In the small dark hours, Celeste lay awake, listening. Something ranged up and down the hallway outside her door. She could hear its careful tread on the narrow carpet runner, a whisper of sound so subtle she would have dismissed it if it hadn’t been accompanied by a panting breath at the keyhole. She waited for the doorknob to turn, unsure if she had locked it, but the creature only lingered a moment. There was a soft bump against the door panel and a strange, deep sigh of satisfaction: mmmmaah.
She lay frozen beneath the comforter and thought wildly of wolves that prowled through sleeping households, smelling out those who were wakeful. Outside her window, the fog had thickened and crept against the glass with a kind of weightiness. It forced wisps of itself through the old casements where they dropped to the rug and stretched out in sinuous swathes. The tall posts of her bed rose from them like black trees, and she could almost believe the forest had grown up around her in the night like something from a fairy tale. The thing in the hall drifted away. She heard its claws clicking over the bare floorboards as it brushed close to the doors of the other suites, snuffling at each. She closed her eyes for just a moment, and it knit itself to her dreams, hunting her through the night forest until the sun rose.
Celeste slept the morning away in a fog of dissipating nightmare. The sun staggered higher, lancing in the window and painting hard, thick shadows on the rug. She crawled from beneath the comforter and tumbled herself into a hot bath, groggily aware of the clock’s disapproving face. She could not be late for her sitting with Mr. Dussault. At the thought of the artist, her mood deflated further, and she dragged herself from the bath to look at the time. Nearly one o’clock. She’d have to hurry.
The inn was silent when she descended the stairs, and the dining room was empty. A sudden clatter of cookware drew her to the kitchen.
“Oh, there you are, Miss Pennymaker. Did you sleep well?” Mrs. Corning, in the midst of setting out her saucepans and stockpots for the day’s dinner, flapped a flustered hand at the girl. “There are muffins in the bread box, and the kettle’s hot if you want to brew up a cup of tea. I’m afraid you missed Mr. Ridgeley. He was off early this morning with his cameras.”
Celeste smiled. “I’m surprised my mother didn’t grill him about them yesterday. She’s a serious amateur photographer and likes to think she knows everything about cameras.”
“Oh, no, dear, she couldn’t have, could she? Mr. Ridgeley arrived just after you and your mother went up the mountain, and he strapped on all his gizmos and went tramping off before she came back.”
“But, I thought -”
Mrs. Corning twitched aside a curtain and glared out the kitchen window. “There’s Jamie, finally. I swear, I don’t know where that boy gets to. He’s harder to find than hens’ teeth.” She glanced at Celeste. “I’ll put that tea in a thermos for you, and you can finish your muffin on the way. You don’t want to be late. That old painter is a devil about tardiness.”
The wind was in the forest, shaking the leaves from the trees in mad, parti-colored gusts. They skittered over the windshield, clawing to get in, and were caught up again and whirled away like flocks of dizzy birds. Celeste shrank against the tartan upholstery, cowed by the rowdiness of the wind and by Jamie’s air of barely suppressed fury. The boy gripped and twisted the steering wheel in his big angular hands until she thought she could hear it groaning.
“He actually ate dinner with you? Just sat right down at the same table and … and … talked to you?” He was incredulous. “I should have stayed until you went to your room.”
“It really wasn’t his fault, Jamie. Mrs. Corning arranged it, and Dex was a perfect gentleman. I don’t understand why you’re so upset. We talked a little about his photography,” she paused, thinking of the senseless lie Dex had told her about meeting her mother, “and he said that Mr. Dussault is anti-social and has antiquated views of art.” She shared the last bit with waspish pleasure, and regretted the words as soon as she uttered them. The look of outrage on Jamie’s face struck at her heart.
“The lying dog! Look, Celeste, you got to be careful around Ridgeley. He’s trouble.” He guided the station wagon around a curve in the logging road and stepped on the brake, fishtailing a bit in the loose shale. “Well, well, speak of the devil,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice.
Dex crouched in the ferns by the roadside, and Celeste would never have seen him. Jamie got out of the car, and Dex hesitated and stood. He was dressed for hiking with a light pack on his back, and perhaps his cameras were in it, for Celeste saw none hanging about him anywhere. He glanced at her, giving her a little wave of his fingers. She rolled down her window, and the wind rushed into the car, lifting her hair as though she were falling.
“You’re on Mr. Dussault’s property, Ridgeley. Again.” Jamie walked stiff-legged around the front of the car, his shoulders up and his head forward. Dex put out a hand, laughing.
“Okay, okay. Take it easy, James, I’m leaving.” He tipped a wink at Celeste.
“Yeah, you’re leaving, all right. Lou told me if I caught you again to give you something to help you remember your manners.”
The affability vanished from Dex’s face. “I don’t think you want to cause a disagreeable scene in front of Dussault’s … guest. I said I would leave. Run along like a good pup, and give the old man my best.”
Dex strolled past Jamie, his face tight, his lips drawn away from his teeth in a fierce smile that was more like a snarl. He bent at Celeste’s open window and inhaled deeply. She drew back, reminded of the way Dussault had raised the lock of her hair to his nose. “I apologize for any unpleasantness,” Dex said. “I look forward to seeing you tonight.”
“Get away from her,” Jamie shouted, starting forward. His rough voice rode over the wind, and an answer climbed out of the forest. Pure and quavering, a howl rose into the low clouds, and another joined it, and another. Dex jerked upright with a growl and turned to jog away down the logging road.
Celeste sat stiffly by the open window, her hair tangled with curled dogwood leaves, her breath caught and held. She had been alarmed, and then frightened, by the confrontation, but now that it was over, she felt something else. Excitement. Yes, that’s what it was. It had been exciting, the conflict and threat of violence, the inciting wind laden with the smells of the woods, the voices of the wolves that had made the hair rise on her arms and brought tears to her eyes. She had never heard such a sound before, a sound so freighted with time and meaning. She was a little ashamed of the feeling, the excitement, but it was seductive, too.
Jamie threw himself behind the wheel, grinning. His blood was up, too, she saw. He leaned across her to roll up her window, and she caught a scent from the back of his neck, sweet pine and the slightly smoky perfume of moss. She laughed, and he sat back and looked at her.
“Pretty good, huh?” he said, seeming to understand what she felt. “I could have thrashed him, no matter what he thinks. Geez, is that the time? Lou’s gonna be pissed.” He started the car, and they drove deeper into the tossing woods, to the hidden gate.
to be continued…