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The Greatest Love Story Never Told



A Jessica Thorpe Novel



By William Wresch

Copyright 2019 William Wresch

Smashwords Edition




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After her husband is killed, Jessica retreats to her resort in Galena, Illinois. While she is deep in mourning, a Hollywood film company comes to the resort and invites her to join them in a film about Narcissa Whitman, the woman who helped create the Oregon Trail. Jessica rebuilds her life, and finds new love on the way to Oregon.


Chapter 1

Willie Meets Willie


Willie said he would take me to Paris for our second anniversary. But there is so much more to that story. It was Willie, so he waited to the right time, the right place, and the perfect setting before he asked me. “Perfect” does not begin to describe what he did. The man is amazing.

We were in Galena. Much as I love Amberg, Galena was more fun. Our resort there had great music, great people, and great memories. So we used it as our headquarters for Heritage Hotels, now numbering ten. We had the seven I inherited from Shakira, paid for with the help (and apologies) of the FBI, and three we had bought over the last two years – La Crosse, St. Paul, and Duluth. In all three cases local owners – and the city mayors – came to us. We had a reputation -- one more thing I had inherited from Shakira, and maybe enhanced a little bit with Willie’s help.

We added several management people to the front office at Galena, and I spent some time visiting our hotels and dealing with occasional problems, but we hired carefully, and much of the daily grind was handled by people who were pretty talented. So much of my day started with office chores, but ended on the dance floor. The Galena Resort had three different music venues, one of which was handled by Willie. “Willie Sings Willie” actually occurred in our smallest venue, but that’s the way Willie liked it. He sang Willie Nelson songs, couples danced, I tended bar in the back of the room, and when he put a tape on for breaks, he and I would dance. And yes, he sang softly in my ear while he held me tight, and managed to get at least one hand on my ass for most of the dance. One more reason to love our time in Galena.

So. Paris? Willie was doing his second set, and I was mixing margaritas, and in walked Willie Nelson. I about dropped my pitcher. It really was Willie Nelson. And he walked straight up to the stage, got his guitar out of a case, and sat down next to my Willie. They were a duet. What the hell? My Willie is sitting there like Willie Nelson came in to join him every Tuesday or something. And I notice – for the first time – there is a second chair and second mic all ready for the man. So this was expected? How?

I am standing behind the bar, frozen in place, but I am the only statue in the room. Everyone else is moving towards the stage. The tables had only been about half full before (my Willie is good, but not that good), but now there was a rush of people in from other places, phones taking pictures and texting, and general noise from conversations and real excitement. Meanwhile, my Willie and the Willie do “Blue Eyes Crying.” A few couples dance, but the room is full now, and everyone just wants to get close to the stage and take pictures and videos. The two Willies just sing and smile.

They finish that number and the Willie Nelson says, “Jess.” He pauses and looks back at me behind the bar. “There is a man up here who would like to dance with you.”

Well, I am no fool. The room was crowded, but people let me through, and I came up to the stage. Meanwhile my Willie took off his guitar and held out his arms to me. I practically jumped into them. Willie Nelson sang “You were always on my mind,” my Willie held me tight, the room exploded in applause, and I kissed every part of Willie’s face I could reach.

Willie Nelson finished the number, and then said (really) “My turn.” The two Willie’s exchanged places, my Willie played “On the Road Again,” and the Willie Nelson and I danced, well, we danced as well as we could given how crowded the place was. If you are curious, Willie Nelson is pretty old, and fairly short. As he stepped toward me I kicked off my shoes, or I might have been taller than him. But when you are right there with him, you don’t think about the lines on his face, or how gray his hair is. You notice how his hair is braided down his back, and you wonder what woman got to do that, and you notice his huge eyes. And his big smile.

The man can dance, and people backed off just enough so he could spin me, moving pretty loose and fast for a man his age. When the song ended, I had to hug him, and I had to ask, “Thank you for coming, but…”

“Willie asked, so here I am.”

“Willie asked?”

“Years ago, I walked into a bar I should not have walked into. I was looking for my favorite plant. Your Willie waved my up on stage, and in between numbers he blew his cover and warned me not to go into the back room. Narcs.”

“Wow.”

“Yes. And I have always wanted to see this place. I wish I had been able to meet Shakira.” I think he wanted to say more, but people were pressed all around us. He smiled, thanked me for the dance, and then danced with an endless stream of women while my Willie did “Blue Eyes crying” about six times in a row while women surrounded Willie, took selfies, and offered him room keys.

He danced for almost an hour while my Willie sang every Willie song he knew, usually three or four times. Then the Willie got back up on stage, and they did a set for another forty five minutes. My guy actually did a nice job with some harmonies. I was back at the bar. Fortunately two other bartenders joined us (my people are really sharp), and we managed to keep the waiting lines from getting too long. We were helped by the fact that almost everyone was riveted by Willie’s presence and performance.

Eventually the set ended, the two Willie’s talked for a few minutes, and then the Willie Nelson packed up his guitar and left, pulling a train of people behind him, some talking to him as he walked, some just happy to have another look at him.

Once the room cleared, I walked up to the stage, grabbed my Willie by the belt, and pulled him behind me back to our room. I wanted him in our bed and in me, and I wanted it now. And that’s what I got. The man performed perfectly, even though he was being hampered by a crazy lady who had her arms around his ribs tight enough to stop his breathing, and her mouth all over his face. I was insatiable. He was fabulous. My man.

