Murder in Montauk
A Blake Sisters Travel Mystery Prequel
“Stumbled upon this new author after a rec from a friend and quickly fell in love with her whit and humor. This is such a great beach read and you can easily finish it during your vacation. I hope she is coming out with other books.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“Grab a comfy chair and a glass of rosé and take a mini-vacation with the Blake sisters. If you can't go to glamorous places in fabulous outfits and drink Pol Roger yourself, this is the next best thing. And who doesn't love to solve a murder every now and then? Murder in Montauk is the perfect way to make the summer last.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“A nice balanced read...a bit of action, characters you want to meet at the next cocktail party, and a murder delivered up on a Montauk silver platter. Who could ask for more?” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“Hold the housework and chuck the chores! Steal away for a bit with Murder in Montauk and become Carter Fielding's enthusiastic partner in crime!” —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
New author Carter Fielding is a millennial with an old soul. She likes old maps, old photographs, vintage records, and vintage champagnes. A Southerner, with roots in Anderson, S.C., she likes a good bourbon, a day that calls for wearing a barn jacket and wellies, and the smell of wet earth after a good rain. After graduating from Williams College and Georgetown Law School, Fielding worked in banking in New York City before returning to the DC area as a management consultant. She lives in Northern Virginia with her Boykin spaniel, Trucker, and uses her passion for books and travel to create characters she hopes readers will come to love.
SAMPLE FROM MURDER IN MONTAUK
“Mama, please get in the car! The LIE will be a parking lot if we don’t leave now.”
Whitt Blake pushed the last of the beach bags in the trunk and slammed it hard.
“You don’t have to get so perturbed, Whittaker. I had to finish my makeup—and you took your good time in the bathroom!” Mama, also known to Daddy as Kat, had drawn herself up to her full five-foot, eleven-inch height and peered at Whitt imperiously with hazel eyes that were illuminated by her now almost silver hair. True, Whitt had taken more than her allotted share of shower time in her sister Finley’s small New York apartment, but asking three women to share a single bathroom was beyond the pale.
“Mama, you look lovely, as always. Let’s just get going,” Finley chimed in, trying to smooth over the rough edges of the conversation before it devolved into a full-blown argument. “Mooney is waiting for us.”
Mona Allen—referred to as Mooney by just about everyone—was Finley’s best bud here in Manhattan. They had only met a few months ago, following Finley’s return to the city after a stint in Morocco, but Mooney had proven to be a haven in the storm during that time.
The few blocks uptown to Mooney’s apartment passed without further incident. For that, Finley was glad. She had let Whitt drive to distract her from any further discussion with Mama. Loving though they were, the little tiffs between Mama and Whitt had always put her on edge—and this was supposed to be a relaxing weekend celebrating Mama’s birthday. Just the girls, some wine, some spa, and a lot of beach.
They had settled on weekending in the Hamptons in part because of its proximity to Manhattan, but also because of its cachet. Mama had high-end tastes and didn’t suffer fools. Daddy had asked the sisters to give him the names of places that would offer world-class service, outrageously gorgeous settings, great wines and food, and fantastic shopping. The Hamptons came immediately to mind.
The Hamptons wasn’t a single place, but rather a string of exclusive hamlets and villages along the pristine southern Long Island coast. It was a place to see and be seen for a certain segment of the population—the rich or rich-wannabes. Whitt, Mooney, and Mama were sure to have fun celebrity-spotting and grazing at some of the trendiest restaurants in New York. Needless to say, there would be shopping, but for shopaholics like those three, there was always a good find to be had.
Finley, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about shopping—but luckily her sister, Whitt, had taken that into consideration. Finley had come a long way over the past couple of months, Mama had said, but she still was fragile and needed peace and quiet, above all. Montauk was the perfect place. Not as trendy as its western neighbors, Southampton, East Hampton, and Sag Harbor, Montauk claimed its position as the easternmost point on the island with pride. The monster waves were a surfer’s delight and the soft-powder dunes a place that Finley could get lost taking pictures.
“Where are we staying?” Mama turned in her seat to talk to Finley, who had her head stuck in Whitt’s travel guide for Montauk and the Hamptons. “What are you reading?”
“Whitt’s travel guide,” Finley answered distractedly. She had folded her tall frame into a pretzel on the rear seat, the guidebook resting in the crook of her arm as her eyes ate up the words on the page.
