An Unwanted Guest – Shari Lapena

THE ROAD CURVES and twists unexpectedly as it leads higher and deeper into the Catskill Mountains, as if the further you get from civilization, the more uncertain the path. The shadows are deepening, the weather worsening. The Hudson River is there, appearing and disappearing from view. The forest that rises on either side of the road has a lurking quality, as if it might swallow you whole; it is the forest of fairy tales. The softly falling snow, however, lends it all a certain postcard charm. Gwen Delaney grips the steering wheel tightly and squints through the windscreen. She’s more one for grim fairy tales than picture postcards. The light is going; it will soon be dark. The snow coming down makes driving more difficult, more tiring. The flakes hit the glass in such profusion that she feels as though she’s stuck in some kind of relentless video game. And the road is definitely becoming more slippery. She’s grateful that she has good tyres on her little Fiat. Everything is turning into a white blur; it’s hard to tell where the road ends and the ditch begins. She’ll be glad when they get there. She’s beginning to wish they’d chosen an inn a little less remote; this one is miles from anywhere.

Riley Shuter is silent in the passenger seat beside her, a ball of quiet tension; it’s impossible not to pick up on it. Just being with her in the small car puts Gwen on edge. She hopes she hasn’t made a mistake bringing her up here. The whole point of this little escape, Gwen thinks, is to get Riley to relax a little, to take her mind off things. Gwen bites her lip and stares hard at the road ahead. She’s a city girl, born and bred; she’s not used to country driving. It gets so dark up here. She’s becoming anxious now – the drive has taken longer than planned. They shouldn’t have stopped for coffee at that cute little antique place along the way. She’s not sure what she expected, suggesting this weekend getaway, other than a change of scenery, a chance to spend some quiet time together, with nothing to remind Riley that her life is in ruins.

Perhaps that was naive. Gwen has her own baggage, less recent, and she, too, carries it with her everywhere she goes. But she’s decided she’s going to put that behind her for this weekend at least. A small luxury hotel deep in the country, good food, no internet, pristine nature – it’s exactly what they both need. Riley watches nervously out of the car window, peering into the shadowy woods, trying not to imagine someone jumping in front of their car at any second, waving them down. She clenches her hands into fists inside the pockets of her down jacket. She reminds herself that she’s not in Afghanistan any more. She’s home, safe, in New York State. Nothing bad can happen to her here. Her career has changed her.

Seeing what she has seen, Riley is so different that she hardly recognizes herself any more. She glances furtively at Gwen. They’d been close once. She’s not even sure why she agreed to come with her to this faraway country inn. She watches Gwen concentrating fiercely on the winding road up the slippery incline, heading into the mountains. ‘Are you okay?’ she asks suddenly. ‘Me?’ Gwen says. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. We should be there soon.’ In journalism school, when they were both at NYU, Gwen had been the steady, pragmatic one.

But Riley was ambitious – she wanted to be where it was happening. Gwen had no taste for adventure. She’d always preferred books, and quiet. Out of journalism school, unable to find a decent job at a newspaper, Gwen had quickly parlayed her skills into a good corporate communications position and had never seemed to regret it. But Riley had headed to the war zones. And she’d managed to keep it together for a long time. Why does she do this? Why does she keep thinking about it? She can feel herself starting to come apart. She tries to slow her breathing, the way she’s been taught. To stop the images from coming back, from taking over. David Paley parks his car in the shovelled parking area to the right of the hotel.

He gets out of the car and stretches. The weather made the drive from New York City longer than expected, and now his muscles are stiff – a reminder that he’s not quite as young as he used to be. Before grabbing his overnight bag from the back seat of his Mercedes, he stands for a moment in the thickly falling snow, looking at Mitchell’s Inn. It’s a three-storey, graceful-looking structure of red brick and gingerbread trim, encircled by nearby forest. The front of the small hotel is open to view, with what must be a rather grand lawn underneath all the snow. Tall evergreens and mature trees bereft of leaves but draped in white seem to encroach on the building from a short distance away. In the front, an enormous tree in the middle of the lawn extends its thick branches in every direction. All is covered in a pure, muffling white snow. It feels quiet here, peaceful, and he feels his shoulders begin to relax. There are large, rectangular windows spaced regularly across all three floors.

Wide steps lead up to a wooden porch and double front doors decorated with boughs of evergreens. Although it is still daylight – barely – the lamps on either side of the doors are lit, and soft yellow light also spills from the windows on the ground floor, giving the building a warm, welcoming appearance. David stands still, willing the stresses of the day – and the week, and the years – to recede as the snow falls gently on his hair and tickles his lips. He feels like he’s walking into an earlier, more gracious, more innocent time. He will try not to think about work for an entire forty-eight hours. Everyone, no matter how busy, needs to recharge once in a while, even – perhaps especially – a top criminal attorney. It’s rare for him to be able to fit in any downtime at all, much less an entire weekend. He’s determined to enjoy it. Friday, 5:00 PM Lauren Day glances at the man next to her, Ian Beeton. He’s driving his car expertly in rather challenging conditions, and making it all look easy.