Sometime later that night, I had my arms and legs wrapped around him so tightly he couldn’t move, but I had calmed enough that I could talk. I hoped he could too.

“You invited Willie Nelson.”

“It was easier than you might think.”

“Because you saved him from a drug bust.”

“Because he’s a good man.”

“Thank you.” This ended our conversation for a while. I kept my face smashed against his, and my legs, well, they competed with my arms to see which could held him the best. It was a close competition.

He seemed determined to talk, and eventually he was able to draw enough breath to continue.

“This was the first part of your anniversary gift. For the second part, I will take you anywhere in the world you…”

“Paris.”

“Sure. If that’s where…”

“Paris.” I pulled his head down next to mine and kissed him until we both fell asleep.

Paris. Why Paris? I had seen Casablanca a dozen times. Ingrid Bergman wore a blue dress and a white hat with a wide brim. She and Rick rode around the Arc de Triomphe in a convertible, drank champagne, and listened to music. Somewhere in there I was certain she had sat with him at a sidewalk cafe. I would do that. I would not leave my man at the trail station. We would do Paris.


Chapter 2

We Do Paris


Our anniversary is in early October. Actually a pretty good time to travel. The vacation rush is over, but the weather is still pretty good. We drove to Chicago, took a nonstop to Paris, seven hours holding hands the whole way. I had my head on Willie’s shoulder, and while I didn’t sleep, I did like having my head on his shoulder, and his arm around me. I think Bogie held Bergman the same way.

What did we do in Paris? We didn’t drive a convertible around the Arc de Triomphe. It turns out a million taxis go around that circle playing chicken with each other. I held my breath, grateful when we got around that circle and to our hotel. It was a nice place, not too far from the Louvre, so we could do all the tourist things.

Maybe a comment here about money. By many standards, we were rich. Each time we bought a hotel, we had to fill in all kinds of financial information, so I know our net worth pretty exactly, and it is north of twenty million. But that is the company’s money. It comes from seven hotels that turn a reasonable profit. Of the three new hotels, La Crosse breaks even, and St. Paul and Duluth are drawing serious cash as we do remodels that are years overdue. So money is coming in but also going out. But we have money. Enough to travel to Paris for a couple weeks, something I would never have dreamed of five years ago. But we flew coach, and we stayed in a four star hotel, not the Ritz. It still cost us several hundred dollars a night. Paris is not cheap. But it was Paris. And I was excited, even as I watched the meter on the taxi roll over one Euro after another.

Our room overlooked a courtyard with a very nice garden. It was beautiful. The day was beautiful – sunny and well into the sixties (or whatever that is in Celsius). We arrived in early afternoon. The day was ours if we wished to rush out to the Louvre or to Notre Dame. But Ingrid didn’t rush to museums, she looked at Rick, and he looked at her. I was wearing a blue dress. I would find a white hat somewhere in Paris. I had my Rick. I stood looking down at the garden and waited. Willie came up behind me. I pulled his arms around me – my man-shawl. And maybe I moved my backside a bit. Paris was the city of love. It would wait while we held each other and did what lovers do.

So, when we weren’t wrestling in bed, what did we do for the next five days? We ate in sidewalk cafes. Two things you don’t see in movies. Sidewalks are alongside streets. Streets have cars. Cars make noise and blow exhaust. Paris has lots of cars, lots of noise, and lots of exhaust. The other thing? In Europe people spend hours over a meal. I knew that from my time in Switzerland. I was fine with it. I could see lots of other American tourists were not. So there was some grumbling. By the third day we were eating indoors.

Museums? We had to do the Louvre, and had to see the Mona Lisa. But we ended up seeing a war of wills. A lady guard was by the painting with a sign on a pole – “no flash photography.” It was in English and French, but it might as well have been in Martian. People took pictures – with flash – and she held the sign over the painting for the next five minutes as a kind of punishment. Then she would move the sign, and ten people would take pictures – with flash. Weird. But now we can say we saw the Mona Lisa. I am not sure that will ever come up in conversation, but if it does, we have our answer ready.

What museum did I like? The Musee d’Orsay. It’s an old train station, easy to get to, but no one goes there. It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. And they have a whole room of Van Goghs. I stood there a very long time. Ask me the one place I would go to first on any return visit? There. Willie stood behind me, and held me, and I felt like I would disappear into Van Gogh’s night sky or his fields.

We did the other stuff people do there. We walked through the Cathedral at Notre Dame (lots of street performers out front), took the elevator up the Eiffel Tower (really nice views), climbed up the hill to the Moulon Rouge (nice movie, but a kind of seedy side of town).

What was most fun? As we came down the hill from the Moulon Rouge, we came to several dress shops -- small places with dresses in the front windows. Willie practically pushed me into the first of the shops. Two ladies came to us. They spoke no English, we spoke no French. But we smiled, and I pointed to a dress I thought looked pretty good. Willie sat down in a small place near the front windows (the shop was pretty crowded), while I was taken to the back, measured, and put in one dress after another. I walked back to the front, spun in front of Willie, popped a hip in his direction, posed, smiled, and enjoyed the look on his face. I already have a larger wardrobe than any other woman in Marinette County, so it’s not like I needed more dresses, but… Well, how often can you buy a dress in Paris, and how often can you make your man look like Willie was looking. I ended up buying five dresses, all about knee length in various colors and fabrics, all nice enough for an evening out and some dancing, all nice enough that when I looked at Willie’s face, I knew he would help me out of them fast enough. I spun on my heel so my skirts practically hit his face. Yes, he would get me out of this dress the instant we were back in our room.

