The Hotel Del Monte sat on twelve lushly wooded acres in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in Southern California. The hotel’s secluded location and small size, the rambling, pink stucco Spanish style ninety-two-room complex and its tranquil and luxuriant gardens full of trees, ornamental ponds and fragrant flowers made it one of the most romantic settings in Los Angeles. No long, anonymous corridors lined with room numbers. Most guest rooms and suites had private entrances and opened directly onto the hotel’s gardens. If I was a guy in the market for a honeymoon, Hotel Del Monte would be my first choice.
I asked at the front desk for Room 103 and then headed out through the ancient sycamores and tree ferns. I crossed a small arched red and gold bridge from where I could see the graceful bell tower on the other side of the small lake where the swans were taking shelter. The rain pattered on the leaves of the lemon and orange trees lining the cobbled path, glittered on the petals of the rose bushes. It smelled good, like walking in the woods. The city seemed very far away.
I found Room 103 without too much trouble, ducking into the stone alcove and knocking on the door. Rain dripped musically from the eaves and ran down the back of my neck.
I shivered. I needed a raincoat, but with only about fifteen to twenty days of rain a year, there were better things to spend one’s pennies on. Like books. There was a 1924 edition of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Box-Car Children I had my eye on for this year’s Christmas present to myself.
The hotel room door swung abruptly open. An unsmiling, dark-haired man stood framed against an elegant background of pale cabbage roses and ivy. He was about forty. Tall, rawboned, lean. He wore faded jeans, a cream-colored sweater over a white tee shirt, and horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like a bookish angel.
“James Winter?” he inquired, looking me over like he’d caught me cheating on my chemistry quiz.
My surprise must have been obvious. “Is there a problem?” he returned sternly.
“No. Not at all.”
The problem was he was gorgeous. It was a no-nonsense brand of gorgeousness, though. Far from detracting from his dark, grave good looks, the glasses accentuated them.
I smiled my very best smile—despite the rain trickling down the back of my neck—and offered my hand. After a hesitation, he shook it.
His grip was firm, his palm and fingers smooth but not clammy or soft. An academic, but not one of the ones who never left his ivory tower.
No wedding ring.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I meant it. I was sort of nonplussed at how much I meant it.
“Come in,” Crisparkle replied, moving aside.
I stepped inside the room which was cozily warm and smelled indefinably expensive, a combination of fine linens, fresh coffee and cut flowers. A fire burned cheerily in the fireplace. The remains of the professor’s lunch were on a tray on the low table before the sage velvet sofa. Soothing classical piano played off the laptop next to his lunch tray.
Corey and I had stayed at the Hotel Del Monte on our one year anniversary. The rooms were all furnished in romantic country-French décor—each unique but with the famous signature touches of Alicante marble, vintage silk or chenille upholstery, and original artwork. It was the best weekend of my life—or maybe it seemed that way in contrast to the following week, which was when my entire world had shattered.
“You must have brought the rainy weather with you.” I smiled again, not bothering to analyze why I was displaying such uncharacteristic cordiality. “Have you seen much of the city since you’ve been here?”
“The book is on the desk.” Crisparkle nodded at the writing desk near the white French doors leading out to a private patio.
Not one for chitchat, was he? Maybe it was an English thing. In any case, I lost all interest in rude Professor Crisparkle. The only thing in that room for me now was the faded red leather book lying on the polished desktop. As I approached the writing table my heart was banging so hard I thought I might be having my first ever panic attack.
A book. Not a manuscript. I’d been thinking that Crisparkle and Mr. S. were playing fast and loose with their terminology, but no. It was a bound book. All the more unlikely, then, that this could be the real thing. Hard enough to believe a manuscript had been lost, let alone an entire print run. Impossible, in fact. And yet, as I reached for the thin volume, finely bound in red Morocco leather, I noted that my hand was shaking. Well, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.
I drew back as I realized that I was in danger of dripping on the desk.
“Could I borrow a towel?” I asked.
Crisparkle gave me a funny look, and then disappeared into the bathroom.
I took a moment to remind myself of all the possibilities of any such appraisal. The novel might be the real thing, but it was more likely to be a forgery. It might be a modern forgery or it might be a contemporary forgery. Knowing which would depend partially on discovering the book’s provenance—the documented or authenticated history of its ownership—of which I so far knew nothing.
The professor reappeared with a peach-colored plush towel and I scrubbed my face and hair, tossed the towel to the fireplace hearth and sat down at the desk. I still didn’t touch the book, simply gazing at the gold lettering on the front cover. Miss Anjaley Coutts surrounded in gold-stamped holly and ivy.
That wouldn’t be the title. So the book was a gift and Miss Coutts was the recipient. Why was that name familiar? Who was Miss Anjaley Coutts? Not Mrs. Dickens or a sister-in-law. Not a daughter. Not an alias of Dickens’ mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan, because he didn’t meet her until 1857. Who then?
“It doesn’t bite,” Professor Crisparkle said sardonically, and I realized that I’d been sitting there for more than a minute, unmoving, staring at the cover.
I threw him a quick, distracted look, and then delicately edged the book around to examine its spine. Gold lettering read The Christmas Cake / Dickens / MDCCCXLVII.
The Christmas cake?
I carefully opened the book and turned the flyleaf. On the frontispiece was a hand-colored etching of a truly sumptuous cake—topped by a sly, smiling mouse with crumbs on her whiskers. I looked at the title page: another smaller illustration of an elderly man and woman who appeared, to my wondering eye, to be getting sloshed on the Christmas punch. And the words The Christmas Cake in a familiar, faded hand that most people only viewed through glass.
I turned the page and stared, feeling decidedly light-headed, at the first sentence. Our story begins with a fallen star. But the star is not the story.
I was vaguely aware that Professor Crisparkle spoke to me, but I didn’t hear what he said, and I didn’t care. I was absorbing—devouring—the words with my eyes.
Roofed with the ragged ermine of a newly-fallen snow glittering by starlight, the Doctor’s old-fashioned house loomed grey-white through the snow-fringed branches of the trees, a quaint iron lantern, which was picturesque by day and luminous and cheerful by night, hanging within the square, white-pillared portico to one side. That the many-paned window on the right framed the snow-white head of Mrs. Dimpledolly, the Doctor’s wife, the old Doctor himself was comfortably aware—for his kindly eyes missed nothing, so it was that he spied the falling…
I read for some time before I finally raised my head. I no longer saw the hotel room. I don’t think I even saw the book or the handwritten pages anymore. I was seeing benevolent old Doctor Dimpledolly and his amiable missus as they opened their home to a coachload of strangers stranded on Christmas Eve.
“Satisfied?” Professor Crisparkle asked dryly.
I snapped back to awareness, blinking up at him, dimly taking in the details of elegant nose, long eyelashes, soft dark hair…I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were behind the horn-rims. That mercurial shade of light brown that looked green in certain light and gold in other. He seemed so awfully stern, so awfully strict, reminding me of an uptight schoolmaster. But that was right, wasn’t it? He taught chemistry like Mr. Redlaw, the professor of chemistry in The Haunted Man.
As I stared at him, it occurred to me that Professor Crisparkle didn’t like me much.
Didn’t like me at all.
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