S. D. HINTZ - COLLINGWOOD
S.D. Hintz has published 4 short stories and a novel this year -- Vigilance & Vengeance (novel) by Solstice Publishing (late 2017), Bellows by Dark Alley Press in Ink Stains, Volume 4, Housecall by MacKenzie Publishing in the Two Eyes Open anthology, Temporary in The Misbehaving Dead collection by A Murder of Storytellers, and The Devil’s Embrace in the Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths antho by Left Hand Publishers. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of KHP Publishers and extremely active on social media.
Eight to four Molly Carr wore a smile at the bookshop. At four-oh-two she tossed it aside like a wire bra, eager to relax her muscles. Her job and life suffered from monotony: wake up, eat, go to work, go home, eat, go to sleep. Monday through Friday. The weekend differed only in eating and sleeping more. Perhaps because she remained single and lonely. Or she expressed little interest in making someone else happy, when she failed to do the same for herself.
Her love life like a string of canceled sitcoms, every guy she dated either her masculinized or narcissistic. Her longest relationship lasted a week. She struggled with commitment. She feared courting one person too long would become boring and one-dimensional, their emotional mystery dissolving like a litmus test. She wanted more. She wanted… a man from the romance novels she read. Austen’s Wentworth. Bronte’s Heathcliff. Forster’s Emerson. Fairy tale men. Gentlemen.
Molly snapped out of her daydream at the velvety voice. A man two inches taller stood beside her, leaning against the frosted signpost. His eyes like the Arctic Ocean, cold and blue. His mouth a fossilized frown in a five o’clock shadow, as if happiness eluded him much the same. His black shoulder-length hair streaked with gray. His olive skin possessed a soft glow, aura-like, as if incandescent. He dressed in dark wash straight jeans, an off-white basketweave sport shirt, and a black three-quarter length topcoat. He looked the part of a tourist, but his accent suggested mainland.
After her once-over, Molly raised an eyebrow.
The man gestured at the sign. “Do you know when the next trolley’s due?”
Molly looked down the street, mentally pinching herself. The man’s appearance intrigued her; the tall drink of water made her mouth dry. She realized her stomach fluttered. She licked her chapped lips, eyes on the avenue. “Three minutes.”
“Is it ever late?”
“So I’d be late if I was on time?”
“It’s one way to look at it.”
“But since I’m early, I have a nice lady to keep me company.”
Molly regarded the man. The last time someone called her “nice”… too long ago to recall. Not as if her demeanor bordered mean, just more indifferent. Especially to men, since one thing dwelled in their minds, and never the topic of Eyre.
She half-turned, keeping the street in her periphery. She hoped the trolley would live up to its reputation and kindly interject. “Who says I’m nice? Because I’m making small talk?”
The man straightened, grasping the post with a leather-gloved hand. “You haven’t pulled out your phone yet and become anti-social.”
Molly’s heartbeat quickened. She found the man’s blunt manner attractive. In her experience, it tended to be a trait of honesty. “I hate phones. Does that make me anti-social?”
“It’s one way to look at it.”
Molly bit the inside of her lip, suppressing a smirk. Witty, another characteristic she admired.
The man ran his finger down the post, drawing a line in the frost. He removed his gloves, stuffed them in his coat pockets, and outstretched his hand. “Armand.”
Taken aback, Molly’s mind cartwheeled. Her cheeks flushed. Had the man caught her dwelling on his broad chest? She swore she maintained disinterest, but her eyes always gave her away. Armand’s gaze failed to stray. Maybe he was a gentleman and genuinely intrigued by her… like Gilbert Markham.
Molly cast Wildfell Hall out of her head and briefly shook Armand’s hand. A tingle coursed up her arm and raised goose bumps. “Molly.”
Armand glanced down. “Molly Gibson?”
Molly stared at him blankly for a moment, and realized he referred to her book. She forgot she held a copy of Wives and Daughters, like oftentimes she searched for the reading glasses found resting on her head.
