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The wind was rising again, and Lalla could hear the first fitful grumblings of thunder in the distance as she stood on the deck of the Excelsior. The air was heavy with the scent of rain and crackled with electricity, warning that a summer storm was gathering just beyond the mountains of the Hudson River highlands.
How ironic that their arrival at Wildwinds should be heralded by a summer storm, Lalla thought grimly as she anchored her hat down with one hand.
She tried to hide her trepidation as the Chatwins' sleek, steam-driven yacht glided relentlessly up the river. But it was an exercise in futility. The closer she came to Wildwinds, the stronger grew her sense of foreboding and dread. She shivered.
Why in heaven's name did I ever agree to this? she asked herself for the thousandth time that morning.
To ease her frustration, she lashed out at the pretty, fair-haired young woman all dressed in black who was standing beside her. "I wish I had never let you wheedle me into this, Daisy Chatwin."
Daisy leaned heavily on her cane, a smile of triumph curving her gentle mouth. "Well, after coming all this distance, what else can you do? Hop right on the next ship and go back to France?"
"It would serve you right if I did," Lalla retorted. "That was a dastardly trick you played on me, and you know it."
"I am truly sorry, Miss Hunter," Daisy said without a hint of remorse in her pleasant voice, "but I was desperate. I knew you wouldn't come if I told you my real reason for wanting you here, so I invited you to my imaginary wedding." She grinned impishly. "And it worked, didn't it?"
The ruse had worked all too well. Only the death of a member ofLalla's immediate family or the wedding of her best friend could have induced her to leave Paris, her home since fleeing New York five years ago in 1887.
But in hindsight, Lalla should have suspected something was amiss. None of the wealthy women she knew, who flocked to Paris in droves every spring to replenish their wardrobes and call upon the third eccentric Hunter sister, had mentioned Daisy's betrothal. Even Lalla's own mother had sent no word of it in her last letter.
So imagine Lalla's surprise when from out of the blue came a cryptic cablegram saying "Getting married July 1 STOP Come at once STOP Love Daisy STOP." As Lalla booked passage on the next available ocean liner sailing for New York, she was too excited to wonder why on earth Daisy was getting married only seven months after her sister-in-law's death.
When Lalla had arrived in New York City just yesterday, Daisy, in full mourning, was waiting for her when she disembarked. Since her parents were in California visiting their newest grandchild, Lalla agreed to stay with Daisy. All the way to the Chatwins' Tudor mansion overlooking Central Park, the two friends chattered excitedly like schoolgirls, for it had been two years since they had last seen each other.
Yet each time Lalla pressed her friend for details about the mysterious fiancé and sudden engagement, Daisy skillfully distracted her by pointing out yet another building that had sprung up since Lalla left.
Finally, after they arrived at the house and Lalla freshened up, Daisy confessed all over tea. There was no fiancé. She wasn't getting married. It was all a trick to lure Lalla back to the United States.
For a moment the silence in the drawing room was deafening.
Lalla could only stare at her friend in shock. When she regained her powers of speech, she wailed, "But why, Daisy? If you wanted me to come, all you had to do was ask. You didn't have to concoct such an elaborate scheme."
"Oh, yes I did," Daisy insisted. "You never would have come if you knew my real reason for wanting you here."
"And what is that? The truth now."
Daisy stiffened in her chair as if bracing herself for a tirade. "Grey is in desperate trouble, and you're the only one who can help him."
Lalla forgot herself and jumped to her feet so fast she knocked her chair over. "Daisy Chatwin, how could you! You know that Grey and I didn't exactly part on the best of terms. He wouldn't come to me for anything if I were the last person on earth."
Daisy's blue-gray eyes hardened in determination. "Of course he wouldn't. But my dear foolish older brother often doesn't know what's best for him. I do. That's why I want you to help me."
"Please, Lalla." Daisy's expression was beseeching, and her mouth quivered ever so slightly. "Grey has been a virtual recluse at Wildwinds for months now. I think he blames himself for Jane's death. And other people do too." Daisy turned quite pale, and her voice faltered. "There has been vile gossip and terrible rumors. I just don't know what to do for him anymore. I'm at my wit's end."
Then Daisy hid her face in her hands and openly wept.
Lalla was stunned. In all the years she'd known Daisy Chatwin, she had never once heard her strong, independent friend plead for anything, especially a favor. She was too proud, often to a fault.