I wore one of the dresses back to our hotel. Willie carried the others over his shoulder, his free hand never leaving my shoulder, back, or ass. I was right about what he would do the instant we were back in our room. And now I had five Paris gowns.

What else did we do? We took long walks holding hands. We walked along the Seine, we walked along the Champs Elesees, we walked through parks. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we just walked, but we always touched. If we rested on a park bench, his arm immediately went around my shoulders, and I leaned into him. The sun shone every day, the temps stayed in the low sixties, and my man, well, Willie was marvelous.

We spent a fair amount of time in our room, the window open, a cool breeze coming in, our bed throwing off a lot of heat. I was all over him – under him, on him, beside him. I loved doing spoons with him. He would wrap his arms around my chest and hold my breasts. I would back my ass into him, pushing into him, feeling him get more and more crazy. Yes, I teased. Hell, I was deep into seduction. I pushed and slid against him, and when I could feel he was about to lose his mind, I rolled onto my back and pulled him in. When we were finished, I wrapped my arms and legs around him as tightly as I could. I wasn’t letting go. He wrapped his arms around me just as tightly. I think that will be my lasting memory of Paris – not the view from the Eiffel Tower, but the feel of his body as we pulled ourselves together. How many times did we kiss? I have no idea. But the number was huge.

So, for us, Paris was museums, walks, cafes, and well, lots and lots of sex. It was our anniversary after all. But we also did some business. Yes, business.

If you own ten hotels, you buy lots of things. People who sell you those things take an interest. The companies that supplied our bars and restaurants heard we were going to Paris. What else is there in France? Wine. Would we like to visit a few wineries? Stay a few nights. Walk the vineyards. All gratis of course. All I know about wine is that some is red and some is white. Put me in a real winery, and I am likely to be embarrassed by my ignorance. But. They said we should take the train down. A train. I had never been on one. I wanted to try it. I balanced my chance at being embarrassed against the opportunity to ride a train, and the train won. We went. Willie? He just smiled and said, “Sure.”

Which winery did we choose? Eight had been in contact with us. All seemed to have the same advertising writer. I saw the words “Classic, authentic, historic,” and “prestigious” in each invitation. Which did I pick? The one in Bordeaux. Because Bordeaux wine is best? How would I know? But I had a map, and I could see Bordeaux would be the longest train ride. So that’s where we went.

Did I like the train ride? How could I not like it? The seats were much bigger than the seats on planes, we could get up and walk around, the dining car served really good food, the ride was smooth, and the train really moved. We saw the countryside flash by – fields, vineyards, hillsides, small villages, wood lots. Willie and I sat close, held hands, and enjoyed France.

So I loved Bordeaux before I ever got there, and once we arrived, I loved it even more. I even knew how to describe it – classic, authentic, historic, and prestigious. I have no idea if it really is prestigious. But it had history in spades. The winery people had a car waiting for us, and the driver took us out of town pretty fast, but what I saw, was historic (old).

The driver was a talker. I guess that was part of the job description. And he spoke English. Before he even had our bags in his car we learned – this part of France was once ruled by the English king, it was now loved by English retirees, we are miles from the ocean, but the (forget the name) estuary brings ocean temps and sea breezes close, thereby creating the best wine growing conditions on Planet Earth, and finally, we would be staying at the finest chateau in France. He drove with one hand, pointed with the other, and never stopped talking. We were a little close on a couple curves, and I wish there had been a guard rail on one hillside, but we got to the chateau in one piece.

And he was right. This was the finest chateau in France, or at least a close cousin. It was certainly the nicest place I had ever stayed in. A circle drive out front, gardens on either side, the Chateau Pomys was three stories, stone for the first two and that funny roof design for the third (Monsard?). And of course the entry way had pillars. It looked like Louis the 14th might have put one of his mistresses here. I was glad I had worn one of my Paris dresses. My heels clicked on the marble floors. I kept my head up and my shoulders back. We were here by invitation. We belonged here. We walked through an enameled entryway to an enameled office area. Philippe (our driver) introduced us to the manager, we shook hands, smiled, signed some forms as the manager carefully explained that all charges would be covered by the winery, he was so glad we would be staying four days, an attendant would be taking our bags, etc.

So okay, I am feeling like royalty and maybe a bit like a fraud. I own a trailer. I have a bartender’s license in Wisconsin and Illinois. Yes, now I have some hotels. But chateaus? I smile, keep my hand in Willie’s, tell the manager I enjoyed the train ride, and follow our bags up a phenomenal staircase to a suite with a view that goes on forever. Philippe tells us to enjoy our evening, he will be back for us in the morning. And just like that, this Amberg girl is ensconced in a suite of a French chateau. The minute the door closes I am wrapped around Willie.

“How many train loads of wine did you tell them we would be buying?” I am holding on tight. Maybe this is the equivalent of pinching myself. Is this real?

“I made no promises, but I am sure they know how much wine we go through. In Galena and Dubuque alone we must do a hundred cases a month.”

“So maybe this is okay?”