She blushed, caught off guard. A man who knew classic romance. Was he an author? Maybe a publisher? Possibly a historical scholar? He maintained the look and seemed to be quite the multi-layered man.
Armand spoke in a low voice, as if sharing a secret. “Better than Cynthia.”
Molly chuckled, and stopped herself, embarrassed by her lack of self-control. “Yes, there is that. You’ve read Gaskell?”
“A few. Wives and Daughters, North and South, Cranford. I’m rather partial to the former.”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
Armand nodded at the bookshop. “Did you just buy it?”
“I… work there, actually.”
Molly kicked herself at the admission. Armand infatuated her to the point of mindless behavior. She knew better than to tell a strange man where she worked. Next he would be stalking her, popping in the bookshop daily, waiting for her at the trolley stop, following her home. Yet something about him comforted her. He was a conversationalist, not egotistical like most men she encountered.
Armand looked down the street anxiously, seeming more worried the trolley would end his interaction. “Are you off to tea or calling it a day?”
Molly turned her head enough to see there was no sign of the trolley, and hoped for once it ran late. She locked gazes with Armand, now finding it harder to look away; his eyes inviting, like a cold shower on a hot summer day.
“Tea after four? Maybe for a night owl. I’m much too boring.”
“Boring? You work at a bookshop. There are a million worlds beyond one door. And any one book can light up anyone’s life. It’s fascinating. Which means…”
“I’m still boring?”
Armand shook his head, placed his hands in his coat pockets, and leaned back against the signpost. “You’re much too charming to be boring.”
A rumble and echo of shifting gears broke Molly’s trance. She whirled and dropped her book, catching a glimpse of the approaching trolley. Armand crouched and picked it up. He handed it over, disappointment etched on his face.
Molly’s heart sank. Her body broke into a sweat, nervous. She knew she should say something, act on her emotions. Her lips parted, closed, opened again. “Thank you.”
Armand’s eyes twinkled, captivating Molly. “Of course. I can’t have you leaving romance behind.”
Molly’s mind stammered. Her heart hammered. She needed to say something. If she bit her tongue, regret would only eat her alive.
She gestured at the trolley, which grumbled closer. “Where are you headed?”
“The plaza. On foot. I hope we can meet again. Maybe next time somewhere more… enchanting.”
Molly clutched the book to her chest as the trolley eased up to the curb. Tendrils of exhaust swirled around her ankles, like tentacles eager to pull her away. The pneumatic doors swished open and passengers filtered forth. Molly held Armand’s gaze, knowing she should ask him out, wishing he would pop the question. Yet at the same time she felt it too forward. She met the man a mere five minutes ago.
Molly turned her head and saw the driver waiting for her, fingers tapping the door handle. She regarded Armand. “Goodbye.”
The words felt like a punch to the stomach. She blew off the first man enthralling her with beauty and Bronte. Beauty. Molly never thought of the opposite sex as beautiful.
Armand’s face seemed to light up, almost glow, as if the off streetlamp cast a glare. A ghost of a smile passed over his lips. “Goodbye, Molly.”
She smirked, blushed, and entered the trolley. The doors shut behind her, like prison bars cutting off her love life. She found an empty seat and plopped down, gazing out the smudged window, searching for Armand. She spotted him walking toward the plaza, head down, hands in his pockets. The trolley lurched forward and exhaust billowed before her. She squinted and shifted, hoping for a glimpse. When the fog finally dissipated, Armand disappeared.
Molly stepped off the trolley a block within the Warehouse District. Her flat a studio apartment in The Lofts, a drab four-story complex from the Roaring 20’s sandwiched between a deli and butcher shop. The rest of the neighborhood rested on its deathbed. Dismal brownstone facades and boarded up businesses suffocated the sparsely lit streets. Scattered about, recent glimmers of hope: an abandoned body shop turned nightclub, a market born from a failed pharmacy. Smog hung in the air, smelling of processing plants and factories, threatening to wilt the remaining trees better off artificial.
