A Killer Opening
Eleven months and twenty-seven days later, Amelia woke beneath white cotton sheets, with the Mediterranean sun pouring in through her powder-blue shuttered windows in her very own newly constructed boutique hotel.
Soon after she woke, her dogs, Tulip and Monty, rose from their beds on the floor, stretched luxuriantly, then clambered up onto her bed to join her. Next to arrive was Oliver who, apparently sensing her D-Day jitters from way down the hall, had deposited her favourite breakfast out on her balcony’s wrought iron table, thankfully without uttering a word. She ate it, staring unseeingly out over the clifftops and the aquamarine sea to the west, and then on to her very own almost-mountain, La Colina Alta, to the north.
After downing two cups of tea and devouring three slices of marmalade laden toast, she descended the staircase, sliding her hand down the smooth surface of the olive wood banister sitting atop a stained-glass balustrade down from the galleried landing and into the grand entrance hall below.
This morning, Amelia did not notice how the light reflected the blues, greens and aquamarine of the coloured glass up into the cathedral ceiling, nor did she notice how the vein that ran like waves through the expansive marble floor exactly matched the shade of the polished olive-wood stair rail.
She did not notice any of the beauty of her hotel or the island beyond its walls because she had a problem. A problem that the next few days would either kill or cure. As she descended into the marvellously grand but still warmly welcoming entrance hall, Amelia had her fingers firmly crossed.
Eleven months and twenty-seven days breaks down to eight thousand six hundred and eighty-five hours, or five hundred and twenty-one thousand, one hundred seconds.
Amelia had always loved numbers; they were predictable. Words were predictable too, of course, solid, sometimes even poetic, but they could be ambiguous, and today of all days, Amelia needed certainty over beauty, safety over the poetic. Which was why, in her anxiety, Amelia was doing what always did when she was nervous. She was counting.
Taking a deep breath that did nothing to abate the ever-present twisting sensation in her chest, Amelia – Lia to only her closest friends – headed to the sanctuary of her office.
‘Is Daisy’s room ready? Have all the changes she requested been made?’ Amelia asked Oliver, the middle-aged man with sun-bronzed skin, who was draped like a sunbathing lizard across one of the comfortable visitors’ chairs in front of her desk.
Oliver and Amelia had been working all morning and now, with the yacht carrying the first of her guests due at any moment, they were going over the final details for the two hundred and seventy-third time.
Only the keenest of observers would have caught the slight tremor in Amelia’s voice. Throughout the morning, trepidation had warred with excitement on this day which was sure to be high on drama, not least from her now-estranged mother, Maud. But it is a necessary evil if I am to win the prize.
Today was the culmination of twelve months’ worth of blood, sweat and tears. It was D-Day if you will; and it looked like the blood sweat and tears, she and her Man Friday, Oliver, had shed, might pull off the miracle they had prayed for.
All the same, Amelia couldn’t shake the heart-pounding sense of foreboding which had dumped a boulder in the pit of her stomach; a boulder she hadn’t felt since the morning she had walked out of Alfred Boustred’s office, instinctively accepting her uncle’s challenge to build a ‘healing hotel’ on El Pedrusco, his jewel of an island in the Mediterranean.
Amelia took a moment to study the man sprawled in the chair in front of her. He was still handsome for his age, which simple mathematics told her was not the fifty-something he looked. His raven dark hair, aquiline nose and perpetual sneer was somehow reminiscent of those grainy black and white photographs she had seen of ‘Lucky’ Lucan, the English Earl who had murdered the nanny and battered his wife with an iron pipe before disappearing in a puff of smoke.
Today, Oliver was dressed in the brand-new hotel uniform of crisp white shorts and a daffodil-yellow polo shirt. His whisky eyes were warm, though they seldom stayed that way for long. Oliver was a military man, just like her uncle, though he had been an officer in the Coldstream Guards, while Sebastian Ferver had been career navy.
The two men had met at the Victory Services Club, a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, and had been firm friends and companions from that first meeting until the day of her uncle’s death. Amelia was willing to bet they had been more than friends, but she would never ask and risk embarrassing a man she had known for most of her life – a man who had, with workmanlike efficiency, swabbed her childhood cuts and grazed knees. In any case, Amelia was sure, out of love and respect for her uncle, Oliver would be taking that particular secret to his grave.
Oliver had been at Sebastian Ferver’s side for more than twenty-five years. Three days shy of year earlier he had walked solemn and dignified beside his friend’s coffin as it wended its way through Highgate Cemetery to the Ferver family plot. He had been the only person left standing in the pouring rain at Amelia’s side – Maud and Alfred had sheltered in the
limousine – beside the deep hole it had been lowered into long after the other mourners had been ferried back to his townhouse for what Oliver had called, ‘tea and wake’.
That day and those blasted conditions! Amelia thought, pulling one of the orchids from the vase on her desk and fiddling with its speckled white petals.
Everything depended on her old school friend, now Hollywood’s darling, being present at the grand opening. Oliver knew that, though at that moment, slouched low in his chair, he did not appear to be taking the upcoming opening quite as seriously as she.
‘Everything has been arranged in accordance with her agent’s detailed instructions,’ Oliver answered, in his haughtiest tone, which wasn’t as haughty as he thought. Not if you had lived a lifetime as Maud Lavender’s daughter.
‘Are you sure?’ Amelia asked again, her voice brittle with desperation, because she was desperate. If this opening didn’t go according to plan, she would lose everything they had both worked so hard to build.
‘I have allocated her the Palm Suite,’ Oliver relented. ‘It is the largest room we have, with triple aspect views of the sea, the mountain, the artists’ community and the lighthouse beyond. The bed has been shifted so that she can easily reach the light switch from its confines. A torch, candles and a book of matches have been placed on the nightstand, and Ms. Forrester’s desperate need for Fort Knox security, on an island with more goats than people, has been assuaged by the installation of three separate locks on the suite’s entrance door as well as on each of the windows, not least the miniature bathroom window, that even a toddler couldn’t squeeze itself through should it feel so inclined.
