The Bride Wore A White Bikini
Illustrations by John Schmelzer
Photos by Bob Williamson
John Paul Steele
had 53 minutes to live.
He sat at his desk
in the second floor study and opened Le
Livre des Vies, the book Madeline had bought him in Paris. He took a Parker
Duofold pen from his vest pocket and wrote his name on the flyleaf in his
clear, steady hand. He blotted the deep blue ink and closed the cover. He’d
enter the book into his inventory tomorrow and, with some rearranging, find a
place for it on the crowded shelves behind him.
His servants had
come to Brighton Shores a week earlier to decorate for Christmas. They had hung
a giant holly wreath on the front door to welcome him and his new wife home
from their long trip. The house smelled of the fresh cut pine boughs they had
woven into the banister of the central foyer’s staircase. The tree in the
parlor blazed with colored lights and delicate glass ornaments. Dozens of boxes
with large bows spread out onto the hardwood floor under the tree. Johnny’s
Lionel train circled it all.
George Lambert Steele, Sr., a cotton trader, had bought the oak partners’ desk
John now sat at on a business trip to New Orleans. John and his two brothers
had inherited a fortune from their father. John had made another fortune
working long hours at his father’s old desk.
He pushed away
from his desk and walked across a Tabriz carpet to a tall window. The front
lawn sloped down to Lambert Avenue. The wide sandy beach on the other side of
Lambert was empty except for a few laughing gulls scavenging on the shoreline.
The rainclouds above the Gulfstream were going from pink to gray in the fading
Steele filled his
Meerschaum pipe with a fragrant burley tobacco, tamped it down, took a match,
struck it, and drew the flame into the pipe’s bowl. He’d bought the pipe in
Salzburg 25 years earlier during a Grand Tour of Europe with his first wife.
She had conceived Johnny on that trip. On the way home they had stopped at
Brighton in the south of England. He knew at once he had to have a home like
the Royal Pavilion with its dazzling white exterior, onion dome roof, and
He didn’t care
that everybody in Brighton Shores hated it. This was his town, he’d founded it
with his two brothers, and he didn’t want his home to look like every other
prissy Edwardian on the island. Three wives had come and three wives had gone
as the house slowly rose on a knoll overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. When
construction was done, he named his creation Babur, the “Tiger,” after the 16th century Persian
conqueror of India whose Mughal style he had copied. Babur was his home, not Steele Away, the family’s winter home down
at the south tip of the island, and certainly not that drafty old brick
monstrosity his grandfather had built in Cleveland.
Steele found that
morning’s West Brighton Shores Star,
puffed on his pipe, and tried to distract himself. Though the Great War was
five years in the past the stench of death lingered in Europe. He had left
Madeline to her shopping in Paris, hired a car, and was driven to the Bois Belleau where Johnny, a Marine in
the Second Corps, had died.
His chauffeur, an
old man with a few unruly wisps of white hair, had lost all three of his sons
to the trenches. The old man had been unable to leave the car when Steele had
put flowers on a mass grave. Was this Johnny’s grave too? Where Johnny’s bones
mingled with the bones of his driver’s sons?
Steele and the old
man could not speak on the trip back to Paris.
thoroughly enjoyed their honeymoon. She, much younger than John, had never been
to the Middle East or Europe. For her the sights of Jerusalem, Cairo, Vienna,
Rome, Paris and London were a great adventure. For Steele they brought back
memories of times and places far in the past; times and places whose existence
he struggled to deny.
He put another log
on the fire. A thought had crossed his mind many times since he read Le Livre des Vies - The Book of Lives during the voyage home from Southhampton to New
York on the Franconia; was Johnny’s death the price for his past sins? He went
back to his desk, picked up the book, and opened it to a chapter he’d read
again and again. Could that be him? He was about to throw the book into the
fireplace when his butler knocked at the door and came in holding a bottle of
claret. “I think this 1910 Pomerol should be ready, sir.”
“Yes, I would
“I’ll decant it.”
The butler turned to leave. “Your wife’s maid said she is asking for you.”
Steele set the
book back on his desk, went across the broad upstairs hall to Madeline’s
dressing room, and knocked at her door.
“Is that you,
drawl of New Orleans still stirred him. “Yes, my dear.” He opened the door and
His wife smiled
and stood up from her dressing table. “You look so handsome in evening wear.”
She straightened his white tie and let her hands run down the front of his
starched white shirt.
She had just
emerged from a bath to wash off the dusty ride home on Mr. Flagler’s Florida
East Coast Railroad. The only towel she wore was around her long black hair.
Steele put his
hand on her rounding belly. “And you look so beautiful wearing nothing at all.”
He reached to pull her closer.
She gave him a
playful shove away. “Go downstairs and cut some roses.” She patted her stomach.
“Don’t you think you’ve done quite enough already?” A smile - so bewitching. A
promise - not now my love, company will be here soon, but later.
Steele found hand
pruning sheers and a wicker garden basket in the butler’s pantry. He went out
the back door, down the steps, and across the lawn to his garden. A rapidly
moving front had brought a badly needed afternoon rain and cool weather to
Their guests would
be arriving within the hour for a welcome home dinner party and a chance to see
his new wife. Madeline had created a stir both in Cleveland and here in
Brighton Shores. She was a young, beautiful woman, thirty years Steele’s
junior, but that alone would not have been counted against her. Men of his
class and age often had pretty young mistresses. They even occasionally
divorced their wives and married these women. It was true that Madeline was his
fourth wife, but the stir, the real scandal, was her dark golden skin, her long
striking exotic face, her blazing black eyes.
that she was not one of us.
The roses were
still damp from the rain. They would look good in the tall Sèvres vase Madeline
had found in a shop in the Latin Quarter on the Rue St. Jacques.
Though he loved
his garden Steele grew annoyed as he worked. His gardener never trimmed the
rose bushes correctly. His agent in Ireland had sent him a new variety only
last year called Betty Uprichard. The flowers were a beautiful salmon pink, but
if the man didn’t take better care, as hardy as they were, they might not
survive another season. He would have to talk to his estate manager about this.
Perhaps it was time to let the man go.
the best flowers and carefully trimmed their stems. The wicker basket filled.
There was a garden
shed at the back of his property. Steele hadn’t been able to resist the
temptation of another poke at his conservative neighbors before Babur’s
construction was complete. He had shoved his architect aside and personally
designed the shed to look like a miniature Taj Mahal complete with an onion
dome roof and a tiny pond in the front.
He didn’t hear the
person coming from behind the shed. It was only when he caught a glint of light
on the blade of an ax that he looked up. It happened so quickly he didn’t have
time to raise his hand to defend himself. “It’s you again,” was all he could
say before the blade tore into the left side of his neck. He collapsed onto a
rose bush, blood flowing across his white shirt.