Like a camel in a desert, Molly adapted to her surroundings. Save for the homeless, a small population resided in the District. Molly felt it matched her personality. Removed, frigid, unattractive, and uninviting. The last place anyone would call home.
Molly’s gaze trained on the sidewalk, counting… five cracks to her flat… four. Her mind meandered to Armand. She smiled unknowingly. Those penetrating eyes, cold but caring. His silky voice. His long, lovely hair. His passion for Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and the like. Molly’s eyes refocused. Three… no wait, two? The last crack, the compound fracture.
Molly looked up, addled. She could not stop thinking about the man. She suddenly realized how an addict felt, the brain centered on a single stimulant. It confused her. Why did her heart pound and stomach somersault? It was more than Armand’s looks. Maybe because he seemed sincerely empathetic, as if he wanted to know her, desired more than a one-night stand in a cheap motel. Or she jumped to conclusions.
She ascended the brick steps and entered The Lofts. As usual, the lobby sat dim and deserted. A Victorian round table littered with two-year-old magazines and a beige double-end sofa fashioned close quarters. Red and black Art Deco carpet covered the floor from the front doors to the fifth story. Molly headed upstairs to her flat, eager to curl up with her book and a bag of sunflower seeds.
She paused outside door 42, fished out the key, and slipped into her apartment. Apple-cinnamon lingered in the air, remnants of a half-burned candle, instantly comforting her. She flipped the switch and kicked off her pumps. The ceiling lamps flickered on, revealing the studio as she left it. Dishes neatly stacked in the kitchen sink. Yesterday’s laundry folded on the living room coffee table. A TBR pile of romance classics on the dresser in her bedroom. Molly set her book down on her shoes and made a beeline for the latter. She opened the top drawer and tossed a pair of sweats and a T-shirt on the bed. She changed out of her constricting work clothes, leaving them in a pile on the hardwood floor.
Like a prisoner unshackled, she sighed and strolled to the kitchen. She opened a cupboard, grabbed her bag of sunflower seeds in a discard dish, and backtracked to the front door for Wives and Daughters. She could not wait to get her mind off Armand. A silly distraction, a fantasy; a one-time encounter, like a passerby, never to be seen again. A man best left to her dreams.
Molly plopped down in the gray wing chair by the window overlooking the street. She set her seeds in her lap and paged through the paperback. It flipped open as if creased, revealing a black bookmark. Molly stared at it, surprised. She guessed a customer forgot it, one of the trade-ins at the shop. Her own a mere paper scrap, the simplest of placeholders.
She picked up the bookmark and turned it. The image changed. Holographic, the blackness revealed three burning candles, a blue rose, and a reddish-orange phrase in Constantia font: 8:00pm, Collingwood.
Molly stared at it, brow knitted. Collingwood? The hotel shut down for years, decades even, yet another ghost of a business in the Warehouse District. The bookmark’s previous owner probably used the hologram for a last-second notepad… a room reservation. Molly turned it back and forth, watching the image switch as if in a revolving door. She held it still. A reddish-orange mark in the bottom right-hand corner caught her eye. An “A.”
She dropped the bookmark, startled, separating Wives and Daughters. An “A” for Armand. She knew it! But it seemed ridiculous. “A” could signify Alex or Adam or Amanda. The possibilities endless. Besides, it was a reservation for the Collingwood. Holograms nonexistent back then, maybe instead the note served as a rendezvous. Or yet to serve its purpose.
Molly’s emotions slalomed. Armand left the bookmark hoping she would save a place for him tonight, make time in her busy schedule of reading and seeding. Her cheeks flushed. What if the invitation was for her and she blew it off feigning a schedule conflict? And she hung out alone as usual, another night on the town. A tidal wave of guilt crashed over her. She looked at the wall clock: 7:28pm. She gazed out the window. The streetlamps flickered. The brewery across the street, dark and hollow, casting a pall on the vacant block.
