“I hate to fly,” Lexi told the driver who picked her up at the airport. “It was a good flight, as far as flights go, but only the takeoff and landing are entertaining, to be honest. The more time in between those two events, the less enjoyable the flight is.”
The driver didn’t have any response; he just steered the big Bentley through traffic.
She settled back in the seat. “Of course it’s a necessary evil, flying. It’s not like I could drive across the ocean, after all. Sometimes the only way to get to someplace interesting is to fly. Until they get around to building land bridges to connect the continents, that is.”
The driver merely nodded, clearly uninterested in conversation.
“Dobie likes his Bentleys, doesn’t he?” she tried.
“I wouldn’t know,” the driver said. He didn’t even glance in the rearview mirror.
“Welcome to Ile du Soleil,” she muttered, sitting back in the seat and folding her arms. With a stoneface like that, what was the point of getting a haircut and dressing up all cool? She elected not to talk to him the rest of the drive.
Dobie lived on a huge chunk of land that had more trees and lawn on it than the spare salt desert surrounding it suggested there should be, with a single private road. Instead of a gate, the drive was blocked by an array of ten stout pillars which rose four feet out of the driveway itself. Each was embossed with what Lexi assumed was the Cassarell family crest. She couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be, except for the rabbits. Lexi forgot all about the rude driver, watching the landscaping slide past. It was attractive, in a slightly artificial way, and there was certainly a lot of it. Dobie seemed to have a modicum of taste, too–she’d been chary of seeing alabaster mermaid fountains, or something like that, but at worst Dobie’s estate looked like a golf course.
Eventually the house swerved into view. “House” was a term used loosely, of course. What did you call a house the size of a Best Western? She considered saying that out loud, but couldn’t think of anything suitably funny to follow up with. It would’ve been wasted on the driver anyway. She found herself looking forward to seeing Dobie, but wasn’t sure if it was because she missed him, or because she was in the mood to see a familiar face.
The house captured her attention until the driver opened the trunk to get her suitcase–a duffle bag she’d actually picked up on the way to the airport. She didn’t want him to carry it, so she pulled it out herself. The oversized front doors were already open as she approached, and a man in a tuxedo stood on either side, one with a neat mustache and one without. “Hi!” she said cheerfully to them. The one without the mustache smiled back, but neither of them replied. “Okay, someone had better talk to me,” Lexi said. “I checked in the guide; people speak English in Ile du Soleil.”
“Of course we do,” Victor said. He stepped out of the doorway, emerging from shadow into sudden sunlight without warning.
She jumped back, startled. “Gah! Don’t do that!”
“Welcome to Ile du Soleil.”
“Oh, don’t act like you mean it. I’ve been on a plane for a day and a half, and they’ve quarantined my cat. Where’s your boss?”
“He was called away on business,” Victor said, “and sends his apologies. Come in and make yourself at home.” He stepped aside and bowed slightly.
“It’s good to see you too,” she said, meaning it. “Where am I sleeping?”
“Are you tired?”
“I feel like I could suddenly become tired. Jet lag does funny things to me.”
Victor nodded. “Understood.”
The foyer was airy yet cozy, with a skylighted ceiling that went all the way to the third floor and a staircase that wrapped along the house’s front wall, and everything was pristine enough that if someone had told her Dobie had built the entire house specifically for her arrival, she might have believed them. The smooth hardwood floors would be a delight to skate on in stocking feet. The house radiated out in spoke-like wings from the tremendous entry hall slash great room, with an arm going straight back to an equally massive and polished-wood dining room. Beyond that was an outdoor dining area and a backyard that was no doubt the size of Vermont.
It was the kind of place Lexi imagined Dobie greeting prospective business partners in. First impressions were everything, of course, and who wouldn’t be impressed by the sheer, apparently seamless wood paneling that went partway up the walls and matched the floor and sort of flowed into a curved staircase that went around behind the door and up over her head to a landing and…”Um, what is that thing?” she asked, pointing up with her free hand.
Victor barely glanced. “Aerial sculpture. By Jessica Keizer.”