“Come here.” He moves me to a full length mirror near the closet. He sets me in front of the mirror, and stands behind me. “Let’s see. Stunning French gown, filled perfectly is all the right places.” He has his hands everywhere, and even pulls my skirt up a bit.

“In blue.” I add. “Ingrid Bergman wore blue.”

“Ingrid Bergman never looked better in blue. And she would kill for your hair.” Now I know he is lying. My mousey brown was adequate at best. “And that face. Eyes that hold you, a mouth that invites you. Even if we never buy a single bottle of wine, this place is graced by your presence.”

“You are the biggest liar in the world.” I spun into him and wrapped my arms around his neck. “But thank you. Now kiss me and show me how fast you can get a girl out of a French dress.”

It turned out to be pretty fast.


Chapter 3

Life in a Chateau


We explored the bed and the shower over the next couple hours. Chateaus have nice beds, and big showers. I was ready to give the place ten out of ten in any review. And Willie? He was well past any rating scale.

The sun was setting when we were ready to come up for air. I put on another of my French gowns (also blue), and reached for a sweater. But Willie promised to keep me warm. And he did. We did a quick turn around the grounds and climbed a small hill to a gazebo. He became my man-shawl as we looked off into farm fields and endless grape vines. I pushed my ass back into his hips, and laid my head back on his chest as we watched the sun set. I was pretty sure Ingrid Bergman would have done that for Rick. And Rick, well I hope his hands were as good as Willie’s.

We dined in the chateau dining room. High ceiling, chandeliers, candle light, tables for eight or ten couples, only four others occupied. We went with the day’s recommendation – a fish stew. Having selected our meal, a wine steward arrived to pair the right wine. He had lots to say, most of which meant nothing to me. I nodded. Willie nodded. When he came back with a bottle, he poured a taste of each of us. I sipped and nodded. Willie thanked him, and waited while the steward poured.

I felt like a fraud again, but Willie looked at me and smiled. My dress was so thin it was almost a blue film, with tiny sleeves and a scooped neck that came down, well down far enough to draw attention. It drew Willie’s. He reach across the table, took my hand, looked deeply into my eyes, then down at my chest, then back at my eyes, then down at my chest. I had to laugh. Yes, it was a French chateau, but it was soup and wine with a horny guy. Been there. Done that. Glad to be doing it again. My shoulders slid down, I brought my chest out for further inspection, and I smiled back at my man. I guessed I belonged here after all.


Philippe came for us the next morning at ten. I won’t bore you with the details. He was a nice young guy. Good English with a cute accent. Over the next three days he took us to the four wineries that were paying our way. Four times over we got a walk through the vines (all growing in the ideal soil (who knows, maybe it was true)), a long look at crushers and fermentation tanks (all busily creating wine from grapes that had recently been harvested (in one of the best vintages ever)), a time in a darkened cellar to look at rows of oak barrels (made from carefully selected white oak), and finally a chance to taste eight or ten wines.

I was pretty good about taking the tours. I liked the walks through the vineyards – good views and a chance to walk in a warm autumn sun. As for the tanks and the barrels, I was reminded of Wisconsin barns. I stood patiently, looked, and listened. My problem came at the tasting. At some point we were going to buy a bunch of wine, and all I knew was that some wine was white, some red, some sweet. If Willie knew more, he didn’t know much more. What I didn’t want was for us to buy a bunch of wine that our customers wouldn’t like.

So I asked for an education, and I asked for it all four times. This was no time for me to pretend some level of sophistication I didn’t have. So I just said flat out – “teach me.” Philippe was pretty good about it, as were all four of the managers who led the winery tours – four middle-aged men. They showed me how to look at a glass of wine, the edge, the color, the “legs” as I swirled the wine around the glass. Then the aromas – the “nose.” Finally they taught me what to do with it in my mouth, including “chewing” the wine. Complicated. Time consuming. Work. Did I get it right? I am not sure I ever tasted “hints of jam without the heavy tannins,” but I was able to notice differences between wines that I might have missed in the past. Willie and I took notes and found two or three wines we liked at each place.

The best part of each of these visits was lunch. The weather was unbelievable, so each winery set out a light meal under a grape arbor or on a patio. Members of the family came out to lunch with us, and we spoke – often getting stuck with translations between English and French, but all of us were patient. They had some interest in our location. They had map apps on their phones, and I showed them where our hotels were. I even tried a show a little of the Wisconsin state history I remembered from ninth grade, pointing to Nicolet’s route down Green Bay, and Jolliet’s route down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi. We had a connection to the French. That got smiles and a few polite comments. One lady talked briefly of an old family link to Nicolet. But mostly we enjoyed the food, the weather, the countryside.

Meals went on forever, and involved more wine, so by midafternoon Philippe had us back at our chateau for a nap. We open the windows, the cool breezes driving Willie and me deeper into each other’s arms. As evening approached, I changed into something Willie would stare at in the candle light, and we walked first up to the gazebo to watch the sunset, and then into the chateau dining room.

