(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.)
Whichever way I looked at it, I didn’t know how I was going to tell her.
Molly’s covered buggy shaded me from the morning summer sunshine as I guided the little mare down the dusty road toward her hotel, and I turned the ticklish situation around and around in my head. I made it all the way along the curve and past the cemetery, taking in deep breaths of fresh pine air, weaving in and out of forest shadows, and still no flash of brilliance came.
With a finesse of the reins, I turned the buggy at the saloon and drove past it onto the Idyllwild Inn property. The saloon opened on the weekends if there were guests, and other times if a local banged on Lindley’s door and asked for some company. Since it was Sunday morning, the saloon would remain snugly closed for a few days yet.
Not that I didn’t give it a second glance, because I did.
My good friends were getting married at last. Walter Lindley, the owner of the Inn, had a good head for business and gave me regular advice in the running of my own establishment. Molly Eldridge had worked as a maid for him for a long time before he’d slowed down enough to notice her.
In three days they would wed, and I was delighted for them both, although what had been planned as an intimate and simple ceremony had ballooned into something with a mind of its own.
I wasn’t sure Molly could handle one more surprise.
The mare went at a smart trot without any encouragement on my part. I gave her her head as the sight and scent of her own barn lured her directly to Lindley’s stable. A boy came out to take her by the bridle and the two basset hounds at his feet sniffed around enough to determine I wasn’t worth harassing in the growing heat. I set the brake and untangled myself from the contraption.
It took some moments to brush my white dress off, change out my gloves from the working leather to the proper white silk, settle my hat and check for stray curls that might have escaped from it, and retrieve two parasols, my little handbag, and a large pasteboard box tied with string. By the time the boy led the mare and the buggy inside, Molly stood at the top of the wide veranda steps at the entry to the Inn, waiting for me.
I fully expected her to call out, but she waited patiently while I crossed the drive and worked my way up the stairs. Molly stepped forward into the sunshine and was immediately bathed in a golden aura. The wide-brimmed hat perched on her dark glossy pompadour glowed with white silk roses trapped in a fine lavender mesh. She kept her hands folded demurely in front of her lavender tea dress and surveyed me with a critical eye.
“Will I do, do you think?” I asked. I didn’t dare smile and make a joke of it.
“Yes, I think so,” Molly said. Her hazel eyes were somber. “Your shoes are still shined. That’s a mercy.”
“If you hadn’t sent your buggy, I’d have ridden up astride, covered in dust, and toting my Winchester.”
Her hands tightened and lifted in prayer. “Oh, Loveda, don’t tease.” She looked over her shoulder at the closed front doors and took my elbow. “Walk with me.”
I set my burdens in a rocking chair near the main front doors and tipped my head. The faint chatter of women came from the other side of them. “I would have,” I muttered, “and serves her right. Where are we going?”
“Anywhere else for five minutes.”
Molly’s dainty gloved hand steered me down the veranda. I spent the first minute of her requisite five wondering how to present last night’s conundrum.
We stopped at the corner of the veranda and spent the second minute admiring the view. The Idyllwild Inn sat in the middle of Foster’s Meadow. Walter Lindley, owner and visionary, had surrounded his Inn with a wide, shaded veranda and from it, guests had a view of rolling grass, scattered oak trees, and the surrounding pine forests of our Idyllwild, California mountains.
Molly and I shared a synchronized sigh. The half-acre maze sprawling before us was new.
Lindley always looked for ways to impress his guests, improve his property, or experiment with efficiency. The fact that he was going to marry Molly in three days’ time meant most of his projects were either complete or discarded, and that was the real mercy.
Between his visions of grandeur and Molly’s practical demands for simplicity, wedding plans for the Inn were, months later and for better or worse, over. This included the maze.
Lindley had it positioned beyond the tennis court. Broken granite stone, stacked chest high, formed an intricately designed pathway called a lover’s knot. So he’d explained to us.
Two entries led into the convoluted path from opposite points of the compass and the game of it was to see, when people entered and followed the twists and turns, who would meet whom in the center where a giant double-trunked pine tree towered. A smoothly polished wooden bench encircled the tree, inviting guests to sit in the shade for a little tête-à-tête. Perhaps, fall in love.
I had no use for the maze whatsoever.
“Molly, there’s something you should know.”
“Roses or orange blossoms?” she blurted out.
I closed my eyes as the third minute ticked by and reminded myself I was her maid of honor. It was my job to be patient. But if Molly asked me one more question, I would scream. I seldom screamed. My stomach had always been a reliable indicator of imminent trouble, and when it niggled at me, it was time to run.
It usually got me out of situations before screaming became necessary.
