As the airplane circled the runway, Penelope’s stomach clenched with panic. She’d never flown out of the country before, never dealt with the unanticipated complications of foreign travel alone. She’d never had such an important assignment, either, one that carried all her desperate hopes and prayers.
Given a choice, she’d take the security of the known any day. She blamed the unfairness of life for assigning the most important project of her career to a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean, where she knew nothing and no one.
As the airplane wheels bumped on the runway, Penelope watched the tropical landscape fly by with an interest heightened by fear. She was such a damned coward. She should be thrilled at this opportunity.
She steadied her emotions by envisioning the interminable wait to file off the plane, the ordeal of negotiating the soulless terminal with thousands of strangers hurrying toward unknown destinations, and the cab ride to some faceless hotel like all the other hotels she’d ever known. Only then could she finally start the job that would establish her foothold in the career of her choice. She needed that partnership so desperately her teeth ached with it.
Her uneasiness arose from hunger and exhaustion and nothing more. If she could readjust her thinking and consider this as simply one more assignment in a string of successful assignments, she would be all right. She knew she was good. She might be an emotional basket case, but she had brains.
Carting her briefcase and overnight bag off the 747 into unknown territory, she just wished she could solve her growing anxiety along with her growling stomach. Neither of the flights had served meals. Surely her nervousness had more to do with an empty stomach and incompetent airlines than fear.
Heat slammed into her the instant she stepped down the plane stairs. No brief hike through weather-protected tunnels into an air-conditioned terminal on this underdeveloped island. Warily watching more seasoned passengers, Penelope followed them across the tarmac to a shaded walkway. The tropical sun glared off the pavement, and drooping palm trees shimmered behind the heat in the distance. Even coming from Miami, she could feel the difference.
Penelope skirted around the chattering passengers trailing along the walkway as if they had all day. Even in her low pumps, she still towered over most of the crowd. As a twelve-year-old, her height had embarrassed her. Sometimes she still felt like that gawky teenager, especially when people stared.
She’d been warned her destination required a lengthy taxi journey to the other side of the island. She wanted to arrive before dinner, so she needed to hurry. But she was starving now. Would a restaurant be too much to hope for? Garbed in a man-tailored business suit meant for an office and not the tropics, Penelope felt moisture pooling beneath her shirt as she hurried toward the terminal.
Adjusting her horn-rimmed glasses, Penelope breathed a sigh of relief under the slow-moving fans of the high-ceilinged immigration office. The sight of half a dozen long lines ahead of her didn’t help the gnawing in her stomach, but the consequences of Beth’s accident had taught her patience. She was almost there. The hotel had promised an agent would meet her outside the gates. Setting her briefcase safely between her navy pumps, she tightened the pins in her upswept hair.
She may have led a sheltered childhood in an upper-class environment, but she’d spent these last eight years since college making her own way in the world. Caught up in their divorce, her parents had never offered a helping hand. Besides, they were still disappointed that she hadn’t married Zack and settled down back in Charlotte as Beth had.
Looking around at the tourists crowding the room, Penelope summoned pity for the harried women with crying children clinging to their hands while their husbands juggled baggage and pretended competence. If those women had fooled themselves into believing their husbands would take care of everything, they would be sorely disappointed. Men couldn’t do a blamed thing without a woman behind them.
As if confirming her opinion, the man at the head of her line searched frantically through the pockets in his expensive L.L. Bean traveling jacket while his wife held a crying baby and watched in bewilderment. Lost the passports, Penelope thought cynically.
The next man in line looked vaguely familiar. Wearing an expensive suit in contrast to the casually dressed tourists around them, he clutched a leather briefcase as he handed over his passport. Penelope frowned as she tried to figure out why a middle-aged, balding, burly man would look familiar until she realized he was a major contractor who used PC&M for his accounting. Maybe the contractor had recommended PC&M to Anse Chastenet. That was how these good ol’ boy networks worked. She mentally filed the knowledge for future use.
