The way down to the dining room is longer than I expect—this place really is humongous. You could get lost for weeks in here. And everything is ridiculously ornate: every banister is carved with intricate patterns, every floor spread with richly colored rugs, every wall hung with row upon row of artwork. I squint at some of the paintings as we pass, hoping to recognize a few of the artists—an enthusiast like the late Wentworth Cunningham probably has a few works by some of the modern masters among his collection—but we move too quickly for me to make any connections.
“I can give you a tour later, if you like,” Calder says when he sees my interest.
I shrug noncommittally. I don't intend to stay here any longer than I need to. I plan to make my best case over dinner and then head home. Still, I can't help but marvel. This place is insane. One minute I’m interacting with a computerized closet like someone in a sci-fi movie, and the next I’m wandering through a corridor that looks like a nineteenth-century museum.
Finally Calder stops in front of a pair of wide double doors.
“Here we are.” He releases my hand and opens one of the doors for me, and I step through into what has to be one of the most extravagant dining rooms in existence. I mean, who needs a table long enough to seat thirty? Or a chandelier the size of a small car, with easily two or three hundred little bulbs that flicker just like candles? My eyes follow the chandelier chain, and I gasp when I notice the ceiling.
“My grandfather commissioned that mural after a trip to Italy,” Calder says.
I snap my jaw closed and tear my eyes away from the elaborate pastoral scene above our heads. I'm not sure whether to be enthralled or repulsed by the beauty and excess of this room, and it leaves me with an unpleasant jumble of emotions in my belly. Instead I walk over to the long table, where now I see a single place has been laid at the head.
“I've alerted the kitchen to the extra company,” says Calder. “Martin should be up with the food any moment.” He's gone over to a cabinet against the nearest wall, and when he turns toward me, he has several pieces of china in his hands. He comes over to the table and lays them out at the place to the left of his own: dinner plate, salad plate, cup and saucer. He returns to the buffet cabinet a second time, and this time he returns with the full array of silverware, including several pieces I've only ever seen on the rare occasions I've been to a particularly formal restaurant. But what did I expect in a dining room like this?
I shoot another glance at the painting on the ceiling and slip into my seat. There's no reason we can't start talking about the Center while we wait.
“Mr. Cunningham, I—”
“What do you drink, Ms. Frazer?” he says. “Would you care for a glass of wine?”
A part of me knows that drinking is a bad idea, but another part knows a bit of alcohol in my system might make this whole thing more bearable.
“I don't suppose you have any whiskey?”
He chuckles. “I'll see what I can find.” He strides over to a polished mahogany liquor cabinet and flings open the door. A moment later he returns with a glass and a bottle of amber liquid, which he holds in front of me for approval.
“Single malt. Fifty-two years old,” he says. It's a make I've never heard of—probably because I'm used to drinking the cheap shit—and I suspect that this bottle, like everything else in this freaking house, cost a small fortune.
Ah, what the hell.
“Looks perfect.” I try not to cringe as he pours me a glass. How much could even that much whiskey buy the Center? Some new brushes? A fresh coat of paint for the rec room?
Calder is oblivious to my thoughts. He returns the whiskey to the cabinet and returns to the table with a glass and a bottle of wine for himself. I raise my drink to my lips and take a sip as I watch him pour his merlot. I have to admit, this expensive stuff is smooth, if nothing else. I'll have to watch myself—it would be easy to drink too much if I wasn’t paying attention.
“Mr. Cunningham,” I begin again, setting my glass back on the table. “I really think—”
A door at the far end of the room flies open and an older man in chef whites bursts through, a cart of food behind him. The chafing dishes rattle as the cart bounces over the threshold, and again when the man stops suddenly, apparently startled to see us.
“Forgive me, sir,” he says, blinking at us. “I didn't realize you were in here already.”
“It's no problem,” Calder says jovially. “Ms. Frazer and I just sat down. It's my own fault for springing company on you at the last minute.” He glances at me. “Ms. Frazer, this is Chef Martin, the best in the business. He's been with my family for, what, thirty-five years now?”
“Thirty-seven this winter,” the chef replies with a smile.
“And Martin,” says Calder, “this is Lily Frazer from the Frazer Center for the Arts.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Frazer,” says Martin. He wheels the cart the rest of the way over to us, and now it’s close enough for the aroma to hit me. My stomach lets out an appreciative rumble.
“That smells amazing,” I say.
“It'll taste even better,” Calder says.
The chef laughs. “Mr. Cunningham flatters me.”
“Not at all,” Calder replies. To me he adds, “Martin studied in Paris back in the day, and he spent time training in Italy and Austria as well.”
“All that,” the chef says, “and it took me fifteen years to learn to prepare vegetables in a way that would entice Mr. Cunningham to eat them.”
I smile in spite of myself.
“In all fairness to Martin,” says Calder, “I still contend that some vegetables are supposed to stay in the dirt and shouldn't be eaten at all.”
“A sentiment that I consider a challenge.” Martin grins and leans toward me conspiratorially. “When he was little, I used to purée veggies and hide them in the sauce. And you don’t even want to know how many green goodies I managed to sneak into his meatloaf.”
This time I let out an actual laugh. The chef flashes a ruddy-cheeked smile at me.
“His worst offense,” Calder says, feigning annoyance, “was when he told me my Brussel sprouts were shrunken alien heads.”
“One of my proudest moments,” Chef Martin says. “You managed to choke down four before you realized I’d tricked you.”
“Martin can’t keep a straight face to save his life,” Calder tells me.
The chef chuckles.
“Would Mr. Cunningham like me to serve?” he says.
“I'll handle it from here, I think,” Calder says. “Thank you, Martin.”
“Of course, sir.” He smiles at us. “Let me know if you need anything else.” He retreats back out the door from which he came, and Calder stands to go to the cart.
“He insists on calling me sir,” he says with a little shake of his head. “Or Mr. Cunningham.”
“What's wrong with that?” From where I sat, the two of them genuinely seemed to get on very well.
Calder shrugs and grabs the bowl of salad from the top of the cart. “He says it's a sign of respect, but it just makes me feel old. He used to call me by my name, but then my father died and I—” He pauses, looks at me, then shrugs again. “And now I'm the one who signs his checks.”
He sits down and scoops me a serving from the salad bowl. The tongs clang against the side of the bowl, and when I glance up at his face, I notice that his brows are drawn together, his mouth tight. His high spirits of just a moment ago have completely disappeared. He seemed so genuinely happy around Martin—what happened?Now I’m the one who signs his checks, he said.