Three weeks until Christmas
Darcy Spencer was still getting used to calling the Inglenook Inn her home, as well as her place of work. For the next eight weeks she had the prodigious responsibility of running the boutique hotel in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The owner, Sofia, was relying on her to do a good job, and, more than that, Darcy wanted her time in charge to be a raging success. She’d worked hard to build a career in the hotel industry and this could propel her to another stage. Quite what that stage was yet, she wasn’t too sure.
When Darcy heard the impatient ping of the Skype call coming through she had no choice but to race, half-dressed, to the desk in the communal lounge situated on the entrance floor just after you came through the front door of the brownstone. She knew the call would be from Sofia, and Darcy didn’t want her to feel she had anything to worry about if she didn’t answer straight away.
She sat at the desk, took a deep breath, and pressed the button to accept the call, attempting to look as unflustered as was humanly possible. Sofia’s friendly face smiled back at her all the way from Switzerland, where she’d flown to be with her daughter, Gabriella, who was going through a second pregnancy and suffering morning sickness that sounded bad enough to put even the cluckiest woman off having babies.
‘Darcy, hello!’ Sofia’s hand blocked most of Darcy’s view as she waved enthusiastically at the girl she’d entrusted with her business.
‘Hi, Sofia, how are you? How’s Gabriella?’ Gabriella had been Darcy’s best friend since they were in second grade and Sofia had often treated Darcy like a second daughter. When she’d been asked to manage the Inn in Sofia’s absence, Darcy had felt honoured as well as terrified about the level of responsibility that came with this position.
‘She’s not too bad, considering. She’s sleeping at the moment or I’d have her chat to you.’ Her voice came over nice and clear, for which Darcy was grateful. Skype had been temperamental the last few days and when it played up it drove her crazy. ‘Kyle is sleeping too, which is a blessing.’
‘Tiring you out is he?’ At fifty-five Sofia was young enough to have fun with her grandson, and he probably gave her a welcome rest from running the Inglenook Inn, but Darcy suspected she needed her down time too.
‘He’s quite exhausting, but utterly gorgeous.’
‘I bet he loves having you there.’
‘He does. And thanks again, Darcy, for stepping in at the last minute. Please tell me you sorted out the Christmas tree.’ She clasped her hands together in a prayer position.
‘It’s all arranged, don’t worry. It won’t be arriving for almost another week, but we’ve got one, and I’m assured its stunning and worthy of being put up in the lounge.’
‘I’m so sorry I didn’t place the order.’
‘It’s fine. Better late than never, I say.’ Sofia thought she’d emailed the tree company with the order but it had still been sitting in her drafts folder when Darcy checked why the tree hadn’t arrived the day before Thanksgiving. Sofia had been in a total panic but Darcy had turned her attention back to her daughter and Switzerland, and taken the reins from there.
‘Well, thank you for sorting it out.’
‘It’s my pleasure.’ She hoped she’d go on describing the job that way. She hoped it wouldn’t get so hard that she’d want to jump on a plane and go as far as Europe herself.
‘You certainly look the part,’ Sofia nodded, taking in the suit jacket and smart shirt Darcy was wearing. ‘And you still have a hint of the English accent you picked up in London.’
Darcy grinned. She hadn’t been back from her travels all that long. ‘Thanks, I think.’ She put a hand to her dark hair, pinned up in a chignon as it usually was when she was at work. Ever since she’d got out of the kitchens and away from being a chambermaid in her quest to take the hotel industry by storm, she’d prided herself on dressing well. In this current role she would be the first face guests set eyes on, the first point of contact, and at all times she was representing the establishment she worked for, which meant standards couldn’t slip.
She was thankful Sofia couldn’t see beneath the desk right now or she may not be so impressed. Earlier this morning, Darcy had checked the retreating form of the Inn’s only guest as he left for work in his usual business attire – dark suit, well-fitted – and fled down the front steps of the brownstone, hailing a taxi with a yell and a raise of his hand that revealed just a small section of his shirt sleeve. After he’d left, she’d ducked across the street to the corner of the next block and grabbed a takeout caramel macchiato. She intended to drink it as she updated paperwork, called the delivery people to check the Christmas tree was definitely arriving at the appointed time, and generally had a breather before she got everything ready to welcome new guests this afternoon and ensure the top-floor apartment was kept as their businessman guest expected.
Her plans had gone awry however when she took the top from her macchiato the second she came in from the cold and somehow managed to stumble in her heels and slop at least a third of the contents over her navy skirt. Muttering to herself, she’d taken the skirt off. The liquid hadn’t hit her stockings so without another guest in sight, she’d traipsed downstairs to the laundry and popped it straight into the machine. It was as she was taking the stairs up again that she heard the laptop on the front desk and the incessant Skype ringtone that would go on and on until it was answered.
