"Aww, shoot! I forgot to ask what 'dinner' is going to be," I whine out loud.
It seems prudent to break the silence, even if I have to talk to myself. My first night in a strange country, in a strange mansion, in a strange, strangling-rose room during a storm; such a setting has a way of stripping away one's self-assuredness.
I no longer hear the rain, now that I think about it. I walk over to a window flanking the warm fireplace and pull back the heavy jacquard fabric to peer outside. Still going like cats and dogs out there, I note when a sudden flash of lightning streaks across the sky. That's when my eyes lock onto a distinct figure standing there on the ground among the trees.
Chills ricochet down my back as I jerk the curtain shut. Did he see me? He couldn't have seen me looking out the window…could he?
I had only a moment to make out the dark silhouette from here on the second floor, but it was definitely a man, and he was standing there, perfectly still. If I didn't know any better, it looked like he'd been staring right up at me, too.
My chest tightens. I can't leave my room but they allow creepy men to stalk around outside? Maybe that's why I can't leave. Maybe there's some maniac on the loose that they aren't telling me about it! My mind wanders, frantic with different scenarios in which I'm strangled by some rogue fugitive.
I spin around and dart for the bedroom door. Just before my hand makes it to the door knob there is a solid knock from the other side.
I let out a 'yelp' and jump back.
"Madame? Are you all right? I'm just here to serve your dinner, Miss," a female says with a faint Irish accent. I jerk the door open. A short, plump, middle-aged woman in a black maid's uniform is standing there with a tray in her hands and a frightened look on her ruddy face.
"Oh thank God! Come here!" I demand. "There's a man outside my window!"
I take the tray from the maid's hands and lay it on the bed. I turn right back around and grab her by her fleshy elbow, pulling her to the window with me.
"But, Miss, it's raining. No one would be out there-"
"Look! Look outside! He's standing there!"
"Miss, I'm not sure I-"
"Go on! Please. You have to look! I'm terrified!"
The maid pulls back the curtain hesitantly and sticks her neck out as she squints outside. I wait anxiously for her reaction.
She keeps peering, her squint becoming sharper. I frown and hold my breath, sure she's going to jump back any second.
"Miss, I don't see anything out there but God's awesome work."
"You don't see him?"
I urge the woman to step aside and reluctantly put my forehead to the glass again.
"I saw someone. I know I did. Where's Alfred?" I panic.
"Madame, I can assure you it was not Alfred. He-"
"I know it wasn't Alfred out there. I'm asking where he is. He said if I needed anything to call him. Do I press this button?" I sprint over to the metal box with the little black button.
"Oh, Miss, well…" the maid's startled expression tells me she doesn't want me to push the button, but she stops short of telling me not to, "…yes, Miss. 'Tis the one."
I pause. There's something subservient about the way she stands there. I briefly imagine having to work under Alfred and possibly being reprimanded by someone like him. It couldn't be pleasant.
"Will you get in trouble if I push this button?" I ask.
The maid twists her fingers together, and her brows arch upward slightly. She's very clearly disturbed by the idea. It's too easy to picture Alfred being the type that enjoys chastising other employees, especially women.
"Miss, if there's anything you need I'd much prefer the opportunity to help you first."
"Yeah, I needed you to see that Phantom of the Opera freak out there," I exhale and tentatively drop my hand from the call button. The maid continues to fidget, provoking a little sympathy from me.
"I'm sorry, Miss. I could look again?"
"No. He's gone. He must have…"-I pause when a thought occurs to me. "I might be more tired than I thought. I'm sure it was nothing," I say abruptly.
This may be one of those situations where the more I say, the further from the truth I'll be led if I allow others to intervene. It's paranoia; probably something to do with my environment and the people I've encountered so far. They all look like something straight out of that board game, Clue.
The maid doesn't necessarily seem dishonest, but her shoulders did drop about six inches when I backed off from the call button, which raises my suspicions about Alfred. Perhaps I'll just keep what I saw outside to myself until I settle in more-while keeping my eyes peeled of course. Whoever that was out there is a tall, lurky creeper and it shouldn't be difficult to spot him again.