‘I am sure our preparations will be more than satisfactory to meet the demands of Hollywood’s favourite princess.’ Oliver could not have sounded more like Uncle Seb at that moment, and Amelia’s chest tightened in grief. He was being facetious, no one with ears could have missed that fact. He wasn’t supposed to use it with her; they had a deal. But she would allow it, just this once, because it was her two hundred and seventy third asking of that question.
‘And Maud’s room?’ she dared to ask, the weight of her mother’s imminent arrival for the pre-opening press junket heavy in her gut, because Maud Lavender was not only famous for the exquisitely crafted plots of her West End and Broadway productions, but also for her alcohol drenched, sometimes sharp-wittedly hilarious, always devastatingly acid, commentary on life. Maud hated everything almost as much as she feared everything, and she did not hold back in expressing that hatred.
Amelia would gladly have foregone the dubious pleasure of her mother’s presence at the gala if the blasted woman hadn’t been her only access to Herb Hogan, the most influential – and definitely the sleeziest – member of the entertainment industry press pack. And, of course, Maud wouldn’t think of inviting him without receiving her very own engraved invitation.
‘I have checked Ms. Lavender’s room myself. She will have no genuine complaints on her arrival.’ They both knew her mother would find plenty to complain about in the Dorchester, so there was little hope of Amelia’s little island hotel passing muster.
For Amelia, Uncle Seb’s bequest and subsequent rug-pulling challenge couldn’t have come at a better – or worse, depending on your perspective – time. Of course, she would have preferred the dear old fool to have stayed alive, so he could comfort her when her mother had been revealed to be more of a monster than even Amelia had believed her to be. But failing that, the problem he had set had distracted her from Maud and the double-whammy of heartache and heartburn that came from being her daughter.
‘The musical chairs have been accomplished. Stop worrying!’ Oliver growled. ‘Pau is safe in his lighthouse and Bill has been moved to one of the bungalows to make room for the hoards arriving for the weekend. Sawubona and Tantriana will be in the suite next to you. Price Whitney will have the blue suite next to Daisy and Leo will have the yellow suite on her other side. Wendy will have the second room in your mother’s suite, so she can be at your mother’s beck and call twenty-four hours a day, and the slimeball, Herb Hogan, has requested a bungalow.’
‘He wouldn’t prefer a suite in the main building?’ Amelia asked, surprised. The bungalows were lovely with their own little gardens and terraces, but they weren’t particularly close to the amenities.
‘No, apparently the king of the paparazzi is not a people person,’ Oliver said, his tone dry, though his lips were twitching. Then magically, Amelia felt a wave of laughter bubble up from deep in her chest, a laugh so silly and instinctive that the boulder in her stomach melted.
The moment of humour passed, as it always did with grumpy old Oliver, and Amelia’s jitters roared back with a vengeance. The stakes were high. The slightest hitch and she would lose the one stable thing she had left in the world. El Pedrusco, the island her Uncle Seb had left to her in his Will.
‘Everything will be okay, you know,’ Oliver said, his angular face gentling.
‘It really does have to be, you know. For both our sakes,’ Amelia grumbled, shaking her head, her chestnut bob flowing like water as she did.
According to the ancient, yet apparently not yet senile, solicitor Alfred, the terms of Uncle Seb’s Will were legally airtight even if they did offer up the biggest challenge of Amelia’s life.
It had all been right there in black and white. In order to inherit everything, bar the life interests in their cottages he had left to each member of the island’s artists’ community, and a bequest to Oliver that he would only receive on the same conditions as her own, Amelia must in the space of one short year, fulfil her uncle’s lifelong dream.
By the first anniversary of his death, she must have built a thirty-room ‘healing hotel’ on the island, she must mark the occasion with an opening gala befitting the perfection that was El Pedrusco. And lastly, both of her long lost, but once dearest childhood friends, Daisy Forrester and Leopold (Leo) Alcott, must be present at the gala opening.
On the day of the funeral, two warring sets of words echoing in her mind, Amelia had made a deal with the Universe. She would do something she had not done since she had climbed the bent old olive tree half way up the path to the summit of La Colina Alta; she would take a risk in honour of her uncle. If she succeeded, she would be a very wealthy and happy, if utterly exhausted, woman. If she did not, she would surrender to her mother’s way of thinking, slink back to London and return to the safe, unfulfilling, world of Maud Lavender.
That was Amelia’s motivation for going over their plans for the two hundred and seventy third time. Oliver’s incentive in this grand project of theirs was that her success would be his success. Oh, he certainly wanted to honour his oldest friend’s final wishes, but Sebastian Ferver had dangled a financial carrot in front of him too.
If Amelia succeeded, there was a million pounds sitting in a bank with his name written on it. Unsurprisingly, their shared goal had provided the single-minded purpose they had needed to drive them further than Amelia had thought possible.
‘Ahem.’ Oliver’s tetchy throat clearing interrupted Amelia’s thoughts. ‘If you’re planning on besting darling Seb’s inexplicably complicated and tiresome challenge, you better head for the—’ His sarcasm-laden diatribe was interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps.
Oliver did not utter another word, just scowled and glared at Amelia. In that moment, Oliver reminded her of her mother Maud. He was like a dominant dog, angry and snarling in the face of an approaching intruder. The type of dog you must never be off guard around; must never back down or he’d pounce and you would end up getting your throat ripped out.
Which was why Amelia’s gaze was steady, quietly assertive, as it met his and held. And all the while, the footsteps continued their determined, ominous, approach.