Murder At The Breakers Excerpt: Chapter 1, Scene 1

February 6, 2014

CHAPTER ONE

Newport, RI, August 1895

 

She awoke that morning to an angry sea battering the edges of the promontory, and gusting winds that kicked up a spray to rattle against her bedroom windows. She might simply have rolled over, closed her eyes again and sunk pleasantly back into sleep, if not for the—

 

Here the nib of my pen ran dry and scratched across the paper, threatening to leave a tear. If not for the what? I knew what I wanted to say; this was to be a novel of mystery and danger, but I was having a dickens of a time that morning finding the right words.

 

As I pondered, my gaze drifted to another page I’d shoved aside last night. Sitting on my desktop inches from my elbow, the words I’d hastily scrawled before going to bed mocked me with their insipidness. Mrs Astor Plants A Rose Garden, the title read. Who could possibly care, I wondered. Yet people apparently did care, or I wouldn’t have been sent by my employer, Mr. Millford of the Newport Observer, to cover the auspicious event. Not that Mrs. Astor actually wielded anything resembling a garden tool, mind you, or chanced pricking her tender fingers on a thorn. No, she’d barked brisk orders at her groundskeepers until the placement of the bushes suited her taste, and then ushered her dozen or so guests onto the terrace for tea.

 

I sighed, looking up from my desk to stare out my bedroom window. The scene outside perfectly matched the mysterious one I’d just described: a glowering, blustery day that promised intermittent rains and salty winds. The inclement weather heralded ominous tidings for my protagonist, not to mention wreaking real-life havoc on the tightest of coiffeurs.  

 

No matter; I had no plans to stray from home until much later in the evening. I dipped my pen in the inkwell and was about to try again when from behind me a hand descended on my shoulder.

 

With a yelp I sprang from my chair, shoving it away with the backs of my knees. I sucked in a breath and prepared to cry out in earnest, but before I could utter a sound a second hand clamped my mouth.

 

 “Shush! For crying out loud, Em, don’t scream. I thought you heard me. Ouch!”

 

I’d instinctively bitten one of the fingers pressed against my lips, even as recognition of the familiar voice poured through me and sent my fear draining from my limbs. Still, I had no intentions of apologizing. Wrenching from his grip, I turned and slapped my brother’s hands away.

 

“Blast it, Brady! What are you doing here? Neither Katie nor Nanny would have let you upstairs without asking me first.”

 

“The front door was unlocked. I called out but when no one answered I let myself in.” A flick of his head sent a shank of damp, sandy blond hair off his forehead—and assured me he was lying. That particular gesture had accompanied Brady’s fibs for as long as I could remember. The only truth to his statement was that he’d let himself in.

 

“You sneaked in, didn’t you?” I folded my arms in front of me. Why?”

 

“I need your help, Em.”

 

“Oh, Brady, what now?” My arms fell to my sides, and with a sigh that melted into a yawn, I walked to the foot of my bed and reached for my robe. “I suppose you must be in real trouble again, or you’d never be out and about this early.”

 

“Are you going to The Breakers tonight?” He referred to the ball our relatives were holding that evening.

 

“Of course. But—”

 

“I need you to do something for me.” He threw himself into the chintz overstuffed chair beside the hearth. I remained standing, glaring down at him, braced for the inevitable. “I, uh…I did something I shouldn’t have…”

 

“Really? What else is new?” Several scenarios sprang to mind. A brawl. A drunken tirade. Cheating at cards. An affair with yet another wife of an irate husband bent on revenge. One simply never knew what antics my half brother, Stuart Braden Gale IV, might stir up on any given day. Or night. Despite hailing from two of Newport’s oldest and most respected families—on both our mother’s and his father’s sides—Brady had seen the inside of the Newport jail nearly as often as the town’s most unsavory rapscallions. And on many a morning, I’d paid the bailiff on his behalf more times than I, or my purse, cared to count.

 

“I want to make it right,” he hurried on. “The Breakers will be mobbed later and I’ll be able to sneak in, but I’ll need your help.”

 

“I don’t like the sound of this one bit, Brady. Whatever it is, you know you should just come clean. You can’t hide from Uncle Cornelius for long.”

 

Before he could reply, a pounding echoed from the hall below. I heard a tread on the staircase and moments later there came a rap at my bedroom door. With an imploring look, Brady shook his head and put a finger to his lips. He jumped up from the chair and moved to the corner of the room where my armoire would hide him from view. A sense of foreboding had me dragging my feet as I went to the door.

