Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets --- secrets that will damage their eventual marriage. Five years later, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate.
Cocoa Beach, Florida, June 1922
Someone has cleared the ruins away, but you can still see that a houseburned to the ground here, not long ago. The earth is black and charred,and the air smells faintly of soot.
In the center of what must once have been a courtyard, a modest stonefountain has toppled from its pedestal. Already the weeds have begun tosprout from the base, encouraged by the hot, damp sunshine and the fertilesoil. Everything grows in Florida. Grows and grows, unchecked by anypuny human efforts to control nature’s destiny. I sink to the edge of thepedestal and call to my daughter, who’s poking a stick through the long,sharp grasses that grow along the perimeter of the paving stones. She looksup in surprise, as if she’s forgotten I exist, and runs to me on her stubbybare legs. On her mouth is the same startling smile that used to light herfather’s face, and there are moments—such as this one—when the resemblance strikes me so forcefully, I can’t breathe.
“Mama! Mama! There mouse!”
“A mouse? In the grass? Are you sure?”
“Yes, Mama! Mouse! He run away.”
“Of course he did, darling, if you poked him with your stick.”
Without another word she burrows her hot, wriggling body into mychest, and I’m not one to waste such an opportunity. Not me. Not now.I clasp Evelyn between my arms and bury my face in her sweet-smellinghair, and I breathe her in, great lungfuls of Evelyn, as if I could actually do that, if I inhaled with enough strength and will. Breathe my daughter’sspirit into mine.
I haven’t told her that her father died here four months ago, on this verypatch of ground, or even that he built this house and lived in it while we—Evelyn and I—inhabited our comfortable brownstone on East ThirtySecond Street in New York City, together with Grandpapa and AuntSophie. For one thing, I don’t want to frighten her with the idea that aperson could burn to death at two o’clock in the morning in his own house,just like that. For another, she’s not that curious about him, not yet. She’snot yet three years old, after all, and she doesn’t know any other little girls.Doesn’t know that most of them have both mothers and fathers, livingat home together, sometimes with brothers and sisters, too. One day, ofcourse, she’ll want to know more. She’ll ask me questions, and I’ll have tothink of plausible answers.
And there is another reason, a final reason. The reason I’m here in Florida to begin with, examining this blackened ground with my jaded eyes. Isuppose I’ll tell Evelyn about that, too, when the time comes, but for nowI’m holding this reason inside my own head and nowhere else. I’ve learned,over the years, to keep my private thoughts strictly to myself.
Behind us, Mr. Burnside clears his throat in that slight, unnecessary waythat lawyers have. I imagine they think it conveys discretion. “Mrs. Fitzwilliam,” he says.
“Yes, Mr. Burnside?”
“Have you seen enough? I hate to hurry you, but we do have a wholemess of appointments this morning.”
Mr. Burnside, you understand, likes to keep to a tight schedule, especially in the face of this shimmering June sun, which forces all businessaround here to conclude by lunchtime. After which Mr. Burnside willspend the rest of his day inside a high-ceilinged, north-facing room, sipping a cool, strong drink while an electric fan rotates above him. If he canspare the energy, he might turn over a paper or two on his desk.
On the other hand, he’s an extremely competent man of affairs, as I’ve had plenty of occasion to discover in the past two months, and the sound ofhis voice—practical, confident, somewhat impatient—is enough to stiffenmy resolve. To blow away the dust of regret, or nostalgia, or grief, or whatever it is that’s stinging my eyes, that’s clogging my chest as I hold Simon’sdaughter in my arms and try to imagine that Simon is dead. Dead. What aword. An impossible word, as unlike Simon as clay is to fire. I kiss the topof Evelyn’s head, detach her from my arms, and rise to my feet. The earlysun catches my back. Not far away, the ocean beats against the yellow sand,and the sound makes me want to take off my shoes and socks and wander,aimless, into the surf.
Instead, I say: “Are you certain the remains belonged to my husband?”“Yes, ma’am. His brother identified the body.”
“That’s the man. Big fella.”
“And this was Simon’s house, of course. There’s no mistake about that?”“Oh, no, ma’am. No mistake about that. Had the pleasure of visiting heremany times myself. Lovely place. Like one of those Italian villas. Therewere lemon trees in this courtyard, real pretty. A real shame, Mrs. Fitzwilliam. Terrible, terrible shame that you never saw how lovely it was.”
