Lauren Willig Excerpt: The English Wife

The English Wife by Lauren Willig is a scandalous novel set in the Gilded Age, full of family secrets, affairs, and even murder (available January 2, 2018).

Take a visual tour of The English Wife with GIFnotes!

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life in New York: he's the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he's recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she's having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip.

But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay's sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel.

Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

PROLOGUE

Cold Spring, 1899

Twelfth Night

“They say he’s bankrupted himself rebuilding the house—all for her, of course.” Carrie Rheinlander’s voice carried along the high, arched ceiling. “And then there are those frightful stories about … oh, Janie! I didn’t see you there.”

No one ever did.

Sometimes, Janie felt like the threads on an old tapestry, blending into the background. That backdrop served its own purpose, Janie knew, but once, just once, she wished she could blaze out in a luster of silver and gold.

But not here. Here, everyone glittered, everyone blazed. Her brother’s guests dazzled in garb that would have put a Medici to shame, every breast adorned with diamonds and rubies, every neck hung round with gold chains. The men peacocked in tights and short cloaks; the women dazzled in silks and velvets woven with gold and sewn with jewels. Janie’s own costume seemed modest in comparison, the garnets set in and around the squared neckline subdued in their opulence, the poor cousin of rubies.

“Carrie.” Janie acknowledged Carrie’s greeting with a shy nod. They had played dolls together, made their debut together, but Carrie had no time for her now. Carrie had married and Janie hadn’t. Against that, all the bonds of kinship and childhood counted as nothing.

Carrie lifted a jeweled hand in acknowledgment, but she was already sailing past. “Poor Janie Van Duyvil,” she murmured to her companion. “All that money and still on the shelf.”

A backwards glance and a hushed comment from Carrie’s companion, one of the new people, the wife of a man who had made his money in mines.

Then Carrie’s voice again, a carrying whisper that was worse than a shout. “Hardly! There’s been no one, no one at all, since Teddy Newland jilted her for Anne.”

Janie forced herself to focus on the array of sweetmeats on the buffet table. Hothouse grapes spilled off the edges of platters of ornate silver-gilt. Strawberries, red and ripe out of season, glistened with sugar, like flowers under frost. Bay and Annabelle had spared no expense in this, their one bow to society.

A bow? No, more like the glorious condescension of monarchs, throwing open the palace for a day, letting the world come and gawk before slamming shut the gates and returning to their own quiet state.

Bay and Annabelle had made a point of shunning society—or at least that was how society saw it. The idea that they might simply prefer their own company was taken as nonsense. It was sheer affectation that drove Annabelle Van Duyvil to ignore Mrs. Astor’s invitations, to leave empty the family box at the Opera. It was, everyone agreed, all the fault of her being English and convinced of her own superiority. Just look at what she had done to the Van Duyvil family home on the Hudson! A simple house of white wood, with a mere three wings and a classical colonnade, had been abandoned in favor of a baronial fantasy, a replica of Mrs. Van Duyvil’s family home in England.

“If she liked it there that much, why couldn’t she have stayed there?” muttered the matchmaking mamas, thwarted in their ambitions for their daughters.

But they came anyway, all of them, in their private train cars, their landaus, their barouches, footmen in livery riding atop piles of baggage, ladies’ maids clutching jewel cases, eager to gawk at what Annabelle Van Duyvil had wrought, to cluck their tongues and shake their heads and spread what scandal they could as they dined on their hosts’ food and reputations.

“Van Duyvil doesn’t trust his wife in society, that’s why they’re never in town. On account of her … intemperate appetites.” Right next to her, Janie could hear the unmistakable bray of Alisdair McHugh, self-appointed social arbiter. It was an open secret that McHugh snuck stories to Town Topics, the notorious scandal sheet; no one dared shun him for fear of what he might invent. “The architect’s her lover, of course. Hadn’t you heard? Right under her husband’s nose, no less, and Van Duyvil footing the bill for the renovations.”

