Spencer Murphy is a national treasure. A famous Vietnam War correspondent who escaped captivity in Southeast Asia, he made a fortune off of his books and television appearances. But Spence is growing forgetful with age; he’s started to wander and even fails to come home one night. When a body is discovered at Step Above, the sprawling Murphy house near Steps Beach, Nantucket police detective Meredith Folger is called in to investigate.
The timing couldn’t be worse: It’s the Fourth of July, and tourists are arriving in droves to celebrate on Nantucket’s beaches, so the police force is spread thin. On top of that Merry is planning her wedding to cranberry farmer Peter Mason, and her new boss, an ex-Chicago police chief with an aggressive management strategy, seems to be trying to force her to quit. Merry can’t conclude the Murphy investigation quickly enough for him. As she grapples with a family of unreliable storytellers—some incapable of recalling the past, and others determined that it never be known—she suspects that the truth may be forever out of reach, trapped in the failing brain of a man whose whole life may be a lie.
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“It’s absolutely perfect,” Meredith Folger said as she gazed at herself in the full-length mirror. She was standing in the sunlit master bedroom of an old house built in 1821 by a man named Thomas Mason, who had captained the Leah out of Nantucket until his death in the South Pacific in 1843. The house on Cliff Road, faced with narrow white clapboards and topped with a square walk on its roof, was lapped in green lawns and hedges and buffered by opulent hydrangeas. It had come down through the centuries in the Mason family, who used it only during the summer months now. From the windows that drenched the room in sunshine, Merry could look out over the back terrace and its pergola to the wet-paint smear of the harbor, which was flooded with boat traffic on this first day of July. The expanse of Jetties Beach was clearly visible. Happy people were stretched out on its sand and kites rippled over its dunes. But Merry wasn’t admiring the million-dollar view. She had eyes only for herself, and the extraordinary gown Mayling Stern had just slipped carefully over her blonde head.
It was pale silk chiffon of a shade somewhere between cream and chartreuse that brought out the vivid green of her eyes. Mayling had cut a curvaceous column with a classically elegant bodice that framed Merry’s collarbone like a Renaissance portrait. The back plunged in a low V. The hem stopped just above the ankle strap of her shoe. It was a grown-up wedding dress for a woman past thirty who had no interest in presenting herself as the heroine of a Disney fairy tale. Over the past few months, Meredith had seen every bridal salon in Boston, high-priced and low, and despaired of finding anything that was not billowing or farcical. The fashion appeared to favor voluminous skirts and jeweled bodices. She refused to speak her vows to Peter Mason across three feet of pendulous hoop, like Scarlett O’Hara, as she’d told Mayling bitterly one night over dinner at Dune.
“Here’s what you want,” the designer said coolly, as she sketched red lipstick swiftly over her white napkin. “Severe. Yet timeless. Like the walls of this room.”
It was a composition of maybe five lines. A dress not for a bride, Merry thought, but a dress to get married in. She met Mayling’s eyes. “Are you serious?”
“Of course. I’ve always wanted to do bridal.”
“What would it . . .” She swallowed, not sure how to ask the price of a New York designer’s bridal fling. Fifteen thousand dollars? Twenty? “I mean, would this be couture level?”
“In terms of cost?” Mayling’s eyes slid over to Peter, whose hand cupped Meredith’s shoulder. “I thought you were marrying money. But never mind. For a friend—a friend I’m experimenting on . . . such a deal, as my father, Maury, used to say. I’ll throw in the fabric at cost, as a wedding gift.”
Merry took the napkin home. She taped it to a whiteboard above her police station desk, where it hovered in her peripheral vision as she scrolled through databases. In April, she had her first fitting in Mayling’s muslin model—something she hadn’t expected and was unable to assess.
But here, in the graceful light of the old and beloved house, she saw the actual gown for the first time.
And she was exquisite.
“Hold still,” Mayling said through a mouthful of pins. She pinched a miniscule amount of silk at an almost-invisible seam. Merry tried not to breathe.
A woman’s laughter drifted up from the center hallway—Georgiana Whitney, Peter’s sister, who was staying in the house for the next month. Then Peter’s voice, the words indistinguishable.
“Don’t let him in,” Merry said tensely.
Mayling lifted her head. “That bad?”
The designer had brought the dress to Cliff Road because Merry was stealing time for the fitting from one of her busiest weeks. It was Friday, July 1st, the day before Nantucket would launch its annual Fourth of July weekend celebrations. That meant road races tomorrow—Peter was competing in one—fireworks off Jetties Beach the night of July 3rd, and Main Street morning activities (complete with water fights between rival firemen crews, pie-eating contests, and crying babies) on the Fourth.
The acknowledged nightmare of the entire weekend, however, was a spontaneous event the Town Council hadn’t sanctioned or funded, or could possibly control—the Nobadeer Beach Party. This was a recent phenomenon that had grown over the years through social media. Thousands upon thousands of high school and college kids poured off the ferries with cases of beer or drove over the sand in permitted vehicles and took over Nobadeer Beach on Nantucket’s South Shore. They arrived early in the day and stayed until the police shut them down. This was usually around dinnertime, at which point many of the kids were passed out from alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses or too many selfies in the sun. Ambulances carried the casualties to Nantucket Cottage Hospital, which was invariably overwhelmed. Partiers peed on local residents’ lawns, trashed their patio umbrellas and cars, left enormous piles of garbage on the beach, and—memorably—invaded empty houses to have sex on strangers’ couches. Merry and her fellow police officers were expected to contain and control the hordes, but when they tried to discourage more cars or people from walking onto Nobadeer, the spontaneous bash simply moved to a different beach elsewhere on the island. It was a significant headache because it strained the Nantucket police during a weekend when they were already challenged by the crowds on Main Street. They were forced to bring in extra Community Service Officers and police by the dozens from the mainland.