Lexi tilted her head back to get a better look at the massive yet delicate pieces of lacquered wood that rotated slowly, constantly changing the sculpture’s silhouette. “Neato mosquito,” she said. She had no idea who Jessica Keizer was, but it was pretty.
“Indeed. If you’ll come this way, we can get you settled in.”
“So which room is mine? Can it be one with a refrigerator? I like to snack at night, and I have a feeling it’ll be a long walk to the kitchen.”
Victor smiled tightly. “They all have refrigerators,” he said, and led the way. She followed, and dropped her bags in a predictably dark green, wood and leather room. Lexi did a quick circuit of it. “And the man of the house really isn’t here to give me a tour?” she asked.
“I’m sure he will, when he gets back,” Victor said.
“That’s too long to wait; I’ll do it myself.”
Victor followed her, while she explored. None of the rooms said, “Dobie.” In fact, the house didn’t really either. It felt more like a tremendously nice meeting facility than a home. Opening doors, she quickly found two bathrooms that were larger than her master bedroom, a library as big as some public libraries and the indoor pool, but very little that looked like personal effects.
She hadn’t gotten halfway through the house, but Victor’s shadowing her was getting annoying, so she started running. When she ran, he kept pace, which just made her run faster. She changed directions without really paying attention to where she was going, and suddenly found herself in a restaurant-grade kitchen, all white tile and silver appliances and pots hanging from the ceiling. There were two women in white chef’s outfits who seemed surprised when she burst in. “Hello!” Lexi said on her way into the walk-in freezer. “Do you have a Klondike bar?” Slam.
Victor caught up a moment later. She looked out at him through the window in the door, smiled, and stuck her tongue out at him.
Victor’s expression didn’t change, but he seemed to be smiling when he shot the bolt and locked her in.
Lexi wasn’t able to keep the expression of surprise and dismay off of her face, and she immediately looked for another way out. There wasn’t one, but he let her out almost immediately, having gotten the satisfaction of scaring her a bit, and she stalked back into the kitchen without looking at him.
Ten minutes later she couldn’t remember where the kitchen was. She went back and looked for it, but the doorway seemed to have disappeared, which made no sense whatsoever.
When Lexi gave up on looking for the kitchen, she discovered that Victor had disappeared as well. In fact, it took her almost half an hour to find her room again. During that time she didn’t see or hear any other human beings. “Like a rat in a maze,” she said to herself, skimming her fingers over the railing of the balcony overlooking the entryway. “Like a princess in a tower.”
The princess-in-a-tower sensation kicked into high gear the second afternoon, after she’d gotten a full night’s sleep and the airline had delivered Malice to the house. By then Lexi had explored enough of the place to get a feel for it (she counted at least seventeen bedrooms, and there was an entire wing she couldn’t get into), had walked the grounds, splashed in the pool, taken a nap on a gazebo-dotted, tree-lined polyhedron of grass that was as manicured as a putting green, and had tried and failed to find both the kitchen and the garage. She had found a greenhouse, a racquetball court, an indoor gym complete with sauna and spa, a helicopter pad and a fifty-seat movie theater. Late in the afternoon she finally found the door to the garage as well, but it was locked. To protest this, she’d found a decent sound system and played a variety of noisy, anti-social music at ear-bleeding volumes (in part to make good on Cygnet’s request), but if it bothered any of the staff, they didn’t complain.
Victor didn’t put in an appearance either. One of the housekeeping staff, a cheerful, doughy woman named Maya, explained that he had joined Dobie, wherever both of them had gotten off to. As it turned out, Maya was responsible for making sure Lexi had what she wanted, but when she asked for car keys and a local map, the answer was, “Oh, no, no. Mr. Cassarell will escort you into town when he returns.”
“When will that be?” Lexi asked.
“I think he will be back tomorrow. Perhaps the next day.”
“He told you guys to keep me here as revenge for my leaving him at my house, didn’t he?”
Maya blushed. “I don’t know anything about that, Miss Crane,” she said.
“Oh, God, please call me Lexi. Or, if you can do a good Sean Connery, call me Moneypenny.”