I gaze at him coldly, and he coughs and turns away, as if to surveythe empty, overgrown plot around us. The breeze touches the ends of hispale jacket. His straw hat glows in the sun. He inserts his fingers into hissweating collar and says, “Have you thought about what you’ll do with theplace? You can get a good price for the land, if you don’t mind my sayingso. Folks are paying top dollar these days for a plot of good Florida land, letalone one as nice and big as this, looking out on the ocean.”
Across the road, at the edge of the yellow beach, an especially largewave rises to the sky, gathering strength and power, until it can’t bear thestrain any longer and dives for shore in a long, elegant undulation, fromnorth to south. An instant later, the boom reaches us, like the firing of aseventy-five-millimeter artillery shell—a sound I know all too well. Mynerves flinch obediently.
But I’m an old hand at disguising the flinch of my nerves. Instead ofjumping at the sound of a crashing wave, I brush an imaginary patch of dirtfrom my dress and reach for Evelyn’s sticky hand.
“I think we should visit the docks next, don’t you think? So we don’t runlate on our schedule.”
Mr. Burnside frowns, causing his bottlebrush mustache to twitch underhis nose.
“Of course,” he says. “It’s your property, after all.”
IN ADDITION TO A THOUSAND or so acres of mature citrus, a shippingcompany, the ruined house on Cocoa Beach, and a hotel in town (in whichhe kept a private apartment for his own use), Simon has also left me a beautiful sky-blue Twin Six Packard roadster, which Mr. Burnside now drivesat thirty exuberant miles an hour toward the long, narrow bridge across theIndian River, where the little boomtown of Cocoa perches on the shore andmakes itself a living.
On another day, I would have liked to drive myself. This is, after all, mycar. But the estate is still in probate, and anyway Mr. Burnside knows theway, while Florida’s still a mystery to me. Why, I don’t even know the namefor this thick, rampant vegetation that spreads around us, creeping along theedges of the road, but as the Packard plows along the raised bed, top downand windows lowered, I think—for the first time in years—of the hedgerows of Cornwall. The way they block everything else from view, everything ahead of you and everything to the side, so that you never know what’scoming around the next curve. Those shrubs might be hiding anything.
“How much farther?” I call out above the roar of the engine and theheavy, warm draft blowing past our ears.
“Bridge is up ahead!”
“What are these shrubs and trees growing alongside?”
“MANGROVE, Mrs. Fitzwilliam! That’s MANGROVE! Grows EVERYWHERE around here, where the ground’s LOW and SWAMPY, andit’s mostly LOW and SWAMPY in these PARTS!”
Mangrove. Of course. One of those things you hear about—a mangroveswamp, how exotic—but never actually see. And here it is, spreading everywhere, tangled and salty and very much at home.
“Darned STUFF!” Mr. Burnside continues. “Breeds MOSQUITOES!I’m sure you’ve noticed all the MOSQUITOES!”
He turns his head closer. “They used to call this Mosquito County, untilsomeone got smart and saw it was keeping the settlers away. Changed thename to Brevard. Now they’ve got big plans to drain these swamps, at leaston the mainland side, some of the bigger islands.”
“What a shame!”
“Shame? About TIME, I say! You haven’t seen ’em SWARM yet! Here’sthe bridge, now.”
The mangrove falls away, replaced by the tranquil navy blue of theIndian River and the bustling shore on the other side. Across the waterway stretches the wooden bridge, straight as an arrow, except for the drawbridge and its wheelhouse. We crossed it this morning, rattling the boardsfrom their morning slumber, much to Evelyn’s delight. I nudge her now.“Look, darling! It’s the bridge!”
She scrambles up into my lap and puts her hands on the doorframe.“Bridge! Bridge!”
“She’s a PRETTY THING!” shouts Mr. Burnside.
“Looks like her FATHER, if you don’t MIND my SAYING so!”
I stroke Evelyn’s hair. “Tell me, Mr. Burnside. When was the bridgebuilt? It looks rather new.”
Mr. Burnside flexes his fingers around the steering wheel and leans forward, as if to concentrate his attention on the progress of the Packard downthe narrow roadway. He’s driving more slowly now, as we cross from solid ground to fragile human construction, and the noise of the engine subsides,replaced by the rattle of wood.
“Oh, not that new, I guess. They finished it just about the time we gotinto the war—1917, it was. Seems like ages, though I guess that’s only fiveyears, by the calendar.”
