Responding to a frantic call on her newfangled telephone from her eighteen-year-old cousin, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Emma Cross arrives at the Marble House mansion and learns the cause of her distressConsuelo's mother, Alva, is forcing her into marriage with the Duke of Marlborough. Her mother has even called in a fortune teller to assure Consuelo of a happy future.
But the future is short-lived for the fortune teller, who is found dead by her crystal ball, strangled with a silk scarf. Standing above her is one of the Vanderbilts' maids, who is promptly taken into police custody. After the frenzy has died down, Consuelo is nowhere to be found. At Alva's request, Emma must employ her sleuthing skills to determine if the vanishing Vanderbilt has eloped with the beau of her choiceor if her disappearance may be directly connected to the murder. . .
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Murder at Marble House
A Gilded Newport Mystery
By Alyssa Maxwell
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Lisa Manuel
All rights reserved.
The tide splashed against the boulders at the tip of my property, the spray pattering my face to mingle with the single tear I could not prevent from rolling down my cheek. I stared out over the ocean in an attempt to channel all that great strength and make it my own. The waves, however forceful, didn't quite drown out the footsteps receding through the grass behind me, and I wrapped my arms tightly around my middle to keep from calling out, from turning and running and speaking the truth that crashed like a thunderous sea inside me.
I stood immobile, buffeted by the briny winds while Derrick Anderson—no, I now knew he was Derrick Andrews—strode away. He had lied to me about his identity for days on end, and the sting of his deceit had left me feeling like a naive fool. But that wasn't the only reason I'd sent him away, or why, however much I yearned to recall my cold words, I could not. Not if I wished to remain true to myself, to continue to be the woman I had struggled, and would continue to struggle, to be.
Finally, when I deemed him far enough away that I would be safe from temptation, I turned and glimpsed his retreating back—his dark hair and tall figure and the sturdy shoulders I'd come to depend on so much in the previous days. Shoulders with the power to make me lose all sense of myself, and that even at this distance proved an enticement I very nearly could not resist.
And wasn't that but one more reason to deny his suit? How long had we known each other? Days? A couple of weeks? In that time, we'd lived through more than most people experienced in a lifetime. Our emotions, sensibilities, indeed our very lives had been thrust into turmoil as fierce as any ocean storm. We had survived. We had triumphed. Is it any wonder, then, that we might have become caught up in an attachment to each other? But one that might not last once the final currents of upheaval had settled.
Despite the blustery winds, the sun shone sharp and bright that morning, the glitter on the water dazzling, while glaringly white clouds scuttled gaily across a brisk blue sky. How dare a morning be so happy. Tears fell like frigid rain on my cheeks as Derrick disappeared around the corner of my rambling, shingle-style house.
I stood for an indeterminate length of time, staring at that space beside the hawthorn hedges where he had disappeared. I wondered which would finally win out—regret or resolve. I allowed myself that much self-indulgence before straightening my spine, dropping my arms to my sides, and giving myself a hard shake. Did I love Derrick Andrews? If this sinking, ill sensation inside me could be interpreted as love, then perhaps. Or then again perhaps what I felt had more to do with being thrown together into a maelstrom of events over which we had little control, other than to form an alliance and pool our resources.
Either way, I'd made my choice. I would not be the wife of a wealthy, influential man and have my life mapped out in a series of festivities that would accomplish nothing of substance in this world. Yes, Vanderbilt blood ran through my veins, but I wanted no part of the gilded prison in which my aunt Alice and all the other society matrons resided.
I glanced back out at the tossing ocean and realized the brine of Newport, of rocky, resolute Aquidneck Island, also ran through my veins to mingle with the blood of the Commodore, that first stubborn Vanderbilt who had set out to build an empire. So yes, I was a Vanderbilt, but I was also a Newporter born and raised—salty, sturdy, and fiercely independent.
Thus assured, I picked my way over my shaggy lawn—I really needed to purchase a new goat since poor Gerty had died last spring—toward Gull Manor, the house my equally independent aunt Sadie had left to me in her will. She would be proud of me today. She would approve.
Yes. There. I wished Derrick Andrews well, always, but I'd made the right decision. For me, and in all likelihood for him as well.
The jangling of the telephone startled me as I neared the open windows. Knowing there were others at home, I didn't run to answer the device, installed months earlier at my uncle Cornelius's generous insistence. I sighed. As independent as I liked to be, sometimes it was easier to accept my relatives' largess rather than argue a case I'd likely lose in the end anyway. If my illustrious extended family was happy to provide little luxuries I couldn't afford, who was I to deprive them of that satisfaction?
As I said, I didn't run to answer the ringing summons. It had been reverberating all morning, not for me but for my half brother, who was temporarily staying with me. Friends and acquaintances—some of them barely known to us—had been calling almost nonstop to congratulate Brady on being released from jail the day before. He'd been accused of murdering Uncle Cornelius's financial secretary on the night of our cousin Gertrude's coming-out ball at The Breakers, but Derrick and I had discovered the true culprit even as the police had been preparing to ship Brady off to Providence for trial. That is what had brought Derrick and me together. But that, friends, is not a story I care to revisit.