The final evening we stood extra long in the gazebo. I had my back to Willie and my man-shawl was holding me tight. I pulled his arms tighter, looked west, and knew the time was special. I wasn’t thinking – let’s do this again, or next time let’s do another part of France. I wasn’t thinking about any other time than now. I was feeling now. His arms around me, a light breeze moving my skirt, his breath by my ear. I was seeing now. Endless fields framed by the gazebo posts, the sun leaving red and orange streaks in a small rank of clouds. I was loving now. His hips and chest warm against my back, his arms tight around my shoulders, his chin sliding slowly along the top of my head. I was hearing now. The wind making the leaves flutter on the wines, my man whispering his love. I gripped his arms tight and held him there. It was a moment. It was special. I was smart enough to hold the moment all through the final fading of the orange and the deepening of the red as the sun dropped out of sight. And still we stood, silent as we faced the black horizon. I didn’t turn to kiss him, or say a word. It was a moment. Finally I turned, looked at his face, smiled, then took his hand and walked down to the chateau. I am not sure we said five words during our meal. We didn’t need to.

The next morning we had work to do. Philippe brought us forms. Willie and I looked back through our notes. We ordered thirty or forty cases from each winery. We told him we would work out the details of which cases went to which hotel. He would have it before the wine arrived in the distributor’s warehouse outside Chicago. There were smiles, handshakes all around. Our bags came down from our room, and we were off to the station. I had another train ride. Another chance to look at France.

We flew home after a final two days in Paris. Eight hours in coach. I wore one of my Paris dresses, and the flight attendants smiled. Willie held my hand, and I rested my head on his shoulder. Life was as good as it gets. I was smart enough to recognize that, and to enjoy it.


Chapter 4

A Busy Fall, a Traditional Christmas


Back in Galena, things were going well. We had hired good people and promoted the right ones. Making Bobbi Steiner manager in Dubuque was a genius move on my part. Making the former manager – Andy Tower – corporate trainer ranks up there pretty high too. I had sent them down to Springfield to enliven that hotel, and then sent them to Champagne. It was like pumping adrenalin into those old places. They were currently putting two days a week into the La Crosse hotel, and I was sure we would see miracles there as well. I knew both were being pursued by Hilton and Marriot. My response was the keep them based in Dubuque where they each had family, to boost their salaries to $100,000, and to give them new titles – Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Training Officer, respectively. I also paid off Bobbi’s student loans. I still might not keep them forever, but every month on the job was marvelous for the company.

With their help, and the work of the other good managers, there were only two hotels that took much of my time – St. Paul and Duluth. Both were construction projects. Big ones. St. Paul was bigger than anything we had ever done. It was part of a major renovation effort along the Mississippi. The city was pouring millions into riverside parks and walkways. Old warehouses were becoming retail and dining. And then there was our hotel. The architects we hired drew beautiful pictures – of the “after.” The “before” had been boarded up windows and a leaky roof. The “now” was a hollowed out shell with missing windows and steel studs where walls would appear – eventually. We were already three months behind schedule.

So Willie and I spent a week in Galena, managing minor issues during the day, and dancing and bartending at night (well, that was me. He sang most nights). Then we drove north for our monthly visit to St. Paul and Duluth.

What did we find? St Paul was now just two months behind schedule, the roof was done, and the windows were all installed (good thing, given November weather in Minnesota). Inside there were more steel studs. Progress, I guess. We spent the night, talked to the architects, and the contractors, and a range of city officials. They were talking a July 4th fireworks celebration. Would the hotel be done in time? Fingers crossed.

Duluth was a different kind of project, and it was also behind schedule. If you have never been there, the city is interesting. The city faces Lake Superior, and rises up a very large hill. Our hotel was up about three blocks - high enough for nice views of the lake. Farther up the hill was a branch of the University of Minnesota, or as we would say in business – a limitless supply of eager, talented workers. If we could ever get open. Our project here was interior. Every room needed to be gutted – new bathrooms, new heating and cooling, new flooring, new decorating, new beds. We had hired a guy in his mid-sixties. Lots of experience was my hope. Instead what we got was lots of delays from a guy who pretty much seemed to have lost interest in work. We reminded him that he had performance metrics in his contract – more pay for earlier completion, penalties for late work. I didn’t see much reaction from him. This guy was going to be three months late -- if we were lucky.

Driving back to Galena, Willie had his best idea. We needed to hire a contractor of our own to sit on these guys. Someone who spoke their language. Someone to fire a contractor if needed. I agreed. He started the search on Monday and had a guy within two weeks. Good. Let him drive through the Minnesota winter listening to excuses. I went back to bartending, and Willie added the latest Willie Nelson songs to his repertoire.


Then came Christmas. It was cute, but it was also complicated. The cute part is easy – the kids. For yet another year, we celebrated Christmas in my trailer. I had grown up in that trailer. My girls had grown up in that trailer. It meant the world to me that they wanted to come back there to celebrate Christmas. And they wanted to maintain all our traditions. Christmas Eve day, we cut one of the white pines the girls had planted as teens, we set it up in the living room and decorated it with boxes of ornaments – mostly hand made when the girls were young. Christmas Day we exchanged gifts, but the gifts were all ornaments – the only gifts I could afford back when I was waiting tables and then bartending. At nine dollars an hour, you don’t buy video games. Yes, we all had money now, but to suddenly start buying expensive things seemed like a betrayal of the feelings we had back in the day. So we bought or made new ornaments and added them to the tree.

