Steering the conversation to lighter topics, Jada said, “Memories aside, guests will like the south wing’s new look. We spent more money than reasonable, but I can’t fault the end result. This place now reeks of elegance.”
Over the winter months, an elevator had been installed behind the lobby to accommodate guests. It was a minor undertaking compared to the other upgrades. The south wing was now completely renovated, the roof repaired, and a portion of the interior gutted. The fine carpentry had been finished in February, and new paint gleamed on every wall.
Cat turned in a slow circle. “Everything looks great, and without a moment to spare.”
“We have a reservation?”
“For this room, in fact. The front desk got the call this afternoon. The guest asked for the largest suite on the grounds.”
This early in the season, half of the rooms in the main inn were empty.
“What’s the duration of the reservation?” Jada asked. She’d assumed they wouldn’t have bookings for the south wing until May at the earliest.
“Two weeks, confirmed. She might stay longer.”
“Who is she?”
“A retired college professor from Chicago.”
“A wealthy professor, if she might keep the room into April.”
“There is one catch.” A curious light settled in Cat’s brown eyes. “She asked to speak with you. She was rather insistent.”
For reasons beyond logic, the comment brought back the sense of unease that had dogged Jada all day. Something she’d forgotten, a neglected task she’d rue forgetting once she extracted it from her overtaxed brain.
Why would a retired college prof wish to speak with me personally?
The request made no sense.
Cat was saying, “Before you ask, she didn’t explain why she wanted to talk to you. She just began rattling off questions. I got the impression she’s used to getting her way.”
“A demanding guest. How delightful.” With so many new employees on the Wayfair’s staff, Jada wasn’t looking forward to an overly demanding guest intimidating them.
“Will you call her tonight?” Cat handed over a slip of paper. Her distinctive handwriting raced across the page. “She’s strong-willed, but totally legit. I googledher. Millicent Earhardt, PhD. She taught American history before her retirement. She’s written a few books.”
“Which might explain her extended stay with us.” The Wayfair Inn was a landmark with a rich Ohio heritage. Linnie’s ambitious forebears had opened the first trading post in the area back in 1822. They had owned the first lumber mill, and carved the town of Sweet Lake from the dense forest surrounding the lake that shared its name. “Are you sure our curious historian doesn’t prefer to speak with Linnie? She’s the one with famous ancestors. Why would the guest ask to chat with me? I’m only the co-manager.”
“And our superb resident baker.” Cat shrugged. “Maybe she’s writing a book on minority women in business.”
“Then why wasn’t she content to speak with you?”
Cat chewed this around for a moment. “What if she’s finished her research on Latina women in business? Geez, I hope not. I’d love to give an interview. I mean, why should you get all the glory?” Once Cat latched onto a theory, she was capable of spinning it to ridiculous proportions. “How cool if we both end up in a history book!”
“Don’t head for the footlights just yet. The woman is a historian, not a sociologist. If she wants to speak with the Wayfair’s superb baker, I’m guessing she’s a foodie.” Jada decided she’d whip up any confection the historian craved if doing so would secure a long booking for the inn. “I’ll call her tomorrow. I can’t tonight. There’s a good chance I’m heading over to Philip’s house to help Fancy with her dress for the wedding. I need to give him a call after work.”
Jada rose with her emotions in flux.
A vague sliver of a memory flirted with the surface of her mind, then sank back into the muddy depths. It dawned on her that the name Millicent Earhardtseemed familiar. She wasn’t sure why. Jada’s reading preference ran toward fiction, not history, and she’d attended college in Ohio, not Illinois.
In the doorway, Cat paused. “What’s the matter?”
“I wish I knew.” There wasn’t an easy way to explain about the familiarity of Millicent’s name, or why the upcoming call made her anxious. Instead, Jada said, “There was something I was supposed to do today. I can’t recall what.”
“Check Linnie’s calendar. Heck, you should take the calendar and keep it in your office. You’ve been handling most of the management tasks for weeks.”
“The missing task isn’t on the calendar. I’ve already checked.”
Cat lifted her shoulders in a careless shrug. “Then whatever it is, it’ll wait. You never forget the important stuff.” She patted Jada’s cheek. “You’re too responsible.”
The scent of fresh linens wafted through the corridor. A singsong of conversation followed. Jada glimpsed two of the maids inside the suite she’d once called her own.
The walls, no longer a dull grey, sported spring-green paint. New draperies in pale yellow festooned the bay window. The maids hurried to either side of the bed, still immersed in conversation. The taller girl snapped out the sheet, a fluttering sail that rippled in the air, and Jada recalled the countless times Cat or Linnie helped her put clean linens on the bed, the sheets old and threadbare. They’d never permitted themselves the luxury of using the better linens reserved for the inn’s guests.
The maids unfolded the new comforter, green like the walls. The fabric was decorated in a swirling pattern meant to give the room a modern feel. From a distance, the pattern reminded Jada of snowflakes.
Gooseflesh sprouted on her arms.
“Cat . . . ,” she said slowly. “What is today’s date?”
“I’m not sure. Is it important?”
Queasy, Jada retrieved her smartphone from her pocket. Of all the days—how could she have forgotten this one?
The memories rushed over her. They were a chilling onslaught, like the snowstorm that struck Sweet Lake six years ago, crusting the streets with ice and drowning the houses in layers of white. She recalled the panic that had gripped her on that fateful day. She’d raced out of the inn and down the hill, blinded by the pelting snow, guided only by a premonition of disaster.
With effort, Jada pushed the memory away. She stared blankly at her smartphone.
At last, her brain processed the date on the glowing panel. March thirteenth—unlucky thirteen.
The day tragedy befell Sweet Lake.
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