“You mean, God?” Nadine asked with a confused air.
Several of the members of the Chamber of Commerce looked skyward.
Miriam grabbed her hair with both hands and put her forehead on the table. Quill bit her lip, but it didn’t help. She pinched her knee hard, but that didn’t help, either. She kept her head down, waved in an abstracted way to the assembled group, and escaped to the corridor, closing the door behind her.
“And what’s so funny, missy?” Doreen Muxworthy-Stoker stumped down the hall toward her, pushing a utility cart stacked with brooms, buckets, and bottles of cleaner.
“Harvey’s taken on Christmas.” Quill groped in her skirt pocket for a tissue and blew her nose. “It’s the most supremely awful idea he’s ever had.”
“Christmas’s survived worse, I bet.” Doreen scowled. With her aureole of frizzy gray hair and beaky nose, she looked like an angry chicken. “I’m not so sure we will. You got to get yourself down to reception.” She pushed the cart forward with a rattle, and Quill fell in step beside her. “Is Mr. McWhirter making himself a nuisance?”
“It was not my intention,” said a dry voice behind her.
Quill bit back a shriek. “Mr. McWhirter. My goodness. I hadn’t noticed that you left the meeting. Surely it’s not over?”
“From the sound of it, the meeting will go on for some considerable time.”
“It usually does when an idea of Harvey’s is involved,” Quill admitted. “Is there something I can do for you? Are you getting all the information you need?”
“Rome,” he said testily, “was not built in a day. Which is to say I have made a fairly productive start. There are a few situations that require immediate redress, however. We need to discuss them.”
“Of course,” Quill said anxiously. “We could talk about them now. If it’s about Dina, for example, I know she may not be quite the ideal receptionist at first glance, but when you get to really know . . .”
“I have taken care of Miss Muir.”
Quill had a sudden, unwelcome vision of Dina slumped over her desk, dead as a doornail.
“And I’m not ready to run down my preliminary list just yet. So perhaps we could arrange to meet later in the day.”
“Plus,” Doreen said. “You got to get yourself down to reception.”
“Fine,” Quill said irritably, “I know, I know. If you could just give me a hint, Mr. McWhirter, I could maybe be thinking about things.”
“That’s a good first step, Miss Quilliam.”
“Thinking. I’m glad you’re open to the idea. Shall we say one o’clock? Your office?”
He didn’t wait for a reply, but stalked off down the corridor like the buzzard he resembled. Quill bit her lip and suppressed a word that would have dismayed the Reverend Mr. Shuttleworth. “The old goat must be driving you bananas, Doreen. I’m really sorry.”
“Him? Not so’s you notice. Now, he’s not the most cheerful cuss I’ve ever seen, I’ll give you that. But he appreciates a good cleaning job.”
“That’s because you’ve trained the best maid staff in upstate New York,” Quill said loyally. “Nobody could find fault with the way you run the housekeeping staff. So, if it isn’t Mr. McThing that’s bothering you, what is it?”
“If I was you,” Doreen said mysteriously, “I’d head on out to reception and take a look for myself.”
has to come down,” Lydia Kingsfield said. “Every last pine bough, every last colored light, and for God’s sake, get rid of those tacky foam things.”
The words weren’t addressed to her, but they brought Quill to a halt in the archway that led from the conference room to reception. A tall woman with hair like a raven’s wing and a Barbie-doll figure had the Inn’s groundskeeper backed against the wall. Mike Santelli was quiet, short, and muscular. He got along much better with mulch and fertilizer than human beings and the look on his face was that of a hounded stag. Lydia shook one long, crimson-nailed forefinger in his face and he stared at it cross-eyed until Quill tapped Lydia on the shoulder. He slid sideways against the wall, ducked under Lydia’s arm, and headed for the oak front door at speed.
Quill said, “Lydia?”
Lydia Kingsfield turned with a shriek of delight. “Sarah Quilliam! My God! If it isn’t herself!” She rushed forward, grabbed Quill by both shoulders, and sent a kiss past her left cheek. She pushed Quill back, looked her up and down, and added, “If I hadn’t seen your picture in
a few months ago, I wouldn’t have recognized you. But then people with fair skin tend to age if you don’t keep at it. And it’s only been . . . what? Eighteen years since high school?”
“And you,” Quill said, “haven’t changed much at all.”
“Aren’t you sweet!”