We had a new tradition brought to us my Shakira. She had given me and the girls each a red satin dress. Floor length, with petticoats, it bulged out around our legs and either made us look like red balloons, or Christmas bells (I thought balloons, the girls thought bells). We wore the dresses both days in her memory. Then the babies got into the act. Tiffany and Ben now had two babies, Jeremy who was two and a half, and Robbi, nearing one. Britney and Billy had their first – Patricia – at one and a half. She was the one to watch. Just old enough to start standing and taking unsteady steps, she was reaching for anything and everything on the tree. Meanwhile, Jeremy decided he wanted to play hide and seek by crawling under his mother’s skirts. He would lift up the front end and laugh. Patty decided this was a good game, so she crawled under Britney’s skirts, and soon the two kids were hiding, seeking, laughing, and peeking out. Of course all the grownups laughed each time, so the kids just kept at it. What can I say? I have cute grandkids.

Eventually all the babies went down for a nap, and it was time for the adults to have a glass of wine and some adult conversation. Willie had an arm tight around me, and I could see Ben and Billy also close to their ladies. Red satin will do that. So will love.

We started the conversation with updates – news from their jobs. Billy had gotten another promotion at the bottling plant. Britney was still on leave from the clinic in Niagara. She expected to be back part-time in March. Ben was now director of the labs at his clinic. Tiffany was back working Saturdays. Willie gave them an update on the three new hotels, mentioning that late summer we would invite everyone to the opening in St. Paul.

My turn. I was thinking of selling the townhouse at the Hilton resort. I didn’t mention this, but in truth I was still unhappy we had sold the resort to Hilton. Yes, we needed the money, and yes, the Hilton brand had been important, but Willie had done a good job managing the place and I was certain he would have made the place a huge success without Hilton. But I didn’t say that. What I said was easier – and obvious. Why have two homes five miles apart? I never used the townhouse. I had no intention of ever selling this trailer. It was my home, I was keeping it, and when I visited from Galena, this is where I liked to stay.

Interesting reaction from Britney and Billy. She started.

“Actually, that would be a relief. We were thinking of selling, but we didn’t want to offend you. You got us those three townhouses together, so it seemed like a family kind of thing.”

“But you don’t like yours?”

“It is a nice place, and we thank you for it.” Billy’s turn. “But it doesn’t feel like us.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I work in a factory, and here we are with a townhouse on this fancy resort. It doesn’t feel like we belong.”

“Let me explain.” Britney leaned in to the room. I wondered how long she had wanted to have this conversation. “The townhouse on our other side is owned by an Indian doctor. They come up maybe twice a month for a weekend. They have another house in Chicago and a third on the coast in South Carolina. The wife, dressed in this sari, is happy to tell me this their first time up. She wants to know where we live. I explain we are local. Well, what business are we in? I explain I am a nurse and my husband works in the factory up the road. You would think I had just farted in their living room. From that day on, we were invisible.”

“You could have told them your family once owned the resort.” Now Willie was leaning in. “And your family now owns ten hotels. You do understand you are all millionaires, right?”

“Having money doesn’t change who we are.” Tiffany’s turn. “We know you two are doing really well. It’s amazing, really. We’re all proud of you. But we want to sell too. We haven’t been snubbed, but we don’t golf, and between our jobs and the kids, we don’t have much time to get up here anyway. If we sold the townhouse, it would go a long way toward buying a house in Green Bay. I assume – hope – that if we come up to visit you, we can stay here in the trailer.”

“Of course you can.”

That was the essence of the conversation. We agreed we would list the townhouses after the holidays. All three sold before the end of January, and each sold for over two hundred thousand. I remembered Willie’s original plan for the place – build townhouses that would sell for under one hundred fifty – places ordinary people could afford. The Hilton brand changed that. We each got a very fat check, but I stayed awake a few nights thinking of Britney and Billy. I had brought jobs and income to my part of Marinette County. But I had also brought snobs and hard feelings. There were Beemers parked all over the resort. Billy drove a ten year old F150. So did most of my old friends. Hmm.


Chapter 5

I Lose Willie


On our way south the next day, we stopped in Wausaukee and listed our townhouse. The agent told me Tiffany and Ben had already been in. I explained he could expect Britney any day. Guess who had the biggest smile in Wausaukee? It took us about an hour to fill in the forms, and then I pointed my Rav4 due south. We were headed to Ohare. Willie flew back to Washington each year for a few days with his first wife, his boys, and a few old buddies from the FBI. I was actually happy he maintained those connections. Relationships matter. They should be nurtured if possible.

It’s about a five hour drive, much of it white-knuckle for me. He talked, I watched crazy Illinois drivers shoot past me from every side. They were triple parked at the United departure gates (same as always). I got the best kiss possible under the circumstances, and then he and his bag disappeared into the chaos. I wound my car free of Ohare, and eventually free of Chicago. How do people actually live in such a place?

I got to Galena near the end of the work day, but three of my managers stayed to talk about New Year’s Eve. It was perfectly planned, and I told them so. I smiled, thanked them, and told them to go home. I had good people. I made every effort to ensure they knew it.

Back in my room, I dropped my bag and changed into something shiny and lose. I was going dancing. First I worked the restaurant for over an hour, stopping for a grilled cheese sandwich, and nibbling on fries that I took from the eight or ten tables I stopped at. I bought a bottle of wine for most tables (if they were drinkers), pushing the Bordeaux and hoping they liked it. Most tables did.

Eventually I made it to one of our dance venues, helped set up the bar, served a few drinks while the band did the required “check check,” and then danced like a crazy lady for a couple hours. I was warming up for New Year’s Eve, hoping Willie would be back by then to share it with me.

