In the summer of 1898, reporter Emma Cross investigates a shocking death among the bright lights of Newport's high society . . .
After a disappointing year as a society columnist for the Herald and staying with her more well-heeled Vanderbilt relatives in New York City, Emma has returned to the salty air, glittering ocean vistas, and grand stately mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, more determined than ever to report on hard news.
But for now she’s covering the social event of the season at Ochre Court, a coming-out ball designed to showcase Cleo Cooper-Smith, who will be literally on display, fittingly as Cleopatra, in an elaborate tableau vivant. Recently installed modern electricity will allow Miss Cooper-Smith to truly shine. But as the deb ascends to her place of honor, the ballroom is plunged into darkness. When the lights come back on, Cleo sits still on her throne, electrocuted to death.
Quickly establishing that the wiring was tampered with, Emma now has a murder to investigate. And the array of eligible suspects could fill another ballroom—from a shady New York real estate developer to a neglected sister and the mother of a spurned suitor. As Emma begins to discover this crime has unseen connections to a nefarious network, she puts her own life at risk to shine a light on the dark motives behind a merciless murder.
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Newport, Rhode Island July 1898
"Take my advice, Miss Cross, and marry a rich man. Then you may do whatever you like."
The train from New York City to North Kingstown, Rhode Island, jostled me from side to side on the velvet seat while trees and shrubs and the occasional house streaked past the window to my right. The car was about half-full, and soft murmurs and light snores provided accompaniment to the rumble of the tracks. I had faced forward as I usually do, not at all liking the sensation of being propelled backward through space at unnatural speeds. The woman in the seat opposite me, however, seemed to have no such qualms. She sat upright — not rigidly, but proudly, one might say, the kind of bearing that spoke of an unwillingness to bend to the persuasion of others.
"But," I said and paused, still baffled by her last bit of counsel, "you achieved so much before you were married, ma'am."
"True enough. But I was lucky, and I was willing to do whatever it took. Are you so willing, Miss Cross?"
Why, yes, I believed I was, but before answering, I studied her, taking in the square chin, the blunt though not unpleasing features which, like her posture, projected an air of uncompromising confidence. I sighed. I'd spent the past year in Manhattan reporting for the New York Herald and pursuing my fondest dream — only to find myself enveloped by the same frustrations that had thwarted my career in my hometown of Newport. What was I doing wrong?
Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known to the world as journalist Nellie Bly, smiled slightly at my hesitation. "There is only one sure path to personal freedom, Miss Cross. Money. And for a woman who has none, there is only one sure way of obtaining any. Marriage."
"Ah, you're going to argue that marrying for money is wrong, that such a woman is destined for unhappiness and will find herself subject to her husband's whims."
Her smile grew. "I didn't say to marry just any man. Do you imagine I'd be willing to exist in anyone's shadow, husband or otherwise?"
A face with patrician features and dark eyes formed in my mind's eye, but I dismissed it, or at least the notion of marrying a certain man for his money. That opportunity had come and gone and I had never regretted, for a moment, standing on my convictions. No, that wasn't quite true. I would never marry for money, but there were times I wondered what my life would be now had I given in to temptation....
A jolt brought me back to the present. "Your living in someone's shadow is hard to fathom, Mrs. Seaman, with everything I've read about you. But your husband is —" I broke off, appalled at the impertinence of what I'd been about to utter.
"Forty years older than me, yes, that is correct." Unfazed, she darted a glance out the window, blinking against the rapid flicker of sun and shadow against the moving foliage. "Still, we are compatible. I am quite fond of my husband, Miss Cross, and we are happy together. I have compromised nothing, yet I have achieved my goals and am living the life I desire. That is precisely because I have always known what it is I want, and I have never veered from the course that would take me exactly where I wished to be."
The train jerked as it switched tracks, tipping us a bit to one side. I caught myself with the flat of my palm against the seat. Mrs. Seaman merely swayed as a willow in a breeze, then steeled her spine. The train slowed as the trees yielded to the wooden platform and green-painted depot darkened by soot. The sign read NORTH KINGSTOWN. I unsteadily got to my feet and reached to retrieve my valise from the overhead rack. Even though I stood on tiptoe, the bag, having slid from its original placement, eluded my grasp. A gentleman from across the aisle intervened, easily sliding out the thickly brocaded piece and swinging it down into my arms.
I thanked him before turning back to the individual I'd idolized for more than a decade, who now left me confused and not a little uncertain whether my admiration had been warranted or not. Everything I'd believed about this remarkable woman, this brilliant journalist, tumbled about my mind in chaos. Was she no different from my Vanderbilt aunts and all the other society matrons whose lives seemed to me as empty and artificial as paper flowers?
She winked at me. "You see, Miss Cross, men are not the enemy. Find one you can trust, one who makes you laugh, and most importantly, one with enough money to make your dearest desires come true."
* * *
Nellie Bly's parting words echoed in my ears long after we parted. Once again, a dark-haired, dark-eyed promise rose up inside me, and a whispered echo breathed across my heart. Marry me, Emma. But I couldn't have, at least not then. Which was not to say I would never be married, or never marry Derrick Andrews, who had once proposed to me in a rash passion formed of danger and a narrow escape with our lives. Under those circumstances, it would have been wrong of me to accept his suit, wrong to mistake an ardor of the moment for something more permanent.