I was surprised, therefore, when Brady held the ear trumpet out to me the moment I entered the house. He raised a hand to cover the ebony mouthpiece protruding from the oaken call box.
"There you are, Em. Thought you'd run off to elope with Derrick." He waggled his pale eyebrows at me. Less than twenty-four hours out of his prison cell and the color had already returned to his cheeks, the mischievous sparkle to his eye. His sandy blond hair fell in rakish disarray across his brow, and he wore neither suit coat nor collar, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. Somehow Brady managed to wear his dishabille with a relaxed, thoughtless style that men often envied and women found delightful. It seemed no matter what happened to Brady—the good, the bad, and the drunkenly disastrous—he somehow emerged unscathed and unjaded; unchanged from the boy I'd grown up adoring.
But on this particular day, I was in no mood for his teasing. "I don't wish to talk to anyone," I answered wearily. "Whoever it is, tell them I'll return their call later." I dragged myself toward the parlor, where Nanny O'Neal, my housekeeper and surrogate grandmother, would embrace me briefly in her pudgy arms and pour me a cup of tea.
He extended the earpiece as far as the wire would allow. "It's Cousin Consuelo. And she sounds a bit frantic."
I frowned but didn't question him. Instead, I moved to switch places with him in the alcove beneath the stairs, waited for Brady to make his way back into the parlor, and spoke into the mouthpiece. "Consuelo? It's lovely to hear from you, dearest. We missed you at Gertrude's ball—"
"Emmaline. I don't have much time. I need you. Can you come over right away?"
"What is it? Is something wrong?" I cringed at my stupid question. Consuelo's parents, William and Alva Vanderbilt, were recently divorced—quite the scandal of the moment. They'd been bickering for years, and there were rumors of lovers on both their parts. The two younger sons had been at boarding school and were now with relatives on Long Island, so they missed the worst of it. But poor Consuelo had been caught in the middle like a doll fought over by two recalcitrant children, each tugging on an arm until the seams threatened to split.
"No time to explain," she said in a breathless rush. "You're my only hope, Emma. Please, can you come? Now?"
"I ..." Frankly, after some very close scrapes in the past several days and now this morning's emotional trial, I very badly needed one of Nanny's strong cups of tea. But Consuelo's sense of urgency all but made the ear trumpet tremble against my palm. Besides, she had deepened her appeal by calling me Emma. My Vanderbilt relatives almost always insisted on Emmaline, as if that could somehow raise me up to the status of the rest of them. Only Consuelo, and my young cousin Reggie, seemed able to take me as I was.
I glanced with longing through the parlor doorway, where I could just see the rather threadbare edges of Nanny's velveteen house slippers propped on a footstool. Brady's and her quiet voices called to me like a soothing aria. With a sigh I spoke into the mouthpiece again. "Yes, all right. I just need time to hitch Barney to the buggy...."
Consuelo gasped. "I have to go!"
The line went dead.
Some twenty minutes later Barney and I rumbled up Bellevue Avenue. Our pace didn't exactly match the urgency of my cousin's summons, but I didn't dare push my aging hack any faster than a sedate walk. And even if I had pushed, it's doubtful he'd have deigned to oblige.
Gravel sputtered beneath the carriage wheels as we turned through a pair of broad marble columns onto a raised circular drive bordered with stone railings that framed the manicured front lawn in gleaming ivory arcs. Marble House, with its Corinthian-columned entry flanked by two massively solid wings, represented, both to me and the world at large, the fierce competition between the William K. Vanderbilts and the Cornelius Vanderbilts, who lived nearby at The Breakers. Or, perhaps more accurately, the two houses embodied the intense rivalry between my aunts Alva and Alice, who each vied to stand supreme as the queen of all society.
From some unseen door off to one side, a liveried footman ran out to help me down and relieve me of my rig. He blushed to the roots of his slicked-back hair as I bid him good morning, thanked him, and asked after his grandmother, who was a longtime friend of Nanny's. I always made a point of greeting servants as though they were human beings. Some appreciated the gesture; others, like this young man, were left flustered by my familiarity.
Morning sunlight glittered on the house's pristine façade. I paused before approaching the front entrance, blinking in the glare and remembering how, after nearly four years of construction behind high, concealing walls, it had been the unveiling of Marble House that had spurred Aunt Alice to have The Breakers rebuilt on such a dizzying scale. Alice Vanderbilt simply could not live in a house smaller and humbler than Alva's. If Aunt Alice's one-upmanship had infuriated her sister-in-law, however, Alva never once allowed Alice the satisfaction of seeing her haughty smile slip, not even a notch.
I wondered what role Alva had played in Consuelo's frantic call this morning. I'd heard rumors—we all had that summer—but I would save judgment until I had the facts from my cousin.
