With one hand white-knuckled on the dashboard, Adele tilted the map beneath the rental car’s ceiling light.
“Take the next two lefts,” she said.
The undercarriage cracked against the edge of a pothole and Adele winced.
“Yeah,” she said and squinted through the rain splattered window. “There.”
She pointed at what she hoped would reveal itself to be the final directions of the night.
Despite the empty road, Mitch flicked on the turn signal. The snap created a mixed beat with the rental car’s less than efficient windshield wipers.
“See—” The jounce of the car in and out of another rut cut him off. He gripped the wheel and spoke through gritted teeth. “See if you can spot a sign.”
Adele let the car’s turbulence rub her fist on the passenger window, clearing the mist their breaths and the quickly cooling conditions outside had created. The shoulder-high wall flanking their rural escapade broke at the entrance and rippled with carved letters. A glistening sheen suggested they might be made of brass or copper. She spied “vere” and “Hot” before Mitch turned and drove through an opened set of iron wrought gates.
Their jolting ride suddenly smoothed and Mitch sagged against the wheel. “Well?”
“Molivere Hotel right?”
“Then that should be it.”
She shut off the car’s light, allowing the glowing windows of the manor house up ahead to gleam through the rain. A carriage entrance jutted from the ivy covered façade, the archways curving amid the streaks of water and softened by giant stone vases where tri-tiered topiaries sprouted.
“It looks like the picture.”
“It better for the price,” said Adele.
Mitch grunted wearily and rounded the circular lawn. Pulling into a cramped space between a black Cadillac and some kind of hut, he killed the ignition and set his forehead onto the wheel.
The rain pattered on the roof while Adele struggled to fold the map. Giving up, she kneaded the back of Mitch’s bowed neck.
“Tired,” mumbled Mitch.
“How does a king sized bed sound?”
“It’s only a little further.”
Adele grinned and collected her knapsack from by her feet. She stuffed the half-folded map inside, zipped her jacket, and tugged the hood over her ponytail.
“Pop the trunk?”
With a nod, Mitch sought the lever by his side.
Bracing herself against the upcoming cold and wet, Adele stepped out and hurried to the car’s bumper. She grabbed their one suitcase, its sky blue dulled by the night, and slammed the trunk closed. By then, Mitch had hauled himself from the driver’s seat. Wordlessly, they hurried over to the shelter of the carriage entrance.
Their soaked sneakers squished on the red carpet leading up to the gilded doors. Mitch opened one and Adele entered. Finding a smooth expanse of marble, she lowered the suitcase and headed for the receptionist’s desk, allowing the luggage’s wheels a chance to do their job. Her mouth began watering when, from a velvet-draped doorway down an adjoining hall laughter, the clink of glassware, and a quartet of strings drifted on meaty aromas grease with butter. Beside her, Mitch’s stomach had begun an audible grumble by the time they bellied up to the mahogany counter.
A petite, dark haired receptionist in a midnight blue bellhop uniform with silver buttons looked up from his perusal of a splayed book.
“Ah…Bon soir.” He knitted bushy brows beneath the edge of his square cap and his next words emerged in broken English. “How…can I help you?”
“We have reservations,” said Adele. “For—” She checked herself before giving her surname, her former surname. “Hendly. Mitch and Adele.”
Mitch took her hand and she squeezed his fingers.
“Ah…Oui,” said the receptionist.
Flipping the pages in his book, he plucked a pen from an ink well, its snowy swan feather swaying. He made a note, the scrape setting Adele’s nerves on edge, and then looked up with a forced grin.
“I am so sorry, but we have had a bit of a…problem…a complication.”
She gripped Mitch’s hand. “Excuse me?”
“The weather, you see, some guests cannot travel. They are extending their stay.”
“But we have reservations,” said Mitch.
“Yes, yes,” said the receptionist. He tugged at the square collar cinching his neck. “But, you see, these guests…they are rather special.”
“I don’t care if it’s the Queen of England.” Mitch thumped his other hand onto the counter, the echo reverberating on the marble. “We made reservations for a room. One with a king sized bed and I just drove across half this damn country in a monsoon to sleep in it.”
The receptionist’s mouth flapped uselessly and Adele aimed for a calmer tone.
“If you can’t give us our room, then what do you expect us to do? It’s pouring outside and there’s nothing around for miles.
Sweat peaked out from around receptionist’s cap. “Yes, I understand. We’ve made….arrangements for you to stay, just not in the same room.”
He opened a drawer and extracted a sheet of paper topped with an indigo seal made from a pair of fish meeting at the mouth and tail.
“If you can sign here, we can….” He scrubbed his hair line and mumbled. “Comment dis….oh ah…pay you back.”
Flattening the sheet with one hand, he fumbled for his pen and offered the plumed end.
Adele peered at the flowing script, the shape and language obscuring the details in the paragraphs. One line spoke of suites, another of money. She listed upon the counter, the weight of interpreting and Mitch’s attention landing on her shoulders.
“What do you think?”
She sighed and pulled her gaze from the page. “Do you want to keep driving?”
Mitch snorted and seized the pen. He scrawled his signature on the x-indicated line.
“And you, Madame.” The receptionist shifted the page before her. Mitch fluttered the feather.
Releasing his hand, Adele added her name, pausing only momentarily when she nearly made a F out of the H.
With a sigh of what sounded like relief, the receptionist stowed the paper away and motioned down another hall.
“If you would come with me?”
“Finally,” whispered Mitch.
Adele shot him an imploring glare but softened her expression when he hung his head and rubbed at his eyes. Gathering the suitcase, she strode after the receptionist.