 

“Good mornin’, Miss Emma.” Katie, my young housemaid, peered in at me and tucked an errant red curl under the cap she’d obviously donned in haste. Her soft brogue plunged to a murmur. “Sorry to disturb you so early, miss, but Mr. Neily’s below. Shall I tell him you ain’t receivin’ yet?”

 

“Neily?” A burst of wind rattled the windows sent a chill down my back. “On a morning like this?” My maid didn’t answer, and I managed to refrain from angling a glance into the shadows cloaking my brother. “Thank you, Katie. Tell him I’ll be down in a few minutes. Show him into the morning room, please, and bring in coffee.”

 

“Aye, miss.” The girl hesitated and then bobbed an awkward curtsy. I closed the door.

 

“You won’t tell him I’m here, will you, Em?”

 

With pursed lips I met my brother’s eager blue gaze. “He’s looking for you, is he?”

 

“One would assume.”

 

Going to my dressing table, I pinned my braided hair into a coil at my nape, secured the sash of my robe into a secure knot, and slipped my feet into a pair of tattered satin slippers. In the bathroom my great aunt Sadie had installed before she died, I turned the creaky faucet and splashed cold water onto my face. Ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of greeting company in such a state of dishabille, but this was my cousin Neily, here on a blustery August morning hours before he typically showed his face beyond the gates of his family’s summer home.

 

Would I keep my brother’s secret? Blindly lend him the help he asked for?

 

I sighed once more. Didn’t I always?

 

When I stepped back into the bedroom, Brady was nowhere to be seen, though I thought I heard the telltale click of the attic door closing.

 

Downstairs, I paused in the morning room doorway. A coffee pot and two cups waited on the table; fruit, muffins, and a tureen of steaming oatmeal occupied the sideboard. Under any other circumstances, my stomach would have rumbled. Not today.

 

It didn’t appear as if my cousin had brought an appetite either, as he hadn’t helped himself to any of the repast. I pasted on a smile and stepped into the room. “Good morning, Neily. What brings you here so early, and in such weather? Not that it isn’t always good to see you.” Could he hear the hesitation in my tone? “Will you join me in some coffee?”

 

He had been standing with his broad back to me, staring out at the ocean, his dark hair boyishly tousled in the way that had become fashionable among the sporting young gentlemen here for the summer season. He turned, his somber expression framed by the tossing gray waves and the ragged clouds scuttling past like ripped, wind-born sheets.

“Good morning, Emmaline,” he said curtly, a civility to be gotten over quickly so he could come to the point of his visit. He held his black bowler between his hands. “Is Brady here?”

 

I blinked and clutched the ruffled neckline of my robe. For once I didn’t bother correcting Neily on my name. I preferred Emma, but my more illustrious relatives insisted on using my full name, as they did with all the girls in the family. “Brady,” I repeated. I paused, hating to lie, but for now I’d do what I could to protect my brother, at least until I knew more.

 

I discreetly crossed two fingers. “You know Brady’s never up this early. Is something wrong?”

 

“He’s up today and yes, something’s wrong.” His overcoat billowing behind him, he came toward me so quickly I almost backed up a step, but managed to hold my ground. “If I were to look around, are you sure I wouldn’t find him?”

 

Only if you looked in the attic. But please don’t. Then again, by now Brady might be somewhere on the first floor, perhaps in the adjoining service hallway, listening to every word.

 

Aloud I said, “Look all you like.” I was sure Neily could hear my heart pounding. “Did you check around town?”

 

“He’s not at his digs, and he’s not sleeping it off at any of his usual haunts. This is important, Emmaline, and I need your help. So does Brady, as a matter of fact.”

 

Good heavens, did he think I hadn’t figured that out for myself? But I raised my eyebrows in a show of ignorance.

 

Neily’s grip on his hat tightened, leaving fingerprints on the rain-dampened felt. “If you happen to see him, if he shows up here…”

 

“Yes, I’ll tell him you’re looking for him. Now, about that coffee…” I started toward the table, but Neily’s next words stopped me cold.

 

“No. Don’t tell Brady anything. Call the house. Immediately. Ask for me. Tell no one else anything. No one. Not even Father.”

 

That reference to Cornelius Vanderbilt II held just enough emphasis to send a lump of dread sinking to the pit of my belly. “You’re scaring me, Neily. What exactly has Brady done?”

 

In a rare occurrence, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, heir to a fortune that had surpassed the $200 million mark a generation ago, shifted both his feet and his gaze, obviously no longer able to meet my eye. “I…I don’t like to say, Emmaline, not just now. It could all just be a…a misunderstanding.”

 

I strode closer to him. Realizing I was clutching my robe again, I dropped my hands to my sides and squared my shoulders. “What could be a misunderstanding, Neily? Stop being mysterious. If Brady’s in trouble I have a right to know.”