Lalla rounded the tea table, stood behind Daisy, and placed her hands upon her shoulders in tacit surrender. "Please don't cry. I'll stay for as long as you like, and I'll do whatever I can to help Grey."
Daisy took several gulps of air to bring her sobbing under control; then all she did was reach up and squeeze Lalla's hands, hard. Between friends, the gesture conveyed her deep gratitude more eloquently than mere words.
"When do you want to leave?" Lalla asked.
Daisy dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief and turned in her seat. "There's not a moment to lose. We'll leave for Wildwinds tomorrow, on the yacht."
Now, as the Excelsior rolled suddenly, it caught Lalla off guard and pitched her forward. She would have stumbled if Daisy hadn't reached out to catch her arm and steady her.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
Lalla nodded as she grasped the brass rail to steady herself. "I just haven't gotten my sea legs yet."
Daisy frowned as she stared up at the overcast sky, then down at the dark, choppy waters, ruffled by the brisk breeze that had suddenly sprung up. "Well, we certainly could've had better weather for our arrival. It looks as though we're in for a roaring good summer storm."
Lalla trembled. Even though there were other boats on the river, she felt as though theirs was the only one. "Somehow, it feels fitting to arrive at Wildwinds in the middle of a thunderstorm."
Daisy laughed, a hearty, robust sound for such a petite young woman. "Oh, come now, Miss Hunter, you mustn't be so melodramatic. You'd think Wildwinds were some drafty old English castle sitting in the middle of the moors, haunted by headless specters in Restoration dress. It's merely the Chatwin country villa, and a ghost wouldn't dare show its headless face when I am there."
Lalla smiled at her friend's boast, but she knew a house could be haunted by other types of ghosts as well, painful memories, vestiges of old resentments and longings denied. And Grey was there.
She sighed, and her mood darkened until it matched the black storm clouds starting to marshal their forces overhead. Lalla was certain Daisy hadn't told her brother she was bringing a guest to Wildwinds, and that the guest was none other than Lalla herself. What would Grey do when he saw her again? Shout at her? Throttle her? Order her from his house?
And what are you going to do when you see him, Lalla Hunter? she asked herself.
Before she had time to answer her own questions, Daisy nudged her. "There it is. There's Wildwinds."
The house itself stood atop a majestic mountain that rose between the riverside villages of Garrison and Cold Spring. As Lalla tilted her head back and looked up at Grey's house, she thought she had never seen it so forbidding, so menacing. Perhaps it was the pallor of the day itself, a cheerless, leaden gray that seemed to make the house's granite walls appear even darker. Lalla dismissed that at once. She had seen Wildwinds on many a bright, sunny day, and even then it looked like an ominous bird of prey just waiting to swoop down and devour hapless travelers on the river.
"Oh, don't look so glum," Daisy said, reading her expression. "It won't eat you."
"It's not the house I'm worried about."
Lalla nodded, never taking her eyes off the house that appeared to rise up right out of the trees covering the mountain. "He's not going to want me there. And he's going to be furious with you for inviting me without telling him first."
Daisy sighed and tried to be reassuring. "What happened between you was five years ago. He married Jane, didn't he? I'm sure he wouldn't have if he were still in love with you. You have nothing to fear from Grey. You're part of his past."
"I hope you're right."
"Of course I am." She drew her arm through Lalla's. "My brother is many things--arrogant, insufferable, obstinate--but he is never petty. Or cruel." Then her face clouded. "It's true he hasn't been himself lately, but I am sure it has nothing whatsoever to do with you."
Lalla just glanced at her friend but said nothing.
The Excelsior docked in Cold Spring, and crew members scurried to secure the yacht so Lalla and Daisy could disembark. As Daisy began hobbling down the gangplank with the aid of her cane, neither the men nor Lalla offered to assist her, for they all knew their polite gesture would be interpreted as pity. Pity infuriated Daisy, turning the affable young woman into a short-tempered shrew. Lalla just followed in silence, thankful that Wildwinds had disappeared from view. It always seemed to stare down at her out of baleful, hostile eyes.
The two women found a carriage waiting for them on the landing.
"Good morning, Rogers," Daisy said to the driver wearing a black armband. "Right on time, as usual."
"Yes, Miss Chatwin," he replied, doffing his top hat to her. Then he saw Lalla, and his face brightened. "Why, Miss Hunter ... What a pleasure it is to see you here again."
Lalla returned his smile. "Why, thank you, Rogers. I'm flattered you remember me."