Janie didn’t know whether to blush for her brother or his guests. Annabelle’s not like that, she wanted to say. They’re neither of them like that.

But her tongue felt like ice between her lips, frozen, as it always was in such situations. Don’t make a scene. Don’t put yourself forward. For goodness’s sake, Janie, stop that tiresome chatter. Those had been the strictures of her youth. Mr. McHugh might spread scandal all he liked, but if Janie were to contradict him, the world would whisper, “No wonder she’s a spinster.”

Where were Bay and Annabelle? Janie could see her mother, wearing the double ropes of pearls that were her pride, dressed as Gloriana. (Gloriana in her later years, thought Janie, and then grimaced at her own pettiness.) But it was very much like her mother to claim the primary role in a house that was no longer hers, masking her own ambition behind the excuse that her presence would lend countenance to her son and daughter-in-law. Janie’s mother considered herself the last of the true leaders of society, the last bastion of the old guard against those tedious mushroom growths, the Astors and the Vanderbilts.

There were times when Janie thought it might be rather nice to be a mushroom, to grow and flourish without the steely gaze of centuries of Dutch ancestors. Virtue, her mother told her time and again, was its own reward, but on a night such as this, virtue seemed about as much a reward as day-old porridge.

There were times when she wished she had been born a male, that she might make her own way, that she might marry as she pleased and live as she would.

But that was as much a fancy as this carnival version of the Renaissance. In a few hours, the jester in motley would take off his cap and become an actor again; Isabella of Spain would ring for her maid and put cold cream on her face; and the whole pageant would turn again into what it was, hard-eyed businessmen and their ambitious wives, scheming to attain the status to which Janie and Bay had been born, and which had offered them nothing but the right to be gossiped over.

“Janie?” It was her cousin Anne, breathless and impatient, her cheeks flushed with heat or something else. “Janie!”

“Yes?” Next to Anne, Janie felt like the faded copy of an old portrait, set beside the glowing tones of the original. They both had blond curls as girls, but where Janie’s had faded to mouse, Anne’s was glowing, unapologetic gold. Anne had chosen her own namesake for her costume; she had dressed as Anne Boleyn.

Are you sure it’s wise? Janie had heard Bay ask, as the family gathered for dinner. To call their minds to divorce?

Anne had lifted a caressing hand to Bay’s cheek, her laugh just a touch too bright. When have you and I ever been wise?

Now, Anne’s headdress was askew, and twin lines of irritation marked the sides of her mouth. “Have you seen Bay and Annabelle? Supper’s nearly over, and they’re meant to be opening the German.”

“They’re not in the music room?”

Annabelle, when she chose to share it, had a beautiful voice. It was a talent she used charily, although Janie had more than once heard her sister-in-law’s voice, low and sweet, through the darkened entry to the night nursery.

“No, nor in the card room or the conservatory. Don’t you think I’ve looked?” Anne sounded deeply impatient, but then Anne always sounded impatient. At least, with Janie.

“They’re not with you?” Realizing how idiotic that sounded, Janie said hastily, “I’d thought Bay was with you.”

It had always been Bay and Anne, from the time they were children, creating elaborate theatricals, keeping each other’s secrets, speaking in grimaces and symbols that only the other understood. Janie’s childhood had consisted of the echo of laughter from another room, the rustle of fabric disappearing around a doorway, voices that faded as she pursued them.

But they were adults now, all of them. She wasn’t the baby in the nursery anymore.

“He needed to consult David over something or other.” Anne’s voice was tense. “There’s to be a spectacle in the gardens at midnight. David designed it.”

It was like Anne to use the architect’s first name, regardless of propriety. But then Anne would probably say she had no reputation left to lose.

“Then shouldn’t you be asking Mr. Pruyn?” Janie was aware of how priggish she sounded, but she couldn’t help it. Something about Anne brought the prunes and prisms out in her, made her purse her lips and narrow her shoulders.

Anne cast her a withering look. “I did. He said Bay went to find Annabelle.”

The whimsy of it struck Janie. “It’s like a children’s game—everyone following everyone else.”