He led briskly along a corridor lined with portraits wrapped in heavy frames whose subjects seemed to follow their passage with oiled eyes. The busts managed the same eerie watch and Adele quickened her stride to match the receptionist’s swift gait. They wound through a maze of hallways until she lost track of all the mansion’s twists and turns. She noted, however, the dwindling art work, the portraits transitioning to stained panels and then painted brick. When they started down a set of stairs the mortared walls began leaking a wintry chill. The receptionist weaved through them like a well traveled mouse, and then started along a long corridor dotted with alcoves blocked by what looked like entrances to cellars.
“Here we are.” He stopped at a pair of steps leading to one rounded door offset on its hinges, and retrieved a skeletal key from his pocket. “Enjoy your evening.”
“You’re kidding me,” said Mitch.
Adele accepted the key. “Merci.”
With a tip of his hat, the receptionist scurried back the way they had come. His footsteps faded after a moment, the sudden dearth of sound making the stories around them feel cavernous.
“Let’s get to bed,” she murmured and descended to the door.
The skeleton key rattled in the lock before the bolt drew back with an echoing thud. She pushed the door in, causing the hinges to whine and the base to scrape. Crossing the threshold, Adele sought a switch on the wall. She yelped when she brushed against something gossamer dangling in the open air.
“What is it?”
Adele narrowed her eyes and the ambient light fell upon a string falling from the ceiling. Giving the line a tug, she illuminated a single bare bulb. The yellowing light fell upon a lone pillow and twin bed taking up the majority of the closet-sized room.
“Home sweet home,” she said.
Mitch followed her in, lugging the suitcase. “I hope that was one hell of a refund,” he said closing the door.
“You couldn’t read it?”
She shrugged and stripped out of her jacket. Discovering the novelty of a hook on the back of the door next to a hand-sized mirror, she hung up the dripping coat. “We should ask for a copy in the morning.”
“Sounds good,” said Mitch. He smothered a yawn with his hand.
Adele tilted her head from side to side as she redid her ponytail with the mirror’s help. “Do you want to hunt down something to eat?”
“You’re not hungry?”
“I didn’t say that.” Mitch snuck up behind her, his wry grin visible in the reflection. He coiled his arms around her waist and pulling her snug.
Adele couldn’t help but smile. “I thought you were tired.”
“I was. Circumstances have invigorated me.”
Spinning in his grasp, Adele laughed. She leaned in, the mischievous gleam in Mitch’s eye heating into something equally familiar.
Sudden thumps on the door, however, kept their lips from touching.
Adele cocked an eyebrow at the American accent in the other woman’s voice. Shaking his head with startled innocence, Mitch released her and put himself between her and the door.
Adele frowned when the woman called her name.
“Please open the door,” she continued, her tone of impatience swelling.
Grumbling under his breath, Mitch yanked on the handle. It took him a second try before the door opened and added another scrape on the stone floor. He backpedaled when a plump grandmotherly woman wearing a lilac gown with the same fish emblem on the breast stomped down the stairs and occupied the remaining breathing room.
“These are for you.” She offered a pile of midnight blue cloth.
Adele worked up a stupefied grin. “Towels?”
The woman barked a laugh, the silvery bun atop her head swaying. “Livery.”
“Uniforms,” said the woman.
Mitch set his hand on the door’s latch. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. We’re guests.”
The woman squared her ample bust at him. “You signed the contract right?”
“No,” said Mitch, “we sign a refund receipt.”
“The paper with the blue seal on the top? The two fish?”
Adele met his quick glance before Mitch returned to the woman, his usual confidence fading.
“Yeah,” he said slowly.
“That puts you on serving detail or out in the rain.” The woman turned from him, set the folded clothes at the foot of the bed and pivoted again. “Your choice. You’ve five minutes until hors d’oeurvres are up. Dress and go all the way down the hall to your right, or move out.” With a swaying waddle, she departed, closing the door behind her.
Adele plopped onto the bed and the pile of clothes tumbled onto her lap. “I can’t believe this.”
Mitch put his back to the door and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Want to leave?”
“I don’t want to sleep in the car if that’s what you’re asking.” She unfolded the first layer and found a trim tunic with the fish seal stitched over the heart. “Waiting tables was never that bad right?”
Mitch took the shirt and cocked a skeptical brow at the embroidery. “Not any worse than tonight has been, or it was before.”
“Serves me right for not reading the fine print.”
“What happened to that sense of adventure of yours?”
“It’s waiting for room service,” said Adele.
Rising, she found a scalloped necked dress similar to the older woman’s and began to change. She sensed Mitch’s glance and then his fingers crept around her bare midriff. He kissed her neck and she tipped her head against his as his bare skin met her back.
“Five minutes remember?”
“I can be quick,” he murmured.
“Yeah, I know.”
With her own wry grin, she bounced her shoulder, knocking his chin aside. Spinning away, she faced him and tugged on the dress. While he worked into the tunic and a pair of wide slacks, she traded her sneakers for soft soled slippers.
“They fit,” she said, wiggling her toes within the velvet.
“Maybe you can keep them.”
“Last think I need is another pair of shoes,” said Adele.
“At least this pair has a story,” said Mitch, belting the tunic with a coil of braided rope as dark as licorice.
“Some story.” She smoothed out her skirts, and set her hands on her hips. “How does it look?”
Mitch tilted his head in open evaluation. “Actually….pretty good.”
“Maybe I’ll get some tips.” She sighed. “Ready?”
Mitch shrugged. “For good times and bad right?”
She pecked his cheek.
Heading out the door and up the stairs, she turned right, allowing her feet to carry her along the woman’s directions and eventually, she hoped, back to bed.