Molly rationalized with her guilt. She had a half-hour to dress casual and walk three blocks. What would it hurt, besides her dignity? If she arrived at Collingwood without being mugged, and Armand nowhere to be found, she would head back home with confirmation she lived in a little girl’s fantasy world. The thought the man waited for her as the bookmark suggested seemed preposterous. Why wouldn’t he leave his phone number or email address? Or was he a hopeless romantic? Molly doubted anything could be romantic about an abandoned building full of rats and spiders. And why would Armand want to meet with her anyways? What if he was a serial killer? The Collingwood sounded like the perfect crime scene.
Molly set her seeds and book on the end table, but clutched the bookmark like a Dear John letter. She glanced at the clock: 7:30pm. Still plenty of time to change for an evening stroll. Molly stood and headed to the kitchen. Excuses barraged her. Too busy to go out and meet a strange man. Dishes to wash, laundry to put away, carpet to vacuum. What if Armand waited for her? What would it do for her? Give her hope she might not live alone the rest of her life? Make her feel pretty for a few hours? Let her escape her tedium and break out of her hermetic shell?
Molly’s legs detoured to the bedroom before her brain could object. She knew she would regret not going if she sat at home. She would toss and turn until morning wishing she ventured to the Collingwood. And the more birthday candles she lit, the tougher it became to meet a single attractive man.
She stared at her reflection above the dresser. No masking the mid-thirties, bags formed beneath her eyes. Brows flecked with gray. Frown lines at the corners of the mouth. Molly killed her insecurities. What was she worried about? Far from a man in his twenties, Armand’s silver-streaked hair complimented his unflinching gaze. Molly shook her head. The bookmark was proof he found her physically alluring, right? He wanted to meet her, spend time with her, get to know her.
She opened the top drawer. Years since her last night out, she felt uncertain what to wear. Part of her wanted to impress Armand with a dress and heels, but she knew it might deter him. Better to be herself and meet his expectations rather than show up like she worked the block. She changed into a red bra and blouse with black slacks. She added lip gloss and her gold rosary, which dangled unseen. She eyed her hair and shrugged. Good enough; its short length maintained its style.
She crossed the studio to the living room. She glanced at the clock: 7:40pm. Plenty of time to walk a few blocks. Molly grabbed her gray waist-length coat off the broken floor lamp and slipped it on. She reached over the chair and yanked the bookmark from Wives and Daughters. She tilted it, triggering the hologram. The candles, the blue rose, same time and place. Molly cast it back to blackness. Doubt overcame her again. What if Armand used the bookmark to lure women, like some kind of Jack the Ripper?
Molly pocketed the bookmark and buttoned her coat. Her conscience would do anything to prevent her from going out and having a good time. From now on she listened to her gut. She slipped on her shoes, headed out the door, and locked it. Momentarily, she felt as if she left behind her old self, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. No more dusty and boring bookworm. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new and improved Molly Carr, now in High Definition!
She bit back a grin. She refused to let giddiness get the best of her. She needed to maintain her composure, keep her guard up. About to wander the streets of the Warehouse District, behaving like a schoolgirl would only garner unwanted attention. As she headed downstairs, Molly wished she brought her book for self-defense. At least she could fend off a rapist with classic romance.
She stepped outside and paused on the front steps. She took a deep breath and sighed into the chill air. The block seemed dead as a ghost town, which meant either her walk would be relaxing or prowlers lurked in the shadows. She made a mental note to swing wide of the alleys. She stuffed her hands in her pockets and strolled down the sidewalk. Her heartbeat quickened. Her eyes darted to every silhouette. Despite the cold, she broke into a sweat.
Worry dashed her hopes of romance. What was she thinking? She could be cuddled up with her book, warm and cozy. But no, she acted on impulse. Now here she sauntered paranoid and scared. She stepped up her pace to a speed walk. She rounded the corner onto Middlemarch. A woman and young child in matching pink duffle coats approached her, hand in hand. The mother smiled as they passed, tightening her grip, feeling the same anxiety. Molly managed a half-smirk, relating, reassured she wasn’t alone. Her gaze wandered ahead. A lime taxi cruised by, its roof sign flickering, its backseat passengers bickering. The last open business across the street went dark, closing early.