Lydia hadn’t gained an ounce since she was eighteen and the head cheerleader for the Waterford Wanderers high school football had team. Quill hadn’t gained an ounce, either. But Lydia’s figure had all stayed in the same place. Quill had an unusually good eye for the spatial, and nothing in Lydia’s face or figure seemed to have been affected by the pull of gravity at all. She must, Quill thought, have a ferocious exercise routine. Not to mention annual visits to surgeons specializing in discreet nips and tucks and hefts, if plastic surgeons engaged in hefts.
Her chocolate hair glowed with health. Her skin was dewier—and, thought Quill unkindly, a lot smoother—than it had been at eighteen. Her teeth were the bright, unnatural white that came from continuous visit to dentists with whitening machines.
She made Quill feel like a forty-watt bulb in a hundred-watt chandelier.
“And aren’t I just tickled purple to be here!” Lydia gave her a big, bright, insincere smile.
Quill caught herself smiling back in exactly the same way and bit her lip in annoyance. “We’re glad to have you, of course. Has Dina gotten you checked in?”
Lydia looked around and said in a vague way, “Dina? That little person with the owlish spectacles? Yes. She has. At least, she sent that other person, with the muscles, to get my bags, and of course as soon as I saw him I knew he could give me a hand getting this taken care of right away.” She craned her neck and peered into the dining room. “Where’d he go?”
“Get what taken care of?”
“This!” Lydia waved her hand at the foyer.
Quill had a number of favorite places in her building, and the foyer was one of them. The huge oak door at the entrance dated from the early nineteenth century. The oak flooring was just as old; the planks were a foot wide and polished to a warm, caramel sheen. The oriental rug that lay in front of the fireplace was a mixture of Quill’s favorite colors: peach, celadon, cream, and robin’s egg blue. The four-foot oriental vases that flanked the mahogany reception desk were excellent reproductions of the imperial T’ang dynasty.
And the cobblestone fireplace behind the two leather couches was just plain beautiful.
“This? You mean the foyer?”
“I mean the country look, sweetie, is so over I can’t begin to tell you.”
Quill sorted these locutions out with some difficulty. She looked at her watch. Lunchtime. It felt more like four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Not to mention this holiday stuff.” Lydia waved her arm at the pine garlands with their load of carefully designed ornaments. “Ugh. It’s practically Victorian.” The amount of venom she injected into that innocent adjective would have killed a pig. “There is
, Quill, that I can use this crap as a set for my new show. None,” she added flatly.
Quill had learned a lot in her ten years as an innkeeper. The first rule of innkeeping was don’t belt the guests. The second rule of innkeeping was if you do belt the guests, make sure that you don’t really need the income before you do it. “Why don’t we talk about this later? Let’s get you settled, first.”
“No, we need to get this settled first,” Lydia said decisively.
“Okay, then.” Quill took a deep breath. “Forget it. There’s nothing in our leasing agreement about changing the premises in any way.”
“There most certainly is. And I quote directly because I wrote the clause myself.
has the right to ‘make those changes necessary for the quality of the show.’ ”
“Those changes don’t include changing the look of the Inn beyond recognition,” Quill said with some heat. “The Victorian look is part of what attracts the guests.”
“Oh. The guests. You’re turning them away at the front door, aren’t you? I forgot about that.”
Quill counted backward from fifty. She’d reached thirty-two when the oak door banged open and Zeke “the Hammer” Kingsfield marched in. Quill knew it was Zeke “the Hammer” Kingsfield because his face was all over the Inter-net when she logged on to retrieve her e-mail in the morning, and all over the
New York Times
whenever she had time to read it, and even on infomercials selling his real estate seminar on TV.
“Darling!” Lydia said with pleasure.
Zeke stopped short inside the door, put one hand on his hip, and surveyed the foyer with a sly, expectant expression that reminded Quill of Rupie Farnsworth, the terror of her sixth-grade homeroom. Lydia hadn’t known Rupie Farnsworth as well as Quill and Meg had, but she knew him nonetheless. She wondered at a woman who could marry somebody that resembled that little sixth-grade bully.
On the other hand, Zeke “the Hammer” Kingsfield was worth half a billion dollars, so perhaps that explained it. Lydia had always been somewhat mercenary.
Zeke’s shock of bright blond hair, the pugnacious jaw, the small but intensely alive brown eyes were the stuff of caricaturists the world over. He was also, Quill discovered, very tall.