Anne was not amused. “Do you want to explain to Aunt Alva why the dancing is delayed?”

The invocation of Janie’s mother was enough to kill any hint of humor. “Has Mother said anything?”

“Who do you think sent me?”

Janie and her cousin exchanged a look, united in reluctant partnership.

It would have been like Annabelle to have gone up to the children, but if she tilted her head, Janie could see two small figures in white nightdresses between the heavily carved balusters of the minstrel’s gallery, the shadowy shape of a nursemaid behind them.

“Did you say there’s to be a spectacle in the garden?” No point in being hurt that Anne knew more than she; Anne always knew more than she. Doubtfully, Janie said, “They might have gone to supervise.”

Her mother would have. Her mother would have personally managed every aspect of the entertainment. Annabelle had never struck her as that sort of hostess.

Still, what did she know of Annabelle? For all that Annabelle was her brother’s wife, they had never proceeded beyond a polite reserve. It wasn’t that Annabelle was unkind; just distant, like the image of the moon reflected on water.

Janie wasn’t sure whether the fault was with Annabelle or herself. She suspected the latter; for whatever reason, she didn’t have the gift of easy intimacy. There was no one in the world Janie counted as truly an intimate except for the characters that lived beyond the pages of the plays in her father’s library.

“Come along, then.” Anne was already moving towards the back of the hall, her heels clicking rapidly on the flagstones.

“Outside?”

“No, to Sherry’s. Yes, outside.”

Footmen in livery were stationed on either side of the door, which they opened without question or comment.

“Our wraps—”

“We’ll just be a moment.” Anne’s breath misted in the air. She moved sure-footed across the sleet-crusted flagstones, leaving Janie no choice but to follow or fall behind.

Janie followed.

The gardens had been hung with Chinese lanterns, creating sinuous lines of light in the dark, meandering pathways to the river. In the summer, the air would be rich with the scents of roses, jonquils, and carnations. Lavender would edge the paths, and knot gardens would bloom, fragrant with herbs. Now, hothouse flowers wilted in stone urns, their colors blurred by the light fall of snow that lent an otherworldly shimmer to the scene.

The falling flakes seemed insubstantial, but they caught on Janie’s lashes and blurred her vision, the snow and the lantern light casting rainbows at the corners of her eyes, turning the midnight gardens into something between fear and fairyland. The heavy brocade of her skirts tangled around her legs, impeding her progress. Janie’s dancing slippers had been designed for marble floors, not ice and snow; she could feel the cold creeping through her stockings as she stumbled and slid in Anne’s wake.

Ahead of her, dancing in and out of view in the lantern light, she could see the reflection of the great house shivering on the river, all fanciful battlements and crenellations, like the drowned towers of a mythical castle.

For a moment, Janie thought she saw the form of a woman floating on the water, long, dark hair streaming out behind her, skirts decorated in pearl and aquamarine turning slowly to shades of gray as the water seeped into their folds—

She turned again and the image was lost, the house behind them just a house, the river hidden by the trees. Janie swiped a wet lock of hair from her face and wondered why she had let herself be cozened by Anne yet again, had allowed Anne to lead her where she shouldn’t go, when Bay and Annabelle were undoubtedly warm and dry inside, opening the German, from which Anne and Janie would be conspicuously absent.

They had battled their way through the length of the gardens. Ahead lay only the river and the folly, bare, ruined choirs where monks had never sung, the false remains of an imagined abbey in a staunchly Protestant preserve.

But then in Illyria, nothing was as it was, was it?

“Anne?” Janie blinked snow out of her eyes. The light was dimmer here, the arches of the abbey that never was had been left in deliberate darkness save for two torches that sputtered in the wet. Where was her cousin? She could hear only her own voice, raised to shrillness against the deafening hush of the snow-shrouded garden. “Anne? I’m going back.”

“Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.” The words would have sounded like a chant, like the echo of a long-ago refrain, were it not for the edge of panic to them.

