—Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnolia Palace
Named A Most Anticipated Mystery of Summer by Betches, Essence, Crime Reads and more!
The glittering RMS Queen Mary. A nightclub singer on the run. An aristocratic family with secrets worth killing for.
London, 1936. Lena Aldridge wonders if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho, and her married lover has just left her. But Lena has always had a complicated life, one shrouded in mystery as a mixed-race girl passing for white in a city unforgiving of her true racial heritage.
She’s feeling utterly hopeless until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York. After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better, and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. But death follows her onboard when an obscenely wealthy family draws her into their fold just as one among them is killed in a chillingly familiar way. As Lena navigates the Abernathy’s increasingly bizarre family dynamic, she realizes that her greatest performance won't be for an audience, but for her life.
With seductive glamor, simmering family drama, and dizzying twists, Louise Hare makes her beguiling US debut.
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Wednesday, 2 September
I stared down into the churning water, wondering how long it would take for an object to hit the surface if it fell from such a height. I had found a spot at the quieter end of the Promenade Deck, several stories above the fierce white-capped waves. I opened my hand and let the bottle fall, holding my breath as it began to spin, almost hitting the side of the boat. Small and brown, the bottle looked ordinary, but its contents were lethal, and I welcomed its demise, the bottle destined to sink until it came to rest on the floor of the English Channel. I felt a weight lift and wiped tears from my cheeks as my body sagged forward over the railing, my legs shaking. For days, I had carried death with me, and finally, I was free of it.
The Queen Mary sailed on toward France, Cherbourg our only port of call before we would strike west toward New York. The ship brushed the waves aside as gracefully as the women of Hampstead danced their breaststroke across Kenwood Ladies' Pond. Smooth. Effortless. Even so, I hoped that anyone seeing me in such a state would assume an attack of seasickness, that they'd glance out on the relative calm of the sea and take pity on me, wondering how I'd survive once we hit choppier waters. Only I knew that my nausea had nothing to do with the sea.
I had left London that morning, catching the boat train down to Southampton and holding my breath at each station stop until I was sure that the police wouldn't suddenly appear, hot on my trail. Boarding the ship had been finely managed chaos, crowds of people everywhere as families roamed the dock, waiting to wave off their relatives, the Queen looming over us, regal and magnificent. I had felt anonymous in the hubbub, trying to look as though I knew what I was doing, accidentally overtipping the porter who carried my solitary trunk. It was never too early to get used to American customs, Maggie had told me as she waved me off in the taxi from Hampstead. It'll be like learning a role for a play, she'd said. I was good at that. It was getting the roles in the first place that I'd always struggled with up to now.
I was reaching into my handbag for my cigarettes, hoping the familiar rush would calm me down, when a gust of wind tugged at my head scarf. I put a hand to the knot, checking it was secure. Someone else wasn't so lucky; I heard a cry and saw a navy felt fedora tumble along the deck like a top. A young man, freshly graduated from boyhood, caught it in midair, and bowed as he handed it back to its blushing owner. She was quite obviously taken by him, but she was a plain girl, bless her. They exchanged a few words, but I saw his gaze wander as she talked, her conversation slowing to a trickle as she realized he wasn't listening.
He glanced in my direction and I turned away, struggling to light a match in the breeze. I knew his type too well. Handsome, the sort of chap who's used to women fawning over him. Pay him too much attention and he'll extricate himself in a heartbeat, as the fedora lady had found out. I'd forgotten that if you turn your back and act as though you couldn't care less, they're as hard to get rid of as a white cat hair on your best black dress.
"Can I offer some assistance?" He appeared by my side, gold lighter in hand.
"Oh, thank you!" I widened my eyes and tried not to smile at his predictability. "This wind!" I put on my posh voice, the one Maggie and I used when we went to a fancy hotel for afternoon tea.
I nodded. "And you're American." He was too fresh faced and healthy-looking to be anything but. Even wealthy Englishmen have a pallor to their skin that marks them out from any other nationality. Blame it on the gray skies and overabundance of cabbage in the diet.
"That obvious, huh?" He ran a hand through his blond hair, a grin adding to his boyish air. He was tall, almost a foot taller than my five feet and a few inches. "I admit, I wondered if you were Italian maybe, or Spanish."
