Every spring at the Hilltop House there was a certain group that would book the entire hotel. All the ladies in Harpers Ferry loved this group, all the men would collectively groan and roll their eyes. It was the Washington D.C. Area Romance Writers Association.
Now…before I go any further let me say this… Anyone who knows me, truly knows me, will tell you I am a bibliophile and a lover of all kinds of literature. Romance writing included. Although I don’t read it…I respect anyone and everyone who writes it and or reads it. Truly I respect anyone who writes book and reads them in this, the digital age; the age of youtube, 24/7 news feeds full of mind numbing drivel that rots your mind and grinds away your soul. Escaping into the pages of a book, no matter what that book may be, is something not to be taken for granted.
In the past I had heard tales of the romance writers group from my mother and other employees of the hotel. But I had never been there for the group for one reason or another. College, living at the beach, there was even the few years I was travelled with a carnival and lived in Florida. (yes, you read that right, I travelled with and worked in a carnival for a few years) So I had never witnessed the, as my mom and her friends put it, the lady like glamour of the group. Now being a young and impressionable lad of…what 22?…this filled my head with all kinds of images. (I am laughing at myself as I write this because I was quite the IDIOT in my youth) So I always wished I was there for the event. But fate had it otherwise and I never was.
Fast forward 12 years. I’m 34, and have returned to Harpers Ferry after another adventure into the world beyond my little valley town. I was working at the front desk of the hilltop house. And had just put a call through to the group sales office (my mom’s office) and was busy checking the reservations for the next day. Mom came from her office with a sheaf of papers in her hands. I knew this signaled that she had just made a significant booking. Without asking I handed her the reservation book. She took it and flipped the pages to a week in April. She ran a finger down the column.
“Yep.” my mom grabbed a pen and in her big bold hand she wrote “romance writers” in the entire column.
I glanced at the booking and raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
Mom nodded. “Yes,” she pinched my cheek. “There’s gonna be a whole gaggle of ladies here for the weekend.” Her tiny fingers held my cheek in a vise like grip. “so you better be on your best behavior.”
“Oooooooow!” I pushed her hand off my cheek, rubbing the spot. “Moooom…we’re at work.” It amazed me (and still does) that my mom has the innate ability to embarrass me without so much as a thought. A mere word from my mom and I am immediately reduced to a 5-year-old boy… AND that she could probably hold together the neutrons of an exploding star between her index finger and thumb.
“Nora Roberts will be here this year.” she said almost with a giggle. “That’s so exciting! I have to go and tell Ainsley!” She went off to the comptroller’s office. It was a few minutes before o heard the “fan-girl” squeals of glee from the office. My mom, and most of the office staff loved the romance books and Nora Roberts, for them, would be like me meeting Clive Barker. I smiled and shook my head. I understood it…the feeling of meeting a writer that had filled what, otherwise, could have been empty hours of loneliness and boredom. I could only imagine what it would have been like to meet some of my literary heroes. Would I have fainted with over zealous euphoria if I met Stan Lee? What questions would I ask of Tolkien or Lovecraft? Would I dare ask for advice on how to be a better writer from Alan Moore or Poe? I truly understood what they were feeling, and I appreciated that. When I got off work later that day I went out and bought a copy of a random Nora Roberts romance for my mom, and I was going to have her sign it. I knew mom would love it. What avid reader wouldn’t like a book written and signed by their favorite author?
I read a little about Nora Roberts and found out she is from Boonsboro, Maryland. Which is “right across the bridge” as they say around here. I now more fully understood the fandom. She is a “local” celebrity. I also discovered that her husband owns a bookstore called Turn The page Books…a store I had been to more than once… ( ttpbooks.com ) So they were local literati, celebrities of a certain caliber. I was looking forward to the event now. I kept the copy of the book I bought for my mom (“Birthright” was it’s title) in my backpack at all times. I didn’t know when during the event I would get a chance to have her sign it but I wanted to make damn sure I had it ready to go whenever the chance arose.
The week prior to their arrival was filled with anticipation, and major preparation. We had to make sure the rooms were just so…several of the guests had certain requirements that “they just had to have.” Flowers, certain vintages of wine and other such necessities were ordered for the occasion. All rooms were non smoking, of course, but several of the ladies wanted to know if they had a place where they could smoke cigars. I told them, we have the grand front porch with the scenic overlook. I was assured that would be more than adequate. One of the ladies even wanted to make sure we had a gallon…a gallon…of her favorite Kentucky bourbon on hand.
