“Really, I’m serious. That’s not a rabbit hole you want to tumble down. Don’t get involved.”
“I don’t get involved. And anyway, I’m here to do a job. That is, I think I’m here to do a job.”
“Of course you are.” My cousin set her hairbrush down. “You’re never having second thoughts?”
“Not me. I’m fairly sure Claudine is, though.”
“Why would you say that?”
“You were there. I don’t think I impressed her much at dinner.”
“Nonsense. I thought you did really well at dinner.” Jacqui curled her feet beneath her on the bed and leaning back against her pillows said, “You kept up with the conversation and you didn’t monologue.”
Monologuing was a common habit among those of us with Asperger’s. We could, upon occasion, talk an endless stream without allowing anyone to get a word in edgewise, and not realize it.
“I only monologue when something interests me,” I pointed out. “We were talking about gardening for most of dinner, weren’t we? Not much fear that I would monologue on that.” I could kill plants at fifty paces just by looking at them. “I’d hoped we’d talk about the diary, or about the Jacobites, or something with a point to it. That’s why I’m here. I think she’s changed her mind. I think she—”
“Darling,” Jacqui cut me off, “you worry far too much. We’ve just arrived. I’m sure Claudine assumed you’d want to spend your first night getting settled in and rested up.”
If that had been the reason why Claudine had kept the conversation superficial, there had been no need. “I want to get to work.”
“You want to get some sleep,” my cousin countered with a yawn. And then, because she knew from long experience that I might otherwise stay there indefinitely keeping her from getting sleep, she reached to switch her bedside lamp off, letting the resulting darkness bring our conversation to a close. “Be patient.”
* * *
Patience had never been one of my strong points. The following morning I found myself pacing from wardrobe to bed and then back again, waiting for Jacqui to finish her shower. I’d showered already and dressed in a pair of dark jeans and a fairly conservative white cotton top and I’d tried four silk scarves till I’d found the best one and I’d tied and arranged it a few times until I was pleased with the final effect and I’d put on mascara and done what I could with my hair. And she still wasn’t ready.
The clock on the chest of drawers told me four minutes had passed since the last time I’d looked at it, meaning it was 7:47 now, and last night we’d been told that breakfast would be served at 8:00.
My whole life I’d been teased by some people and lauded by others for my fierce fixation on time, but it wasn’t a thing I could easily change. And in this instance, turning up late wouldn’t just bother me, it would also be rude to our hostess. I’d have to go down on my own.
I clenched both my hands and relaxed them, releasing the burst of adrenaline as I reminded myself that I needn’t be anxious. I’d only be facing Denise and Claudine, and I’d already met them. I focused on that as I went down the spiral of stairs and across the tiled entry hall. Scents of warm bread and fresh coffee swirled out from the brightly lit kitchen behind the half screen of the small tinseled Christmas tree. Ahead of me, the inward-swinging doors of the salon where we had sat for drinks last night stood open, and the lights had been left on. I went in and turned left through the tall arch in the wall between the salon and the dining room.
I truly loved the dining room. It had a charming shape, with angled corners, and because it was itself set at the rearmost corner of the house it had great rows of windows running all along the back wall and the angle of one corner and again along the side—tall casement windows set with tiny panes of leaded glass, small beveled diamond shapes set at the juncture of the squares, and all contained within a clean narrow double border in two colors, red and gold. I longed to see those windows in the daylight. Last night it had been dark outside while we’d been eating dinner, and this morning it was not yet sunrise and the world beyond the windows was deep blue.
The blue, at least, was calming. And the antique longcase clock that stood between the windows reassured me I had made it down here with six minutes left to spare, although it seemed that I was on my own. Well, nearly. Within the open doorway to the kitchen, sat a cat.
I guessed he was a tomcat from his size, which was impressive. Black all over, he sat fluffed in that particularly vain way tomcats did when they were showing off, and stared at me with contemplative eyes as though deciding what to make of me.
“Hello,” I said.
The black cat sat and blinked at me as though I’d spoken in a foreign language, which I realized that I had.
I said, in French this time, “Good morning. You are handsome, aren’t you?”
This earned me a faint twitch of one ear as if acknowledging the compliment. I smiled. I had forgotten, living for so long without a pet myself, just how much I liked cats. This one had turned his gaze now nonchalantly to the salon just behind me with a focus that assured me I was hardly worth the bother to investigate.
I laid a challenge down. “Come on, then. Come and say hello and be a proper host. I promise I won’t bite.”
“He might.” The man’s voice, coming from the salon, caught me unawares. Surprised, I turned but could see no one, not at first. Not till the one door that had been propped open in the farther corner by the entry hall was pushed a little from behind to change its angle, showing me the man who had been kneeling just behind it by a box of tools and working on the radiator. He hadn’t been purposely hiding there, he’d just been hidden by the door, and when I’d gone through the salon I’d walked straight past him without even knowing he was there.