"My grandmother was Italian," I lied, parroting what I'd been told to say. "Not that I ever knew her. She died before I was born."
I leaned my head toward the lighter's flame, and my hand grazed his as we protected the flame with our palms. He might have been young, but he knew a few tricks already. He hadn't told me his name, but we were standing so close to each other that his hand brushed my hip as he lowered it. I fought the urge to take a step back.
"Thank you." I smiled as my anxiety was replaced with a familiar electric tingle from the nicotine. I held out my hand, forcing some distance between us. "I'm Lena. Lena Aldridge."
"Francis Abernathy." He shook my hand. "But everyone calls me Frankie." He lit his own cigarette and leaned next to me on the railing, still slightly too close for comfort. "So, what's taking you to New York?"
I considered my answer for a moment before deciding to stick with the truth. Frankie was young, after all, less likely to judge me unfavorably for my profession. "I'm a singer. And I act a little."
"But you don't call yourself an actress?"
"I've had a few bit parts on the stage but nothing big," I admitted. "Yet, I should say. That's why I'm going to New York. I've been offered a job on Broadway."
"Really? Broadway?" He looked impressed. "I'll have to come down and see your show. I'm sure you'll be spectacular. You certainly look spectacular."
The small relief from my cigarette was waning. I really didn't want to talk to Frankie, but he made no attempt to leave, and the silence became excruciating. "You live in New York?" I asked, snatching at the first question that dropped into my head.
He nodded. "Just graduated from college. My mother wanted me to go to law school, but I'm done with books. I'm going to work for my grandfather. Earn some money. I think it's important for a man to learn to stand on his own two feet, don't you?"
Nothing shouted independence like going into the family business. "I do like a man who knows his own mind." I smiled sweetly and dropped my cigarette end overboard. "Well, it was lovely to meet you, Frankie. Thank you for the light."
I left before he could wipe the look of surprise from his face. He wasn't used to having people walk away from him, I could tell. It was a petty attempt to teach him a lesson, but I craved a moment of control; the last few days had been like a nightmare, one where I was falling from a great height, my legs kicking, hands grasping at thin air. I was hoping to wake up before we reached New York. Before I hit the ground.
Anyone could travel on the Queen Mary, they said, and that was true enough as long as you knew the rules. Up here, where one mingled with the likes of Frankie Abernathy, the air was reserved for the wealthy. They called it "cabin class," avoiding the crass bluntness of the term "first," though that was absolutely what it meant. It reminded me of those boorish upper-class men I'd spent too much time with recently, spouting their fake Cockney slang and frequenting the Soho nightclubs, splashing their cash on cheap gin for good-looking girls. When you're at the top of the ladder, the only natural way to look is down.
The cabin-class smoking room was set out like the lobby of a luxury hotel, its walls lined with huge surrealist paintings. To complete the picture of English gentility, there was a grand fireplace at the far end of the room, and they were doing a roaring trade in cocktails from the small bar. I looked around and congratulated myself on my timing, darting forward to grab a table as a couple vacated it. I untied my head scarf and gave my hair a quick pat to make sure my curls were still behaving. I'd spent the previous afternoon in the Hampstead hairdresser that Maggie always used. For the price I'd paid, I wanted to get at least a few days' wear.
"A dry martini, please," I told the waiter who came trotting over to take my order.
I had no sooner lit another cigarette than Charlie Bacon arrived, pulling up the chair opposite. "I'll take one of those," he said to the waiter as he delivered my drink, the sparkling glass adorned with olives on a stick, just like in the movies. "No regrets?" he asked me.
"No." I picked at a rough cuticle on my left thumb.
"Good." I could feel his eyes on me. "Lena, you need to forget about what happened in London. It wasn't your fault."
"I'm fine," I said, wishing he hadn't brought it up. "It's been a long few days is all."
Charlie Bacon. Who was he? A fixer, he'd called himself. A man who solved problems, a former New York police detective now working as assistant to a Broadway impresario named Benny Walker. A week ago, that name had meant nothing to me, but Walker was the man who'd paid for my passage to New York, apparently on the basis that he'd known my father decades earlier and had sent Charlie Bacon to London to check in on his daughter and see if she was anywhere near as good as old Alfie. It's a new musical, Charlie had told me when I'd asked if Mr. Walker wanted me to do a formal audition. He needs a singer first and foremost. We can worry 'bout the acting later. There were plenty of good-looking girls getting jobs in the West End who couldn't act for toffee, so why couldn't it be my turn?
