Hotel of Secrets by Diana Biller (Excerpt)

Chapter One

New Year’s Eve, 1877

There were twenty-eight minutes left in 1877, and as if the year had not seen trouble enough, Maria Wallner’s father led Maria Wallner’s mother onto the dance floor, clasped her amorously to his chest, and, with the first languid, delicate notes of Strauss’s “Vienna Blood” waltz providing a suitably romantic background, began to dance.

Maria Wallner, current manager of the Hotel Wallner, hostess of the party her parents had just taken center stage at, and newly returned emergency plumber of the fourth-floor bathroom, stood in the doorway of the hotel’s Small Ballroom and allowed herself precisely ten seconds of shock.

They made a stunning picture—or at least, Elisabeth Wallner, Maria’s mother, did. At some point in her youth, Elisabeth had been told she resembled Empress Sisi, the Emperor’s beautiful bride, and she had never forgotten. Everything from her hairstyle to her fitness regimen (strict gymnastics, every morning) was modeled from Sisi, and now, with her dark hair streaming down her back, studded with crystal hairpins, and her midnight-blue velvet gown frothing with silver lace, she looked every bit an empress.

Maria’s father, Baron Heinrich von Eder, looked very much like the portly middle-aged aristocrat he was.

The couples around them were barely waltzing, fixated on the delicious scandal unfolding. The audience at the edges of the dance floor whispered and laughed, their eyes darting greedily between the couple and the stone-faced blond woman standing like a dignified statue in the corner of the ballroom.

Because none of this would have been particularly scandalous if her parents had been married. Or indeed, if they had not just broken the single rule governing the thirty-year détente between the Wallner and von Eder households: namely, that Baron Heinrich von Eder would refrain from noticing Elisabeth Wallner until Baroness Adelaide von Eder, his wife and the mother of his four legitimate children, had retired for the evening.

Her ten seconds over, Maria took a breath, brightened her smile, and began her own waltz, weaving through the crowd to check on the buffet. Smiling and laughing, pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening. (To be fair, in a way it wasn’t—Maria had been a captive audience to this particular romantic drama her entire life. It was only the circumstances that were unusual.) She waved a server over to replace a group’s empty champagne glasses; noticed a torn hem and discreetly alerted its wearer; and had almost made it to the buffet table when—

 Maria! When are you going to find the man, like your mother?”

There it was.

“If you know where he is, Mr. Schiller, please send him my address.” She laughed, her response easy and light.

(As it ought to be. She’d been saying the same damn thing for decade and a half.)

The group of men around Mr. Schiller hooted in pleasure, and then mercifully turned back to the drama on the dance floor.

It didn’t matter, she reminded herself, not entirely sure what it was, but if it wasn’t about the Hotel Wallner’s Triumphant Return to Society (yes, it was capitalized, yes, Maria did have a list with that title), then it didn’t matter.

The caviar was low. She pulled one of the footmen aside and sent him running to the kitchen, catching a glimpse of her parents just in time to see Heinrich tenderly brush a curl from her mother’s face. The crowd gave a pleased murmur. The story would be all over Vienna by supper the next day.

And that, Maria reminded herself, was what did matter. This was one of the scandals of the season, and the guests of the Hotel Wallner’s New Year’s Eve Ball had been the ones to witness it. Tomorrow, once they’d recovered from their traditional New Year’s Day hangovers, they would go to supper with friends and say, “Oh, you should have been at the Hotel Wallner last night.” Just like the old days, when the Hotel Wallner had been one of the epicenters of Imperial Vienna, its nights filled with scandal and intrigue and importance.

And this moment did look like something plucked from Maria’s childhood memories. The newly cleaned and repaired chandelier dazzled. The freshly sanded and polished floors looked almost liquid, as if Elisabeth and Heinrich were dancing on a vast champagne sea, beneath a starry sky. (Maria was particularly proud of the starry skies. She’d repainted every single gold star herself, balancing on a rickety scaffold beneath the fifteen-foot ceilings until her back felt like it would break.) Perhaps she was deluding herself—it would take more than a single party to bring the Hotel Wallner back from irrelevance and disrepair—but she thought something like the old magical, golden wonderment shimmered in the air.

She’d do anything to give the hotel that magic back. Suffering some embarrassment and discomfort over her parents’ behavior was nothing.

“I tried to stop him,” said a soft, cultured voice over her shoulder, and Maria’s smile warmed as she turned to her half brother, Macario von Eder.

Mac was the picture of a dashing young aristocrat tonight, Maria thought, as she brushed a speck of lint from his immaculately tailored evening suit. There was little resemblance between the siblings—both took after their mothers, Maria with dark eyes and darker hair, and Mac golden-haired and blue-eyed— but a great deal of fondness.

