Covering a polo match for the Observer, Emma’s job is to take note of the real players off the field—Newport’s well-bred elite. But the fashionable façade is breached when a woman in gaudy clothing creates a scene demanding to speak to the wife of Senator George Wetmore—until she is escorted off the grounds by the police.
The next morning, police detective Jesse Whyte asks Emma to meet him at the Wetmores’ Bellevue Avenue home, Chateau sur Mer, where the senator’s wife, Edith, has mysteriously asked to see her. Upon entering the mansion, Emma is confronted with a crime scene—the intruder from the polo match lies dead at the foot of a grand staircase.
To avoid scandal, Edith Wetmore implores Emma to use her reporter skills and her discretion to investigate. When Emma learns the victim was a prostitute—and pregnant—she wonders if the senator was being blackmailed. As Emma peels back layers of deception and family secrets, she may have met her match in a desperate killer who will trample anyone who gets in the way . . .
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Newport, Rhode Island July 1897
Bits of grass and earth pelted the air as a thunderous pounding rolled down the polo field. Long-handled mallets swung after a ball no larger than a man's open palm. Crack! Each time a mallet connected with the ball, ponies and riders raced in a fresh, ground-shaking burst of speed.
With my pencil and tablet in my hands, I stood just beyond the sidelines, out of danger of being hit with the ball, yet with a view worthy of the highest-paying spectators. As the action sped from one end of the field to the other, about a dozen other reporters and I hurried to follow, back and forth, attempting to discern every pertinent detail of the match and keep an accurate record. The wind and my own momentum plucked at my wide, leg-o'-mutton sleeves and rippled my summer-weight skirts. My hat, at least, I needn't worry about, for at home Nanny had pinned it to my coif and securely tied the ribbons beneath my chin. Her last words to me were, "Try to bring it home intact please, Emma."
The skies over Aquidneck Island had finally wrung out their clouds and cleared to a vibrant, porcelain blue. Bracing ocean breezes counteracted a warm sun, making this a day for sportsmen and spectators alike to rejoice. An exuberant crowd of local Newporters blanketed Morton Hill in a teeming medley of hats and parasols, while closer to the sidelines, the wealthy cottagers from Bellevue Avenue occupied seats in the covered grandstand or lounged on lawn furniture beneath shady pavilions. From wicker hampers drifted the savory aromas of roasted meats and baked delicacies, while copious quantities of champagne for the elders and lemonade for the young people flowed from crystal pitchers.
Most of those present cheered each time the mallet of a Westchester player connected with the ball. The Westchester Polo Club had officially made Newport their home a decade ago, and familiar names occupied the team list. Today they played the Meadowview Polo Club of Long Island, not only the season's favorite, but also last year's champions.
Grumbling had heralded the opening of the game, a controversy stemming from the belief many held that one of the Meadowview players should have been upgraded in his skill rating. Had the Polo Association officials done so, the Meadowview team would have been assigned a two-goal handicap, thus putting the two teams on a competitive par. Had clandestine funds changed hands among the Polo Association's Competition and National Handicap Committees, resulting in Meadowview's rating remaining the same? Such a transgression could be difficult to prove.
I didn't know who had been the most disgruntled when the usual handicaps were announced, the Westchester players, the wealthy gentlemen who were known to place hefty wagers, or the working men watching from Morton Hill, who risked a day's pay or more in hopes of doubling or tripling their money.
Another thwack sent the eight riders, four in red shirts, four in blue and white stripes, about-facing and hurtling down the field yet again. I admit I cringed often, so certain was I that men and beasts couldn't possibly avoid pulverizing one another. Perhaps it was because, as a reporter covering the event for the Newport Observer, I daren't look away but must carefully view every swing and every advance across the field. The sure-footed ponies — horses, really, most being a mix of Thoroughbred and quarter horse and standing between fourteen and fifteen hands — never collided, and somehow those mallets never sent anything but the ball and grass flying.
Still, it was to my relief that a bell rang out, indicating the present seven-minute period, called a chukker, was nearly at its end. It was enough time for James Bennett of the Westchester team to recover the ball from Meadowview and send it, with the help of his teammate Oliver Belmont, across the field and through the Meadowview goal. The halftime horn sounded amid uproarious cheers from the grandstand and the hill beyond. Ladies clapped while gentlemen rushed to one another shouting new odds for the eventual outcome of the match.
The horses were walked off the field into a fenced pavilion where they would be unsaddled, watered, and rubbed down. Another set of eight would replace them for the next chukker following the break. In the meantime, gentlemen in morning coats and top hats escorted ladies in colorful day dresses and wide, beribboned bonnets onto the field. A six-piece band struck up a lively tune. The stomping of the divots began, accompanied by a good deal of laughter and lighthearted shrieks.
