The inside of the Harris is as somber and hushed as a cathedral. And I’m the sinner tiptoeing inside. An impostor. Someone who doesn’t belong. Yet the doorman smiles and greets me by name, as if I’ve lived here for years.
The warm welcome continues when I’m directed to the elevator. Standing inside is another familiar face from Camp Nightingale.
“Lottie?” I say.
Unlike Franny, she’s changed quite a bit in the past fifteen years. Older, of course. More sophisticated. The shorts and plaid shirt I last saw her wearing have been replaced with a charcoal pantsuit over a crisp white blouse. Her hair, once long and the color of mahogany, is now jet-black and cut into a sleek bob that frames her pale face. But the smile is the same. It has a warm, friendly glow that’s just as vibrant now as it was at Camp Nightingale.
“Emma,” she says, pulling me into a hug. “My God, it’s nice to see you again.”
I hug her back. “You too, Lottie. I wondered if you still worked for Franny.”
“She couldn’t get rid of me if she tried. Not that she’d ever want to.”
Indeed, the two of them were rarely seen apart. Franny the master of the camp, and Lottie the devoted assistant. Together they ruled not with an iron fist but with a velvet glove, their benevolent patience never strained, even when surprised by a latecomer like myself. I can still picture the moment I met Lottie. The unhurried way she emerged from the Lodge after my parents and I arrived hours later than expected. She greeted us with a smile, a wave, and a sincere Welcome to Camp Nightingale.
Now she ushers me into the elevator and presses the top button. As we’re whisked upward, she says, “You and Franny will be lunching in the greenhouse. Just wait until you see it.”
I nod, feigning excitement. Lottie sees right through me. She eyes me from head to toe, taking in my stiff-backed posture, my tapping foot, the uncontrollable wavering of my plastered-on smile.
“Don’t be nervous,” she says. “Franny’s forgiven you a hundred times over.”
I wish I could believe that. Even though Franny was nothing but friendly to me at the gallery, a gnawing doubt persists. I can’t shake the feeling that this is more than just a friendly visit.
The elevator doors open, and I find myself looking at the entrance foyer to Franny’s penthouse. To my surprise, the wall directly facing the elevator already bears the painting she had purchased the night before. No little red sticker or weeks of waiting for Francesca Harris-White. Randall must have been up all night organizing its shipment from the gallery to here.
“It’s a beautiful piece,” Lottie says of No. 30. “I can see why Franny was taken with it.”
I wonder if Franny would still be taken if she knew the girls were secreted within the painting, hiding there, waiting to be found. I then wonder how the girls themselves would feel about taking up residence in Franny’s penthouse. Allison and Natalie likely wouldn’t care. But Vivian? She’d fucking love it.
“I plan on taking an afternoon off to visit the gallery and see what else you’ve painted,” Lottie says. “I’m so proud of you, Emma. We all are.”
She leads me down a short hallway to the left, past a formal dining room and through a sunken sitting room. “Here we are. The greenhouse.”
The word doesn’t begin to do the room justice. It’s a greenhouse in the same way Grand Central is a train station. Both are so ornate it defies easy description.
Franny’s greenhouse is in reality a two-story conservatory built on what was once the penthouse terrace. Panes of heavy glass rise from floor to vaulted ceiling, some still bearing triangles of snow in their exterior corners. Contained within this fanciful structure is a miniature forest. There are squat pines, flowering cherry trees, and rosebushes aflame with red blooms. Slick moss and tendrils of ivy cover the ground. There’s even a babbling brook, which flows over a creek bed stippled with rocks. In the center of this fairy-tale forest is a redbrick patio. That’s where I find Franny, seated at a wrought-iron table already set for lunch.
“Here she is,” Lottie announces. “And probably famished. Which means I better start serving.”
Franny greets me with another semi-embrace. “How wonderful to see you again, Emma. And dressed so beautifully, too.”
Since I had no idea what to wear, I put on the nicest thing I own—a printed Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress my parents gave me for Christmas. It turns out I shouldn’t have worried about being underdressed. Next to Franny’s outfit of black pants and white button-down, I feel the opposite. Stiff, formal, and agonizingly nervous about why I’ve been summoned here.
“What do you think of my little greenhouse?” Franny asks.
I take another look around, spying details previously missed. The statue of an angel half-consumed by ivy. The daffodils sprouting beside the creek. “It’s marvelous,” I say. “Too beautiful for words.”
“It’s my tiny oasis in the big city. I decided years ago that if I couldn’t live outdoors, then I’d have to bring the outdoors inside to live with me.”
“So that’s why you bought my biggest painting,” I say.
“Exactly. Looking at it feels like standing before a dark woods, and I must decide if I should venture forth into it. The answer, of course, is yes.”
That would be my answer, too. But unlike Franny, I’d go only because I know the girls are waiting for me just beyond the tree line.