Over Skype now, Sofia asked more about their guest list for the coming weeks and Darcy filled her in. ‘The guest you checked in last week before you left is quiet as anything. I think he must work a lot.’ At least that’s what the well-used office desk and the lines of suits upstairs had told her when she’d made up the bed yesterday morning, replenished refrigerator supplies and the light refreshments. She was too professional to pry, but unless you were blinkered you couldn’t help picking up on guests’ behaviours and lifestyle. Besides, understanding people was all part of the hotel business and something Darcy took great pride in.
Darcy re-checked the book on the desk where guest details were recorded. It was on the computer too, but Sofia, and Darcy, liked to be able to have the list on hand. ‘I have a family checking in this afternoon plus another couple,’ she told Sofia, ‘but nobody will arrive before four o’clock so it gives me a chance to get organised.’
‘That’s good. Did you send the accountant the latest spreadsheets?’
‘Sofia, you’ve no need to worry, I promise. I sent everything to him. The rooms upstairs are almost ready for the next guests, and the new boiler in the basement is still going strong.’
‘Darcy, I don’t know how to thank you, I really don’t.’
‘Letting me stay here is reward enough, not to mention when I get to put this stint on my résumé as I look for a job.’
‘Well I’m glad it’s working out. It’s a weight off my mind. And who knows? Maybe one day you can take over from me when I’m too old to climb all those stairs.’
‘They’re hard work even for me, especially going down to the basement.’
‘No moaning from you. You’re in your late twenties…maybe in another thirty years you can talk like that.’
Running the Inglenook Inn was something that had happened by chance. Darcy had been travelling for five years, coming home to New York on only a few occasions. She’d worked in hotels in Sydney, Australia, a small town in Ireland, then she’d moved over to Scotland, where she’d found work with a large hotel chain. She’d finished up in London, where she’d worked first as a waitress and then as a kitchen hand, washing up for hours on end. Finally she’d managed to secure the role of front-of-house supervisor, which she’d loved until the position was snatched out from under her when a misunderstanding led to her resignation and subsequent return to New York. She’d wanted to gain far more experience before coming home, but the best laid plans hadn’t quite worked out that way, which was what made this role at the Inglenook Inn perfect in its timing. It was the chance to prove herself all over again and move forwards.
‘I sneaked another look at the new website this morning,’ Sofia told her now.
‘It’s really easy to use, isn’t it?’
‘Dylan did a brilliant job. The photographs sell the place. Fingers crossed for lots more bookings.’
On one of Darcy’s visits home to New York, Sofia mentioned she’d never been able to knit and she longed to be the type of grandparent who could make cosy woolly sweaters and accessories for her grandchildren. Darcy had taken Sofia along to the Little Knitting Box, a store in Inglenook Falls that had originally started out not far from where the Inn was situated now. There, Sofia secured some strong friendships as chatting took her mind off her divorce and endless talk of lawyers, financial arrangements and property settlements. The owner of the store, Cleo, introduced Sofia to her other half, Dylan, a freelance website designer, and it wasn’t long before they were talking business and the development of a whizz-bang website for the Inn.
‘All you youngsters have helped me enormously,’ said Sofia. ‘Are you still knitting?’
‘When would I have the time?’ Darcy rolled her eyes. ‘But yes, I’m fitting a little bit in when I can. I’m attempting to knit a sweater for Kyle. The last time I attempted a similar project, it ended with me unravelling the entire thing.’
‘Practise makes perfect,’ Sofia encouraged.
‘Yes, but I’m so slow it won’t be ready for Christmas. It should be ready for his birthday in February though.’
‘It’ll still be cold then, don’t you worry.’ Sofia’s smile radiated warmth. ‘And how’s Rupert, our resident chef?’
‘He’s fine, even without you here mothering him.’ She grinned. ‘He’s very reliable. He’s here well before his start time every day to do the evening meals as requested, and we’ve been talking at length about the menu for the Christmas lunch.’
Darcy was more than capable of making light breakfasts, lunches or snacks at a guest’s request, but she was grateful Sofia had employed a part-time chef who came in to do the fancier dinners, because Darcy knew she’d have no hope of doing it herself. The closest she’d come to gourmet was shopping at Zabar’s and arranging foods on a plate to look appealing.
‘Is it snowing there?’ Darcy peered more closely at the screen. She still hadn’t had a chance to duck out and get another coffee and already she was planning in her mind to finish the Skype call with Sofia, run upstairs to the two-bedroom apartment that was hers for the duration of her stay at the Inn, pull on another skirt and then treat herself a second time, hopefully with much more luck.
