Newly surgicized widow Barbara Langley and her best friend, Rachel Painter, go to Tampa, Florida for R & R. Along the way she encounters an old flame and new temptation.
Barbara Langley has the new body and face of a much younger woman, but at a high price—the accidental death of her husband by a drunk driver. Who knew he was listening when she complained she hated looking so old when she felt so young?
Her best friend, Rachel, calls in a promise Barbara made years before. The two leave the rainy Northwest to visit Tampa, Florida, where Barbara fell in love for the first time. Becoming accustomed to her new look, she flirts with a younger man who is smitten by her youthful appearance. When she threatens to reveal her true age, Rachel, suggests she just enjoy the attention.
Barbara, feeling she’s “come home”, decides to resettle in Tampa. She meets her old flame, divorced and successful, selling his condo to move back into the home his parents left him. Sparks fly and buried love surfaces. Now, Barbara has the attention of two men; one younger, and one lost love found. The young man is smart, caring and attentive. But then, there is the former love. It has always been her hidden desire to reconnect. Things would have worked “If Only”.
The plane had descended over the shallow depths of Tampa Bay by the time Barbara realized she'd lost the bet. She'd watched Rachel and Robart intertwine themselves around each other's soul with each conversation. She only wondered if she would be spending this vacation alone despite the promise she'd extracted from her friend. Rachel had a bad habit of doing the exact thing she hated in others--focusing all her attention on the new man in her life to the exclusion of everyone else.
As the plane's wheels screeched and bumped along the sun warmed concrete to the terminal, Barbara started a mental itinerary for herself. It had been more than a few years since she'd been to Florida but, with a map and plenty of time on her hands, she would visit all those places that had left a warm glow in her heart--with or without Rachel.
"Hey, you coming or what?" Rachel pushed Barbara's carryon bag at her.
"I was planning the vacation I'll be taking for the next month."
"What? I'm not part of this? I thought you were going to show me Florida." Rachel turned; her eyebrows rose, and looked down at her best friend.
"I was guessing by the disgusting public show of affection between you and Robart, you'd be keeping company with him the whole time we're here; so, I'm planning on doing what I've dreamed about for more years than I can count; visiting the state I consider my home."
"Well, smartass, you're wrong. Robart will be in town tonight and tomorrow until noon. Then he flies to England for three days where he will visit his family, France for two days, Germany for two days, finishing the last leg of the journey in Italy for two days, and then, back here. While you were sleeping, and may I add, you still need to rest more than you've been getting, we talked about the intense attraction we feel toward each other. We both want to pursue this relationship as more than fly-by-night, excuse the pun. He invited us both to dinner at a place in St. Petersburg, or is it Clearwater; anyway, he's treating us to dinner at some place called Bern's Steakhouse." Rachel bumped into Barbara's rigid form stopped in the middle of the walkway.
She turned to the tall redhead, her brown eyes wide, and repeated, "Bern's Steakhouse?"
"Yeah. Why? Is it really bad or something?" Rachel dropped her carryon to the floor and flexed her hand.
"No, no. It's a fabulous, expensive restaurant in Tampa with tremendous food and an incredible garden surrounding it; at least, it used to be. It was a quiet, romantic, setting; definitely not the place for three people to have dinner, especially if only two of them are 'in lust.'"
"Barbara." Rachel's voice took on a dangerous tone. "I know where this is heading. Robart asked both of us to dinner so we could get to know each other and enjoy his one night in Tampa before he flies out. Not just me, but both of us."
"Look, girlfriend, you just told me you think I need to get more rest. Well, I'm taking your advice. I'll stay in the hotel tonight. You and Robart go out and enjoy the evening. I think I need some time to soak in the essence of being here again."
"Barb? Are you sure?"
"Yes. Go. Go and enjoy the place the way I did the first time I was there; enjoy it with someone you care about a great deal. Lose all sense of time, get wrapped up in Robart and walk through the gardens hand in hand. It is a memory you will always treasure. It needs to be a memory for the two of you, not for the three of us."
Barbara tromped down the walkway toward the luggage carousels, Rachel following behind. Once they'd retrieved their bags, they located the hotel shuttle stop and, when it finally arrived, rode in silence to their destination. The landscape had changed so dramatically Barbara felt as if she were visiting for the first time. She recognized a few buildings in the skyline but little else. Housing tracts had sprung up in areas that had been little more than swampland when she'd left the state. Many of the wild green fields she'd remembered fondly had been built into strip malls with boutiques and small coffee bistros. She realized she would need some time to accept the tremendous changes that had occurred to her town while she'd been away.
The shuttle pulled underneath the archway of the hotel, and a handsome young man dashed out to open the shuttle doors. Extending a hand, his black eyes sparked with interest as he helped Barbara out.
"Welcome to Tampa, miss. If there's anything I can do?"
Rachel stepped from the vehicle unaided and snickered as she watched the back of Barbara's neck redden.
"Uhm, uh, thank you," Barbara leaned slightly to read the nametag on the young man's uniform, "Reynaldo, but I think we'll be fine." Barbara turned away for a moment and stopped. When she turned back to face the tanned youngster, Rachel noted her eyes dancing with mischief.