"We all do, Miss Hunter, with much fondness."
Daisy did accept help into the carriage, for it was impossible for anyone to ascend gracefully into the victoria without the aid of a strong, steady arm. Once Lalla was seated across from her friend, Rogers flicked his long whip over the horses' heads and they started up Main Street.
Suddenly Lalla said, "Tell me about Jane. What was she like?"
Daisy toyed with her cane's silver head for a long moment before replying. "She was as unlike you as is humanly possible. She was very blond and fragile-looking, even shorter than I am, and"--she glanced enviously at Lalla's shapely hourglass figure--"as straight as the proverbial board."
Lalla's smile was wry. "Why doesn't that surprise me? But what about her personality? What kind of person was she inside?"
Daisy shrugged. "Again, your exact opposite. Jane was demure and self-effacing. She never disagreed with Grey and always did whatever he wanted. I never heard them arguing--at least not in the beginning."
"Oh, dear. A meek little mouse. That is not like me at all, now, is it?"
Daisy grinned and nodded in agreement. "She used to make me so angry when she would let others order her about. I longed to shake her and shout, 'Will you stand up for yourself, you spineless creature?' But I never did because she would have just given me one of her hurt-spaniel looks. She never would have understood."
"Ah, yes. She thought all women were supposed to be just like her."
"How perceptive of you. Everyone thought they were just perfect for each other. Everyone except me, of course."
Lalla regarded her friend solemnly. "I take it you two did not get along."
"We got along well enough, I suppose. She was my brother's wife. I had to try to curb my natural tendency to speak my mind, and get along with her for his sake. It was sheer torture."
Lalla knew there was nothing Daisy wouldn't do for her brother, whether it was pretending to like his wife or luring his old love across the Atlantic to help him. She idolized him to the point of being blind to his faults, which were many in Lalla's estimation.
Lalla smoothed the mousseline de soie skirt of her Worth traveling dress. "And how did Grey meet her?"
"At Newport, a little over two years ago," Daisy replied.
Lalla's round dark eyes widened in surprise. "Newport? Whatever was Grey doing in Newport? He's always hated the pretentiousness of the place, each millionaire trying to build a bigger mansion than his neighbor's."
"Believe me, I was just as shocked as you are when he told me he wanted to spend the summer of 1890 there. We've always gone to Wildwinds for as long as I can remember. But for some reason, Grey had his heart set on Newport that year, so we rented a house on Bellevue Avenue. He met Jane at some cotillion or other. I don't remember which one. There are so many of them, that after a while, they all tend to run together in a blur." Daisy sighed. "The next thing I knew, he said he wanted to marry her. It was all very sudden, very unexpected. I was stunned."
Somehow, that didn't surprise Lalla. The Grey Chatwin she knew was a shrewd, coolheaded businessman accustomed to taking outlandish risks and wagering millions of dollars on a split-second decision. Once he had made up his mind that he wanted this Jane, he would move heaven and earth to win her. The lady wouldn't have stood a chance against such calculated charm and determination.
Daisy continued with, "I tried to talk him out of it, but you know Grey. He wouldn't listen to me. They were married that fall, after knowing each other for only three months." She shook her head. "Three months!"
Lalla gave her a long, level stare. "Were they happy?" When her friend looked away and did not answer immediately, she prodded with, "Come now, Miss Chatwin. The truth."
There was silence except for the steady clopping of horses' hooves and the rattle of wheels on gravel.
Then Daisy capitulated. "They seemed happy enough for about a year. Whenever they appeared in public, everyone said what a doting, perfectly matched couple they were. But I began to notice certain subtle changes in Grey."
When she seemed reluctant to elaborate, Lalla prompted her once more with, "Such as...?"
"He became moody and short-tempered. Nothing anyone did seemed to please him. He even stopped confiding in me. Several times I heard Grey shouting at Jane." Daisy let out a long, drawn-out sigh. "I don't know what happened between them behind closed doors, Lalla. All I know is that Grey soon became very unhappy with his marriage. Marry in haste, repent at leisure, as the saying goes."
She clasped her hands tightly together in her lap and said in a high-pitched, nervous voice, "And then Jane died."
Daisy fell silent and seemed to withdraw within herself, so Lalla said nothing and focused her attention on the beauty of the tree-lined road that skirted the base of the mountain. She glanced at the unsettled sky, hoping the storm would hold off until they arrived at Wildwinds, and it did look as though the clouds had broken somewhat.
