’s office, I will make sure you never get this resort built, Mr. Hightower,” Antonia hissed.
“Bring it on, Ms Ballard, I will welcome the challenge. This resort will be completed by Independence Day weekend, just as my late brother wished. Jon, please show the lady to her car and follow her to the main road to make sure she leaves the construction zone safely.” His tone holds nothing but sarcasm as he smugly thinks, “I already have all the permits I need.”
“Yes, boss,” Jon holds the door as Antonia turns and storms out with a string of muttered profanities.
“Put up a gate tomorrow.”
“Uhhh, can do, boss.”
Kyle watched two vehicles drive off before walking toward the construction offices. His expression has Mack and Randall eyeing him.
“I don’t like that look you got, boss,” Rand scowled, “It always means trouble and it’s always expensive.”
“Get the crews here tomorrow; I want the demolition started immediately, and the new systems planned by Friday.” Kyle looked at the diagrams posted on the walls.
Mack raised an eyebrow, “Demo in the snow, is going to increase our reclamation work after the build.”
“I don’t care. I want us open for Independence Day weekend.” Kyle looked at Kent’s sketches, the one with the fireworks in the sky over the lodge.
“Are you crazy? We’ll have to run the crews double because we’re stuck with doing demolition instead of the remodel planned when we bought the place,” Rand shook his head. “We’re supposed to open in October. What did that woman say to you?”
Kyle turned around and looked at them, his deep sapphire eyes blazed with determination, “She said this resort would never be built.”
The Doctors had found that Tiana was suffering from low blood sugar and dehydration due to her pregnancy sickness, and that she was taking prenatal vitamins on an empty stomach after her mother had gotten angry because she thought Tiana was getting fat. Camille had called Tonia three times leaving ever more demanding messages, but had gotten no call back.
Angry, Camille called Tiana’s father on a Japanese oil rig in the South Pacific to have a parental consent faxed in so Tiana could get IVs, an ultrasound, and a proper prenatal exam. Timothy Ballard also gave permission for Tiana to give a statement to Sheriff Tanner. He was caring and supportive when he talked to Tiana, promising to come see her as soon as his tour was up. But when Camille got the phone back, the petroleum engineer was angry about what had happened to his daughter, and gruffly thanked Camille for taking care of his only child better than her mother.
Camille held Tiana’s hand while she tearfully recounted what she had suffered during the four days and three nights that her mother’s ‘new friend’ Donnie had stayed with them. Mrs. Pence from Child Protection Services and Tank both took notes, even though the statement was being recorded. The week, only a month before Tiana’s 17th birthday, had been a nightmare she wanted to never think about again. But she knew Coach Wally was right, she had to be strong and tell so Donnie couldn’t hurt other girls the way he had hurt her. Coach Wally had survived being raped and she promised to help Tiana with anything she needed. It was late when the interview was finished and Sheriff Tanner left to file the report.
After Tiana fell asleep, Camille and Joyce spoke in quiet tones while sipping tea.
“I know Antonia is self-absorbed but how could she not know what was going on?” Camille asked.
Joyce just scowled; the 65-year old, widowed social worker had seen too much of this when she worked in the citied. She had taken the job in Pagosa County and had enjoyed the years up to her retirement processing food and utility assistance for the elderly and WIC assistance for young families. When Lloyd McConnell had divorced Antonia Ballard three years earlier, he had claimed she treated the girl poorly but the preliminary investigation done by another social worker had found no evidence and it had been dismissed as the accusations of an angry ex-husband.
“Camille, this isn’t the first time. I will have to look at the case files, but Tiana is 17 now and there is very little we can do to Antonia concerning Tiana’s treatment. It will be up to Sheriff Tanner to make the criminal case. Best case scenario is Antonia really didn’t know what was happening to her daughter.”
“And the worst case,” Camille didn’t know if she wanted the answer.
Joyce didn’t answer immediately, instead she said something that surprised Camille, “Did you know I was the one who suggested to Doreen to manage the Blue Wings fundraising account because Antonia was busy managing the accounts of a half dozen other charities including the First Church Food Pantry?”
Camille looked at her confused, the scandal about thousands of dollars missing and possible shipments of food stolen shocked the community. The pastor had said it was an unfortunate episode of skimmers taking advantage of the charity but rumors were that the pastor had known who the perpetrator was and had refused to report it. The community had rallied and filled the pantry for the holidays. She remembered her Gramma saying something about Antonia almost being caught with her hand in the cookie jar before insisting on helping with the Blue Wings team account. The realization of what Joyce was suggesting, staggered her.
“Surely you don’t think, Tonia allowed what this Donnie character was doing for money?” Camille gasped, quietly dismayed. She whispered vehemently, “No mother would allow that to happen to her child.”
“When I worked in Denver and Vegas, I saw mothers who sold themselves and their children for rent or for food, and it was terribly sad that they were desperate enough to do such a thing. But there were those who did it for drugs, or alcohol, or companionship, they let terrible things happen to their children because they didn’t want to be alone or needed a fix. Just because a woman gives birth to a child, doesn’t make her a mother. Not everyone is like you, Camille. Not every woman would give up everything to care for her daughter and orphaned niece. To some women children are a commodity, a marker they can use to get what they want,” Joyce looked at the sleeping Tiana with a deep sadness. “Take care of her; she is going to need you if this goes the way I fear.” She patted Camille’s arm before she stood, “Tell Doreen to call me, dear.”