“Anne?” Janie’s voice was sharp. She squinted into the glare of the lanterns, searching for the rope that might be stretched out to trip her, the snickering town beau waiting to jump out and scare her.

Anne’s voice rose from the darkness, down by the folly. “Bay! Can you hear me? Bay…”

Janie could feel panic rising, quickening her step as she half ran, half slid the final few yards to the folly, her hands like ice in her gloves, light flaring at the corners of her eyes, the strange gray half dark of a snowy night pressing all around her.

Anne was kneeling on the floor, her skirts spread all around her, cloth of gold turned to rust. The air was heavy with the scent of sulfur from the torches and something else, an acrid tang that caught at the back of Janie’s throat like smoke.

“What is it?” Janie’s voice echoed in the stony room.

Anne rocked back on her heels, pressing a hand against her mouth. “It’s Bay. Oh, God. Bay. Bay.”

“What do you—” A hand was extended as if in supplication, rings glittering on the fingers. Stage rings, designed for the occasion. Janie had seen those rings, had commented on them at dinner. It was Bay’s hand, Bay’s legs in elaborate knee breeches.

Bay. On the ground.

Janie dropped to her knees beside her brother, feeling the cold of the stones seeping through the thick material of skirt and petticoats.

In the uneven flare of the torchlight, she could just make out the bright flare of his blond hair, the pale shape of his face. Was it just a trick of the light, or were his lips tinged with blue? The ruins were open to the elements, a mere sham of a building. The wind blew cold off the river, scattering snow like diamonds.

The spectacle. Something about a spectacle. Janie’s mind stuttered and started again. Bandages. Medical assistance. It was no wonder if Bay had slipped and fallen on the icy stones. Janie reached for Bay’s hand, so cold, even through the material of her gloves. She squeezed his fingers and felt him stir, ever so slightly.

“Anne.” When her cousin didn’t answer, Janie tried again, louder. “Anne. You go for help; I’ll stay with Bay. We need to get him warm.”

She had no shawl to lay over him, but her brocade overskirt detached from the underskirt. If she could only remember where her maid had set the stitches.

“I think—” Anne rocked back on her heels, and kept rocking, rocking back and forth. She laughed, a wild sound, somewhere between a laugh and a hiccup. “I think it’s too late for that. Oh, Bay. Bay, Bay, Bay. Can you hear me? I’m so sorry, Bay. Bay…”

“Anne! Pull yourself—” The words died on Janie’s lips as her eyes moved from her brother’s face to his chest, to the jeweled hilt of a dagger protruding from his doublet.

Her brother exhaled, a labored, rasping sound. With effort, his eyes flickered open, focusing, not on Janie, but on something beyond.

His lips moved, shaping a word, a name.

“Bay!” Janie was squeezing his hand, squeezing as if the pressure of her touch could bring him back, hold him where he was. “Bay…”

This wasn’t happening. It was a game, a trick, part of the illusion. Any moment now, he would pluck the dagger from his doublet and leap to his feet with easy grace. Just a trick, a scratch, nothing more.

Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.…

Next to her, Anne was laughing, a high-pitched laugh that went on and on, keening and keening in the darkness.

“Bay?” Her brother’s head slumped back, his eyes closed, snow dusting the closed lids. Frantically, futilely, Janie brushed at the falling flakes. “Bay, this isn’t funny.”

Tricks were Anne’s province, not Bay’s. The smell of blood stung Janie’s nostrils, blood, seeping into the velvet of Bay’s doublet, trickling out of the corner of his mouth.

And in the river below, the long, dark tresses of a woman shimmered gently below the ice.

 

Copyright © 2018 Lauren Willig.

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Lauren Willig is the author of several New York Times bestselling works of historical fiction, including The Forgotten Room (co-authored with Karen White and Beatriz Williams), The Ashford Affair, and the Pink Carnation series.  She is a RITA Award-winner for Best Regency Historical for The Mischief of the Mistletoe. A graduate of Yale University, she has a graduate degree in history from Harvard and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.

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