‘It certainly is, and it’s beautiful. We had a light flurry this morning and already Gabriella is talking about getting Kyle to take up skiing. He loves sledding. Start them young, that’s what she thinks.’
‘She’s a great mum. I’m sorry she’s having such a hard time.’
‘Me too, but she’s got me to help while Trent is at work.’
They talked some more about how Trent’s job over there was going and although Darcy knew Sofia missed her daughter incredibly, it was good to see how happy her friend was in her marriage and how settled they were in coupledom and family life. Trent had a good job, earned excellent money, and Gabriella was taking motherhood in her stride. Darcy had to admire her for it. It wasn’t the lifestyle she’d choose – being financially dependent on a man.
‘I’m going to have to get on now, Sofia.’ She knew if she chatted much longer, not only would she be pushed to finish all the paperwork and prepare the guests’ bedrooms before the next set of arrivals, but she’d also be cold if she didn’t get some clothes on her bottom half. She hadn’t lit the fire in here yet, but she’d do it in time for the next guests. It gave the Inn a cosy feel, stepping off the Manhattan sidewalk into a little slice of heaven.
‘I’ll ask Gabriella to call you later or text at least,’ said Sofia. ‘Do you have any questions for me?’
‘Everything is in hand. And we have another booking for January, and two more for the start of February.’
It was, but she wished Sofia would make some changes to boost bookings even further. Darcy’s head had been buzzing the last few days with ideas, but how could she make any suggestions without offending Sofia or sounding like a know-it-all?
‘I’m nervous that I won’t be there for Christmas,’ said Sofia.
‘I know you are, but you’ve got me. I will not let you down.’ Especially not after what she’d done without Sofia’s say-so. She’d almost admitted it but she didn’t want to add to Sofia’s worries in case it didn’t work out for the best. ‘If this Christmas does well and you want to do it again, there’s so much you could provide for guests. You could offer gift-wrapping to fraught parents with kids in tow who need Santa gifts hidden and then miraculously appearing under a tree; you could offer babysitting services for couples to have a romantic night out; you could book activities around the city for those who have no idea how to spend the time or what will be open and what won’t be.’
‘I wish I could afford to employ you permanently,’ Sofia smiled. ‘You’re full of ideas and I need them.’ Darcy was on the verge of saying everything she’d thought about, but it would be too much, too soon, especially with Sofia away. ‘Are you sure you want to go and work for a big hotel chain where it’s impossible to know all the guests’ names?’
‘That’s always been my aim, but who knows – this place is wonderful, in a different way. Maybe I could set my sights on something smaller.’
‘I’ll let you go then, Darcy. And thanks again. Do call me anytime, day or night, if you need anything.’
‘I promise I will.’ With impeccable timing she heard a small voice in the background and Sofia had to turn her attention to Kyle, who’d woken from his nap.
Darcy closed down the Skype session and shivered. The heating was on but with only stockings on her bottom half, she felt the cold that tried to sneak around the window panes and in through any crack it could find. She was about to scoot upstairs and grab another skirt when she heard the front door open. It creaked, brought a rush of cold air in, and then it clunked shut. Darcy froze behind the desk. It couldn’t be Rupert – he’d said he wouldn’t be back for at least an hour – and it couldn’t be Mr-I’m-addicted-to-my-job from upstairs, because, well, he was addicted to his job. But when footsteps in the hallway halted before they took the stairs, it was the man in the dark suit that appeared.
Darcy adopted her best professional face. Usually she’d be out from behind the desk to greet a guest, deeming it the most polite thing to do. But how could she do that when she was partially dressed? Instead she looked up and gave him her friendliest smile.
‘Sorry to disturb you, but I was wondering if you had a menu for lunch.’ The man approached the desk when Darcy didn’t make a move.
As much as Darcy felt rude by not getting up, she couldn’t do anything but stay put. She tugged at the bottom of her shirt as though it could cover a little bit more in case he were to peer over the top. She extended a hand. ‘I’m Darcy, I don’t believe we’ve met.’ Although, when he took her hand and his chocolatey brown eyes looked deep into hers she could’ve sworn she’d seen him somewhere before.
‘It’s good to meet you, Darcy. I’m Myles Cunningham, I’m staying on the top floor.’
‘It’s lovely to meet you. And I hope everything is to your liking, sir?’ He was an Englishman in New York and it made her smile to hear his accent, the familiar intonations she’d heard during her time in his country. With her quizzical nature she wondered what brought him to New York in the first place, but she was more concerned at her lack of skirt right now than his personal life.
