A pleasant Summer day hobnobbing with lords and ladies at Henley Regatta turns into a nightmare for Veronica and Claire. Someone has poisoned Claire’s oldest brother—and a dreadful secret makes her a prime suspect.
Saturday, 7th July 1923.
Veronica jumped as a gunshot sounded in the distance, the report echoing off the hills. The chatter aboard the steam yacht paused as everyone looked downriver toward the regatta starting post at Temple Island. Away from the clear stretch of the marked course, the crowded waters and banks of the River Thames bustled as spectators craned to see the oncoming sculls. After a moment, talk aboard the yacht resumed.
Veronica leaned back in her deckchair and sighed. “Away we go again.”
In the chair alongside, Claire took a sip of her Pimm’s and lemonade. Her eyes twinkled. “You sound so enthusiastic, darling.”
Veronica glanced at the river. Several minutes would pass before the oarsmen reached the finish line not far from where the yacht was moored on the Oxfordshire bank, downstream from Henley. She smiled. “Is my boredom that obvious, dearest?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say obvious.” Claire leaned closer and lowered her voice. “You do look distracted, though. Every starting gun makes you jump. Are you feeling quite all right?”
Veronica touched the tender skin on her face, remembering the heat from the fireball that had scorched it not many weeks before. Her eyebrows were growing back, fine blond things that they were, although her face still seemed unduly pink when she looked in a mirror. Foundation cream took care of that when she had to go out in public. The long, shallow cut in her side had healed over, but the tender new scar pulled if she forgot and moved around too much. She sighed. The consequences of being too near a crashing aeroplane.
“I’m well enough, my dear. It’s lovely of your father to invite me along, but I do rather feel like I’ve had enough for now. How’s your shoulder?”
Claire grimaced and flexed her right shoulder. A wooden splinter from the crashing aeroplane had impaled it like an arrow, leaving a narrow but deep wound. “It’s not as creaky as it was.” Her cupid bow lips twitched. “Your kissing it better heals it wonderfully.”
Veronica blushed and glanced around. None of Lord Sibfield-Murray’s other family and well-heeled guests appeared to have heard their intimate exchange. “I’m glad.”
“It won’t be long.” Claire nodded toward the river. “I believe this is the final race. Once the river clears, Daddy’ll up anchor and off we’ll sail to London Town.”
“I can hardly wait.”
They sat beneath the awning on the top deck of the Heather of Speyside, His Lordship’s smart steam yacht. A hot sun beat down on the scene, the warmth kept in check by a cool breeze blowing down the Thames valley.
Veronica had dressed for the weather in a lightweight leaf green cotton summer blouse with buttercup yellow beading and a matching skirt that set off her blonde hair. She sipped lemonade, thankful for the awning’s shade. Her face didn’t need sunburn on top of everything else.
Claire had chosen a cornflower blue blouse and skirt with indigo beadwork. A matching headband on her shingled chestnut locks completed the ensemble.
A trestle table, manned by hired wait staff, had been set up nearby. Its surface bore a charming variety of drinks, sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and little cakes with icing in different pastel colours. A swarthy barman plied a silver cocktail shaker behind the temporary bar counter. His Lordship had also ensured plenty of champagne was on ice.
All around the bustling crowd of Henley Royal Regatta filled the air with voices, the putter of boat engines and rising cheers as the rowers drew nearer. Veronica saw Claire’s oldest brother looking her way and caught the momentary curl of his lip before he resumed talking to his girlfriend.
Veronica nodded toward him. “I think it’s pretty obvious by now Gabriel doesn’t like me.”
Claire snorted an unladylike sound and cocked an eyebrow. “Didn’t he make a play for your affections last Christmas?”
Veronica felt her face grow warm and nodded. “Well, yes, he did, and I rebuffed him, which is why he has his nose in a sling now. I didn’t mention it to you at the time because it might’ve upset you.”
“You’d never upset me, dear, and I noticed anyway. I know all about my big brother’s peccadilloes.” She looked sour. “Gabriel seems well content to make hay with the surplus two million.” Claire’s tone held a bitter undercurrent.
Veronica didn’t know what to make of Claire’s tone, deciding to ignore it. “His girlfriend looks nice, though.”
Claire squinted in their direction. “Elizabeth? Yes. I think she is. Lord knows how she puts up with Gabriel’s ways.”
She pursed her lips in a way that made Veronica want to kiss them.
“Perhaps she may stay the course. We’ll see.”
“What does your father think of her?” Veronica glanced to where Lord Sibfield-Murray stood conversing with Lord Desborough near the railing overlooking the riverbank.
The moustachioed peer had come aboard for a short visit with his fellow Tory. Both men wore sporty blazers and straw boaters, but there the similarities ended. Desborough’s lofty form loomed over the shorter and pudgier Jewish beer baron in a way Veronica found comical.
“Daddy likes her,” Claire said. “She’s the daughter of a wealthy Yorkshire steel mill owner. Daddy thinks Gabriel’ll marry her before long since Gabriel’s making pots of money in the City—or so he says.” Claire looked to the heavens as she raised her hands and intoned, “All hail the holy power of money,” in a deep voice.
“What are you doing, Claire-o?”
The breezy voice of Claire’s youngest brother cut through their conversation. Claire gave Benjamin a fond smile as he came up, a burly sandy-haired young man bearing a small tray of drinks. He wore a cheerful cerise blazer and fawn slacks.
“We’re praising the holy power of money, Jim-jam,” Claire announced.