He has a disarming smile, and he turns it on her now. She smiles back. He’s nice-looking, too, tall and spare, but it’s the smile that first attracted her to him, his laid-back charm that makes him so appealing. Lauren rummages through her handbag for her lipstick. She finds it – a nice shade of red that brightens her face – and applies it carefully while looking in the mirror on the visor in front of her. The car skids a bit and she stops what she’s doing, but Ian straightens the vehicle skilfully. The road winds more steeply now, and the car has an increasing tendency to swerve as it loses traction. ‘Getting slippery,’ she says. ‘No worries. Nothing I can’t handle,’ he says and grins at her.

She smiles back. She likes his selfconfidence, too. ‘Whoa – what’s that?’ she says suddenly. There’s a dark shape in front of them to the right. It’s a dull day, and with the snow falling so heavily it’s hard to see, but it looks like there’s a car in the ditch. She stares keenly out of the window as they pass the vehicle, and Ian looks for somewhere to stop. ‘I think there’s someone in that car,’ she says. ‘Why don’t they have the hazard lights on?’ he mutters. He pulls over slowly to the side of the road, careful not to slide off the road himself. Lauren gets out of the warmth of the car and plunges into several inches of virgin snow, which immediately falls inside her boots, stinging her ankles.

She can hear Ian getting out of the car, too, slamming the door. ‘Hey!’ she cries down to the motionless car. The driver’s door opens slowly. Lauren clambers down the incline carefully, sliding as she goes. The ground is uneven and she finds it hard to keep her balance. She reaches the car and grabs on to the door with her left hand for support as she peers into the front seat. ‘You okay?’ she asks. The driver is a woman close to her own age – around thirty. She appears a bit shaken up, but the windscreen isn’t cracked and she’s wearing a seat belt. Lauren looks beyond the driver to the woman in the passenger seat.

Her face is pale and sweating, and she’s staring straight ahead, as if Lauren isn’t even there. She looks like she’s had a dreadful shock. The driver glances quickly at her companion, and then turns back to Lauren gratefully. ‘Yes, we’re fine. We went off the road just a few minutes ago. We were wondering what to do next. Lucky for us you came along.’ Lauren feels Ian come up behind her and peer over her shoulder at the two women inside the car. He smiles his charming smile at them. ‘Looks like you’re going to need a tow.

’ ‘Great,’ the driver says. ‘Where you headed?’ Lauren asks. ‘Mitchell’s Inn,’ she answers. ‘Well, isn’t that lucky,’ Ian says. ‘That’s where we’re going, too. Although I don’t think there’s much else out here. Why don’t we give you a lift, and you can arrange from the hotel for someone to come and get your car out?’ The woman smiles with relief and nods. She’s obviously glad to be rescued. Lauren doesn’t blame her. You could freeze to death out here all by yourself.

But the woman with her doesn’t react. She seems to be in her own world. ‘You have any bags?’ Lauren asks. ‘Yes, in the back.’ The driver gets out of the car and struggles through the deep snow to the back of the vehicle. Her passenger now seems to snap out of her trance and gets out on the other side. The driver opens the boot as the woman appears beside her. They each grab an overnight bag. Ian reaches down and offers all three women a hand up to the road. Even with help, it’s an awkward climb.

‘Thanks so much,’ the driver says. ‘My name is Gwen, and this is Riley.’ ‘I’m Lauren and this is Ian,’ she says. ‘Let’s get in the car. It’s so cold.’ She casts a furtive glance at the woman named Riley, who hasn’t said a word. She wonders what’s up with her. Something about her definitely seems off. Chapter Two Friday, 5:00 PM BEVERLY SULLIVAN DROPS her overnight bag at her feet and lets her eyes sweep around the room. It’s perfect.

Just like the one in the brochure. There’s an old-fashioned luxury here that she’s not accustomed to, and she moves about the room, touching things. The antique, king-size bed is heaped with pillows. The carved wardrobe is gorgeous, and the thick Oriental carpet must have cost a fortune. She steps up to the windows, which face out over the front of the hotel. The snowfall has made everything indescribably beautiful. New-fallen snow always makes her feel hopeful. She turns away from the windows and peeks into the en suite bathroom – a spotless oasis of white marble and fluffy white towels. She checks her appearance briefly in the elaborate mirror over the vanity unit and turns away. Sitting down on the bed, testing it, she begins to wonder what’s taking her husband so long.