“Whatever for? You have lived here forever. And you are always taking the jitney to the Hamptons.” Mama had one eye on Finley and the other on the road. “Whitt, watch that car!”
“I know, but you always learn something new in these things,” Finley said. “Like, did you know that Gurney’s just had twenty rooms when it opened in 1956? Now it has fifteen buildings!”
“There is a lot of other info in there as well on restaurants and wine bars. And loads of shops.” Whitt cast a side glance at her mother. Now I’ve got her attention. Shopping will keep her happy for a long while!
Whitt returned her attention to her driving and pulled up in front of Mooney’s building. Mooney was waiting at the curb wearing a floral Amur jumpsuit, straw-colored wrap wedges, and oversized sunglasses. Not a hair in the perfect blowout of her champagne blonde curls was out of place, and yet she managed to look casual and approachable.
“Don’t get out. I’ll just…” Mooney eyed the overstuffed back of the SUV they’d rented for the drive out. “I’ll drop my bag on the seat. It’ll make a great armrest.”
Leave it to Mooney to see opportunity in any situation.
“Mrs. Blake, how are you?” Mooney extended her hand over the back of the seat. “What a pleasure to meet you—finally!”
Mama smiled politely at Mooney, taking in her full measure. She isn’t at all as flashy as I thought she would be. Lady wheeler-dealers always have an edge to them. But this bird is collected. And well-mannered, as well. I won’t judge. Yet!
Her assessment took less than thirty seconds. Her response dripped with Southern charm. “Pleasure meeting you as well, sweetheart. Finley has told me so much about you. I can’t wait to get to know you better.”
Mooney smiled politely in response before asking, “So, where are we staying, and what are we doing?”
“Daddy booked something on Airbnb. It looked pretty nice in the pictures I saw,” Whitt said. “He wanted Mama’s birthday to be a special girls’ weekend with lots of wine, spa, and beach time.”
“Ry looks after me so well. I can go for the wine and spa, but the beach will be taken in moderation,” Mama said.
“You always tan so nicely. It’s a pity you don’t like the sun,” Finley said.
“Us southern girls protect our complexions with a vengeance, especially at my age.” Mama grew wistful. “So much has happened in my sixty years. I’ll bet you don’t even remember The Beatles, much less the Mamas and the Papas or Creedence Clearwater Revival!”
Whitt’s brow knitted quizzically, and Mooney’s face grew blank.
“Okay, who the heck are the Mamas and the Papas, and why did they name themselves that? And what’s that other one—a gospel group or Christian rock?” Finley sputtered through a burst of giggles.
It is so good to hear her laugh. Whitt caught a glance of her sister in the rearview mirror. The past few months since Finley’s return from Morocco had been tough for her. Whitt had moved to Manila for a job with a development bank shortly before Finley came home, but during those first few months, her mother had filled WhatsApp with questions that Whitt was at a loss to answer and Finley refused to speak about.
“Supposedly they got their name from the Hells Angels’ reference to their ‘women’ as mamas. Cass Elliott, the lead singer of the group, said they had mamas and papas, and the name stuck,” Mama explained.
“I think we’re going to have to add some oldies to the weekend playlist.” Mooney looked at her phone and started downloading songs. “The Beatles and the Mamas and the Papas, it is! Is the Fifth Dimension any good? Another name that needs explanation!”
Mooney filled the rest of the ride to the island calling out the names of old rock and roll and R&B groups and playing snippets of their songs. By the time they had pulled up to the address they’d booked through Airbnb, they had giggled, guffawed, and nearly died laughing at Mama’s running commentary on each of the artists Mooney named off.
“Here it is!” Whitt exclaimed as she pulled up to a massive two-story beachfront house.
“Are you sure this is the one?” Finley asked. “It looks different from the one Daddy sent pictures of.”
“It does look different, but this is the address that the owner gave us,” Whitt said. “Maybe we just pick up the keys here.”
“Well, we’ll find out.” Finley’s eyes were fixed on the man who was making his way down the stone path that led from the front door. He reminded Finley of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland—a slight personage in his middle age with a prominent beak-like nose, slightly protruding teeth, and quick, darting movements.