Maria shrugged. “They’re impossible to stop.”

He grimaced, his eyebrows drawn together in distress. “My mother’s about to murder someone. Or have an apoplexy.”

Maria waved to the hotel’s resident clairvoyants, Madame Le Blanc and Frau Heilig, as they walked past, and glanced across the room at Mac’s mother. To the ordinary observer she was entirely unbothered, but Maria had been looking at this woman for the better part of thirty years (despite never actually speaking to her), and she winced in sympathy.

“Can you convince her to leave?”

“Tried,” Mac said. “But Count von Kaufstein is here, and she’s afraid—” Mac broke off, sighing and rubbing his forehead. The crowd around them had noticed them talking, and were openly staring.

“Put your hand down,” Maria said, with a bright smile. “We’re being watched.”

He laughed as though she’d said something funny, immediately smoothing his expression.

“Count von Kaufstein won’t care about any of this,” Maria said. “I’ve known him since I was in the cradle.”

“The Count von Kaufstein you know and the Count von Kaufstein my mother knows are very different people,” Mac said, through his own charming smile.

Maria opened her mouth to argue, but just then a server spilled a tray of champagne at the other side of the room.

“I have to—”

“Go, go,” her brother gestured. “And Maria? It’s a beautiful ball.”

She squeezed his hand and hurried across the room, checking her watch as she went. Twenty-three minutes to midnight. The waltz was coming to an end.

She could see old Count von Kaufstein about ten meters away. It had been sweet of him to come. He was always sweet to them, the Wallners. It was widely believed that he and Maria’s grandmother Josephine were half siblings, both by-blows of the Emperor two emperors deceased. Maria knew it was true of her grandmother; it was probably true of him as well.

Unlike Maria’s great-grandmother, Count von Kaufstein’s mother had been a highborn aristocrat, one who (also unlike Maria’s great-grandmother) had never fallen out with the Imperial Court. The Count could have simply enjoyed a life of familial wealth and Imperial favor, but had chosen a career instead—steadily climbing the court ranks until he became the Imperial and Royal Chamberlain, the person responsible for the current Emperor’s household finances.

Viennese high society had been surprised when the Count had announced his son’s engagement to Annalise von Eder, Adelaide’s oldest girl and Maria’s half sister—the von Eders were wealthy and high-ranking, but there was that air of scandal attached to Heinrich, and the Count was very important. Consensus seemed to be that it was a love match; a claim Mac had vigorously denied in the Hotel Wallner kitchens two nights earlier, his mouth half full of cake.

“He’s twenty years older than her, and she’s never even spoken to him,” Mac had said, an expression of utter bafflement on his face. “She’s not that pretty.”

Reaching the scene of the dropped tray, Maria pushed the von Kaufstein–von Eder engagement from her mind. She was as unequipped to follow aristocratic marriage machinations as Mac would be to turn over a guest room.

Fortunately, the tray had carried only two glasses, and the server had dropped it at least a meter and a half away from the nearest guest. She helped him pile the glass on the tray, carefully keeping her gown away from the spilled champagne. Someday soon, she would have a full staff, who could render this sort of mishap invisible. Until then, she had footmen doubling as servers and three maids, all busy elsewhere. So for tonight, Maria was hostess, maid, manager, and occasional plumber all in one. She didn’t mind.

When a Wallner woman loved something, she’d do anything for it.

The waltz ended. Her parents clung together briefly, several seconds longer than was appropriate. The party guests stared, thrilled.

“The stars aligned for you tonight,” Madame Le Blanc said, coming up beside her. She was a tall Frenchwoman with a long white braid who had lived at the hotel for twenty years. Her specialty was astrology. “As I predicted.”

“As I predicted,” said Frau Heilig, a short, blond Czech woman whose mystical tool of choice was the tarot card deck.

Maria smiled. She had, out of politeness, consulted with both the hotel’s occultists, and they had agreed that New Year’s Eve was the correct date for the Hotel Wallner’s Triumphant Return to Society.

“Your advice was invaluable.” She didn’t share her mother’s obsession with the occult, but these women had lived at the Hotel Wallner almost as long as she had. They were family. “Both of you. It’s marvelous, isn’t it? Just like it used to be.”

The women, sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, shared a glance.

“This room looks lovely,” Frau Heilig said diplomatically.

Maria laughed, thinking of the Large Ballroom, with its ruined floor, and of the thirty-two currently unusable guest rooms. “Soon it will all look like this,” she said. “We’re almost back.”

“Hmph,” Madame Le Blanc said, looking over at Maria’s parents, now standing too close together, drinking champagne, still sensationally unaware of their audience. “Well, they never left.”