Shoring up her confidence, she decided that after a few more trips like this one, she’d be an experienced traveler, ready to specialize in Poindexter, Combs, and MacMillan’s Caribbean accounts. Maybe then she could take the time to enjoy the exotic setting of the islands.
Right now, she worried about finding her suitcase, getting through customs, and locating her assigned agent. Then there would be the perilous journey to the hotel. Cadogan’s guidebook hadn’t called it perilous, but she could read between the lines. “Tortuous paths,” “series of switchbacks,” and “rough, potholed roads” meant any number of things, none of them pleasant in her current frame of mind. She didn’t like situations she couldn’t control.
Finally, her turn arrived. The agent gave her passport a cursory glance, stamped it, and motioned her away. Penelope had already watched the passengers ahead of her and knew they’d disappeared somewhere to the left. She couldn’t see any signs to guide her, and the agent’s heavily accented English reduced the possibility of asking questions. Gathering her courage, she shouldered her bag and trudged down another corridor.
At least the natives of St. Lucia were supposed to speak English. Her high-school Spanish and college French wouldn’t hold up well in this nerve-racking environment. She’d known the islanders spoke a patois. She hadn’t counted on their heavy accents converting their English into a foreign language. She prayed the hotel management had a better grasp of her native tongue or she’d be in for an uphill struggle in installing their software.
She saw no sign of the contractor in the crowd of tourists circling the baggage claim. He must have only brought his briefcase for a quick trip. Pity. She might have made some new connections here if he knew the area. Maybe another time.
Native porters hustled around them, practically grabbing the unloaded luggage from unsuspecting hands. Vowing to hang on to hers if only to avoid figuring out how to tip with the Caribbean equivalent of her American currency, Penelope trained her gaze on the carousel. Finding her wheeled travel case, she snatched it away from an eager porter and glanced around for the next step in this circus.
Customs. She still had to carry the bag through customs. She’d hoped they’d had the efficiency to inspect the bags while she’d waited in those interminable lines in the first room. She should have known better. Airports and efficiency were a contradiction in terms.
Resignedly listening to her stomach growl—she couldn’t find so much as a vending machine in this barn—Penelope arrived in still another mob of harried tourists with crying toddlers. She eyed the children with suspicion and chose a different line. She didn’t have time for thinking about children. Even her sister’s had become alien creatures now that her brother-in-law had them. Considering her options right now, it was probably best if she kept things that way.
She transferred her attention to the line ahead of her. She couldn’t decide what system the clerks used for inspecting baggage. A muscled man in a tank top, heavy mustache, and mirrored sunglasses she could swear was a drug dealer passed through with a wave of a hand. Teenage girls with pimply faces had their purses emptied.
Penelope’s nerves teetered on edge as a tall man jostled her from behind, and another traveling alone eyed her with an interest she recognized only too well. She had contemplated removing her stiff, buttoned jacket in the heat, but she tugged it around her now. She pushed her glasses farther up her nose and checked to make certain her hair hadn’t strayed from its knot. The glasses were more protective disguise than necessity. She’d bought them to correct her distance vision but discovered they aided her goal of emphasizing her intelligence, not her looks.
Ahead, the muscle-bound jock in the revealing red tank top handed his backpack to a porter, then leaned his shoulders against the far wall, apparently waiting for someone. She hated people who affected sunglasses inside, and she hated mirrored sunglasses even more. The men who wore them were inevitably egotistical asses. This one with his droopy mustache definitely looked like a drug dealer.
Uneasy, she checked her money belt and the pepper spray in her pocket.
The man in the mirrored glasses seemed to be staring at her. She hated this adolescent self-consciousness that struck her at the most inopportune times.
The man in the sunglasses was still lounging against the wall by the time she reached the desk. The clown probably thought he was hot stuff, showing off that bronzed-all-over look. To Penelope, it simply meant the man had nothing better to do but feed his vanity while developing skin cancer in tanning booths. He reminded her of Zack. Except by now, Zack probably had a beer belly and a bald head. This man proudly displayed his trim physique in low-cut jeans that emphasized slim hips and muscled thighs, and there was nothing balding about that headful of wind-blown chestnut hair.