Replacing dislodged bits of earth to the field hardly interested me, and I had already recorded the most notable of fashions sported by today's gathering of the Four Hundred — that magical number of guests who could fit inside Mrs. Astor's ballroom and thus claim their place in illustrious society. The latest designs of the likes of Worth, Redfern, Rouff, and Doucer were well represented. I therefore moved off the sidelines toward the surrounding pools of shade cast by sweeping beech, elm, and ash trees, where other spectators went to stretch their legs. Perhaps, if I paid careful attention, I might discern the seeds of a real news story.
"Emma! Emma, do come and join us!"
The hail came from a stunning young woman dressed in pale green silk that set off the brilliance of her auburn hair. She wore the latest from Worth, of course. She always did. I changed course to greet her beside a bright blue pavilion sporting golden tassels that flashed in the sun.
"Grace, how lovely to see you." I tucked my pad and pencil into my purse. "When did you and Neily arrive in Newport?"
"Emma, don't be so formal." Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, my cousin's wife of one year, drew me into an embrace and kissed my cheeks in the European manner. "We came in only yesterday and are staying with my parents. We knew we'd find you here reporting on the match." She drew back to hold me at arm's length. "Do you never tire of it? Reporting, I mean?"
Before I could answer, my cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt III excused himself to the others beneath the pavilion. I recognized Grace's brother, Orme Wilson, and his wife, the former Carrie Astor, and Carrie's brother, John, and his wife, Ava. They glanced over at me, each raising a hand in casual salute.
Neily paused to pour a glass of lemonade from a frosty-looking pitcher, then ducked beneath the flapping canopy as he stepped out to join Grace and me. As he handed me the glass, the cool condensation against my palm made me realize how thirsty I'd become, scampering along the sidelines. Thank goodness for the recent rains that prevented the billows of dust often raised during a polo match. Holding the glass, I returned his quick embrace with one arm. "How are you, Neily?"
However much I tried, I couldn't keep the concern from my voice. Though my cousin stood as tall and slender as always and was still a couple of weeks shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, he appeared older than his years, world-weary. The bright sun brought particular attention to the fatigue dragging at his features. I would have thought the opposite, that, having achieved his heart's desire in marrying Grace, he would have flourished this past year of their marriage. Yet he looked to me nearly as he had in those days before his wedding last summer, when difficult choices had thrust their weight onto his shoulders and forever changed his life.
"I'm well, Emmaline," he said with neither enthusiasm nor dispiritedness, nor, I noted, a direct look into my eyes.
"Have you seen —"
He shook his head before I could finish asking. "I haven't seen my parents. They know I'm back but they've made it clear I'm not welcome at The Breakers, nor in New York, for that matter."
"I'm so sorry, Neily." His parents had objected vehemently to his marriage to Grace. They considered her family beneath them, and Grace herself to be a gold digger. Ridiculous, for the Wilsons were as wealthy as any members of the Four Hundred. Neily and his father had nearly come to blows over the matter, and would have, except that before Neily's eyes — and my own — his father had collapsed from a stroke from which he still hadn't recovered.
"It's all right," he assured me quietly. "We're staying with the Wilsons."
Grace slipped her hand into the crook of Neily's arm. "Mother and Father are thrilled to have us. And you must join us for dinner soon — quite soon. I'll send an invitation." Her eyes twinkled. "You may bring the delectable Mr. Andrews, if you like."
Neily blanched at his wife's forwardness, but I laughed it off. "I'll come alone, if you wouldn't mind, Grace."
"Oh?" She leaned in closer, our hat brims nearly touching and enclosing us in secrecy. "I had so hoped you and he might ... you know."
"I haven't seen him in a year," I told her. "His planned return from Italy last spring was postponed. I have not had word from him in several weeks."
Grace looked thoroughly dissatisfied, as if the day suddenly threatened rain. I said the first thing that sprang to mind in an effort to cheer her.
"There is someone else I could bring, if I may. Jesse Whyte." My friendship with Jesse, a longtime family friend, had blossomed through the winter and spring, and he now occupied an important place in my life.
Grace made a slight clucking noise in her throat. "Are you speaking of that local policeman?"
"Detective," I clarified.
Her pretty lips turned downward. "It's nothing serious, I hope." She didn't wait for my reply but continued on. "You could do so much better. Neily, surely you agree. Tell her." Neily quirked his eyebrows and shuffled his feet. With a slight shake of her head, Grace turned back to me. "There is no lack of eligible young men in our acquaintance, Emma, and if —"
"Thank you, Grace, but no. Leastwise, not at present." Goodness, didn't I have enough to do, warding off the matchmaking efforts of my two Vanderbilt aunts, Alice and Alva? I certainly didn't need Grace adding to the fray. "I must be moving on now. The match will be resuming in a few minutes and I'll want a good position beside the field."
"Yes, all right. I'll call on you soon, Emma." Grace embraced me again, but I felt a hesitancy that hadn't been there when she'd first greeted me. I had clearly disappointed her and no doubt left her wondering what was to be done with a stubborn, misguided young woman such as myself. Though Grace and I had grown close last summer, I sometimes expected too much of her. As the daughter of one of America's great banking families, she had never known privation, and had rarely been told no. Though kindhearted and generous to a fault, as she had proved countless times, she had nonetheless grown up in circumstances vastly different from my own, and therein lay a gap between us that could never fully be breached.