"Come, Madame. You're too hungry after all that travel." The maid walks over to the tray on the bed. "I've prepared some chicken noodle soup; warm, baked rolls with fresh hand-churned butter; fruit from our very own garden and a generous mug of hot chocolate. Or this one here-hot tea if you prefer. Is that to your liking?" The maid looks at me eagerly. Actually, it all looks terrific.
"Yes, that sounds great. What's your name? I'm Avril."
"I am Mary, Madame."
"Thank you for bringing me all this food, Mary." I smile warmly and the woman smiles back. She nods her head, gesturing me toward the tray to dig in.
Before I can relax though, I want to grab my phone. I walk across the room to the chaise lounge where my bag and coat are sitting and then I remember there's no cell signal, according to Alfred. I want to grab it anyway, to check the time at least, but discover it isn't in my coat pocket like I thought it was.
"My cell phone is missing."
"My cell phone. I keep it in the front pocket of my pea coat. I can't find it," I mumble to myself as I check everything with a pocket, including my camera bag, even though I'd never put it there.
"Miss, you should eat something," the maid presses, frowning as she watches nervously while I flit around the room.
I retrace my steps: Alfred left me here, I went over to the window, saw the man outside, ran to the door, maid is standing there with food.
The maid arrived with food only a couple minutes after Alfred left? That can't be right. He couldn't have put in a request for food and have it prepared that quickly…so…unless I'd been standing at the window for longer than I realized… That doesn't seem right either. Is this what jet lag does to you? I ponder, never having made a trip overseas before.
"How did you get up here so fast with food? Alfred just left my room less than ten minutes ago."
The maid smiles. "Miss, if I may be forward, we don't wait around for Alfred to deliver messages. You may have starved to death. We began preparing a meal the moment we heard of your arrival. It's customary."
"Oh." I smile too. So it isn't just me where Alfred is concerned. That makes me feel a little better. "I don't know if I can eat now, I feel kinda disoriented."
"Probably on account of your empty stomach, Miss," she says critically, like a mother, but I welcome the concern compared to Alfred's frigidness. She hands me a teacup from the tray. "Here, Miss, please. Put something in your belly. I'll fetch a gown for you to sleep in from the armoire."
I guess I'll give up on finding my phone for now. I take the teacup from her and hold it up to my lips. It smells comforting.
Mary walks over to an enormous armoire standing against the wall, the front of which is painted-faded roses, of course-and removes a long, frilly, night gown.
"Here you are. The mistress' nightgowns should all fit you. Would you like that I assist you?" the maid asks with a totally straight face.
Is she asking if I need help getting dressed for bed?
"What? No, I'm fine."
"Are you sure, Miss?"
"Yes," I laugh, but I'm the only one who finds this amusing. "You've been more than helpful. I think I can get changed on my own. Thank you though."
"Very good, Miss."
I take a sip of tea. It isn't as good as it smells. I don't know why European folk are so attached to it. I place it back on the tray and look forward to the hot chocolate instead.
"Mary, are you the one who's going to coordinate my breakfast with Master Brighton?"
"No, Miss. Tonight's dinner is a rather informal occasion due to the weather outage and Master Brighton's nonattendance. All meals typically take place in the dining hall, but with his absence, an exception has been made for your convenience to bring it here to your room. I volunteered," she explains.
Oh yes, Master Brighton Calderwood. The thought of him distracts me from the disturbing phantom lurking outside.
During my research I came across a recent picture of Brighton in the social section of a Parisian newspaper. That picture may or may not have played a role in persuading me to pursue the assignment in the first place. Brighton is Geoffrey William Calderwood's great-great-great-grandson-and he is hot. He's a bit younger than me, by a little less than three years, I think. That didn't bother me any; age is just a number.
Yes, meeting Brighton Calderwood tomorrow…things are looking up.