Molly walked faster yet. The corner streetlamp spotlighted a husky man in a gray sweater and blue stocking cap following the crosswalk. He paused midway and locked his sights on Molly, as if stunned to see a woman out at this hour. She avoided eye contact and headed right onto Brunswick. There the hotel loomed, crowding the left side of the block. A rusted wrought iron fence encircled the front courtyard; once sprawling with gardens and cherry blossoms, now brown and wilted. The mocha four-story facade weathered and crumbled. The biting breeze rattled the walls of windows in their splintered panes. Wide whitewashed steps led to boarded double doors, above which dangled a sign, marred and missing hand-carved letters:
Molly scanned the perimeter. Deserted; no passersby, or a man awaiting her arrival. Though she lacked a watch, she knew she turned up a few minutes early. Or late and Armand a no-show. She crossed the street, again whittling would-he-why-would-what-if thoughts.
She followed the littered walk to the gate, locked tight with a padlock and chain. She peered through the bars. In her mind’s eye, she saw a man in a black suit and top hat arm in arm with a bejeweled woman draped in Siberian fur. A porter in a red button-down uniform smiled and grabbed their luggage.
Molly jumped as a shadow engulfed her.
Armand stood beside her, aglow, clad in the same jeans, sport shirt, and topcoat. “It’s funny. If you stare at something long enough, it takes on a life of its own.”
Molly smiled sheepishly, caught red-handed in her daydreaming. “I found your bookmark.”
“Right where you left off?”
“Yes. And where did we leave off?”
“At the trolley. Leaving romance behind.”
“And did I leave it there? Or did your bookmark save the spot?”
“I do hope it saved.”
Molly blushed, her cheeks feeling like candles in the bitter cold. She felt suddenly aware of her bodily reaction. The rushing adrenaline, staccato heartbeat, the slight quiver in her knees. She melted like chocolate in Armand’s presence; she let her guard down, she opened up. Something about him gave her warmth and a sense of security.
Armand’s mysterious aura brightened like a fed flame. His face glowed, seeming almost cherubic, eyes shimmering like aquamarine agates. The colors in his garb became vibrant; the fibers in his shirt pulsed and his topcoat fluttered. He reached out and grabbed the gate padlock. It unlocked at his touch. The chain unraveled and clanked on the ground.
Armand pushed the gate open. “After you.”
Molly’s lips parted, but the words dissolved on the tip of her tongue. Did Armand possess a skeleton key to Collingwood? Had he plotted the evening rendezvous? Of course, the bookmark living proof. Again, Molly questioned his intentions. Was he wooing her or whisking her off into a sadistic trap? She decided there was no turning back.
She followed in his footsteps, which became shadowed as his aura brightened. The surrounding courtyard revived, as if invigorated by the light. The snow melted and browns faded to greens. White and pink flowers sprouted on the cherry blossoms, their rose-like redolence catching on the breeze. The ice on the walk transformed to tufts of moss. The tulip gardens along the fence bloomed into yellow, orange, and white petals. Water gushed from the overgrowth, a hidden fountain awakening from its bone-dry sleep.
Molly gasped, startled. Her head swam, maybe from the overabundance of pungency or the shock of surrealism. For a split second she wondered if it was real, but quickly decided to live in the moment. If a dream or hallucination, she only had herself to blame, and the literature she consumed. The man before her could simply be a guide, leading her to the summery marvel.
Armand ascended the front steps; with each footfall the whitewash shed like snakeskin to reveal green marble. He paused beneath the hotel sign. His aura magically replaced the missing letters and filled them with sizzling, bright red neon.
Armand turned heel and bowed. “Welcome to Collingwood, Miss Molly. I will be your host for the evening. May I take your coat?”
Molly blushed, all of it too good to be true. “I’ll keep my coat… but you can take my hand.”