‘Please, call me Myles,’ he answered. ‘And everything is fine. I’ll be working from the office upstairs for the rest of the day. I’d like to arrange to have some lunch up there, if I may.’
Darcy turned the best she could without baring all and plucked a lunch menu from the pile on the shelf behind her. ‘This is the menu, or if you’d like something a little more, I’d be happy to go out to the deli and pick something up for you.’
He perused the small piece of card and seemed impressed enough. The apartment he was staying in was his for at least a couple of months, so this was a lucrative client and Darcy needed to impress him. She wondered, was he lonely up there for hours on end, when he wasn’t in the office? The top floor was their most palatial apartment here at the Inglenook Inn, with its classic vintage brown Chesterfield sofas in the lounge area and pocket doors that could be pulled out to create an extra bedroom if guests required. In the master bedroom was a deluxe bed with the finest white linen and a chaise longue at one edge with a view across the rooftops of Manhattan, and she wondered whether he ever stopped working long enough to take in his surroundings. There was a mirrored mantel in the lounge, sitting over an ornate but unused fireplace, with tall candlesticks on either side, and above the office area and the desk easily capable of sitting three or four people, was a skylight that gave away the time of day depending on whether the moon and stars or the sun came out to play.
‘I’ll take the club sandwich, please.’ His request jolted her out of her thoughts.
Darcy had a habit of observing people and trying to work them out, and it was often far too distracting. ‘What time would you like it?’ She made a note on the scribble pad beside her.
‘In about an hour if that suits.’
‘Of course it does, sir.’ She wrote the time down.
‘Excuse me?’ When he smiled she said, ‘Oh yes, Myles.’ Usually confident with guests, she was turning into a teen impressed with a man older than her and dressed in clothes worthy of a feature in GQ magazine. To make matters worse, he seemed amused by her uneasiness and she tried desperately to think where she might have seen him before. He definitely looked familiar.
‘Thank you, Darcy. I’ll see you soon.’ He turned to leave the lounge, briefcase in hand, coat over one arm, suit jacket in place with the same cuffs she’d seen earlier that morning still pristine white and measuring precisely how they should in relation to his jacket sleeves.
She waited for him to go and when she heard his footsteps on the stairs and their gradual fading away as he went all the way to the top floor, she braved getting up from the desk. She tiptoed in her heels across the wooden floors and peered around the doorway into the hall. Apart from the usual comings and goings on the street outside, the brownstone was silent with their single guest now ensconced in his apartment, so she took the stairs one at a time, her hand careful not to knock the Christmas garlands she’d twisted round the bannisters with their tiny twinkle lights shining their enthusiasm.
She cursed under her breath when she dropped her key on the floor right outside her apartment, but nothing could match the feeling that whipped through her body when she turned the key in the lock and realised she had an audience, because there was Myles at the foot of the stairs on her floor obviously debating whether to pass the scantily clad woman in the hallway or whether perhaps it was best to hover until she disappeared inside. He must’ve come back down the stairs so quietly she hadn’t heard him.
She flew into her apartment and shut the door without a word. She leaned against it and had no idea whether he’d gone past yet or not.
All she knew was that this wasn’t the impression she wanted to leave on a guest, least of all when she was doing her best to make this season successful for the Inn and for her. After her spectacularly bad departure from her job in London, she needed to make this something good, for her self-esteem and confidence as much as anything else.
She hastily found another skirt, pulled it on and hoped she wouldn’t have to face Myles when she came out of her apartment and shut the door behind her, but it was as though the man had a radar.
She shook her head as though it would help her mind get straight. ‘I know, Myles. I do apologise.’
‘No need.’ He looked amused and she hoped he wasn’t thinking about what he’d seen earlier.
‘Can I get you anything?’
He was staring, that was for sure. ‘I’m sorry, I just feel as though we’ve met before.’
‘I don’t think so.’ She smiled. She didn’t admit the same thought had crossed her mind earlier.
He seemed to accept her claim. ‘Could I please ask for a bottle of beer to be brought up with my lunch?’
‘Of course, I’ll bring it to you with your sandwich. Any preference for which type?’
‘I’ll leave it up to you.’ His eyes didn’t leave hers.
More confident fully dressed, she turned to go down the stairs and left him hovering in the corridor, fully aware he was still watching her. It was only as she reached halfway down that it dawned on her. She had seen him before, and she remembered exactly where.
He must’ve realised the same thing at the same time because when she turned to look back, he’d taken a few steps along the corridor to close the gap between them.
He shook his head. ‘I don’t believe it. Darcy Spencer. We meet again.’