Ordinarily I traveled light, but taking my cousin’s advice I had packed extra clothes for the longer stay, and I was glad of Denise’s help with my spare suitcase. I followed her across the narrow terrace, through the tall doors set with tidy beveled squares of leaded glass, into the entry hall.
There were tropical plants here, in pots, and the fronds of one brushed softly over my shoulder as I came in. I felt faintly on edge, as I always did in houses that belonged to someone else, with unfamiliar rooms around me and the constant worry I might break something, but I steadied myself with a deep breath, enjoying the sudden assault of the warm kitchen smells that were flooding this high-ceilinged area.
The space was a mixture of textures. The floor was a pattern of tiny mosaic tiles, gathered within a striped border so decorative there was no need for a carpet; and there were stone statues, and more leaded glass, and a circular stair winding upwards, set off behind blue stained glass windows and old curving wooden doors standing ajar. More doors opened onto rooms to either side, with the kitchen ahead of us, partially blocked by a short table holding a small Christmas tree hung with bright silver tinsel.
I couldn’t do more than glimpse part of the kitchen—cream walls and red brick and dark ceiling beams—because Denise was already ahead of us, leading us through the curved doors to the circular stair, and beginning to climb.
“I put you in the same rooms as before,” she told my cousin, “so you have all on this level to yourselves.”
The stairs brought us up to the first floor and paused on a corridor of wide-planked hardwood, well darkened with age, before winding up higher, to the unseen floors still above us. The doors here were closed, but Jacqui clearly knew her way around. Not hesitating, she reached for the handle of the nearest door.
“Brilliant,” she said. “I adore this room.”
My first glimpse told me why. It was a cozy room, not large, with two tall windows hung with heavy curtains that had an almost Tudor look to them and brought to mind the hand-embroidered tapestries and bed hangings at Hampton Court. My cousin, despite her love of modern comforts, had a secret love of anything that looked as though it might have been at home within a castle.
She set down her suitcase and turned to Denise. “That’s all right, I’ll show Sara where everything is. Thanks.”
My cousin had actually taken a step so her one hand was on the door, waiting to close it as soon as the housekeeper left us. Clueless as I might be when it came to many social cues, I recognized this one as a dismissal. Denise clearly caught it as well. With a nod she turned round and was halfway downstairs by the time Jacqui shut the door.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Send her off like that.”
Jacqui stepped out of her shoes. “You were getting that look.”
“That look. The one that you get when you’re finding it all a bit much. When you’re tired of trying to socialize.”
I briefly glanced in the mirror that hung on the wall just behind her and couldn’t see any expression on my face but mild irritation. “I don’t have a look.”
“Yes, you do. You have many looks,” Jacqui assured me. “And I know them all. Besides, I’m sure Denise was quite happy to get back downstairs to whatever she’s making. She’s really a marvelous cook.”
I was not to be sidetracked. “It wasn’t too much. I’m not even a little bit tired. And you don’t have to nursemaid me.”
“Darling, I wasn’t…” She stopped in midsentence and closed her mouth firmly, her time-tested method of ending an argument. “At any rate, your room’s through here. Come see.”
She opened a connecting door and led me through into a larger room that spanned the full depth of this section of the house. Two tall French windows faced the front to overlook the drive, with two more facing out towards what must be the back garden. In between those two back windows was the bed, a large one with a flowered white duvet, and lighted sconces mounted on the wall above. And at the far end of the room a fireplace with a writing table and a small upholstered chair created an inviting spot beside another beautifully carved wardrobe.
I took a few steps in, across a well-worn oriental rug that partly covered the age-darkened burnished floorboards. When I turned to look at Jacqui I could feel the breadth of my own smile.
“I know,” she said. “It’s all like this. The whole house.” Standing in the doorway that connected our two rooms, she pointed sideways at another door set in the same wall. “That takes you back into the corridor. The bathroom’s at the far end. If you only need the toilet there’s a little washroom just beside the stairs.” She glanced at her mobile. “It’s just gone six o’clock. Claudine, if I recall correctly, likes to have aperitifs at seven. I think I might have a bath and tidy up, if that’s all right with you?”
“You won’t mind being left alone a minute?”
“Jacqui, please. I’m not a child.”
“Right, then. I won’t be long.”
Alone, I faced the large round mirror hanging just above the fireplace. “I’m not a child,” I said again, to no one.
My reflection seemed prepared to back me up on that. I’d chosen my clothes carefully that morning, toning down my use of color so that even in a sweater and a pair of jeans, I nearly looked the part of a professional.