That was my pattern for the next three days. Sometimes I would sit and eat a full dinner with a group of guests, but I always worked the room, stealing French fries or carrots to nibble and laugh. A couple nights I needed to spend more time helping with the bar, but I always found time to dance. Fast, slow, I was up for it all. My shoes got kicked near the stage, my arms went around anyone who wanted me, and if a hand landed on my silk-covered behind, well, that was fine too. We all had fun.

Then came the thirtieth. I wound down around midnight, found my shoes, and went back to my room. Sleep came fast. Until the phone started ringing at three. Three. Who the hell calls at three? I rolled to the edge of the bed, sat up, and took the phone.

“Hello? Is this Jessica Wilson?”

“Yes.”

“Are you married to Nelson Wilson?”

“Yes.”

“This is Sargent Tim O’Reilly of the Maryland State Police. I regret to inform you, your husband has been killed.” I pressed the red button to disconnect. Don’t ask me why. But I did. The phone rang again almost immediately. I let it ring. Finally I picked up.

“How?”

“A woman was being attacked. He tried to help. He was shot.” I had no idea what to say. So I said nothing. He said nothing. We had complete silence for several minutes. Finally he spoke again.

“I will text you names, addresses, and phone numbers. Willie was a hero here. There are people who will want to help you with the funeral. I will give you a number to call once you have made your travel arrangements.”

“Thank you.” I hung up again.

I took a shower, found a cotton dress and blazer, than packed a carry-on with another pair of shoes, several sets of underwear, and three more cotton dresses. One was black. I rolled them carefully. I would still have to iron them, but it wouldn’t be too bad. Funny the things that concern you. My husband was dead. I was thinking of ironing.

I found my coat and walked out to the registration area. I think the woman working graveyard was Taylor, but I wasn’t sure. I just smiled, asked her to have my car brought around, and then asked for a piece of paper. I needed to leave a note for Bonnie. I kept it simple. “Willie has been killed. I am flying to Washington. I will call.” I didn’t try to hide the note from Taylor. I asked her to give it to Bonnie. Taylor read it of course. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth was open like she wanted to say something. Nothing came out. I just patted her shoulder and walked to the front door. There would be lots of people wondering what to say. Me too.

I am sure I woke up the garage guy, but he got me my car pretty fast. I got in it and was gone. Back to Chicago.

I got to Ohare around seven – me and half the world’s population. Two parking lots were already full, but I squeezed into a third and took the tram into the terminal. What airline should I use? United. Everyone hated United. Good. It would match my mood. I didn’t want good service or happy employees. I wanted a flight to Washington. Now. United had a flight at ten, only first class left. I took it. Bag over my shoulder, I went through security and then down the concourse. People bumped into me. I bumped back.

While I waited for my flight, my phone filled up with texts. I responded to one with my flight information. I forwarded all texts to Bonnie. People were going to be all over her wanting information. I would make sure she knew what I knew.

The flight? Not bad. The flight attendant seemed nice. The food was okay. We bounced for a while. I went the whole flight without crying.

Bill Bannon was waiting for me when I got off the plane. He introduced himself. FBI. I asked if he was on duty. No. He had taken a personal day. He had been in Willie’s training class. As we walked through the airport I took his hand. Don’t ask me why. Childish thing, I know. But his hand was huge, and warm, and I clung to it.

“Can you tell me what happened?” I waited until we were in his car.

“He was with Tabitha (first wife). Annual coffee. The lady in the next townhouse starts crying. Loud. Gets louder. ‘Please help. He’s going to kill me.’ Tabitha says this is a regular thing. Asks Willie not to worry. But the screams get louder. Real loud. It sounds like he’s beating her to death. Willie goes over. The front door is unlocked. He goes in and pulls the guy off. While he struggles with the guy, the woman goes into her room and gets a gun. She shoots and hits Willie. While Willie is bleeding on the floor, the guy takes the gun from the woman and puts three bullets in her. Tabitha sees all this from the door and goes running. Twenty minutes later the local cops arrive. The guy goes to the door and dares them to shoot him. He raises his gun and all three cops fire. Suicide by cop.”

“The woman shot Willie?”

“Who knows what she was aiming at. Beat up, scared, she points the gun and pulls the trigger.”

“Now what?”

“Willie was FBI. There’s protocol for this.”

And there was. Three days of protocol. A viewing at the funeral parlor. A visit with the FBI chaplain. A church service arranged. An afternoon meeting with his first family. I liked them. Tabitha and I held hands. The boys gave me hugs. Willie’s grandkids looked uncomfortable in new sport coats and dresses. Grade school age, they looked out the windows and had trouble sitting still. Everyone spoke nearly in whispers.

There were costs. I got out my checkbook. One of the sons asked about a will. I said there was one. I would send him a copy. What he had left was life insurance. It was to go equally to Tabitha and the two boys. I thought it was around five hundred thousand. No hotels? No.

The chaplain got me a hotel room near the cathedral. There was a fruit basket in the room each day, and a bouquet of flowers. Protocol, I guess.

Each evening two or three FBI guys came to take me to dinner. Usually in the hotel. They were all Willie’s age. All near retirement. They were at an age when it feels good to tell stories. Most were funny. Some involved danger. All involved Willie doing something that should make me proud. That was the main message they all wanted to leave. I should be proud of Willie.

The day of the funeral involved an argument. Tabitha wanted him buried here. I wanted him cremated, his ashes scattered in the gardens of Galena. She said his sons would want to visit him. I accepted that. I wrote more checks.