“Hello, hello! I hope you had a pleasant trip! Traffic wasn’t too bad, was it? The LIE can be a bear if you don’t catch it at just the right time. But then, you came early. Good, good…. And you were going against traffic for much of the way. Good, good!” The man seemed to be talking to himself even as he held his hand out to each of the women. “David Jameson.” He repeated it with each handshake, his bird-gray eyes holding their stares. “Pleasure to meet you. Pleasure to meet you all.” He turned and led them up the path to the front door, talking over his shoulder as he climbed. “Miles will get your bags if you just give him the key.”
“We’re to stay here?” Whitt asked. “For whatever reason, I thought we were at another one of your properties.”
The owner paused at the front door and looked pointedly at Mooney. “We had a cancellation and so I decided to upgrade you—at the same price, of course. I hope you will enjoy your stay and spread the word.”
Mooney had done it again. The mere mention of her name and doors opened, tickets became available—front row, no less—and rooms or flights got upgraded. That was power and Mooney, as one of the city’s premier event planners, had it. Keep her happy and you could have any number of A-listers at your event.
Clearly, the man wanted something. Exactly what that was would be revealed in time.
“Thank you so much!” Mooney gushed, tossing her champagne-blond curls. “That was so kind of you.”
Kindness doesn’t have a dang thing to do with it, and Mooney knows it. She’s just working this for all it’s worth. Finley knew her friend’s mind and already knew Mooney was categorizing Mr. Jameson. It was hard to tell whether she’d slotted him as a savvy businessman or a sleazy lecher. She’d have to confirm later.
“Let me show you around.” He had taken the car key Whitt has passed him and handed it to a gentleman with a ramrod posture and an ageless, expressionless face. If ever there was an American version of a British butler, Miles was it. He nodded slightly as the women came in and slipped out behind them.
“That”—Jameson inclined his head toward the man walking to the car—“is Miles, as I suspect you gathered. He comes with the house. He generally is here on the property to get groceries, run errands, oversee the cleaning staff. Should you need anything day or night, just ring. Literally.”
He pointed to a small button on the wall. “They are all over the house, so you don’t even have to get up. Leaning is sufficient.” He smiled. “Lest you think me indulgent, I had them put in when my mother lived with me. She was an invalid in her later years, so these made life easier.”
Mama’s demeanor changed visibly. The dour “bless your heart” countenance she had maintained since she walked up the path softened as he spoke. Mama was a sucker for people who did right by their mothers. They could be ax murderers or cheat on their taxes, but if they mentioned their mothers, Mama went all soft.
“I take it your mother has passed on,” Mama said quietly, elongating the last word as only a true southerner can do.
“Yes, a few years ago. Since then, I have been renting the place out.” Jameson averted his eyes as he continued showing the rest of the house. “I divide my time between Long Island and Cancun. An odd juxtaposition, I admit, but it works. I must leave you ladies to your weekend. I have a flight to catch,” Jameson added as the tour of the house led them back to the entryway. “Again, Miles can take care of whatever you need. Enjoy.”
The four women watched as the man bounded down the stairs and into a waiting black car that had appeared, like magic, just as he reached the last of the stone pavers.
“Was that an alt universe we just experienced?” Whitt asked. “Do you think if we touch the walls, we’ll discover that they’re just an illusion?”
Mama laughed. “Leave it to your father to find the most spectacular properties owned by the most peculiar people. Ry has them crawling out of the woodwork.”
“Let’s grab rooms and then get ourselves oriented. The water looks incredible.” Mooney stood in front of a wall of windows that ran the length of the house, facing the ocean and reaching up over two stories. The view looked like a seascape version of Monet’s waterlilies—panoramic panels of liquid blues with cotton ball clouds hugging the horizon. “This is unbelievable!”
As luck would have it, all the bedrooms faced the ocean. The house had been built to nestle into the dune flush against its backside so that even with the two stories of windows downstairs, there was another story above that housed the bedrooms—six of them, all en suite.
“Neither of you have any excuse for being late this time!” Finley addressed her mother and sister as she pointed at the separate bathrooms. “You don’t have to share, and there is no allotted time.”
Miles had put their bags in their rooms—somehow matching the décor of each room with the personality of each woman. For Mama, he’d chosen the most contemporary of the rooms, one decorated in Swedish modern with a massive four-poster bed that acted as the centerpiece. He had put Mooney’s bags in a stylishly decorated robin’s egg blue room with Chinese porcelain accents. Finley had gotten the room with the blush-colored walls and the black and white moiré patterned bedspread. And lastly, Whitt had been settled in the room with the celadon and gray motif.