"I sent a telegram to Mr. Walker, so he knows we're safely on our way." Charlie's martini arrived, and he raised his glass. "To new beginnings."
I clinked the edge of my glass against his and closed my eyes against the potent fumes that floated up from the glass as I took a generous sip. God, it was good. "So, what now?"
He shrugged. "We travel to New York, and Benny Walker changes your life. What more could a girl ask for?"
"What if nothing, Lena. I told you. Benny'll look after you." He drained his glass and gestured for the waiter to bring two more. "You won the lottery, honey. Learn to appreciate your good fortune."
"I do." I really did appreciate the opportunity, even coming out of the blue as it had. They do say that life changes when you least expect it to, and enough bad things had happened to me that I deserved some good luck at last.
"And on that note," he continued, "I've been down to the dining room to check on the table assignments. They'd shoved us at the back with a bunch of nobodies, but I convinced the guy in charge to move us." He looked very pleased with himself. I wondered how much it had cost him. In the few days I'd known him, Charlie Bacon had spent more in tips than I usually earned in a month. "Guess who I arranged for us to sit with."
"Marlene Dietrich?" I'd overheard one of the other passengers say they'd seen her on their way over to England the month before.
"Lena, be serious." He shook his head, disappointed in me. "Francis Parker!"
"Who?" I racked my brain, but the name didn't ring any bells.
"Francis Parker, only one of the richest men in New York! God, Lena, you really haven't heard of him?"
"I doubt we mix in the same circles." I ground out my cigarette and decided to try one of the olives. From past experience, I wasn't sure that I liked olives very much, but Charlie already thought me naive on several counts, a state of affairs that I wasn't keen on. I took a bite and then swallowed the rest whole, swilling it down with the last of my drink to get rid of the taste of stale socks.
Bacon carried on. "Parker Godwin is one of the biggest firms in New York. Parker Godwin. As in, Francis Parker."
Even I wasn't quite dense enough to miss that connection. "What do they do?" I asked.
"Day to day? Something to do with roads. They say Parker paved America. But he has deep pockets-he's known for his sponsorship of the arts. He's the sort of man you could benefit from knowing. We dock in New York next Monday. That's five days to win Parker over and convince him to come and see the show. We get Parker's photograph in the papers, with you sparkling beside him, people are gonna want to know who you are. They'll want to come to the show. You want to be a star, don't you?"
"But you said the part is already mine?" I leaned back out of the way as the waiter placed our second round on the table.
"It is, Lena; it is," Charlie assured me, "but you want more than a six-month contract, honey. Trust me, this business is only partly about what you can do onstage. It's about who you know. Who can help you out. You want the whole town talking about you. More important, that's what Benny Walker wants. You don't want to let him down, do you?"
"Fine." I tried to remember why I'd decided to trust Charlie in the first place, then realized that I'd actually had little choice in the matter. I'd needed to leave London, and what he was offering was too good to turn down. "I can be nice. That's all, though, isn't it? No funny business? I'm not that sort of girl."
Charlie laughed. "God, no. Parker's far too old for that. He's eighty if he's a day and pretty much wheelchair bound. Just be polite. Listen when he speaks; laugh if he tries to make a joke, that kinda thing."
I finished my second drink in two gulps. "I can do that. What time is dinner?"
"I'll meet you outside the dining room at seven o'clock sharp. Be on time, and don't drink any more, Lena. You need to make a good impression."
I opened my mouth to protest that he'd been the one to order the second round of drinks, not me, but decided not to waste my breath. He was the only person I knew on the ship; best not to argue on our first day at sea. If Charlie Bacon really started to annoy me, then I'd simply lock myself away in my cabin until we reached New York and emerge fresh faced and ready to dazzle Benny Walker. I'd seen a parade of shops in the Main Hall earlier. I could buy a few paperback novels and be a lady of leisure, spend my days with Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. Eat peppermint creams from one of those fancy boxes with the tissue paper while sipping champagne that my steward would fetch whenever I rang the bell. It sounded glorious.