He spares a sideways glance. “You must have gone over there, isn’t thatright? The war, I mean. Over to France.”
Evelyn’s trying to stand on my lap, to get a better view over the edge ofthe car. With difficulty, not wanting to spoil her fun entirely, I brace myhands around her flapping upper arms. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, just curious, I guess. What it was like. Pretty awful, I bet. I figuredyou must have met Mr. Fitzwilliam there, you know. Since he was fighting.”
“He wasn’t fighting,” I say. “He was in the medical corps.”
“Oh, that’s right. Used to be a doctor, I think he said.”
“Yes. He was a surgeon in the British Army.”
“Yep, that’s right. That was good luck for him, I guess. Do your bitwithout getting killed.”
“I suppose so.”
The Packard rattles on, toward the middle of the bridge. The sun’s highernow, and without the shade of the mangroves, the interior of the car hasgrown intolerably hot, even in the draft. The perspiration trickles down thehollow of my spine, dampening my dress against the back of the seat.
Mr. Burnside, however, is persistent. “You must’ve been a nurse, then.Red Cross?”
“Yes.” And then, reluctantly: “I wasn’t really a nurse. I drove ambulances.”
“Did you! Well, I’ll be. Can’t say I would have guessed. You’re such anelegant thing. And that’s man’s work. Real man’s work, driving those tincans through the guns and the slop.”
“There were a great many women driving, actually. So the men couldgo fight.”
“Were there, now? I guess that’s war for you. Where’d you learn todrive? In the service?”
“No. My father taught me.”
“Well, well. And so you met Mr. Fitzwilliam in France, somewhere?”
We’re approaching the drawbridge, and the stop signal appears. ThePackard slows and slows. I point through the windshield. “Look, Evelyn.The bridge is going to go up so the boats can sail through.”
Evelyn, squealing, throws herself toward the glass, fingers outstretchedfor the topmost edge, and I catch her by the chest just in time.
“You’ve got your hands full with that one,” observes Mr. Burnside.“She’s a good girl, really. Just impulsive when she’s excited. As mostchildren are, at this age.”
My voice is crisp, but he doesn’t seem to notice. His hand reaches for thegear lever. “She doesn’t get that from her daddy, that’s for sure. Never sawa man with a more even temper than Mr. Fitzwilliam. Nothing troubledhim. Cool as January. I always figured it was the war, see. You survivesomething like that, and . . . Oh, look at that. It’s one of his ships. Yourships, I mean.”
I turn my head to the cluster of vessels awaiting the lifting of the drawbridge. “Which one?”
“The steamer, there at the end. Loaded up with fruit, I’ll bet, and headedfor Europe. Though I’d have to check the schedule in the office to be sure.”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
“Oh, I don’t mean you, ma’am. There’s no need for you to trouble yourself with the business side of things.”
The wooden deck draws slowly upward before us, foot by foot, andEvelyn gasps for joy. Claps her palms together, leans trustfully into myhands. The creaking of the gear reaches a breaking point, above the rumbleof the Packard’s idling engine, and the ships begin to bob forward.
“But that’s why I’m here, Mr. Burnside. To learn about Simon’s business. Since it now belongs to me.”
“Now, Mrs. Fitzwilliam. Why bother yourself like that? That’s what we’re here for, to keep your affairs running all nice and smooth, so youdon’t need to dirty yourself. The dirt of commerce, I mean. Just you livein comfort and raise your daughter and maybe find yourself another husband. A nice, ladylike thing like you. It’s hard work, you know, running abusiness like this.”
“I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“Well, now. Have you ever run a business before, Mrs. Fitzwilliam?”“No. But that doesn’t mean—”
“Then I think you’d best just leave everything to us, ma’am. Those of uswho know the business, inside out.” He leans back contentedly against theseat and crosses his arms over his broad, damp chest. “Trust me.”
Well! At the sound of those words—Trust me—I’m nearly overcome byan urge to laugh. High and hysterical, a little mad, the kind of laugh thatwill make this kind, round-bellied lawyer shake his head and think, Women.
Trust me. My goodness. Trust me, indeed. I’ve heard that one before.
But I don’t laugh. Poor fellow. Why disturb his satisfaction? Instead, Iwatch the progress of the ships through the gap in the bridge, paying particular attention to the nimble white steamship at the end, which—I nowsee—bears the name of its company in black block letters near the stern.