But that all began tomorrow. Today, Merry had agreed to meet George and Peter at the Cliff Road house before all Independence Day hell broke loose. Mayling arrived half an hour early. Merry thought that would give her enough time to fit the dress. But now she didn’t want to take it off. And she didn’t want Peter to see it before The Day.
She groped for Mayling’s hands, her smile incandescent, her eyes blurring with tears. “Lock the door.”
“You’re welcome,” Mayling said.
The unconventional gown changed everything about a wedding Meredith had secretly been dreading.
It gave her courage to defy Peter’s formidable mother, who lived permanently on Park Avenue, and veto a New York ceremony. It allowed her to blithely decline a reception at the Pierre. Merry and Peter would be married in the soaring clarity of the old Congregational church on Centre Street, and walk up to the Cliff Road house afterward, followed by their friends. Tess Starbuck would cater the food, which would be fresh and locally sourced and utterly delectable. Mayling’s husband, Sky Jackson, had ordered cases of wine and champagne from the vineyard owners who’d impressed him most during the Wine Festival in May.
“You should carry arum lilies,” Mayling said now, eyeing her critically. “The cream ones, with chartreuse throats. Perfect with this silk. The little girls can have late hydrangeas.”
“—In Ralph’s lightship baskets,” Merry supplied. Ralph Waldo Folger was her grandfather. The little girls were Georgiana’s daughters. They would get to miss a day of school, at least, to fly in from Connecticut for the September wedding. Their two brothers were equally happy to cut class for Uncle Peter.
“Meredith!” Peter called.
She helped Mayling tuck her wedding gown back into its protective silk bag, her fingers lingering on the zipper.
“We’ll do one last session a week out from the date,” Mayling warned, “in case you’ve somehow lost or gained weight dramatically in the interim. But tell me right now if there’s anything about the dress you can’t live with.”
“Just the months until September,” Merry said.
Mayling smiled fleetingly. She was not the most expressive of women, but Merry had learned that she cared deeply about the few people she allowed into her life. “Those weeks will fly, girlfriend. And you’ve got so much to do between now and then. Not to mention work.”
“Work.” Merry glanced at her phone. “Damn. I’ve got a meeting at the station in half an hour. And Peter downstairs.”
“Go,” Mayling said, and unlocked the bedroom door.
Georgiana and her brother were sprawled on the twin white sofas that flanked the old fireplace. The chairs surrounding them were covered in varying shades of green and blue linen, some faded by sun, and the aqueous light filtering through the windows gave the entire space a floating quality. Down-filled pillows with old needlepoint covers were scattered among the seat cushions and tossed on the floor, probably by George’s kids or their exuberant Labrador. Nothing was too precious to touch or scuff or treat carelessly in this place, despite the excellent provenance of the tables dotting the room or the nineteenth-century oils on its walls. For nearly two centuries it had been a family house, worn and loved. Merry was comfortable here as she never quite was in the Mason homes on the mainland.
“We were talking about the tent,” George said as Merry crossed the hall and sank down beside Peter.
His hand came around her shoulders. “George wants one.”
“Because of rain.”
“Of course,” George said patiently. “September’s usually fine, but who knows? We could get a hurricane.”
“In which case, we’ll gather in here around the fireplace,” Merry suggested.
“It’ll be pretty crowded.”
“Fifty people?” This was the intimate number of guests Merry and Peter had negotiated. None of his extended family’s friends. Just people they both knew and loved. “This room could hold twice that. They’ll spill into the hall.”
“And the dining room,” Peter pointed out.
“Where do you put the dance floor?” George asked reasonably. “And the band?”
“The what?” Peter’s look of dismay was priceless. “Can’t we just have a jazz trio for background noise over the champagne and hors d’oeuvres?”
“You’re not going to dance with your bride?”
He glanced at Merry. “Does the bride want me to?”
“The bride thinks it’s a shame,” Merry replied, “to crowd the back lawn and block this spectacular harbor view with an enormous white elephant that costs around ten thousand dollars to erect and dismantle.”
His dark brows flew up. “Are you serious?”
“Good God. Merry’s right, George—we’ll huddle around the fire if it rains.”
“Suit yourself.” George kept her eyes on a notepad list she was compiling. “Just remember you have about a week to change your mind. After that, late fees apply.”
“Three months ahead of time?” Merry said, aghast.
“This is a destination wedding location. Heavily booked. That ten-thousand-dollar dance will cost closer to fifteen if you wait too long.”
“I’ll take you to a nightclub on our honeymoon,” Peter whispered.
“Deal,” Merry said.
“One more thing.” George was looking carefully at Merry now. “Check with your dad. Not about the cost—that’s between you and Peter. But about John’s dance. His waltz with his only daughter—his only child—under a spotlight on her wedding night. Ask your grandfather whether he’s planning to whirl you around the floor, too. Because Ralph has the look of a proper gent. I wouldn’t put it past him to tango with my mother.”
“Oh, geez,” Merry sighed, and put her face in her hands. Because of course George was right. Merry’s own mother was dead. Both John Folger and Ralph Waldo would think it necessary to send her off properly, and hold up the Folger end in the face of Mason millions.
“There’s no way round it, is there?” Peter asked.
“None,” George said complacently. “Now, about the valet parking . . .”