Armand accepted the offer and grasped Molly’s fingers as she carefully ascended the steps, still unconvinced the ice melted. He half-turned and she watched the entrance refurbish. The eight snow-covered 2x4s morphed into gold garland. A fresh coat of brick red paint coated the double doors like a drawn shade, brightening the woodwork from top to bottom. The tarnished brass handles shined similarly, polishing before Molly’s eyes.
Armand pulled down the garland with his free hand and the doors opened automatically. “After you.”
Molly crossed the threshold and glimpsed the forlorn interior. An unfurnished lobby of rotted floorboards, peeling walls, cobwebbed vaulted ceilings, and a dilapidated desk looked like a gust would blow them over. The moment Armand joined Molly’s side everything changed. The oak underfoot glossed and sparkled. Floral wallpaper rolled up from the baseboards. An invisible feather duster cleared the cobwebs and constructed a shimmering crystal chandelier out of thin air. The concierge desk straightened and flushed out like an expanding cardboard box.
Molly looked at Armand, speechless, wondering if she slept back home with her book in hand and sunflower seeds in her lap.
Armand put an index finger to his lips, encouraging her silence. “This way, milady. This is merely the lobby. The ballroom awaits.”
Molly stumbled over her own two feet, feeling lost in a daze. “Ballroom? But I don’t… I don’t dance.”
Armand led her across the lobby. “Then we’ll just hold hands and glide aimlessly beneath the moonlight.”
He looked over his shoulder with a glint in his eye, hair dangling against his cheek. He stopped and placed his hands on Molly’s forearms. “I know. It’s all so sudden… so fast.” He pointed to the left of the desk. “I promise beyond those doors you’ll wish the night would never end. Trust me.”
Even though Molly barely knew the man, she trusted him. His calm demeanor emanated warmth, or was it his strange aura? Either way, in a short time, he swept her off her feet, and the night was young. Who was this man? Where did he come from? Was all of this real or a ruse from a master magician?
Armand guided Molly to the left-hand doors. Again, they opened at will and she peered past him, catching a sliver of the hotel’s forgotten past. The floor coated in dust, chunks of plaster and shattered crystals. The three walls of windows cracked and clouded. A broken chandelier dangled by a rusted chain. The skylight resembled the rest of the glass: cobwebbed, snow-covered, and littered with dead leaves from autumns ago.
Armand’s aura blazed, and he raised Molly’s hand in the air. The ballroom beautified in a heartbeat. The dust peeled back like a blanket and revealed a reflective, hardwood parquet floor. The windows cleared, repaired, and sparkled. Gold tapestries unfurled down the walls. Light encircled the couple like a halo, the chandelier’s gold, crystals, and silver chain twinkling. The snow on the skylight melted and the leaves blew off, opening the ceiling to the cloudless night and crescent moon.
Molly felt enamored, entranced, and bedazzled beyond belief. In the moment, she hesitated to let herself be romanced. What did she have to lose? If for only one night, it would live on in her dreams.
Armand bowed. Molly grinned and curtsied. Her jaw dropped. Her clothes changed. Her winter weather wear became a red evening gown, matching pumps, and sun hat. Again, her head swam.
Armand’s eyes flashed, piercing, yet pleading. “May I have this dance, Miss Molly?”
“To no music?”
The glass walls reverberated and a symphony drifted into the ballroom. Molly knew Orchestra Hall resided on the other side of the city and outdoor concerts hibernated in the winter, but reality left in Armand’s presence. She followed his lead as they sashayed across the smooth parquet. While dancing eluded her since childhood, her feet glided like skates on an ice rink, matching Armand’s fluid steps. As they crossed the room, she imagined being encircled by beaming guests, each amazed at their hidden talent. Armand dipped her playfully. She relaxed in his arms and gazed at the night sky, the moon bright above the glinting chandelier.
Armand reeled Molly in, face to face, their lips inches apart.
Lost in his twinkling blues, Molly rose the magical tide. She moistened her lips and found her voice. “At the trolley… How come nothing changed then?”
Armand half-smiled, though his eyes upheld sincerity. “I can’t change beauty. It’s why I can’t change you, Miss Molly. Nor would I ever dream of it.”
