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“IT’S THE PARTY of the year, and it’s a funeral.”
Charlotte Delacorte overheard the comment outside Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. She didn’t recognize the woman who made the callous remark and could only assume she was one of the new breed of vile gossip columnists who had descended upon New York like locusts.
“The world is going to hell in a handbasket,” her newly deceased mother-in-law had often said.
Now, all of New York had turned out to pay its respects to the late Geraldine Delacorte. The line of people waiting to get inside stretched from the corner of Fifty-third Street to as far as Charlotte could see, and the avenue was a virtual parking lot filled with the finest Packards and Pierce-Arrow roadsters. The dark cars were like matching accessories to the crowd dressed in black, navy, and gray. Charlotte herself wore a black crepe mourning dress by Jean Patou. The French designer had offered to send over a matching chiffon veil, but Charlotte decided the veil would be more appropriately worn by blood relatives. Instead, she wore her long, glossy brown hair up in an elaborate chignon. She wished she’d had time to sneak on a bit of rouge—her fair skin was paler than usual, her wide gray eyes pinched with fatigue.
“Mrs. Delacorte, we really must expedite moving guests inside. Perhaps if you and your husband stepped inside and weren’t greeting everyone…” Mr. Smyth, the director of the service, sweating in his heavy suit, was clearly overwhelmed. Charlotte was a little anxious herself but had learned that as a Delacorte, she could never let that sort of thing show. She tried to imagine what her late mother-in-law would want them to do with the bottleneck of guests.
“I think … it’s important that we acknowledge each of the guests as they arrive. It’s the proper thing to do,” Charlotte said.
It was a comfort to Charlotte that the most important people in New York had turned out in tribute: The Vanderbilts, the Goulds, the Carnegies, Fricks, Astors, and Rockefellers were all represented on that gray Saturday morning. Charlotte’s mother-in-law would not be impressed so much as she would have been satisfied.
The social clout of the family into which she had married was something Charlotte had almost come to take for granted. Certainly, she had not seen it exhibited in such a public way since her lavish wedding four years earlier—an almost overwhelming affair, planned and executed with near-military precision at the strong hand of William’s mother. Charlotte had been so caught up in the excitement of William’s whirlwind courtship, she had willingly gone along for the ride.
“Charlotte, my dear, you look lovely even on such a sorry occasion,” said Mayor Hylan’s wife. She took one of Charlotte’s gloved hands into her own. “Such a loss. The city won’t be the same without Geraldine.”
This was true. Manhattan would not be the same without Geraldine Delacorte’s endless petitioning against everything from the women’s suffragist movement to the motor cars “ruining” New York City, to the “bad element” taking over Midtown.
“It’s those nightclubs,” Geraldine had said.
“Oh, people just need to have a little fun sometimes,” Charlotte had replied.
“People? What people? Loose women and bootleggers!”
Charlotte couldn’t help but think that Geraldine Delacorte’s sudden death from heart failure had something to do with her constant meddling into what other people were doing.
Charlotte fanned herself with a scarf, beginning to sweat inside her dress. Her nerves were getting the best of her. Perhaps Mr. Smyth was right. It was time to get things moving.
She tried to catch William’s eye, but he was oblivious, engrossed in conversation with the mayor.
“This crowd is simply overwhelming,” said Amelia Astor, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. Charlotte had seen her arriving at the church, dressed all in black, her eyes red-rimmed and brimming with tears. Any casual observer would think that Amelia was a grieving daughter, not a mere school friend of the grieving son. “Do you need help ushering people indoors?” she asked Charlotte, a little too sweetly.
Amelia was one of William’s oldest friends—part of the smart set that had all gone to the same private schools from the time they were in their first walking shoes. Charlotte had attended the best schools in Philadelphia—even after her father had lost most of their money they still managed to keep Charlotte afloat. But none of that mattered in New York. If you weren’t a member of the Four Hundred—social arbiter Ward McCallister’s list of the true members of New York society—you might as well be fresh off the boat. It was her mother-in-law who told her about the list—perhaps to remind her of her place. Charlotte asked, why the number four hundred? And her mother-in-law said breezily, “No more than that can fit comfortably in the Astors’ ballroom.”
“Thank you, Amelia. But I’ve got it under control,” said Charlotte. “Perhaps the best thing you can do is go inside yourself. People always do seem to follow your lead.” It was just enough of a compliment to make the dismissal acceptable.
Charlotte crossed the stone entranceway to speak to her husband, who was now in a heated conversation with an underdressed, rather scruffy-looking man.
“William,” she said, reaching for his arm.
“Not now, Charlotte.” He shook off her hand. The strange man glanced at her, then quickly walked away.
“Who was that?” she asked.
But before William could answer her, a car came skidding to a stop at the corner, a garishly painted Model T. The vehicle was a shade of green Charlotte had never before seen on an automobile. The car was filled in both the front and back with passengers.
The horn bleated rudely, eliciting loud laughter from the backseat.
Charlotte turned back to William and found that he was staring at the car. It only took her a few seconds to realize he wasn’t just distracted by the noise; he was entirely focused on the passenger disembarking from the backseat.
She was a stunning brunette, with a perfectly chic, slim figure, the short, boyish haircut that was all the rage, and wearing a sleeveless pink sheath dress that fell just below her knees. Her face was concealed by her pink cloche hat.
Charlotte was alarmed to see William cut through the throng of guests and make his way to the curb, where he immediately took the woman roughly, but intimately, by the arm.
Copyright © 2013 by Jamie Brenner