The service was filled with men, some in uniform, most not. Most Willie’s age. The chaplain and priest arranged everything, said what needed to be said, had a soloist sing and an organist play as Willie’s coffin rolled in and then out.

Protocol determined where the wives sat in the cathedral, and at the grave side. There was a flag on his casket. Willie was a veteran. Before the casket was lowered, the flag was taken off and folded with great formality. It was given to me. I sat with it while the final words were said, and people drifted off. I got more hugs, as did Tabitha. Then we were alone, left to stare at that hole in the ground, she and I and the sons. I hugged her, hugged the boys, and gave the flag to the oldest son.

A United flight took me back to Chicago that night.


Chapter 6

I Mourn


Now what? That was easy. I had lost so many loves in my life I had my own protocol. I drove to Amberg, got in my trailer, called Bonnie to say where I was, and said I would be gone a while. I shut off my phone. I locked the door. I sat on my couch. I cried all that night and most of the next morning.

In the afternoon I got out a pad of paper, and I started writing. About Willie. How we met, what we said, what we did, where we did it. I wrote for three days. If I got tired, I went back to my bed. If I got thirsty, I drank water. I ate nothing. I showered, I changed clothes, I wrote. Page after page after page. I wrote about Willie, reliving every moment. As I wrote, I could see his face, I could feel his hands, I could feel his breath on my face as we laid together. I kept writing, and remembering, and smiling. I had been so lucky.

I don’t know if it was the fourth day, or my fifth. But my father came over. He knocked, I let him in, we sat on the couch. Standard line for this situation? ‘Are you okay?’ Not dad.

“You know the Packers lost Sunday’s playoff game. First round, and they lose.”

“Please tell me it wasn’t to the Cowboys or Bears.”

“Indianapolis.”

“I can live with that.”

“You plan to come into town for a beer while you are here?” He put his arm around my shoulders. When his hand reached my arm, I thought I could feel it shake. How old was he now? Eighty?

“I’m pretty busy.” I pointed to the pad of paper next to me on the couch.

“That helps?”

“It has in the past. That and time.”

“When your mother died, I stayed drunk for a week. Pretty stupid. I almost killed a guy with my car.”

“I’ve done liquor. I done shouting and beating on things. Journaling works best.”

“No one should have to journal as many times as you have.”

“He tried to protect a woman. He was a good man. I have been lucky that way. They were all good people.”

“The girls want to see you. Are you ready for some company?”

“Give me another day, then yes.”

“I’ll pass that along.” He gave me a hug, kissed the top of my head, and left. I went back to writing. I was describing France. I had lots to say, and lots of smiles.


The kids and grandkids arrived on schedule, two days later. And of course the grandkids took over the place. Jeremy had a rocket ship that he blasted around the room complete with noises. Patty walked – or “cruised” – everywhere, flopping down on her butt plenty of times, but getting right back up to see what Jeremy was doing, or to grab anything shiny that I had forgotten to get up high. Robbi was mostly into eating and sleeping, but you could see him watching the action. He could hold his head up pretty well, and he wanted to see what was going on.

The nice thing about the grandkids filling the space, is there was no real time for “so sorry,” or “he was such a good man,” or “we will miss him too.” Eventually the kids would go down for naps, and I would hear all that then. I guess it was necessary. Words have to be said. But. I knew the kids cared. That was really enough.

But naptime came, and the hugs and tears started as soon as the kids were in the back bedroom. I nodded, hugged them, and then sat them all down. I had an agenda too.

“When I was in Washington, one of Willie’s sons wanted to know if they inherited any of the hotels. No. Shakira left them all to me, and Willie left it that way. And the new hotels we bought were included in that company. I own all ten. Which is to say, you own all ten.”

“I would like you to do something. Start thinking, now, about your hotels. When I go, you can sell all of them to Marriot or Hilton. Market conditions change, and we don’t know how the new hotels will turn out, but my best guess is you will get at least twenty million. Maybe forty. Maybe more. So, you are rich. The other option is to keep them. To do that, you should start learning the business. I know you are not comfortable with Galena, but I can put you anywhere else. There is even a place in Green Bay that might be a good purchase. There are lots of things we can do. But that is up to you. I would like you to start thinking about that.”

“Mom, do you want to sell?” Tiffany was sitting closest to me, and she took my hand as she talked. “You have worked hard. You could live comfortably the rest of your life.”

“I live comfortably now. Really. I talk to customers, I bartend, I dance, I hire people and sign their paychecks. That feels pretty good. No. I will stay with the hotels until they carry me out.”

“We like what we do too.”

“I know that. But I want you to know the business is yours should you choose.” And we left it there. The girls had brought some spaghetti with them, and as soon as the kids woke up, we ate, and laughed as Jeremy got tomato sauce all over his face and Patty struggled to get her fists around the noodles. Everyone should have kids that age. They are the greatest entertainment in the world.

The kids left pretty soon after supper. I stayed two more days, wrote like crazy, and then I left too. It was time to get back to Galena.


Chapter 7

Hollywood Rescues Me


How can I describe the next six months? I had days where I just walked back to my room and cried, and I had days that were perfectly fine. I had days where I got angry at people, and days where I hugged half the population of Illinois. I was not emotionally stable. Not even close. But as the weather slowly warmed, I got better. Or so I thought.


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