“But the city… the streets around you?”
“I see allure… class… grandiose.”
“You see all of that? Yet I see…”
“When you leave tonight, you’ll see all of that, too.”
The immaterial maestro drummed up the orchestra as the symphony rolled into the final movement. Armand and Molly danced toward the far end of the ballroom, reverse turning and twirling. Their eyes locked on one another, searching for passion, desire, and unbridled trust, in which they both shared and let flow through their fingertips.
The brass and strings intermingled in lustful harmony, and parted abruptly, fading out. Armand and Molly’s last dance steps echoed off the parquet. They stood still and held each others hands gently, reluctant to let go.
Molly’s stomach fluttered and sent a tremble through her arms. “Armand, I don’t think I want the night to end.”
Armand nodded with a hint of sadness in his eyes. “Nor do I. But there will be others… won’t there?”
“I hope so.”
Their fingers caressed as they slid free.
Armand gestured to the glass wall. “Care to join me for a breath of fresh air?”
Then and there, Molly realized her entire body overheated, from the dancing and romancing, and a cool breeze never sounded better. “I would love to.”
Armand stepped to the windows. His aura glared off the glass and they slid apart. Molly followed his lead. She closed her eyes momentarily, embracing the icy night as it chilled her exposed skin. Armand held her hand and guided her to the end of the marble balcony. Below, beneath the moonlight, lay a pond — unfrozen as if filled with salt water — encircled by glowing Chinese lanterns. White lilies dotted the surface, dazzling like ten-karat diamonds. The frosted, shoreline willows resembled wedding dress trains in a winter cathedral.
Molly watched her breath plume over the ornate railing. She looked to Armand. Breathless, not only in appearance but oxygen, his aura warmed the world.
Molly tugged his hand, turning him toward her. Her eyes massaged his face: chiseled jaw, curly locks on the cheeks, mesmerizing mouth. She wanted to feel his lips on hers more than ever.
He leaned down, removed her hat, and kissed her forehead. She trembled, wanting more, yearning to lose herself within him. He embraced her, resting his chin on her head as his aura encompassed them like a spotlight on the world’s stage. Warmth coursed through Molly. Her shivers subsided. She felt her heart swell with unconditional love and empathy, everything Armand felt and shared in the moment. Her vision blurred and refined. She wanted to stay this way forever, in Armand’s arms, careless, safe, and cherished.
He let her go, pulled back, and handed her the hat. “We must say goodnight, Miss Molly.”
Her eyes glistened with tears, the thought of parting near unbearable. “If we must.”
“We must.” He lifted her chin with his finger. “And tomorrow you can tell me if your world brightened.”
She smiled. “I will.”
Armand clasped her right hand in both of his. “Until the trolley.”
“Thank you, Armand, for tonight.”
“I should thank you. It was my pleasure.”
Armand flashed a half-smile and returned to the hotel. Molly lingered on the balcony, wishing the night endless, still wondering if she would awake in her lonely flat. The world of dusty books and boredom seemed galaxies away.
She turned, put on her hat, and left the pond to the moonlight. As she entered the hotel, she expected the worst, but the magical renovation remained, even in Armand’s absence. She strolled through the ballroom to the lobby, and it looked the same, as if never abandoned. She stepped out the double doors and the gardens still bloomed; her evening gown fluttered with the flowers. Would it all revert when she left the gates, like Cinderella at midnight?
She walked backwards out of the courtyard and onto the sidewalk, waiting for Collingwood to transform before her eyes. It remained the same. The neon sign continued its sizzling invitation.
Molly smiled, grateful, but confused. She turned to the street. The streetlamps burned bright. The alleys clean and vacant. The buildings freshly painted and occupied. Handfuls of well-dressed pedestrians passed by and lingered at glinting glass storefronts. A soft snow fell as a trolley paused up the block, picking up a single passenger.
Molly sighed as she headed up the walk. She now saw the world through Armand’s eyes. Allure… class… grandiose.
The beauty there all along.
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