Henry had stayed down at the front desk to inquire about cross-country skis and God knows what else, and she’d come up to the room herself. He insisted that she not wait for him, although she’d been perfectly willing to sit in one of the deep-blue velvet chairs or sofas around the stone fireplace in the lobby while he fussed over the equipment. But she didn’t want to make an issue of it. She tries not to feel disappointed. It will take time for him to begin to relax. But he seems to be looking for ways to fill their weekend with activities, when all she wants is to slow down and simply be together. It’s almost as if he’s avoiding being with her, as if he doesn’t want to be here at all. She knows her marriage is in … disrepair. She wouldn’t say it’s in trouble, exactly. But it needs work.

They have drifted apart, begun to take each other for granted. She’s guilty of it, too. How does a modern marriage survive all the forces that converge to tear it apart? Too much familiarity, the dreariness of domesticity, of paying bills, raising children. Of having full-time jobs and always too much to do. She doesn’t know if a weekend away at a lovely and remote place in the country will make that much of a difference, but it could be a start. A start they certainly wouldn’t get if they stayed at home. They desperately need a chance to reconnect, to remember what they like about each other. Away from squabbling, sullen teenagers who demand their attention and drain their energies. She sighs and slumps inwardly; she wishes they didn’t argue so much about the kids. She’s hoping that here they’ll be able to talk about things without being interrupted, without that constant, wearying, underlying tension.

She wonders with a vague unease how the weekend will unfold, and if anything will be different by the time they return home. Henry Sullivan lingers near the reception desk in the lobby to the left of the grand staircase. The smell of logs burning in the fireplace reminds him of Christmases as a boy. He looks at some glossy flyers advertising local restaurants and attractions. Although ‘local’ may be stretching it a bit. They’re pretty far away from things up here. Unfortunately, with all the snow, it looks like it might be too difficult to go anywhere anyway, but the young man at the desk said the snowploughs would be running tomorrow, and the roads should be fine. Henry fingers the mobile phone in his trouser pocket. There’s no reception up here, which is something he hadn’t been expecting. Beverly hadn’t mentioned that.

He feels a twinge of annoyance. He’s not sure why he agreed to this weekend away, except perhaps out of guilt. He already regrets it; he just wants to go home. He fantasizes harmlessly for a moment about getting back in his car and leaving his wife here. How long would it be before she noticed he was gone? What would she do? Quickly, he squashes the fantasy. His wife has been looking increasingly unhappy lately, but, he tells himself, it’s not just because of him. It’s the kids, too. Her job. Encroaching middle age. Her thickening waistline.

It’s everything. But one person can’t be responsible for another person’s happiness. She is responsible for her own. He can’t make her happy. Yet, he’s not a complete heel. He knows it’s not that simple. He loved her once. She’s the mother of his children. He simply doesn’t love her any more. And he has no idea what to do about it.

Dana Hart stamps the snow off her Stuart Weitzman boots at the front doorstep and looks around the lobby approvingly. The first thing that strikes her is the grand central staircase. The newel post and banisters are elaborately carved out of a burnished, dark wood. The stairs are wide, with a thick runner in a dark floral pattern. She can see the glint of the brass carpet rods holding the runner in place. It’s very impressive, and these days Dana isn’t easily impressed. The staircase makes her think of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, or perhaps Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It’s the kind of staircase you put on your best long dress for, and make an entrance, she thinks. I’m ready for my close-up. Unfortunately, she didn’t bring any evening gowns.

What a shame for such a glorious staircase to go to waste, she thinks. Next she notices the large stone fireplace on the left side of the lobby; around it are arranged a lot of comfortable-looking sofas and chairs for lounging in, some in deep-blue velvet, others in dark brown leather, accompanied by little tables with lamps on them. The walls are panelled halfway up from the floor with dark wooden wainscoting. A gorgeous Persian carpet covers part of the dark wood floors and makes everything feel cosy but expensive, which is just what she likes. A chandelier sparkles overhead. The smell of the wood fire reminds her of blissful days spent at Matthew’s family cottage. She breathes deeply and smiles. She’s a very happy woman. Recently engaged, on a weekend tryst with the man she is going to marry. Everything is glorious, including this lovely hotel that Matthew has found for them.

He dropped her at the front and is parking the car. He’ll be here in a minute with their bags. She sets off across the lobby past the fireplace to the old-fashioned reception desk to the left of the staircase. Everything here gleams with a patina of age and good furniture polish. There’s a young man behind the desk, and another man, older – obviously a guest – leaning against it, leafing through some pamphlets. He glances up when he sees her. He stops for a second, stares, and then smiles in an embarrassed way and looks away. She’s used to it. She has that effect on men. As if when they see her, they can’t believe their eyes for a minute.