PHANTON SHIPPING LINES
AS IT HAPPENS, SIMON’S DOCK is empty of ships, except for a small boatthat Mr. Burnside informs me is a tender. “The others are out to sea,” hesays, chewing on the end of a long and unlit cigar, “which is a good thing,mind you. Good for profits. Our aim is always to turn the ships around assmart as we can.”
We’re standing at the end of the Phantom Shipping dock, and the IndianRiver swirls around the pilings at our feet while a hazy white sun cooks usinside our clothes. Evelyn, restless, swings from my hand to look for fish inthe oily water. Thirty yards away, a tugboat steams slowly upstream, trailing gray smoke from its single stack. The air is almost too hot to breathe.
“What about the warehouse?” I ask.
I turn and nod to the rectangular wooden building at the base of thedock. Like the ship at the drawbridge, the building identifies its ownership in confident, no-nonsense black letters above the massive double door:phantom shipping lines. The paint is fresh, on both the signboard and thewhite walls of the warehouse itself. There are no windows. I understandthis keeps the fruit fresh and cool in its crates, waiting for a ship to transport it across the ocean. Citrus, mostly, but some avocado as well. There’sa growing taste for more exotic fare in the London drawing rooms, apparently, after so many years of restriction and rationing and self-denial. Agrowing taste for adventure.
“Oh, there won’t be anything to see in there,” says Mr. Burnside. “Theship’s already loaded and left, and we’re not due to receive any goods thismorning.”
“I’d like to have a look, all the same.”
He nudges aside his sleeve to check his watch. “Well, I can’t objectto that. But it is nearly lunchtime, and we’ve still got the offices to visit,haven’t we? And your poor daughter looks like she might stand in need ofa rest and a cool drink, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, you do seem pleased to offer up youropinion on a variety of matters, Mr. Burnside.” I strike off down the dock,holding Evelyn’s hand. “Even without being asked for it.”
“That’s what I’m paid to do, Mrs. Fitzwilliam. Give you my opinion.Your husband, in his will, made very clear that—”
I turn so quickly, Mr. Burnside nearly stumbles into my chest. He’s aninch shorter than I am, and his eyes are forced to turn up to meet mine. Ican tell he doesn’t necessarily welcome the mismatch.
“Let me make very clear, Mr. Burnside, that my late husband’s wishesare really no longer the point. My wishes are your business now, and if youfind that task impossible, I’m afraid I’ll simply have to find myself a newlawyer.”
He steps backward. Snatches the cigar from the corner of his mouth.Widens his eyes to regard the cast of my expression, which—after two anda half years of motherhood—is formed of iron.
“Of course, ma’am.” He inclines his head. “I didn’t mean to overstep.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. I presume the warehouse is locked?”
“And you have the key?”
“Then let’s proceed, shall we?”
I swing Evelyn onto my hip and cut through the sweating atmospherein long, masculine strides to the white double doors at the base of thedock.
As it turns out, Mr. Burnside is correct. The warehouse doors swingopen to reveal nothing at all: no cargo, at any rate. No waiting crates ofcitrus and avocado. Along the walls, ropes and tools hang at neat intervals,and the air—unexpectedly cool—smells of the usual dockside perfume,hemp and tar and salt and warm wood.
And something else.I tilt my chin and sniff carefully. There it is again, sweet and spicy andtonic.
“Is something the matter, Mrs. Fitzwilliam?” asks Mr. Burnside, lighting his cigar.
“Nothing at all.”
“What smell, Mama?”
Evelyn’s wrinkling her tiny nose. Her face has grown pink from theheat, and I consider the possibility that Mr. Burnside’s correct about this,as well: she needs a rest and a cool drink.
“Smell, darling? What do you smell?”
“It’s my cigar, I expect,” Mr. Burnside says quickly.
“No, it’s not that. I smelled it, too.”
“Just the fruit, then.”
“Possibly.” I try the air again, but the flavor has disappeared in the over-powering fog of the lawyer’s cigar. “Though it didn’t smell like fruit to me.If anything, it smelled like brandy.”
Mr. Burnside turns for the door and laughs. “Ha-ha. Brandy? Your noseis playing tricks on you, Mrs. Fitzwilliam. Though I guess, if some of lastnight’s shipment had gone off in the heat . . . happens sometimes . . . sittingin the sun like that . . .”