Finally the carriage started climbing the narrow road that led up to Wildwinds.
They drove for several minutes, and suddenly, as the carriage rounded a bend in the road, Daisy leaned forward and said, "Rogers, please stop."
Lalla looked around, curious as to why her friend had ordered them to stop at this particular point when they had almost reached the house. Through the leafy treetops she could see the second floor and roof of Wildwinds. Hidden from view by more trees was a wide flagstone terrace, and leading down from that was a series of graduated steps and railings constructed to form a sort of catwalk leading into the woods below. In happier times, Lalla and Grey had strolled down that very walk, leaning on the railing to look down the mountainside at the woods below.
Daisy had gone deathly pale. "This is where Jane died. I'm the one who found her body."
Lalla's eyes widened, and she placed a comforting hand on her friend's arm. "Why didn't you tell me this before? How dreadful for you."
"It was just before Christmas," she began in a flat, emotionless voice. "For some reason, Grey wanted to spend the holidays here instead of in the city. On the night Jane died, we were giving a ball and there were many guests who had come up from the city. It had snowed several days before, and the snow was followed by sleet, so the terrace and the mountain walk were icy."
Daisy shivered, as though it were the middle of winter and deathly cold. "The ball had been in progress for hours, when someone remarked that she hadn't seen Jane in quite a while. We searched the house, but she was nowhere to be found. Grey became very worried and started sending men out to look for her. I suppose it was stupid of me with my leg and all, but I put on a sturdy pair of boots and went to look on the terrace and the walk."
She looked over at Lalla, an expression of horror in her eyes. "I was halfway down when I saw something lying in the snow. It was Jane. She must have slipped and slid under the railing. Her body was crumpled and her head was twisted at an odd angle. I knew just by looking at her that she was dead."
Lalla made a soft sound of sympathy and squeezed her friend's hand, hard.
Daisy reached up to rub her forehead, and pro-ceded to describe the after-math of her discovery, the shock, the turmoil, the police investigation.
"Finally, an inquest deemed Jane's death an accident. The police reported that she left the ball to go for a walk, slipped, and fell to her death. Everyone felt the case was closed." Her face was bleak. "Almost everyone."
"Almost everyone? What do you mean?"
Daisy's voice shook imperceptibly as she said, "People think Grey murdered her."
Lalla felt giddy as the blood drained from her face. "Grey kill someone? That's preposterous!"
"Isn't it, though? My brother may be hot-tempered upon occasion and a ruthless opponent in business, but kill someone?" She shook her head vehemently. "Never. I'd stake my life on it."
Suddenly there came the faint rumbling of thunder in the distance, and the sky darkened ominously. The horses shifted nervously in their traces and pawed the ground, eager to be back in their warm, dry stalls before the clouds burst and sent rain dashing against the earth.
"I can see we shall have to continue our discussion at a more opportune time," Daisy said. "Rogers, drive on."
On the rest of the way up to the house, Lalla sat back in silence against the plush leather squabs. She could not believe Grey was capable of murder, not the man she had once loved so passionately. Of course, he could have changed a great deal in the intervening years since their bitter, acrimonious parting. Hadn't he proved that by rashly marrying a woman he had known only three months?
The horses trotted sedately through the wide wrought-iron gates, and in a few seconds the carriage pulled up at the entrance. A footman came out of the house to help them down.
Lalla took time to study the house while Daisy alighted. Wildwinds was the most pitiful mongrel of a house Lalla had ever seen. Before Grey's father had bought it, Wildwinds had had three previous owners, each one adding to the original structure as his whim dictated, without any concern for style or taste. The house had a bit of French Chateau and Moorish influence, but basically it was huge and rambling.
Lalla shivered again, still unable to shake the feeling of foreboding that had plagued her ever since they left New York that morning. When she happened to glance up, her eye caught the faint movement of a curtain in one of the upstairs windows. Then it fell still, as if someone had stood back and let go of it abruptly. She stared but could see no one. Whoever was watching them didn't want to be seen.
Daisy had already alighted, so Lalla followed suit and the two women walked into the house.
The moment Lalla entered the cavernous foyer, her footsteps echoing hollowly on the marble floor, she took a deep breath to settle her fluttering insides. She was at Wildwinds now, and she was going to make the best of it for Daisy's sake.
But she almost lost her nerve when a furious male voice came booming down at them from the landing.
"What in the hell is she doing here?"