She can’t help that. The younger man behind the desk does an almost imperceptible double take, but it’s there. She’s used to that, too. ‘I’m Dana Hart. My fiancé and I have a reservation under the name Matthew Hutchinson?’ ‘Yes, of course,’ the young man says smoothly and looks at the register. She notices that they use an old hotel register – how quaint – rather than a computer system for checking in guests. Behind the desk, against the wall, are wooden pigeonholes for the room keys. ‘You’re in room 101. Up the stairs to the first floor and to the right,’ the young man tells her. The door opens behind her with a burst of cold air and she turns to see Matthew with a bag in each hand and a dusting of snow on his coat and on his dark hair.

He comes up beside her and she brushes the snow off his shoulders; she enjoys these little demonstrations of ownership. ‘Welcome to Mitchell’s Inn,’ the young man behind the desk says, smiling and handing over a heavy brass key. She notices now how attractive he is. ‘Dinner is in the dining room from seven to nine pm. We offer drinks in the lobby before dinner. Enjoy your stay.’ ‘Thank you, I’m sure we will,’ her fiancé says, giving her a look. She raises her perfectly shaped eyebrows at him, her way of telling him to behave himself in public. Matthew picks up the bags again and follows Dana up the wide staircase. He notices that there’s no lift.

It’s a small hotel. He chose carefully. He wanted somewhere quiet and intimate to spend some time with Dana before all the craziness of the wedding, which he would prefer to avoid altogether. He wishes they could elope to some delightful spot in the Caribbean. But the heir to a large fortune in New England does not elope. Such a thing would crush his mother, and all his aunts, and he’s not prepared to do that. And he knows that Dana, despite her sometimes becoming overwhelmed with the stress of the planning, the appointments, the millions of details such a wedding entails, is actually quite thrilled about the whole thing. But she’s been prone to emotional outbursts lately. This break will be good for both of them before the final push to their spring wedding. The thick rug softens their footsteps so that it is almost perfectly quiet as they walk up the stairs to the first floor and a few steps along the hall to room 101.

There’s an oval brass plate on the door, engraved with the number, and an old-fashioned keyhole lock. He unlocks the door and opens it for her. ‘After you.’ She steps inside and smiles approvingly. ‘It’s lovely,’ she says. She whirls to face him as he closes the door firmly behind them. He puts his arms around her and says, ‘You are lovely.’ He kisses her; eventually she pushes him away with a playful shove. She shrugs out of her coat. He does the same and hangs them up in the wardrobe.

They examine the room together. The bed is king-size, of course, and the linens, he notes, are first rate. There are chocolates wrapped in foil resting on the pillows. The bath is obviously intended for two, and a bucket of champagne on ice rests on a little table near the door, with a note of welcome. The windows look out onto the vast front lawn with snow-weighted trees, and the long, curving drive leading down to the main road, filling up fast now with snow. Half a dozen cars are in the car park to the side of the lawn. The two lovers stand together side by side, looking out. ‘It’s the honeymoon suite,’ he tells her, ‘if you haven’t already guessed.’ ‘Isn’t that bad luck?’ she asks. ‘To book the honeymoon suite when it’s not really your honeymoon?’ ‘Oh, I don’t think so.

’ They watch a car struggle bravely up the drive and pull slowly into the cark park. Four people get out. Three women and a man. He nuzzles her neck and says, ‘How about a nap before dinner?’ Ian Beeton drops into one of the chairs next to the fireplace in the lobby while Lauren signs in and gets the key to their room. He wouldn’t mind a drink. He wonders where the bar is. The dining room is to the right, off the lobby – the glass doors to the dining room are open and he can see tables with white linen tablecloths set up inside. The place is quite charming. Probably lots of little rooms and hallways and alcoves by the look of it; not like a typical modern hotel, built for efficiency and maximum returns. He turns his attention to the two women they rescued.

Gwen, the driver, is getting the key to their room. It looks like they’re sharing. He watches them go up the stairs together. He lets his mind drift. Lauren approaches and holds out her hand to him. ‘Ready to go up?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Dinner is from seven to nine in the dining room, but we can have cocktails down here,’ she tells him. ‘Good. What are we waiting for?’ ‘We’re on the second floor.’ He gets up and lifts the bags, then follows Lauren up the stairs.

The place seems so quiet. Maybe it’s the snow, or the thick carpet, or the soft lighting, but everything seems muffled, subdued. ‘Did you notice anything odd about that woman Riley?’ Lauren whispers as they climb the elaborate staircase. ‘She looked pretty rattled,’ he admits. ‘She didn’t say a word the whole time. I mean, they only slid into a ditch. No actual harm done.’ ‘Maybe she’s been in a car accident before.’ ‘Maybe.’ When they reach the second floor she turns to him and says, ‘She seemed awfully tense.

I got a weird vibe off her.’ ‘Don’t think about her,’ Ian says, giving her a sudden kiss. ‘Think about me.

.

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