"However, if we think of anything," Barbara leaned toward the young man and lowered her voice to just above a whisper, "we'll call you."
The young porter nearly fell on his face as he watched the sway of hips walking away from him. He hurriedly grabbed the bags and loaded them on the luggage trolley to follow the enticing undulation of female entering the hotel. Barbara tossed a wink over her shoulder to Rachel who was frowning thunderously as she brought up the rear.
Reynaldo rolled the luggage trolley to the front desk and parked it.
"I'll be right back." He bolted down the hallway leading to the hotel offices. At the final office, he rapped his knuckles on the door, opening and entering at the same time.
The sandy haired figure behind the desk grumbled, "I don't remember saying come in."
"Oh, come on, Uncle Steven. Don't be so grumpy." The young man lounged against the wall.
"Ray-Ray, I told you not to call me Uncle Steven at work. What is so important you have to come to my office during your shift, especially when we have guests?" Steven Rodgers glanced at the bank of security monitors set up on the table next to his desk. Something about the smaller dark haired woman seemed familiar, but Steven couldn't quite put his finger on it. Mentally shrugging, he looked up into the chocolate brown eyes of his best friend's son. "Well?"
"I'll stop calling you Uncle Steven when you stop calling me Ray-Ray. I'm 25 years old and out of college now. Maybe you can start calling me Reynaldo like everyone else?"
"Fine, but that's beside the point. Why are you here in the middle of your shift?"
"Did you see the little brunette checking in?" Reynaldo pushed away from the wall and pointed to the woman at the front desk talking animatedly with her friend.
Steven sighed. Reynaldo was infamous for his dealings with women. Tampa Bay was scattered with broken hearts from his escapades.
"Reynaldo--company policy prohibits employees from fraternizing with guests. You signed paperwork acknowledging that when you were hired. I don't need to lose my franchise, and have a guest file a lawsuit, all in one day. I don't care if she's the number one box-office actress in the country; stay away from her. Do you understand?"
Steven continued to enter figures in the computer. When his statement met with silence, he looked up. Reynaldo never let an opportunity go by to argue. He claimed it kept his Cuban blood flowing.
The young man stood shaking his head, light brown hair barely moving under the gelled exterior.
"Mr. Rodgers, this woman is The Madonna. She is flawless, and she smells like heaven; something about her reminds me of Hawaii. She smells like those white leis you get when you graduate from college. Pohua; no that's not it, P, Pi, Pikaki! That's it. She smells like those Pikaki flowers, sweet and fresh like an ocean breeze."
Steven stopped, his fingers poised over his keyboard. 'He's lost his mind. I've never heard him go on about a girl, woman, like this. Maybe I should check this girl out. No, that wouldn't be professional.'
The phone on his desk buzzed, and Steven picked it up.
"Yes? Yes, he is. All right, I'll be right out."
"Well, Mr. Montez, your services are required at the front desk, and so are mine. Seems our computer has decided to act up again. You need to get out there, and show our guests to their room. Remember--no fraternizing." Steven grabbed his suit coat from the back of his chair and slid into it. He adjusted his tie and, walking out the door behind Reynaldo, closed and locked his office.
The young porter came bounding out of the hallway, and broke into a wide grin as he wrangled the luggage trolley over to the elevator. "Ladies? Shall we?"
Rachel lifted her eyebrows and elbowed Barbara. "I'm sure he's talking to you."
Barbara smirked and, grabbing the card keys from the top of the counter, sauntered to the elevator, Rachel clumping along beside her.
"Whenever you're ready, Reynaldo."
The doors slid open, and Reynaldo guided the trolley into the elevator, held the doors for the two women, and, once they were safely inside, pushed the button to their floor flashing a smile at Donna the desk clerk.
~ * ~
Steven rounded the corner in time to catch the familiar sway of hips moving toward the elevator. Reynaldo was beaming and Donna, the daytime desk clerk, was glowering.
"That man is a total idiot when it comes to women. The way he fawned over that little one is absolutely disgusting. Steven? Steven?"
Steven watched as the two women stepped inside the elevator, turned, and the elevator doors closed. His heart began to hammer in his chest, and a light coating of sweat beaded over his forehead. 'It can't be! She'd be nearly 50 by now. That young woman can't be but 30 or 31. But, GOD! It looks so much like her.'
"Steven? Are you all right? You look a little pale. You want me to call someone?" Donna's brow furrowed. She'd never seen her boss lose his composure. He was pale, and his hands were shaking.
Steven cleared his throat and turned to face the counter, smiling weakly. "No, I just thought I saw a ghost. Don't they say that everyone has a double? A doppelganger? I think I just saw a doppelganger, that's all. Now, what was the problem you were having?"
He walked around the counter and stood conferencing with his desk clerk. The computer had hung up on the last guest's reservation; the doppelganger. Steven scrolled through to the spot where the computer had balked. He read the information and choked. He started coughing. Donna ran to get him a cup of water and, when she returned, found him sitting in the chair looking dazed.
Handing the cup to him, she heard him mutter.
"A doppelganger with the same name? Can't be."