“Is he a robot that scans us and calculates room assignments using some strange algorithm?” Whitt asked as they made their way back downstairs. “The colors of the room he chose for me are exactly my design sensibility. How did he know?”
“Don’t know, but I’m hungry,” Finley said. “That bagel is long gone.”
Miles coughed quietly to make his presence known. “I can make you breakfast. Just let me know what you would like.”
“Thank you, Miles, but no need,” Whitt said. “We’ll probably be eating out most of the time and just grab something at the grocery store that we can use for breakfasts on other mornings.”
Finley rather pitied the poor man. All trained up and nothing to do. She hoped he had a hobby or something to help him pass the time when he had self-sufficient guests who had little need of his services.
“We’ll probably just wander around and get our bearings today.” Finley stated. “Perhaps you can recommend a good place for brunch—or even a diner for breakfast. And a grocery store!”
Finley remembered a couple of greasy spoon diners in the area that turned out the best omelets. She really didn’t want white tablecloth dining just yet, although she knew, traveling with Mama, that was largely what she would get.
“What would you prefer, Mama?” Finley asked.
“A diner would be nice. French toast or maybe a gooey omelet.”
Whitt and Finley both stopped and stood, looking at their mother. Mooney was silently observing the exchange.
“If you both don’t close your mouths, a fly is going to go right in,” Mama said haughtily. “What? Just because I ordinarily go upscale doesn’t mean I always have to.”
“Yes, Mama,” Finley and Whitt said simultaneously. Miles’s mouth turned up slightly before he recovered himself and offered several suggestions for restaurants and nearby grocery stores.
“If there is nothing else, I will leave you ladies to your adventures. I have left my card on the table, so you have my number. Again, if you need anything, just call,” he said as he turned and headed out the side door.
Whitt picked up the card and the keys to both the car and the house. “Anyone for breakfast before we hit the beach?”
The diner Miles had recommended was on the way to Montauk town proper. The drive, though short, made Finley glad she had brought her camera. The sweep of the dunes and the capping of the waves as they headed toward Ditch Plains was the stuff of impressionist paintings.
Nellie’s was a bit more than a diner and hung in that casual dining category with grace. Housed in a small, salt-shingled bungalow with faded blue shutters, it looked at home in the dunes that surrounded it. Once inside, the down-home feel continued. Patterned blue curtains framed the windows. Wooden tables crowded the floor as they strained to find their place amongst the chairs. A blackboard with the day’s offerings dominated the front wall. Above all, the unbelievable smell of bacon and cinnamon and maple wafted around them as soon as they came in the door.
“Sit anywhere you’d like. I’ll be with you in a minute.” The single waitress spoke over her shoulder as she carried an armload of omelets, farmer’s breakfasts, waffles, and French toast to a table on the back porch.
“Let’s see if we can find a table overlooking the dunes,” Whitt said as she surveyed the options.
There was an interesting mix of customers to be found in this area, especially as it neared the off-season. This year, the Indian summer had been warm enough for beach time during the day but cool enough in the evenings for the firepit. As a result, there were surfers, overaged hippies, a couple of model lookalikes, rich soccer moms, off-duty investment bankers, and local regulars, all crammed into the space for second coffees, post-drop-off smoothies, or hangover munchies.
A large table was clearing as Finley and the crew made their way to the back. A quick wipe down later, and they were seated and looking at menus.
“You need a wipe, Mama?” Finley held out a pack of Wet Wipes.
“Thank you, dear!” Mama pulled two wipes from the package, using one for her hands and the other to wipe the table in front of her.
Whitt let them all order and settle in with their coffees before recounting the several things they could do over their four-day vacation.
“I want to get some shopping in while we’re here,” Whitt said. “I am sure Mama will join me. Mooney, you in? We can leave Finley at a café with a book, and she’ll be fine.” She looked over at her sister and smirked good-naturedly. She knew that what she said was true. As much as Whitt wanted to shake her sister out of her funk, she knew that if left to her own devices, Finley would crawl out of it herself—probably faster than if she were forced out.
“That’s fine with me,” Finley said, “but I think I might take advantage of this gorgeous scenery to shoot rather than stick my head in a book. I can read at night.”
After a few moments of comfortable silence, Whitt looked devilishly at Finley and asked a question that almost always led to a game: “Who do you think did it?”
Finley replied with a wolfish grin.