Choosing dress patterns and silk ribbons and menus blurred with garland-weaving and guest lists and sheet music. We’d gone shopping off the hill in Hemet for her trousseau. It wasn’t altogether a bore. I’d pinched a couple of outlandish items for myself, including a new corset, claiming support both for my friend and my back. My bosoms weren’t necessarily in jeopardy.
Three more days, and it would all be over.
Until then, I took a regular amount of bicarbonate supplemented with milk of magnesium if her questions went longer than two hours at a stretch.
I pulled a little gold watch from my skirt pocket and checked the time. “It’s nearly nine, Molly. You asked me this before. I doubt your aunt is going to care.” I rolled my shoulders as far as the new corset allowed.
“She cares about everything,” Molly corrected, “from the cake to the cutlery. She will want one flower or the other and whichever I choose for her corsage, it will be wrong.” She gave me a tight-lipped smile. “My aunt is the only family I have here and I want her to be pleased.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me, Molly. The woman’s a bugbear.”
I repented the minute I said it. Molly nearly teared up. The closer we got to her wedding date, the more emotional Molly seemed to be, and I missed her common sense.
“Molly, ever since she arrived, she’s been running you ragged.” I frowned and nearly folded my arms in defense before I remembered my manners. “You haven’t seen the woman in twenty years and she owns you the minute she arrives? This is your home. Remember?”
Molly’s eyes darted down the veranda to look at the tall ballroom windows.
“This bridal tea, for example. And the gift display,” I continued. “It’s 1912 and we live in a tiny community. You invited all of a dozen guests. For a maiden aunt of advanced years, she has a lot of wedding rules. How will you survive the ceremony?”
“Loveda Josephine Brown, you are my maid of honor and if Aunt Cheeky wants the wedding gifts displayed during a bridal tea party only a half-dozen women will attend, you’re to admire them as though you are ten women in one.”
Just like that, Molly’s aunt took the fourth minute.
“Margaret Irene Eldridge, you are the closest thing to a sister I have.” I tipped my chin up and my hat tilted with it. “You might be older and you might be taller, but I’ve got you on experience. I’m trying to save you from yourself.”
“True. I’m twenty-five years old and you’re twenty-two.” She stood straighter, but she knew good and well being taller than my five feet four inches wasn’t an advantage to anyone.
“That seems advisable,” I said with some snap, “since your beau is pushing forty.” I softened, then. “But I know how it feels to be a bride without a mother to guide you. Or a father to walk you down the aisle.”
She let me put my arm around her waist briefly, and we turned to look at the maze again.
“I think if I had an aunt come all the way from Florida for my wedding I might stagger a little, too, but Molly, she isn’t a replacement.” I gave her a gentle squeeze and released her. “It’s all right to be a woman on your own two feet.”
I’d been orphaned, employed, married, and widowed, which put me two experiences ahead of Molly, but still. My own two feet had carried me from Boston to El Paso to California and finally, to my small hotel here in Idyllwild.
“I’m sure after Wednesday, Lindley will keep you safe from your aunt, your maid of honor, and anyone else who tries to come within ten feet of you. There will be nothing left for me to fuss over.”
“I know you’re trying to be supportive, but please, for just this morning, try to impress her.”
“Butter won’t melt in my mouth.”
At the mention of butter, we both turned in alarm and marched back to the rocking chair full of items.
Our five minutes were up.
“We scarcely have time to arrange them on trays,” Molly said, reaching for the box full of tea cakes. “I’ll take them to the kitchen and you can slip into the dining room and add the parasols to the display.”
“Molly, I have something to tell you,” I said at the same time the front lobby doors opened.
We both turned as Molly’s fiancé stepped outside, followed by three middle-aged gentlemen and a lady. The men wore sporting clothes and were having a good laugh. They were a contrast to the young woman, who was dressed for our tea and too dour for words.
“Lindley, old man!” cried the gentleman next to him. “You haven’t changed at all! Not a whit! It’s been too long!” The man wore rimless spectacles over bright green eyes and had heavy brows beneath dark wavy hair. A waxed handlebar mustache almost kept one from noticing the faint smallpox scars covering his cheeks.
Dr. Prescott Bradley, family physician, Lindley’s closest friend in medical college, was the man Lindley had asked to stand up with him at the wedding. The pale young woman was his wife.
I considered the Bradleys somewhat tepid, despite the enthusiastic words.
Mrs. Bradley stopped on the veranda behind her husband and, catching sight of Molly and me, gave us a startled little head bow, which momentarily tipped her prodigious hat over her fair face. Once exposed again, her pale eyes darted away from us to stare steadfastly at the stable. Although there were faint circles beneath them, her eyes carried the snap of an argument brought abruptly to a close, and not in the lady’s favor.