,” Lydia said.
“Here I am,” he said, with a wink. He posed for a few moments longer, then ranged across the floor and stopped in front of Quill, hand extended. “Zeke Kingsfield,” he said modestly. “And you are?”
“This is little Sarah Quilliam, Zeke. My best friend from high school. And the owner of this place.”
Quill’s best friend in high school had been Caro Gilliam. And Meg. But she said merely, “Hello,” and shook Zeke’s hand.
Zeke held onto Quill’s hand much longer than necessary. Not, Quill thought, in a flirtatious way, but so she couldn’t escape. “Not little Sarah Quilliam, Lydia. But Quilliam, the artist. Part and parcel of the reason why we’ve made this deal, isn’t she? Brilliant debut, short but brilliant career, then—retired to the country to take care of her abruptly widowed little sister. And we’ve got her on ice!” He shook Quill’s hand back and forth. “Am I right? Am I right?”
Quill counted backward from twenty and stopped at ten. She said, “Welcome to the Inn at Hemlock Falls, Mr. Kingsfield.”
“And a fine welcome it is.” He threw his head back, scanned the ceiling, and raked the rest of the room with his penetrating gaze. “Love this old-timey look. Just love it.”
Quill bit her lip and darted a glance at Lydia. She stood with one hand on her hip, a rueful expression on her face. But she said merely, “It’s so you, darling,” and gave Quill a catlike smile.
Kingsfield exhaled in noisy satisfaction. Then his chin went up. He stared past Quill’s shoulder. For a brief moment, he looked furious. Puzzled, Quill turned around. Albert McWhirter touched his forefinger to his temple and gave Kingsfield an ironic salute. Then he disappeared into Quill’s office.
“What’s he doing here?” Kingsfield demanded.
“The bank asked him to come in and take a look at the way the Inn was running day to day,” Quill said. Then, for no reason she could figure out she said, “He’s been quite helpful, so far.”
Kingsfield grinned without amusement. At that moment, Charley Comstock and the mayor came down the hall, on their way to the parking lot. Kingsfield darted a brief glance their way, turned his head to his wife, and ignored them.
“Say!” Elmer said in awed excitement. “Aren’t you . . . I mean to say . . .”
Kingsfield turned to them with an expression of artificial surprise. “Yes?”
“Mr. Kingsfield,” Charley Comstock said with solemn gravity. “It’s good to see you again. Welcome to Hemlock Falls, sir.”
Elmer nudged Charley sharply with his elbow. “Introduce us, Charley.”
“Mr. Kingsfield? The mayor of Hemlock Falls.” Charley elbowed Elmer aside. “I was hoping that we could spend a little time together before the larger meeting? The one where you’re delivering your real estate seminar?”
“Talk to my people about that,” Kingsfield said abruptly. “Set it up with LaToya. Lydia,” he said with irritation. “Just where is LaToya?”
“With the crew for the show. Give her a call on your cell phone.”
But Kingsfield’s attention had skipped on. “I just got here, for God’s sake. Give me a day or two. Good to meet you, Mayor. See you again.” He waved dismissively at them, and then walked toward the arch into the dining room.
“Jeez,” Elmer said in an impressed undertone. He followed Charley to the front door, stopped, and looked back wistfully. “He’s a big guy, isn’t he?”
“He is,” Quill said with some surprise. “Well over six feet.”
“Six-four,” Lydia said.
Kingsfield ignored them with a lordly air, and sauntered through the archway to the dining room. It was twelve thirty and the weekday lunch service was in full swing. He stopped a few paces into the dining room, put one hand on his hip, and surveyed the area with that same sly, expectant look. The room rustled with the sound of geese on a pond. “Zeke! It’s him! The Hammer himself.”
He took several strides forward and disappeared from Quill’s view. Fascinated despite herself, Quill walked to the archway. The Hammer was working the room. He bent over the tables, shaking hands, slapping men on the back, putting a familiar (and, Quill recalled, sweaty) hand on women’s shoulders.
“Quite a performance,” Lydia said in her ear. She smiled proudly.
Quill jumped. “Yes. Well. Um. Lydia. Let’s get you settled.” She led the way back through the foyer to the staircase that swept up to the second and third floors and began the walk up to the second floor. “We’ve put you in the Provençal Suite, as you requested.”