During this week I was teased incessantly by the entirety of the female staff. Things like “Oh they’re gonna eat you up” and jabs such as “those ladies are going to loooooooove you, big guy.” were frequently tossed in my direction and were met by the embarrassed flush of red that would follow in my cheeks. The girls I worked with, for some reason, found great sport in embarrassing me.
To be completely honest, I found my mind wandering as to what it would be like to be single as I was in a hotel filled with women who write romances. This is what they write about, isn’t it? Do they draw from real life? I laughed at myself for thinking it, but part of my mind kept it going for the week to come. All sorts of scenarios and possibilities filled my mind. My friend, John and several other guys found ourselves chuckling like high school boys when we discussed it amongst ourselves. Only to hush and look away when my mom or some of the other older ladies of the hotel walked past. My mom, who knew each and every one of “the guys” like they were her sons, would give us a unapproving glare. We would all tuck our tails and run off to be about whatever we should have been doing. She would then giggle and continue on her way.
Finally, after much anticipation, the day arrived when the ladies would be checking in. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned a red carpet with limos, paparazzi and fabulous women checking in after greeting me with a sultry hello. I pictured women like Lauren Bacall, Jayne Russell and other sultry screen sirens from those film noir detective flicks. They would approach the desk and eye me like the last drink in an oasis, remove their sunglasses and whisper the most seductive hello in the world. I would give them their room key, and they’d say something like “I’m sure I’ll find myself bored to sobs around 12” Id offer some witty response and…..
As you probably have guessed…it did not happen that way.
The ladies arrived in droves. And, sadly, not a single one of them even vaguely resembled Lauren Bacall. Not one at a time, nor were they charioted to the door in limousines, they arrived by bus, taxi, some in vans, dozens of them flooded in at a time. The front desk was swamped and I was the only one on duty. Madly, I tried to check them into their rooms. But I was floundering under the weight of dozens of requests before they even got to their rooms. They were tired from the trip, agitated, and wanted to get to their rooms before they ate, their feet hurt, they needed a drink, where’s the bathroom, and on and on. it reached a fever pitch before I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked over and saw my mom and two of the other office ladies there. I sighed with relief as the angry wave that was building subsided and the crowd in the lobby gradually diminished. Finally after what seemed an eternity, all but one guest had checked in.
“Nora Roberts isn’t here yet.” I said to mom. I looked at the clock, it was close to 315. “She shoulda been here by now.” I kicked my back pack under the front desk to make sure it was there. Inside I had the copy of the book I was going o have her sign.
Mom shrugged with a practiced nonchalance. “She’ll be here. Why don’t you go and take a break before I leave?’
I nodded. “ok, mom, be back in a second.”
I grabbed my jacket and my coffee and strolled outside into the spring sunshine. A very nice Cadillac SUV pulled up, and stopped at the front door. I held it open for a very well dressed lady who smiled at me, winked and went inside. Without any further thought I leaned against one of the pay binoculars we had on the porch of the hotel (you remember, the old style pay binoculars you’d find at places like the grand canyon or Niagara falls) and lit my cigarette. I sipped my coffee in the relative quite of the April afternoon, the sounds of a hotel full of women seeping through the walls behind me. Snubbing my cigarette in the ash bucket I went back inside.
“You just missed her.” Mom said as I stepped behind the front desk.
“Nora Roberts.” was her answer.
“Well hell, did you get her autograph?”
Mom smiled. “Sure did.” she then showed me the reservation card.
I rolled my eyes. “No I mean…”
“Oh. No. She’s just checking in, no one wants to be bothered with that when checking into a hotel.” She said and stepped out from behind the counter. “Ok. I’m leaving, see you later.”
I waved, “ok mom.”
She was right, of course. Who wants to be bothered with “Oh can I have your autograph?” when you’re checking into a hotel? it is rude, and if I were a celebrity, I suppose I wouldn’t want to be bothered with that first thing either. I shrugged. Well Ms. Roberts was going to be here all weekend, there would be plenty of opportunity for me to get her to sign the book. I pulled the book from my bag and left it on the desk.
That day was, in a word, nightmarish. The ladies were full of demands. The water wasn’t hot enough, or too hot. The wine isn’t chilled, the wine is too cold, where is the cheese tray, on and on it went. It was nothing like the fantasies the guys and I shared at the coffee machine. Even John was enlisted to move luggage from one room to another. you see the ladies decided to swap room because one felt the view was more conducive to her writing process and the other like the smell of the other room better. The dinner service was, thankfully, on time and well done. And when dinner was served it was a stampede. I stood there, mouth agape in wonderment, as these women rampaged through the buffet line like a ravaging tornado. Our poor waitresses looked like war ravaged refugees.
“Pardon me.” A soft, very charming voice said from behind me.