I squeezed Neily's hand, imparting my loving acknowledgment that all was not well with him, and my willingness, no, eagerness, to lend a sympathetic ear if he should desire one. Of all my Vanderbilt cousins, I felt closest to him. We didn't need words to make our sentiments clear. He smiled bravely back at me and nodded.
Before I moved away, he said, as if suddenly remembering, "Brady is here with us. He and Miss Hanson went for a walk."
I turned back to him, beaming with pleasure. "Brady is here with Hannah?" Neily responded to my rhetorical question with a genuine smile. He didn't know Hannah Hanson well, but he obviously approved of my half brother's interest in her. When we were children, I'd often brought her with me when invited to visit at The Breakers. Another lifelong friend of ours from the Point neighborhood where Brady and I grew up, Hannah had only just returned to Newport the previous summer after several years away. I scanned the colorful crowd, craning my neck to see around the pavilions.
Brady and Hannah. What a lovely thought. And a surprising one, though perhaps it shouldn't have been. Brady's position at my uncle Cornelius's New York Central Railroad brought him in contact with some of the highest levels of society but, like me, Brady was a Newporter born and raised. And like me, monetary considerations played very little role in his affections.
I didn't spot them presently, but I would make a point of finding them later, during the next intermission. For now, with only a few minutes left to roam the grounds before the next chukker, I tipped my hat a bit lower over my brow. I had worn a day dress given to me by my cousin Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Neily's sister. Though of simple design and a year out of date, the garment nonetheless boasted the quality needed to fit in with this summer's creations of Worth or Paquin — or well enough. Typically, female society reporters clad themselves in modest attire as a way of acknowledging the superiority of those about whom they reported, but today I wished to blend in with the crowd. If I had learned nothing else in the past several years as a reporter, it was how to render myself invisible.
As I strolled, I assumed a leisurely pace as if I hadn't a specific destination in mind. In this way, I moved from group to group without drawing attention to myself — and without prompting sudden breaks in conversations. For it was often such conversations that most interested me at any social gathering, whether it be Mrs. Astor's season-opening ball or a tournament at the Newport Golf Club or one of Newport's many yacht races. During the earlier intermissions I had gleaned hints of several illicit affairs, learned of a dispute concerning James Bennett's desire to expand the Newport Casino, and witnessed the desperate pleas of a compulsive gambler for a loan — a request his elder brother curtly denied him.
I hadn't long to wait for another interesting snippet. I passed a group of men handing round a silver flask. They attempted to be discreet, but I caught the flash of sunlight on the metal surface. The word burglary drifted to my ears. I tilted my head to hide my face beneath my hat brim and pretended to be searching for an item in my drawstring bag.
"There's been quite a rash, and one wonders when these scum will decide shops aren't lucrative enough and come after bigger game. We'll be lucky not to be murdered in our beds." The man who spoke sported a mustache that wandered across his cheeks to meet the bushy profusion of his sideburns.
The thin fellow next to him slapped his shoulder. "Come now, Warner. You think these brigands would have the unmitigated gall to intrude on Bellevue Avenue? They're cowards, preying on the weak."
"Five break-ins in as many days, all along Lower Thames Street," another of the group said. "With accompanying vandalism. That points to thugs with plenty of gall." He shook his head while accepting the flask from the older man on his right, who had his own opinion to share.
"Seems we might be dealing with a single criminal, and these burglaries are not random but in fact part of a pattern."
The others harrumphed noncommittally, but I tended to agree with that last assessment. The robberies they spoke of had occurred at a milliner shop, a purveyor of leather tack, a general mercantile, a bakery, and an apothecary — the one I sometimes stopped in at to purchase Nanny's headache powders. In each case, there had been acts of vandalism that had nothing to do with the actual theft, such as the gouging of countertops and the breaking of glass cases kept empty at night.
I hadn't covered these break-ins for the Newport Observer. Mr. Millford, the paper's owner and editor-in-chief, had judged the incidents too distressing for a woman's delicate sensibilities, and had sent my co-reporter and nemesis, Ed Billings, instead. Not that I hadn't covered similar stories in recent years. I most certainly had. But I knew his decision had little to do with my sensibilities and everything to do with the letters he had received in the past year chastising him for allowing a woman — me — to expose herself to life's more disagreeable occurrences.
Disagreeable, indeed. My nape bristled ever so slightly, as it had when I read each account of these break-ins in the Observer 's morning editions. Now, as then, I couldn't shake the sensation that both Ed and the police were missing some vital clue that connected these crimes and pointed to a single individual.
I reminded myself that these were not my stories to cover. I had my assignment — today's match — though if I happened to stumble upon a more interesting news item, could I be blamed?
Excerpted from "Murder At Chateau Sur Mer"
Copyright © 2017 Lisa Manuel.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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