Dr. Bradley clapped Lindley on the shoulder. “I don’t recall much of this place, though.” He paused at the top of the steps and shook his head. “When I came topside for your grand opening, all I remember is the wretched ride up and trees so thick you couldn’t see more than five feet in front of you.” He gave Lindley a rueful look. “That hasn’t changed.”
Dr. Peele and Dr. Webb, the pair of older bachelors who joined them at the rail, had been Lindley’s partners at that grand opening—the day the Inn had originally opened as a sanatorium. The pair had driven up in Dr. Peele’s automobile.
Dr. Webb cleared his throat. “Gave you indigestion, did it?” he asked with a faint sneer. His voice was gravelly, as though someone forgot to grease the wagon axle. “I knew it immediately. The stable has got a fresh coat of varnish and the hotel has almost identical bones to our original.”
Dr. Webb was taller, darker, and thinner than most, and after his veiled barb, Dr. Bradley’s companionable manner vanished. Dr. Webb ran a long hand over the smooth veranda rail. “Whether you keep patients or tourists in your rooms, Lindley, I’d say the bills get paid by the look of things. Is that gingerbread trim along the eaves?”
Lindley’s goatee lifted a fraction of an inch. “It is. You are in a resort, gentlemen. An alpine paradise in the clouds.”
I pursed my lips and attempted to look impressed, but I’d heard Lindley’s old line a million times. He needed to stop preening and get out of my way so I could finish my talk with Molly.
“The meadow is full of cottages and campsites,” Dr. Peele said in approval. His prodigious nose bobbed above a thick, tidy mustache. The rest of his face and head was shaved smooth. “And you’ve arranged more than a few diversions. I had no idea the place entertained so well.” His eyes scanned the lawns down the front drive toward the saloon beside the road, and he ran a hand along the buttons of his shirt, over the paunch it contained, to rest at the horseshoe belt buckle tucked beneath it.
I had the impression nothing escaped Dr. Peele’s observation.
“We’ll have a swimming pool installed next year,” Lindley said. “I had hoped the billiard table would arrive before this week, but we’ll make do, won’t we?” He flashed them one of his showman smiles, the one he used to persuade guests they were but one step away from complete and deeply fulfilling satisfaction. In his sporting coat and jodhpurs, cap perched jauntily over an eyebrow, and tapping a short riding crop smartly against his leg, Lindley appeared ready to lead the party to victory right there on the veranda.
“A tragedy,” Dr. Peele said gravely. “I’m a menace with a cue stick.”
“I’m sure we can place a wager or two on our expedition today,” Dr. Webb said. “A Jefferson on a fox, eh? Perhaps we’ll find something bigger?” He turned to Lindley expectantly.
“Croquet isn’t quite your speed, is it?” Here, Lindley noticed Molly and me standing beside the chair and tapped his cap at us. “Our local wildlife seldom varies, Webb. I’ll show you where the best traps are and let you decide the game, Peele. Excuse me for a moment, gentlemen.”
Lindley left the group and approached us. His eyes were on Molly, and she blushed as he accepted her hand and bent to hover his cropped mustache over it.
“We’re getting out of your way,” he said, releasing her again.
He grinned at her but addressed his next words to me. “Take good care of her until I get back.”
My exasperated sigh made him grin wider, and he spared me a brief glance before returning to his guests.
Dr. Bradley took us in with a polite pinch of his cap and turned away again. Dr. Peele gave me an uncomfortable assessment before sending us an expressionless nod. Dr. Webb lifted his hat and cried, “Tally ho, ladies!”
“Off we go, men.” Lindley led them down the steps. “We’ll likely have a fox. Sometimes a coon or a rabbit. Plenty of deer in the high country still, but it’s been a couple of years since we’ve spotted a mountain lion and more than that for a grizzly.”
“Indeed?” Dr. Bradley exclaimed.
“Oh, yes,” Dr. Webb said. “I recall finding scat and prints along the old logging road back in the day. That’ll raise the hairs on your head, won’t it, Lindley?” He laughed. “We’ve less hair now, I think.”
Dr. Peele narrowed his eyes at the jab but remained silent. He tugged his hat firmly over his bald head.
The hunting party disappeared into the stable.
Mrs. Bradley remained where she stood, possibly contemplating her next move. She was an aloof creature and seemed adrift without her husband’s shadow to stand in.
“Isn’t Dr. Webb a dermatologist?” I asked Molly. I picked up my bag and the parasols.
“No, Dr. Webb is an obstetrician. Dr. Peele is the skin specialist,” she said. Keenly aware of her hostess duties, she took a friendly step toward Mrs. Bradley. “But that is probably why he’s interested in wildlife. He does taxidermy.”
Molly smiled at Mrs. Bradley, finally showing the endearing little gap between her teeth, and opened a front door for us. I left the rest of my questions unasked.
I shrugged off my vague dislike of both doctors and pasted on a smile.
It was showtime.