"A good morning to you, Miss Cross," a youthful voice hailed from the corner of the eastern wing. A young man wearing a tweed cap tugged low over a riot of golden red curls sauntered closer, gazing up at me from the lawn beyond the raised driveway. Swinging a rake in one hand, he nodded in that deferential way servants had, yet in his case the gesture brought a genuine sparkle to those bright blue eyes of his.
"Good morning, Jamie. How are things going? Are you liking it here at Marble House?" This I inquired in an undertone, for if Aunt Alva caught us conversing I'd receive an admonishing tsk, while her newest gardener could very well find himself sacked. It was one thing to trade a quick pleasantry with a footman, but a gardener? Had I been an expected guest, he would not have been permitted anywhere near the front drive until everyone had arrived and been brought safely into the house, lest the sight of a workman offend their sensibilities. In houses such as Marble House, servants learned to perform their duties at both the whim and convenience of their employers.
"Why, 'tis going splendid, and I've got you to thank for that, miss." His earnest reply, with its lovely Irish cadence, acknowledged my role in securing his present employment. Jamie was a friend of my Irish housemaid, Katie, and I'd intervened at her hearty request.
I waved his thanks away. "I'm glad it worked out for you."
With that I proceeded between two massive, Corinthian-topped marble columns, which always made me feel impossibly small. The double front doors presented an equally intimidating prospect with their grillwork of elaborately wrought bronze. Lifting the knocker that was several sizes larger and a good deal heavier than my hand, I let it fall once, cringing at the echoes resounding on the other side of that forbidding door.
As if I'd been expected, indeed looked for, one of those doors opened immediately. Instead of the porter, however, Grafton, Marble House's head butler, greeted me with a frown. "Miss Cross, good morning. Are you come to see Mrs. Vanderbilt?"
Did I imagine wariness in those sharply aquiline features? "Good morning, Grafton, and no, I'm here to see Miss Consuelo."
"I'm afraid she is not at home, miss. Would you care to leave your card?"
"My card?" I narrowed my eyes at the man, at his intimidating six-foot frame, his thick but silvered hair, the arced nose with its resolutely flaring nostrils. He eased backward from the doorway as if about to shut me out. What was going on here? "I don't typically carry cards when I visit my relatives, Grafton, especially when I'm arriving at the request of my cousin, who called me not a half hour ago."
"Perhaps she called you from the country club, miss."
"She most certainly did not. Miss Consuelo was quite clear when I spoke to her. Now, may I please come in, Mr. Grafton?"
His peppered eyebrows went up in an unspoken admonishment: Was I calling him a liar? Good heavens, I might be able to make a footman blush with no more than a gentle good morning, but it seemed Grafton would not be budged by my persistence.
Well, I wasn't about to turn tail and run either. "Is my aunt at home, then?"
The lines above his nose deepened. "She is ... however, she is not quite at liberty at the moment—"
Clattering footsteps echoed in the entry hall. "Grafton, who is at the door?"
I recognized the voice. Not giving the servant the chance to block me from view, claim I was a vagrant, and shut the door in my face, I quickly ducked my head around his shoulder. "It's me, Aunt Alva."
"Emmaline! Oh, Grafton, don't be a goose and let my darling niece inside."
Like Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt, William and Alva were not my aunt and uncle, but rather cousins several times removed. But with a generation separating me from them, I fell naturally into the role of niece. In all honesty, I'd never been Alva's "darling" anything until recently, when she'd realized how much of a favorite I was of Aunt Alice's. From then on Alva became determined to flood me with affection and bestow little favors on me, especially if word of it might reach Alice's ears.
Still, I smiled and greeted her warmly, letting her enfold me in her sturdy arms and returning her kiss.
"I'm so glad you're here, Emmaline," she sang out gaily, her voice bouncing on the cold Sienna marble of the floor and walls. I'd been told the house had been fashioned after the great palace of Versailles, on a smaller but no less grand scale. "I have special company this weekend," she said, "and I'd love for them to meet you."
She would? She'd never been that eager to introduce me to her society cronies before. "That would be lovely, Aunt Alva. Is, er ..." I assumed my most innocent, nonchalant expression. "Is Consuelo here, too?"
"Well, of course she is. Where else would Consuelo be? Surely not with her father out on that ostentatious yacht of his."
Funny, Alva hadn't considered the yacht ostentatious when she'd taken Consuelo on an exhausting European tour all last summer and autumn. Her sudden scowl drew me from the memory, and my stomach clenched in anticipation of one of her quick, wildfire tirades outlining the many sins of her newly ex-husband. She surprised me, however, when her smile returned and her voice dipped lower on a conspiratorial note. "Did Grafton tell you she wasn't at home?"
I cast a glance over my shoulder to discover the man had shuffled quietly away, probably through the grand dining hall and to the servants' domains. "He did. Why would he lie?"
Excerpted from Murder at Marble House by Alyssa Maxwell. Copyright © 2014 Lisa Manuel. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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