 

“It’s railroad business.” A faint blush stained those prominent cheekbones of his, raising my curiosity tenfold and making me wonder, Brady’s present crisis aside, what business machinations the family had gotten up to now.  “Please, Emmaline, that’s all I can tell you.”

 

I knew I wouldn’t get any more from him. “All right. If I see Brady or hear from him, I’ll call. He was invited for tonight, wasn’t he?”

 

Tonight’s ball was to be both a coming out party for my cousin Gertrude and a housewarming event for Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s newly rebuilt summer “cottage”—an affair that promised to be the most extravagant Newport had ever seen.

“He’s invited, but it’s doubtful he’ll show.” Neily started past me, then hesitated, staring down at the patent leather toecaps of his costly boots. “I couldn’t help but notice that…that Katie isn’t…”

 

Ah. Earlier that spring, a few weeks after the family had come up from New York to supervise the final touches on The Breakers, a young maid in their employ had shown up at my door, distraught and with nowhere else to turn. Katie Dillon had told me little more than what was obvious, but I’d surmised the rest. I’d been furious with Neily, and vastly disappointed with the cousin I’d known all my life and had come to admire.

 

“No, Katie isn’t,” I said coldly. I tugged my robe tighter around me and pushed away images of that awful night of blood and pain and tears. Katie had been in her third month, had hardly begun to show yet. “Not any longer. The child died and nearly took Katie with it.”

 

For the briefest moment Neily hung his head, quite a show of remorse for a Vanderbilt. “But she is…she’s…”

 

“Fine now, thank you for inquiring.” My tone rang of dismissal. I had far more important concerns than soothing his conscience.

 

Neily lingered a moment longer as if searching for words. Then he was gone, leaving me staring past the foggy windows to the waves pluming over the rocks that marked the end of the spit of land on which my house, Gull Manor, perched boldly above the Atlantic Ocean.

 

A half an hour earlier I’d been imagining mysterious happenings, but suddenly I’d entered a very real mystery of my own. Who was the villain? Who the victim?

A step behind me broke my troubled trance. I didn’t bother turning around. I knew my brother’s skulking footsteps when I heard them. “Right now Neily only suspects I did what I did,” he said softly. “If I undo it, there’ll be nothing to hide. All I need for you to do is be my lookout later.”

 

I walked to the window and reached out, pressing my palm to the cool pane. “Brady, I don’t see why I should help you if you won’t trust me enough to tell me what you did.”

“Of course I trust you. But it’s better you don’t know too much. I don’t want you implicated.”

 

I whirled, true fear for Brady knotting my throat. His clothes and hair had dried, but his rumpled appearance lent him a vulnerable, lost air that tugged at my heartstrings. “Oh, Brady. If you don’t change your ways, someday you’ll be beyond anyone’s help.”

 

He held up a hand, palm up. “Just keep an eye on the old man, Em. That’s all. Right before midnight. Everyone should be in that cavernous hall of theirs toasting cousin Gertrude before the midnight supper. But if you see Uncle Cornelius edging toward the staircase at any time between eleven forty-five and midnight, do something, anything, to stop him. All right, Em? Can you do that for me?”

 

I regarded his trim, compact frame, his fine, even features, and the smudges of sleeplessness beneath his eyes. Brady was my elder brother by four years. Our parents were alive and well but living in Paris among all the other expatriated artists searching for inspiration, many of whom had once, in a simpler time, called Newport home.

 

Arthur Cross, my father, was a painter and yes, a Vanderbilt, but a poor one, descended from one of the daughters of the first Cornelius. Brady wasn’t a Vanderbilt at all but Mother’s son from her first marriage. His father had died before he was born, a Newport dandy with a penchant for spending rather than earning and who had been presumed dead in a yachting accident, though his body was never found.

 

With no available parents, somehow I had become the guiding force in Brady’s life. Even at twenty-one I was the steadier of the two of us, the more practical, the one who remembered that food and clothing and a roof over one’s head couldn’t be won at poker or dicing. But when I couldn’t guide him, I picked him up, dusted him off, gave him a lecture and fed him honey cakes and tea. Why that last? Because despite his many failings—and they were numerous—there remained some endearing quality about Brady that brought out my motherly instincts. What can I say? I loved my brother. And I would do what I could to keep him on the straight and narrow.

 

“Promise me your intentions are honorable,” I demanded in a whisper.

 

“I swear it, Em.”

 

With a nod and an audible breath I agreed to help him. I just prayed I wouldn’t regret it.

***

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