“I will try to remember, Miss Lexi.”
“That’s a good compromise, I guess. So are you sure I can’t leave? There’s nothing close enough to walk to.”
“Why would you want to walk somewhere?”
“I don’t know. I might want a bottle of orange Crush or a hot dog or something to read, and I like having options.”
“I’ll have the kitchen staff prepare you an orange soda and an American-style hot dog,” Maya offered instantly.
Lexi shook her head. “That’s not the point,” she said, but it was too late; Maya was off. Lexi started to call her back, then decided that a hot dog wouldn’t be a terrible thing after all, and followed.
Tailing Maya did tell her where the kitchen was, and explained why she hadn’t found it before; it was a part of a completely separate network of hallways in the house. Some of them ran parallel to the main halls, but with sparser décor, and tile floors instead of wood or marble or carpet.
“Oh, shit, it’s just like Biltmore,” Lexi said. “You’ve got servants’ hallways.”
Maya nodded. “It makes it easier to get through the house when Mr. Cassarell has guests. If you’d prefer, I can meet you in the second-floor dining room…”
“Don’t be insane. I like servants’ hallways. I’m no better than you, and I’m not going to act like I am. And you’re making me act like a cliché, so stop it.”
“Yes, Miss Lexi,” she replied.
Another day passed, and Dobie and Victor were still no-shows. Lexi changed rooms, moving from the traditional wood-and-leather bedroom she’d started out in to a funny white and orange room on the third floor that was inexplicably decorated straight out of the mod sixties, complete with a round bed on a raised dais and two of those egg chairs. The walls and carpet were creamy white, so the bed looked like a Tylenol floating in a bowl of milk. The furniture was pushed up against the walls, and mostly in shades of orange. There were two paintings on the walls, heavy on warm colors of course. An orange-on-orange swirl had been painted on the ceiling as well. It was tacky, but in a slightly endearing way, and she wondered if the design was Dobie’s idea, or someone else’s. She was betting that it was someone else’s. She also had a side bet going with herself that he’d never even seen this room.
The attached bathroom was decorated in an eye-searing shade of blue, and featured a round floor-level bathtub big enough for four. How the hell did you isntall a sunken bathtub on the third frigging floor? Lexi had asked Maya, who had endeavored to find out until being told that it was a rhetorical question. She had decided it was her favorite room in the house. Malice approved, too, and the black cat looked good curled up in the middle of the white disc of the bed.
On her fourth day at Dobie’s house, Lexi got up to watch the sun rise, then went back to bed and slept late. After breakfast she found that her suitcase had been brought in and installed next to the dresser; it was empty, and all of her clothes had been put into the drawers.
She spent the day swimming and practicing her archery, moving every twenty minutes to avoid the sprinklers that kept the grass and elaborate landscaping alive in the arid climate. That evening, she commandeered the theater (not difficult, since she was the only person in the gigantic house who wasn’t working there) and watched The Hudsucker Proxy. She got Maya and several of the staff to watch with her, and they seemed to enjoy the movie.
It felt strange to be doing nothing. For the past four years she and Ren had been perpetually active on one project or another, always moving, always scheming, and then after he’d died she had fallen off the edge of the world, into a nowhere-place. Since getting herself back, Lexi had been wrapped up in projects–first Ren’s car, then getting the house taken care of, then dealing with the Road Associates–and that stuff had distracted her, kept her moving.
Now there was no motion, and no need to move. It was a pleasant feeling, but at the same time it made her twitchy. It was getting harder to keep herself from feeling like a bird in a gilded cage. She tried to enjoy it, but couldn’t sit still for more than an hour or two at a stretch without becoming terminally restless. Maya showed her the library; although Dobie had a book room as big as some community libraries, she couldn’t find a damned thing to read. When Maya asked casually what kinds of books she was interested in, Lexi didn’t want to tell her. The notion of having the right books magically appear didn’t feel right. This was Dobie’s library, and there was nothing that interested her in it; this didn’t mean that it had to change.
Besides, Lexi wanted to pick her own books. That was half of the fun.