I wave away a delicate blue plume of smoke and cast a final gaze alongthe clean, well-organized walls of my late husband’s warehouse, and as Ido I’m reminded, against my will, of the neat canvas walls of a casualtyclearing station in northern France, everything in its place, equipment andinstruments and creature comforts, while the rain drummed outside. Of apair of hazel eyes, turned toward me in supplication.
“Perhaps,” I say.Evelyn’s squirming weight pulls at my arms. I allow my daughter toslide to the scrubbed wooden floor. I take her hand, and together we followMr. Burnside through the doorway, into the suffocating Florida noon.
WE’RE LATE FOR OUR VISIT to the offices of the Phantom Shipping Lines,on the second floor of a large, businesslike brick building set across fromthe Phantom Hotel, which now belongs to me, according to the terms ofSimon’s will. My husband, you see, articulated his last wishes in clear,simple terms: in the event of his death, everything—every single article hepossessed—should pass to his wife, Virginia Fitzwilliam of New York City.
A dressmaker and a coffee shop occupy the storefronts on the groundfloor, and the stairs for the upper floors lie behind a plain wooden dooraround the corner. Mr. Burnside reaches for the knob and unlocks it with asmall Yale key from the chain in his jacket pocket.
The stairs are wide and bare, and Mr. Burnside tells me to watch my stepas I climb, holding Evelyn by the hand. The wood creaks softly beneathour feet. Simon climbed these steps, I think. Simon’s feet caused the samesoft creak.
“If you’ll allow me,” Mr. Burnside says, stepping around my body as wereach the top of the staircase and a square, high-ceilinged foyer made whiteby the glare of the sun through the window at the opposite end. He stridesfor a door halfway down the wall on the right side, the one facing the river,and unlocks that, too. The top half is made of frosted glass and also bearsthe name phantom shipping lines in the same uniform black letters.
“After you,” says Mr. Burnside, stepping back, and Evelyn and I walkthrough the doorway into a beautiful, spacious room, lined on the east andsouth walls by large sash windows, shaded from the ferocity of the Floridasun by a series of green-and-white striped awnings. Above our heads, fourelectric fans rotate quickly. The walls are white, the furniture simple: apair of desks, a sofa, armchairs, table, cabinets. Everything necessary, Isuppose, to run a small, legitimate shipping company, sending fresh, nutritious Florida citrus and avocadoes to the kitchens and dining rooms ofGreat Britain.
The room is occupied, of course. After all, business goes on, though theowner of Phantom Shipping Lines has died shockingly in a house fire fourmonths earlier, leaving his company and all the rest of his worldly goodsto a wife who, I suspect, most people here in Cocoa never knew existed. Ayoung woman in a navy suit sits erect before a curving black typing machine, the clattering of which has abruptly ceased, and a middle-aged manlooks up from the desk on the other side of the room and gazes at us frombeneath the green shade covering his brow.
More. There’s another man, stepping just now from a doorway alongthe north wall, closing the portal behind him and turning to face me. Buthe’s not the man that—at some hidden depth of consciousness, unknown tologic—I suppose I’m expecting to find before me. Whole and alive.
No. This man is burly and straight-shouldered, grim-faced and darkhaired, bearing a jaw and a pair of hazel eyes so resembling those of myhusband, my heart jolts in my chest and my legs turn to sand, and I squeezeEvelyn’s tiny hand in order to remain upright.
“[Beatriz Williams is] a master of the historical fiction genre . . . COCOA BEACH is a breathtaking family drama that moves from the battlefields of World War I France to the sun-soaked beaches of Prohibition Era Florida.”- Shelf Awareness
“Romance and mystery, war and Prohibition, infidelity and murder, inheritance and lies—the list of ingredients is long and potent in this cocktail of dramatic suspense rooted in early-20th-century Florida . . . Williams’ story, a rich brew of suspicion and intensity, also has a flavor of Daphne du Maurier, with its Cornish roots, dubious housekeeper, and embattled heroine . . . there’s no denying the author’s full-blooded commitment to her intricate edifice . . . Williams spins a good, spirited yarn.”- Kirkus
“If you aren’t actually traveling to Florida this summer, picking up Beatriz Williams’ latest just might be the next best thing . . . If you’re hankering for a Prohibition-era romp through Florida with a healthy dose of intrigue, look no further.”- Bookish
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