“No,” Maria said, following her gaze. “They never did.”

Another glance at her watch told her it was fourteen minutes before midnight. She had one more surprise in store for the guests, and it was almost time to reveal it. She said goodbye to the occultists, and with one last look at her parents—apparently returning to the dance floor, the beginning of Strauss’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods” accompanying them—hurried from the ballroom.

The Small and Large Ballrooms were on the second floor of the Hotel Wallner, separated by a small lobby, with three floors of guest rooms above, and the family apartments above that. The kitchen and restaurant were on the ground floor, along with the lobby and Maria’s office. A grand (and newly refurbished) staircase led from the lobby to the second floor. Maria took the tight servants’ stair down instead.

She walked briskly to the kitchen, where every footman and handyman and waiter she’d been able to recruit stood in rented uniforms, holding cut-glass bowls, each bowl so large it needed two men to carry it. Hannah Adler, the hotel’s chef and Maria’s best friend, hurried along the line pouring water into the bowls.

“The metalworkers are out back,” she said, and Maria swung through the back door into the small alley beyond, where six metalworkers waited, each carrying a small camp stove.

Every New Year’s, the Viennese dropped bits of molten lead into cold water, and from the shapes formed divined their destiny for the year ahead. Usually, this was done with a bit of lead melted in a spoon over a candle, but the Hotel Wallner had once done things on a grand scale.

It was about to do so again.

Maria talked to the metalworkers, checked the uniforms of her army of bowl-carriers, and gave the signal to head to the second floor.

At five minutes to midnight, she returned to the ballroom and gave a nod to the orchestra leader. This would be the last waltz of 1877.

She took a breath, glancing down at the large sapphire ring on her hand. A reminder of her great-grandmother, the woman who had built it all. And then, with precisely one minute left in the old year, the last wild, sweeping notes of “Tales from the Vienna Woods” faded away, and Maria stepped onto the orchestra’s platform.

“Good evening,” she said, smiling at the beautiful people before her. Yes, the hotel shone, but so did they, the magic of the hotel reflected in their eyes. Her parents, side by side, smiled up at her, as caught in the fantasy as those around them. “The Hotel Wallner invites you to join us in bidding farewell to an old year and welcoming a new one.” She turned to the orchestra leader. “Herr Weber, will you assist us?”

He bowed smoothly, and picked up his baton. With half a minute to go, the drummers began to count down the seconds with crisp beats, the audience counting along.

“Five—four— three— two— one— Happy New Year!”

The ballroom erupted in cheers and toasts, and 1878 began.

A fresh year. A fresh start.

When the cheers began to die down, she stepped forward. “And now, the hotel has prepared a little surprise.” She smiled as the line of waiters began to enter. The cheers gave way to gasps, and then, as they noticed the metalworkers set up at their stoves around the ballroom, scattered applause. “Ladies and gentlemen, your destinies await. May they be brilliant ones.”

The bowl-bearers had taken their places around the metalworkers, several bowls surrounding each stove. Three floating waiters at every station assisted the guests with their lead pouring, and conveniently kept an eye out for any long skirts traveling too close to the stoves. Maria had selected the safest model of camp stove, but fire of any kind was a risk.

She descended from the stage and picked up her waltz again. She spun from group to group, laughing, admiring destinies, pretending to see crowns and flowers, and once even the profile of someone’s first love. The glow of the crowd built in her chest, until she felt as though she too was shining. They were happy—the hotel had made them happy. Later, they would wake up in the real world, with headaches to nurse and bills to pay and petty quarrels to fight, but right now they were in the magical fairyland of the Hotel Wallner, and they felt as though they never needed to leave.

May they never leave again.

She needed to check the desserts—Hannah had set them up during Maria’s speech but she should double-check them—

“Trying to escape your destiny, Maria?” Madame Le Blanc asked from behind her, Frau Heilig at her side. For women who spent all their time arguing, they certainly spent a lot of time together.

“No,” Maria said. “But—”

“Hmph,” Madame Le Blanc said, taking her arm in a firm grip and leading her toward a lead-casting station. Maria didn’t bother arguing. It would be faster to simply cast the lead, and the guests would like it.

A group of patrons gathered around her as the metalworker helped her melt a small lump of lead.

“Maria, maybe this is the year you’ll meet him,” one said.

She laughed, wanting to roll her eyes. For a time in her twenties, Vienna had been very interested in the man. Who she would choose to have her daughter with, as her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had done before her. Never mind that the man had rarely been good news: Maria’s great-grandfather had very probably tried to have her grandmother and great-grandmother assassinated (this would forever be uncertain, as one didn’t accuse an emperor of murder), and her father, while not threatening homicide, did produce an astonishing number of headaches. The best one by far was her grandfather, an unnamed aristocrat her grandmother Josephine had enjoyed a brief fling with before meeting her longtime love, Emilie Brodmaier.

