“Oh, Miss Pennymaker,” Mrs. Corning trilled from the dining room as Celeste passed by on her way to the stairs. “I hope you’ll take your meal in here tonight. I have another guest after all, and it would be so homey for the two of you to each have a dinner companion, don’t you think?”
“Of course,” Celeste said, pinning on a smile. She would have preferred a sandwich in her room, but Mrs. Corning was already bustling over the second place setting, and the guest to whom she had referred was rising from his seat to greet her. “My mother has gone, then?”
“Yes, dear. She left a note for you. I’ll bring it with your salad.” Mrs. Corning turned to the young man standing beside the table. “This is Mr. Ridgeley. He stays with us every year.” The innkeeper sniffed the air. “I think my biscuits are in danger. Please excuse me.”
Celeste watched her flit from the room, and when she turned back, Ridgeley was pulling out a chair for her. She sat with murmured thanks and fixed her eyes on her napkin, folded into a swan that sailed regally on the blue china plate.
“I’m sorry to be forced on you like this,” he said. “You must be tired after a day in Dussault’s studio.”
Celeste stared at him. “How do you know I was there, Mr. Ridgeley?”
He smiled. “Mrs. Corning likes to volunteer information. I didn’t pry, honestly. I arrived as your mother was leaving, and I thought she was a guest and asked if I would meet her at dinner. My name is Dex, by the way. Pleased to meet you, Miss Pennymaker.” He held out a tanned hand over the chrysanthemum centerpiece.
“I’m Celeste,” she said, taking it. His hand was warm and pleasantly hard despite its manicured appearance. Celeste’s father approved of work-toughened hands and healthy color, and she filed for later analysis the sensation of calm capability Dex’s hand expressed. “I guess I am a little tired, but I’m glad to meet you. With mother gone, I was afraid it would be lonely here.”
She found she was, indeed, glad to meet him. Dex proved charming as well as handsome, and kept up a lively conversation over Mrs. Corning’s pot roast and apple tart. Her mother’s note, glanced at and tucked into the back pocket of her jeans, lost a great deal of its sting under the balm of the young man’s attention.
“Do you know Mr. Dussault?” she asked. The room glowed with firelight and candles, more of Mrs. Corning’s sense of hominess, and the dark rubbed its indigo pelt against the windows. Celeste felt safe enough, in this snug atmosphere, to broach the subject of the artist. She needed some reassurance, or she felt she might not be able to return to the studio the next day.
“Not well, but I’ve met him several times.” Dex chewed his apple tart, obviously wrestling with some revelation. “To be honest, I don’t get on with him. The only times we’ve spoken, the exchanges have been … unfriendly. You see, I’m a photographer, and that alone is enough to earn his contempt. He’s very old school in his thoughts on art. I want to photograph the wolves that live around here, but they stick mostly to Dussault’s land. He owns an unbelievable amount of land, and he won’t let me on any of it. I’ve been trying for those photos since I was twenty. A few times, I’ve sneaked onto his property, but it’s almost worth my life if he catches me. I‘ve never known anyone so antisocial.”
“Why do you keep at it? I didn’t know until today that there were wolves in the woods here, but surely there are other places to find them. What’s so special about these?”
Dex’s open expression grew shadowed and secretive. “Oh, there’s nothing special about them, really. I guess I just don’t like to admit defeat.” He poured a little more coffee in their cups from the silver pot in its quilted cozy. “But tell me about sitting for a portrait. It sounds elegantly Bohemian.” His smile was back, warming his dark eyes. Celeste forgot the momentary lapse in his manner in her eagerness to tell someone about her fears.
“It’s not, it’s just boring. And weird, too, to have a strange man study you so closely for hours on end.” She wrung her linen napkin into a damp twist. Her lip trembled, and she looked down, shielding the glitter of tears. “I hate it,” she cried, “and he scares me. He’s like one of those wolves you want to photograph. A hungry one.”
She looked up at Dex, and although his gaze fixed on her with sympathetic attentiveness, she could have sworn he had been glancing at his watch a second before. He opened his eyes wide and gave a low whistle. “That’s an apt comparison, Celeste. That’s just what he’s like. But you don’t have to be afraid. I’ll look out for you.”
It was exactly what Celeste had wanted to hear, and yet she did not feel soothed. Somehow, the magic had gone out of the evening, and all she wanted was to go to bed. Dex’s words, the perfect words, had the tinny sound of cheap comfort, easily given and empty. It was a sound with which she was familiar. It had emanated from the note in her back pocket at the beginning of the meal – I know you won’t be babyish about staying alone … I have an important engagement … be a good girl and do as Mr. Dussault asks – and it seemed only fitting that she should have another serving of it with dessert.
to be continued…