I turned and saw the same, elegant, older woman who I held the door for. “I’m sorry ma’am.” I said and moved aside.
She looked out into the sea of women eating and smiled. “Hormones will make ya crazy.” she said with a tint of humor dripping on her words.
“Huh?” I asked using none of the language skilled I have acquired.
“it’s ok honey” She said and patted my arm. “You’re still young yet.”
It slowly dawned on me what she was inferring and I chuckled as she was led to her table. She wasn’t with the rest of them, so I assumed she was just someone who was there for dinner.
The waitress came back after seating her and looked at me. “that Nora Roberts is a nice lady.”
“Wait…that’s Nora Roberts?”
The waitress nodded.
I thought about grabbing the book and asking her to sign it. But then I stopped myself. She is having dinner. I wouldn’t want to be bothered during dinner. So I didn’t get her to sign the book then. My duties tending to the needs of the other guests kept me from seeing Ms. Roberts as she left and went upstairs to her room for the evening. I felt my chances fading fast. I had not given up however.
The next day I had even less opportunity. Nora Roberts was speaking, signing her books and entertaining questions from the people who were there for her. She had several seminars that day at the hotel, more than a few book signing sessions and so on. Every time she passed through the lobby she was surrounded by a flock of other writers begging for her tutelage. She handled it all with practiced grace. I ended my shift that day without having Nora Roberts gin the book for my mom.
It is now Sunday, the last day of the weekend conference, and I was busy checking out the ladies, who while checking in were ghastly and rude, who were being very nice, generous and even overly kind in their adorations of the staff. We were all exhausted by them and their antics. (the “gallon of bourbon lady” deserves her own entry into the guest book) So we, the staff, were all quite happy to see them go. The comment cards were mostly positive. I think we had one say something about the rooms smelling different and how did we achieve that? Finally the hotel was restored to a sense of calm. That’s when I noticed the elegant older lady sitting on the porch, having a glass of wine in the afternoon sun.
“Is that Nora Roberts?” I asked one of the maids passing by.
She peered out the window. “Yep. Sure is.” she said with assuredness and went back to whatever she was doing.
I grabbed the book under the desk and marched with purpose to the front door. I was going to have Ms. Nora Roberts sign this book. I went outside and felt the warmth on my skin. Perhaps it was the sun, perhaps I was nerves. I don’t know. Why was I nervous? I have no earthly clue. The two brief interactions I had with the woman showed me she was very nice and personable. I hadn’t read her stuff, I wasn’t a fan, so why was I nervous? I think it was because I saw the adoration heaped on her by almost everyone at the hotel that weekend. To know someone is thought of that highly can be a bit intimidating. None the less I was resolute in my purpose.
“Um….hi…Ms. Roberts?” I stammered as I approached. The small paperback held in both hands like a school boy.
She turned and flashed a bright, friendly smile. “Well, Hi, big guy.” She said in that educated, mannered tone.
I suddenly found myself a little flushed. “I don’t mean to bother you….”
“Not a bother at all.” She wore that smile that was melting me and making me weak in the knees. “What can I do for you?”
I found myself openly staring at this woman 20 years my senior. She was quite attractive. Standing this close I could smell the sweet rose and honeysuckle of whatever perfume she wore. The woman’s makeup, light as it was, was perfect. “I…um…” I chuckled. “Would you…”
She raised an eyebrow, and her warm grin turned quirky and fun. “Would I…..?”
My senses snapped back into me with a jolt. I blinked several times as if coming out of a trance. Inwardly I was laughing hysterically at myself. Outwardly, I felt the red rising in my cheeks as I became flush with embarrassed self-awareness.
“Would you sign this book, please?’ I asked with a boyishly embarrassed grin.
Her smiled remained just as it was. “Of course, Honey, who do I make it out to?” She asked as I handed her my pen. (I had bought a nice sharpie pen for her to sign it with, if you’re going to get an autograph, make it count, right?)
“Oh…make it out to Carroll, it’s for my mom.”
She looked up at me. “What a sweet man.” Her smile never wavered for a second and was genuine. She radiated that Lauren Bacall poise. She scribbled in the book and handed it back to me as the same Cadillac suv that dropped her off pulled up.
I flipped the book over and looked at her photo. “You’re picture doesn’t do you justice.” I said and turned to go, smiling at the trophy in my hand.
Nora Roberts, who I had never heard of until 3 weeks before, turned to look at me, flashed the most seductive grin ( to this day I still don’t know if it really was seductive or I wanted it to be) and winked at me and said “Big guy, that is the sweetest thing anyone has said to me this weekend.” And with that, she picked up her luggage, got into the Cadillac, and drove off.