Millie knocked on a large wooden door, then — with no memory of any intervening event — she suddenly found herself sitting in the middle of a vast conservatory. In fact, she had only the haziest recollection of anything before the door, save her name and a few other particulars. She deemed it too grave a risk to stand in her dazed state and stayed quietly on the bench for a moment. She pondered whether she had been drugged, but that disquieting thought proved far too elusive to hold in her mind for more than the tiniest, most alarming second.
Millie studied her surroundings woozily. The arched roof of the conservatory was comprised of hundreds of small panes of glass, some rectangular and others rounded or diamond-shaped. The ceiling stretched far above her head, with a few strangely twisted trees reaching towards those impossible heights. A walkway ran along the edges of glass walls, an entire story up, though she could see it was as deserted as the area surrounding her bench. It reminded her of a great temperate house she’d visited as a child, but anything distinct about the occasion was swiftly dashed away in the current of her thoughts.
There was an unearthly quality to the light filtering through those beautiful glass panes, and the shadows cast by the highly-ornamented wrought metal struts stretched like curling tentacles on the walkway before her. Millie had a vague notion of caution, that she should be wary in this place, but felt too fuzzy to respond appropriately to this idea. The humid air pressed against her, so she yielded to it, to the entire situation. She was finding it far too difficult to do otherwise.
Millie was no horticulturist, but even she could see that most of the plants filling the overheated space were quite out of the ordinary. She was surrounded by riotous color and buffeted by a hundred intoxicating scents, yet she could pick out nothing familiar. No frond or blossom resembled anything familiar; no perfume stirred a single recollection. She could not be sure, however, whether this absence of acquaintance was truly due to the exotic nature of the lush greenery encircling her, or her own absent memory.
Millie closed her eyes and thought. Hadn’t it been night time only a moment before? She shook her head as if to clear it, but her understanding remained as foggy as a wretched London evening. She turned a slightly unfocused gaze toward a tall gentleman watching her with barely concealed amusement from beside the tinkling fountain. He wasn’t a young man, but he was handsome in an aristocratic, pale way, with wavy blond hair and clear green eyes. He had an air of command about him, as though he often took charge. But how long, Millie asked herself, had he been there?
The stranger blinked and smiled in a mildly predatory manner. “Who might you be?”
Millie longed to place herself in the gentleman’s surely capable hands but mistrusted a smile of such wolfishness. Her thoughts were perhaps a mite sluggish, but a few of her instincts were still functioning. “A friend. I think.”
The man’s smile widened. “One can never have too many friends. Does my new friend have a name?”
Millie, feeling ridiculously coy, shook her head.
Something dangerous flitted through the man’s eyes, but it passed so quickly that Millie could not identify it.
“I think I shall call you Amie,” the man said. “For ma belle petite amie.”
Millie appalled herself by giggling. “No one ever calls me beautiful.” The man was much closer than Millie thought. Had he crossed the room? Or had he been so close all along? She couldn’t be sure.
“They should,” the man purred.
“But what do I call you?” Millie asked, allowing the man to draw her to her feet. She felt a little bereft to leave the bench behind; it felt as though it had been an ally in her time of need.
“A good question,” the handsome gentleman said, tucking Millie’s hand in the crook of his arm. “A very good, very necessary question.”
Millie looked up at him, craning her neck. He was so particularly tall and distinguished-looking, especially for a man who had to be at least two decades older than she. He was oddly familiar, but when she attempted to recall who he reminded her of, the memory slipped away as easily as the hair ribbon she’d lost at the seaside as a child. The wind had whipped it out of her fingers, and she’d found herself clutching only air as it spun towards the oncoming waves. It had hovered above the surf for a moment, a tiny red streak against the cold, grey sea.
“Call me Bettgenossen,” the man said fondly. “Though it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?”
Millie nodded, strangely shy. The name sounded German, but apart from her native tongue, she grasped nothing but schoolgirl French and a smattering of Italian.
“Just call me Bett, then,” the man said with a confiding chuckle.
“Bett,” Millie repeated. She felt as though she floated in the bright, luminous green of his gaze.
He leaned down and kissed her on the tip of her pert nose. “Ah, Amie. You are the best present my children have ever sent me.”
“I am?” Millie breathed.
“Oh, yes,” Bett said as he ushered her down a dark corridor. “The very best indeed.”
(Image credit: Sarah Ross.)