This was to be the beginning round of the Murder Game, a story-building pastime that the sisters had regularly played as children when they accompanied their parents on holiday or business trips overseas. The object of the game was to incorporate their fellow travelers into macabre scenes of murder and mayhem, much like a live game of Clue. It was not unusual for the girls to giggle through breakfast after seeing guests that had engaged in sordid affairs, shady dealings, and drunken drama during their bedtime round of the game the night before.
“Did what?” Mooney asked innocently.
“You girls should quit!” Mama looked at Whitt reproachfully, narrowing her eyes in an attempt to nip this unbecoming behavior in the bud. But Whitt’s smile said she wasn’t backing down, and she knew her sister would stand with her.
“Who was murdered?” Finley asked quietly.
“Murdered?” Mooney choked out, her face in tormented surprise.
“No one was murdered, dear,” Mama explained. “These two are playing a silly, very warped childhood game. Please ignore them.”
Mooney listened as the sisters continued as if nothing else had been said.
“The woman in the green sundress. Attractive, but she needs to be knocked off, if for no other reason than to get her out of that unfortunate dress. That putrid-looking color does nothing for her skin tone, and the style is not flattering. Does she not have a mirror?” Whitt said under her breath.
“How did she die?” Finley was meticulously dissecting the elements of the murder and pointedly interrogating Whitt to construct a plausible scenario.
“Poison. No visible signs of foul play. No incriminating fingerprints on the glasses. Seemingly, no enemies. No unusual smells or behaviors . She was just found dead in her reading chair.”
“Makes one want to give up reading,” Finley quipped, tucking into a Greek omelet oozing with spinach and melted feta. “Did she live by herself?”
“Girls, stop this! Not over breakfast. It is enough to turn my stomach!” Mama cried.
“Sorry, Mama. We’ll quit.” Finley stared at her plate before turning to her sister. She winked. This ain’t over, baby sister. I will figure it out before bedtime.
“Do you have brothers and sisters, Mooney? I can’t recall Finley mentioning any,” Mama asked.
“No, ma’am. I’m an only child—so these sibling dynamics are intriguing.”
“You make us sound like some sort of science experiment!” Finley laughed, reaching for another slice of homemade sourdough bread. She broke a piece and smeared on a dollop of fresh blueberry jam.
“It’s just that I never had anyone to banter with like you guys do. And this is the first time I have seen you two together.” Mooney sipped at her coffee, eyeing her friend over her cup as Finley closed her eyes and savored the bread and jam with a contented smile. She will survive this, but only if she opens up. Maybe Whitt can get it out of her.
“Chaos in action!” Whitt grinned. “And we get even better once we get warmed up—and lubricated with wine…or bourbon. Then the minds and the tongues really get sharp!”
“I know this is not over, so I won’t even pretend. But if you could refrain from playing this sick game over dinner, I would appreciate it,” Mama said, putting down her knife and fork and dabbing the corners of her mouth with her napkin. Much as she said the conversation would put her off her food, the empty plate where the eggs Florentine once was said something else.
“Yes, ma’am.” Whitt looked modestly contrite before her voice regained its excitement. “If y’all have finished eating, let’s pay the bill and head off to the beach!”
Finley followed the path that led to the Walking Dunes, an ecological anomaly that shifted the huge, domed mounds inland several inches each year, subsuming anything in the sands’ path. She had read about them in Whitt’s guidebook and was looking forward to seeing the tops of trees sticking out of the sand like decapitated skeletons in an eerie tableau.
The rest of the crew had decided to take advantage of the warm weather to catch a bit of sun on the beach at the back of the house. A pleasant flat of firm sand that had the benefit of a fanned dune on one side to both block the winds and give some degree of privacy, the house’s beach still afforded an uninterrupted view of the expanse of the southern Long Island shoreline. Pristine, powder-light sand and blue-gray sheets of smooth water called to Whitt and Mooney. Even Mama had donned her suit and a coverup to enjoy the weather.
Finley had taken a few shots of the three of them hamming it up on the beach—Mama and Whitt’s legs battling it out to see whose would be the longest, shapeliest, and most toned. For a woman of Mama’s age, she gave Whitt a run for her money. She could have been a professional model, given her height, slim build, and classic features, but instead went to culinary school in Paris just after college, when the strictures of a small Southern town grew too confining. It had been there that she had met Ry—Langdon Ryker Blake III—a handsome bear of a man with a cub’s kindness who had stolen her heart and never bothered to give it back.