Antonia arrived home to find Tiana wasn’t there, she sent several demanding text messages and got no response so she headed to the school to give Coach Wally a piece of her mind about keeping the dive team so late. Tiana’s car was in the parking lot but no one was there. She called three of Tiana’s friends; none of them had seen her daughter since school let out. Tonia sent one last text message.
'If you aren’t home in an hour, I will sell your car and you can find another way to school.'
Tonia went to her office and sat at her desk. She looked at her phone and noticed she had three missed calls from Camille Wallace and one from Sheriff Tanner among the dozen from debt collectors. It made her angry that the money from her ex-husbands was no longer covering her expenses. She had been forced to start bringing home guest, like she had done before she had met and married Tim 18 years earlier.
She found them at exclusive casinos on her yearly trips to Vegas or at the elite ski resorts of Vail and Aspen. When they came to Southern Colorado to enjoy the hot springs, she gave them ‘company’ and they showered her with gifts and ‘spending money’. Her Thanksgiving guest had given her the money for her New Year’s Eve trip. Her ‘friend’ had been too busy to see her as he promised, and she hadn’t found another to take his place.
Three months later, she had ‘borrowed’ from every source of income at her disposal. All except the Blue Wings team accounts, and with Doreen Wallace watching over her shoulder, Tonia didn’t dare skim anything she couldn’t put back in a few days or claim as a team expense. That stupid food pantry fiasco before Thanksgiving had almost exposed her ‘borrowing’ but proof of the pastor’s online browsing habits and adultery had secured his silence.
‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ she thought sarcastically.
As she sipped a glass of dry Sauvignon Blanc, she googled a certain developer who had mocked her earlier today.
‘What are your secrets, Mr. Hightower? And how can I use them to keep Camille away from you.’
Tonia smirked, thinking about how Ice Cold Coach Wallace had displayed an unusual fit of emotion and even struck the arrogant man. It was obvious to Tonia that Camille must have some kind of deep feelings to react so violently. She herself had the satisfaction of slapping Kyle. He was insufferable but she would make sure he suffered. Quickly, she made a list of everyone she knew who would ‘help’ her stop his project but she knew she would need something more, something personal. He had said he had loved her for 15 years, which would have been around the time she got pregnant with Gracie.
‘But what kind of lover’s quarrel would leave him out of his daughter’s life for so long?’
Many hours later, the only connection between Kyle Hightower and Camille Wallace was his very large donation to the Olympics Swim and Dive Team over a year after Gracie’s birth. There were no images of them together, no proof that they were dating or had ever dated. His brother had died five months before her sister and his other brother two years later, but which of them was Willow’s father, Tonia didn’t know. Whatever happened between the Hightower men and the Wallace women had been kept out of the press and social media.
As she browsed the internet about Kyle and Blue Water Resorts, she found something that might benefit her purposes in the foreign media. Pictures from paparazzi press releases included an engagement announcement between a famous Greek model and the heir of Hightower Development Corporation, two months later the engagement was off.
Years later, there was a second engagement announcement and pictures of him carrying the model down a beautiful white sand beach, following rumors that the relationship was back on now that the beautiful Sophia Varda had retired. That was only 5 years ago, the same time Tanner’s ex-wife had remarried and Camille had gone to the wedding in Texas with him. The timing was suspicious but with no solid connection between Kyle and Camille, it was useless to her. Looking at the picture of the beautiful dark haired woman with her arms draped around Kyle’s neck and the tilt of his head toward her as if listening to her talking, she wondered if this what why Camille had begun seriously dating the Sheriff. Around that time, there were also pictures of the model and the developer together all over the world, and even at his mother’s funeral. Tonia wondered why they hadn’t gotten married. She googled the woman and found hundreds of picture of her with other men over the last two decades, some were richer but none were as handsome as Kyle.
Tonia’s devious mind ran through the possibilities and kept coming back to something he had said, “I have loved her for fifteen years.”
Was Camille the reason Kyle never married Sophia; the reason the first engagement was broken? Tonia wondered as she poured another glass of wine, annoyed to find the bottle empty. She decided she needed to make the acquaintance of Ms Varda and perhaps invite her to Colorado.
Looking at the clock on her laptop she realized, it was nearly 1AM and Tiana had not called, texted, or come home. Tonia gritted her perfect teeth angrily.
The pouting brat must be staying at a friend’s after the fight they had before school. Tiana was beginning to get a little bit of a paunch to her tummy and Tonia had verbally whipped her about how she would not have a fat daughter. Tiana was now on a strict calorie count and if she didn’t like it then she had better lose the weight. Tonia seethed that Tiana was probably at Coach Wallace’s house for the night and eating junk food with those two illegitimate girls. Her daughter would pay for her little stunt tomorrow and the income from her car would keep them afloat for another month.
Putting her empty wine bottle in the trash, Tonia went to bed angry.