Then, too, there was Jesse Whyte, a man I had known all my life, a good, honest soul whose lifestyle fit well with my own, and who had also made his intentions clear. It seemed the only intentions that remained unclear were my own. What did I want? My independence, my career ... Beyond that, I didn't quite know.
For now, I had other matters to think about, an assignment to complete, and a different sort of decision to make.
It took two coaches and two ferries to bring me to my destination, and by the second ferry ride, which conveyed me across Narragansett Bay from Jamestown to Newport, those other matters occupied the better part of my attention.
Silas Griggson needed to duck when passing through the doorway into the interior of the ferry. Thin and wiry, he nonetheless occupied his tailored suit as though every inch of it had been designed to fit him perfectly, which it had. He certainly didn't buy his clothing off department store racks, but visited New York City's finest tailors. A real estate developer and self-made man, Griggson certainly fit one part of Nellie's description of the man I should marry. But trust? Laughter? What I had learned in past weeks and what I suspected about Silas Griggson turned my blood to ice, albeit not enough to persuade me to maintain a safe distance from him.
No, I'd had my eye, figuratively if not literally, on Mr. Griggson for some weeks now, and what I had learned alternately piqued my curiosity and made me queasy. As the ferry rocked its way across the tossing harbor, my mind's eye conjured rubble and dust, arms and legs askew, sightless eyes, and blood. ... A building erected by Silas Griggson's construction company had collapsed, yet the inquiries had held him blameless.
He spoke to no one but his accompanying manservant during our passage across the bay, but then, I hadn't expected him to be sociable. No, if business concerns had brought him to Newport, he'd wait until the appropriate society functions to approach any potential collaborators about his plans. I inwardly fumed about what those plans might entail. I knew only that Silas Griggson had never visited Newport before, and I longed to see him make an about-face without having set foot on my island.
Again, as in the past, I wondered where he initially came from. My exploration of his past had revealed suspiciously little — a modest upbringing, a typical boy's schooling with no mention of university, working his way up through the building trade, and investments that had increased his fortunes. Where had the funds for those investments originated? There the waters clouded. The trail ended. A working man one day, a construction mogul the next ...
Did he notice me taking his measure from across the crowded way? Did he see me as I scrutinized his clothing, his bearing, mentally taking notes on every particular from his slicked-back hair to the glossy tips of his shoes? I doubt it. After only a year in New York City, I wasn't well-known enough there to have become conspicuous, not like I was in Newport where everyone knew me. That suited me fine. When Silas Griggson finally made my acquaintance, the fact that this green young chit from the local Newport populace had exposed his secrets would shake him to his very core.
Or so I hoped.
When the ferry arrived at Long Wharf in town, a hand clasped my elbow as I stepped down onto the gangway. The touch startled me and I nearly lost my footing. The fingers tightened, and a male voice spoke brightly in my ear.
"Steady there, Miss Cross. It is Miss Cross, isn't it?"
I craned my neck to look up at, not Silas Griggson as I'd initially feared, but a much more youthful countenance. The features were only vaguely familiar, and I searched my memory for a name.
"It's Sam Caldwell, Miss Cross. Don't you remember me? We met at the Vanderbilt dinner party back in November. The Neily and Grace Vanderbilts, that is." He fell into step beside me and tipped his military pattern cap, the sun glinting on the gold eagle emblem. Behind him traipsed his servant, a callow youth who struggled beneath the weight of two rather heavy-looking portmanteaus. "May my man relieve you of that bag, Miss Cross?"
"No, thank you." I tightened my hold on my valise and nodded to the livery- clad footman. Then I took in Sam Caldwell's uniform with its gold braid and officer's insignia. "Captain Caldwell, yes, of course. Forgive me for not remembering right away."
"It was several months ago, and a lot has happened in the interim." The captain hunched lower as he spoke to enable me to hear him over the commotion of people exiting the ferry. Broad shouldered and trim waisted in his army uniform, the captain struck an impressive figure with his high cheekbones and the slightest of dimples in his chin. We stepped onto the dock together, whereupon he released my elbow and offered his arm to guide me to the end of the quay. His servant trailed close behind us, his gait faltering beneath his burden. "I've been away fighting in the war, Miss Cross."
"Yes, I believe Neily mentioned that. I am most relieved to see you have suffered no serious injuries, sir. The war goes well for our side, I understand." I had heard the latest off the telegraph wires in the Herald's newsroom before I left New York. When the war with Spain began, I'd indulged in the briefest fantasy that James Bennett, the Herald's owner, might send me to Cuba or perhaps even the faraway Philippines along with the other reporters to cover the fighting, or, at least, to observe the effects of the war on the local people. I very nearly laughed out loud, there beside Captain Caldwell, at such a naïve hope on my part.
"It should all be over shortly, Miss Cross, with the Spaniards sailing home with their tails between their legs. Their forces are depleted and suffering from yellow fever."