"Do you know what time that will be? I'll need to set time aside to get ready." I'll need an alarm; I'll just set my pho-
That uneasy feeling returns. I remember my cell phone is missing.
"I don't have specifics, Miss, but I do know Master Brighton likes to sleep in on Sundays and will probably insist upon doing so when he gets in. I imagine breakfast will be served at ten." The maid half turns then faces me again to add, "Promptly." Her eyes flatten, like there's something to criticize about that fact.
"Big on being punctual, is he?" I smile, somewhat amused how offhanded Mary is about her employer. Maybe she's someone I can confide in after all.
"It runs in the Calderwood blood, Miss. Mark my words." She smirks, covering her mouth with her hand like she's spoken out of turn.
"A man after my own heart. I'm not intimidated," I laugh.
I suddenly picture a Lazy Sunday-type morning, sleeping in with Brighton under 500 thread-count sheets before breakfast being served in bed… I blush when Mary looks at me peculiarly. I clear my throat and toss out any elaborative thoughts on the matter.
"Is there an alarm I can set? I use my phone normally, but since I can't find it…"
Mary walks around to the far side of the bed, to the small end table hidden in the shadows. She picks up an antique-looking gold clock, the kind with those giant bells on top. I'm not looking forward to waking up to that sound.
"I would be happy to wake you when it's time, Madame," she offers, maybe reading my face.
"I think I'll take you up on that, if you really don't mind. I'm grumpy enough when I wake up. I don't need to add to it with that thing," I joke.
"I understand Miss. I'm afraid modern technology is avoided like the plague in the Calderwood estate. Or it would seem that way."
I smile again; another candid tidbit. Mary is funny.
"Sleep well, Miss. I hope you get some rest." The maid backs up to the door.
"Thanks, Mary. And you can call me Avril; no need to be so formal," I offer, hoping she'll be more receptive to the suggestion than Alfred.
"Thank you, Miss Avril," Mary replies, without a reciprocal smile this time. "Goodnight to you then," she says solemnly, looking preoccupied as she shuts the door behind her.
She's not the only one who's preoccupied.
That stranger outside can't get into this estate, I'm sure. Not if Alfred is going to scrutinize every guest at the front door in the rain like he did with me. I can only imagine the contempt he'd deliver to someone whose arrival was unexpected. At least the old man's coldness comes in handy in that sense. And surely this estate isn't just left unlocked, not with untold valuables tucked in every room.
No, of course not. I may as well be in a fortress.
I relax and finally allow the tiredness to flood my limbs. The trip here must've taken more out of me than I gave credit. At home I'm rarely in bed before midnight. It's only three-thirty in the afternoon in Boston right now, but doesn't feel like it to me.
Only twelve hours of sleep ahead of me before breakfast with Brighton. Well, eleven, not counting the hour I'll need to gussy up. An early bedtime doesn't sound like such a bad idea after all.
I stare at the nightgown that's laying across the end of the bed, the one Mary had set out for me. No thanks. The last time I wore one of those, I was twelve. I don't want to get caught in public in that old, lacey mu-mu. The fire alarm will go off, or I'll forget I'm wearing it and answer a knock at the bedroom door, naturally, it will be Brighton; as if I need to meet him for the very first time wearing that thing. I shudder to think!
I fold the nightgown up and place it on the Victorian settee by the window. I'll stick with my old college t-shirt and flannel shorts.
Before I allow myself to crawl into bed, I glance at the window for a moment. I have to satisfy my morbid curiosity. I'm one to face my fears…for the most part. Before I risk a look-see outside, I walk to the door and flip off the gas to all the sconces, making it too dark in here to see me from the outside. I walk back to the window in the safety of the shadows.
Okay, now I'm ready to face those fears...
Leaning close, I slowly pull back the curtain only a sliver enough to peek out, back down to the ground outside.
The rain and lightning haven't subsided in the least, but I'm relieved to see there is nothing-no one-there.
I exhale. It's so time for bed.