“I’ll wish for him,” she said, winking, and then cast her real wish: May the hotel flourish. May it grow and be prosperous. And then, because the needling about the man actually did irritate her and she was feeling petty, she added: And may we eclipse that damn Hotel Hoffmann.

She poured the lead into the water, and watched as it formed a swirling, tangled circle. A waiter fished it out, placing it on one of the cloth-covered trays she had arranged for the occasion. She bent over it. “Hmm. Could it be a . . . a volcano?”

Covering the Hotel Hoffmann in lava.

Madame Le Blanc joined her. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, staring at the coin-sized lump. Her eyes flicked to Maria’s, and then, disconcertingly, twinkled.

Mon Dieu,” she said, loud enough for everyone in a ten-foot radius to hear. “He’s tall. Clara, come look.”

Oh no.

Frau Heilig joined them before Maria could stop her, bending her blond head over the lead, and then clasping her hand dramatically to her bosom. “Maria! It’s finally happened!”

“No it hasn’t,” Maria hissed, through her smile. “They’re joking,” she said to the rapt crowd.

I do not joke about the will of the heavens,” Madame Le Blanc declared in an offended tone.

Maria glared at her.

“He’s handsome. Ooh yes,” Frau Heilig said, giggling. “Dark-haired, definitely dark-haired. You agree, Matilde?”

With another glance down, Madame Le Blanc nodded graciously. “Yes. You have read it well.”

Oh wonderful. They were collaborating.

“Madame Le Blanc!” a man called. “Is it him? Is it the man?”

“It certainly could be,” Madame Le Blanc replied. “Nothing is decided. Merely an opportunity.”

“A very handsome opportunity,” Frau Heilig said.

There was a flutter in the crowd as—oh no—Maria’s mother Elisabeth joined them.

Maria,” she said, in a dramatic tone. Elisabeth spoke exclusively in dramatic tones. “Is it true? Is he finally coming?”


“Oh!” Elisabeth clasped her hands together and looked heavenward, immediately becoming the star of the moment. “It’s all I’ve prayed for! That you would find the happiness I have found with Heinrich! Your father!”

The crowd gasped.

Scandal of the season, Maria reminded herself. Good for the hotel.

It was a well-known secret that Maria was Baron Heinrich von Eder’s daughter, but it had never been confirmed publicly.

Until now.

She looked over to catch Mac’s stricken gaze, as his mother looked on expressionlessly.

It was going to be a difficult night in the von Eder household.

And this was why there would never be the man, no matter how many men in general Maria took to her bed. She had seen exactly what happened when there was one.

She would stick with the hotel. Here, if she worked hard, she could create . . . beauty. A magical, healing refuge. In the memories of the Viennese upper class, the hotel was a gossamer, ever-changing fairyland, but to her, it was solid. The home that always held her. The net that caught her when she was falling.

That was the spell of the Hotel Wallner. A spell she now needed to help it cast.

So she pinned a bright, beautiful smile to her face, the twin of her mother’s. “How fortunate,” she said, laughing. “I’ll be looking for him. Day and . . . night.” Another laugh, echoed in the crowd. “Oh! Countess von Fier, have you dropped your lead yet?”

Deftly, she turned the crowd away, toward other bowls and other scandals. Her mother, thankfully, had drifted away by the time she returned. Probably back to Heinrich.

They were being so flagrant tonight. Why? After thirty-odd years?

Taking a breath, she looked around the Small Ballroom. The tension drained out of her. No. Nothing could take this from her.

“You wiggled out of that one,” Madame Le Blanc said.

Maria narrowed her eyes at the woman. “And you are a traitor.” She glared at Frau Heilig too. “Both of you.”

They snickered, unrepentant. “I only report what I see,” Madame Le Blanc said, with wide eyes.

“Not funny,” Maria said.

Very funny,” Madame Le Blanc replied.

“Ooh, Matilde, Hannah’s put out her almond cakes,” Frau Heilig said, eyeing the dessert table with interest.

“She has?” Madame Le Blanc turned abruptly. “We’d better hurry. They’ll go quickly.” The women turned to leave.

Thank God for Hannah’s almond cakes.

“Oh, Maria,” Madame Le Blanc said, over her shoulder as she left. “If I were you, I wouldn’t sleep with any dark-haired men.”

The women burst into cascades of laughter and sailed off to the dessert table, leaving Maria glaring behind them.