Despite the oddity of his mixed metaphor, I emitted a sound of both approval and admiration. "I'm sure it will be a great relief to your family, to all the soldiers' families."
"Indeed. Tell me, are you here to report on Miss Cooper-Smith's coming- out?"
I couldn't help smiling at his eager tone. True enough, the Herald had sent me north to cover what promised to be the social event of the summer Season. And while Mr. Bennett hoped for an article rife with as many scandals as fashion details, I had pounced on the opportunity for other reasons entirely. Miss Cooper-Smith's father, an architect, often collaborated with Silas Griggson on building projects. Was he culpable in Mr. Griggson's chicanery? I intended to find out.
Evasively, I replied, "That, among other things. Are you among Miss Cooper- Smith's hopeful suitors?"
He blushed at my blunt attempt to play the gossip columnist, but shook his head. "Not I, Miss Cross. But I am invited to the festivities." We strolled a few paces in silence, and then he said, "It's awfully swell of Mrs. Goelet to hold this shindig at Ochre Court, what with Miss Cooper-Smith's own mother having passed on. Do you know what Mrs. Goelet has planned for the event?"
I stared up at his handsome face, thinking how much of a boy he appeared at that moment, not at all the fearless soldier capable of leading men into battle. Yet I couldn't decide if he was flirting with me, or insulting me, by using such slang as shindig. Surely he would not have done so with Miss Cooper- Smith, or any young woman of the Four Hundred with whom he had limited acquaintance.
I decided either way, he meant no harm. "I do not, Captain, but even if I did, you know I couldn't discuss the details. Though you'll be able to read a thorough description afterward in my column in the Herald." The sight of a carriage up ahead prompted me to slide my arm from his. "There is my brother, Captain. It was a pleasure to see you again, and thank you for walking with me." Once again, I nodded to the servant. It irked me, always, that such individuals were often treated as if they did not exist.
The captain tipped his hat. "I'll see you at Ochre Court, then, if not sooner, Miss Cross. Good day."
* * *
Thanks to Brady's new brougham and matching pair of Cleveland Bays, the ride home passed much more swiftly than if he'd come in my shabby gig pulled by my aging roan hack, Barney.
"You didn't have this the last time I saw you in New York. It's a lovely vehicle," I told him as he made the turn off Thames Street onto Wellington Avenue. He was taking the long way around Ocean Avenue to Gull Manor, and I was glad. It had been months since I'd glimpsed the glorious hills, cliffs, and wide open sea. "And those horses — they cost a pretty penny, I'm sure."
Brady, hatless, his sandy brown hair tousled, grinned back at me. "Afraid I'm getting myself into debt, Em?"
"Wouldn't be the first time."
"Yes, well, never fear. Your relatives pay me well at the New York Central."
"They're your relatives, too," I reminded him.
He shrugged. "Not really."
That was true. The Vanderbilts were my third cousins — or was it fourth — on my father's side. Brady and I shared a mother and our Newport heritage, but not my blood ties to the Vanderbilt family. "Well, they're treating you like one of their own. You've proved yourself to them, Brady, and I'm proud of you."
"You're just happy you don't have to come bail me out of the jailhouse anymore."
"Yes, that, too, certainly." I laughed, lifting my face to the warmth beaming down on us from a nearly cloudless sky. The moment might have appeared light to a casual observer, but the hope I had always harbored for my often incorrigible brother gathered into a tight orb wrapped in a prayer that his transformation to productive respectability would last. "How is Hannah?" I asked as offhandedly as I could.
I felt him staring at me, and grinning. I turned to gaze back. "Well? Have you seen her since you've been home?" Brady and I had both lived in New York the past year, though for the most part our lives and occupations had sent us in separate directions except when we met at Vanderbilt family functions. He had arrived in Newport a few weeks ahead of me for the summer Season, making the trip on our relative William Vanderbilt's steamer yacht. I supposed his carriage and horses had arrived on a cargo steamer.
"You think Hannah will keep me honest, don't you?"
The laughter left my voice. "I do, Brady. I think she's good for you."
Hannah Hanson and her brother had grown up with Brady and me on the Point, a harborside, colonial neighborhood that saw its origins in the seventeenth century. Hardly considered fashionable nowadays, the Point nonetheless forged strong bonds between those who lived there. Hailing from Newport's hardiest stock, we understood and respected one another in ways outsiders could not.
It had been one of the things I missed most in New York.
Brady gave the reins a light flick. Hammersmith Farm rolled into view, snuggled in acres of verdant lawn, its weathered shingles gleaming in the sunlight. His gaze lingered on the varied roofline of its many wings, presided over by a single, regal turret. "Hannah is no society girl."
"No. That's exactly what makes her so right for you."
"Does it? If you believed that, Em, you'd have married Derrick Andrews by now."
The comment stung, for all Brady hadn't meant it to. He was merely stating a fact. I hadn't married Derrick Andrews because doing so would change my life forever, substituting riches and luxury for the personal independence I presently enjoyed and valued above all else. "That's different. You're no Knickerbocker, and you never will be."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder at Ochre Court"
Copyright © 2018 Lisa Manuel.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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