Instead, he married her and took her around the world as a military wife while he rose through the ranks. By the time he was in his early fifties, he had one star, but to everyone’s surprise, had no interest in sticking around to get his second. Mama had two kids by then and an idea for a design firm that Daddy could run while she tried her hand at writing cookbooks. So, they left Korea for Chevy Chase and settled down.
“You guys are too cute! It looks like two skyscrapers and a darling little bungalow!” Finley chortled, her eye fixed on the camera display as her sister, mother, and best friend vogued. All three of the Blake women were tall. That was where her similarity to her mother and sister stopped. While they had classic features, Finley had inherited the patrician Meryl-Streep nose that ran on her mother’s side of the family but had somehow skipped her mother. To that was added Helen Bonham-Carter full lips and large, doe-shaped eyes—in alligator green. As her grandmother had said, she was handsome in the British sense while her mother and sister were undeniably pretty. “Pose, ladies!”
When the others had chosen their positions on the lounge chairs at the beach, Finley dropped her beach bag and grabbed her day pack and the camera. She stuffed a few extra lenses in a side pocket and struck off for the nature reserve that housed the mysterious dunes.
Even though they were less than a half-mile from the house, the trek had taken her over forty-five minutes and one hundred-plus shots. In one area, she had stood for almost fifteen minutes, capturing the sand etchings created as the wind whipped the sand into different patterns. The serene palette of the sea-glass water, greige sands, verdant dune grasses moving in the wind had her mesmerized.
She had turned to photography as a way to pass the time without having to talk to anyone while she was staying at her parents’ house, just after she got back from Morocco. People asked too many questions, especially southern people—questions she either wasn’t ready to probe herself or questions she didn’t have the answers to. In either case, there were some things she still wanted to avoid right now. And when she was behind the camera lens, people stayed clear, gave her space, and talked in hushed, reverent tones. She found she liked the silence and so adopted the camera as a shield.
“Where’d you get to, missy?” Mama asked when Finley arrived back at the house. Although Mama was now under the sun umbrella, it didn’t look like Mooney or Whitt had moved from where she had left them. But knowing that both were careful sun babies, she surmised that they were on their third or fourth rotation. She pictured them as chickens on a spit and tittered.
“What’s so funny?” Mooney looked up, peering over her sunglasses. “You were gone a long time. Find anything interesting?”
Finley leaned down and kissed her mother’s forehead before heading over to the lounge chair that held her things.
“Did I have you guys worried? Sorry. I lost track of time.” She pulled off her t-shirt and shorts and lay across the lounge chair in her bathing suit with her camera on her belly. “Take a look. Some unusual sights!”
Finley held the camera over for Mama to see as she scrolled through some shots.
“You certainly are developing a very discerning eye,” Mama said. “I’d love to blow some of those up for your Daddy’s office. Maybe he’ll put a few in Lannie Willis’s new beach house.”
“I appreciate your support, Mama, but these are hardly good enough to be framed, much less used in someone’s design.”
“I beg to differ,” Mama said.
Mooney held her hand out, reaching for the camera. “Let me see.”
She waited until Finley reluctantly passed the camera over.
“These are fantastic.” She quickly moved through the frames, returning periodically to ones that caught her eye. “I agree with your mom. You have a hell of a good eye.”
The phrase caught Finley in the chest. She leaned back, quiet for a while, thankful that no one was paying attention to her. Get a grip. He’s gone. Accept it. But she couldn’t. That was what Max had said when he’d first seen her photos: “You’ve got a hell of a good eye, girl.”
Mooney wouldn’t have known. She knew of Max, but she didn’t know him. And never would. He was gone.
“Finley! Finley? Earth to Finley!” Mooney was holding out the camera and, from her tone, had been for some time. Her face expressed a mix of concern and questioning.
“Sorry. I was daydreaming.” Finley reached for the camera and put it in its case before dropping it into her beach bag.
“So, what are we doing for dinner?” Whitt had finally come to life, raising her head and directing the question at no one in particular. “I am getting hungry.”
“I made us a reservation for the Bungalows at Gurney’s,” Finley said. “I figured we could do drinks there and then decide on dinner. But if you’re hungry now, we can cancel it.”
“No, that sounds like a plan. I am sure they have noshes that we can order.” Whitt pulled on her cover-up and started for the house. “Can we be ready in twenty minutes?”
“You really must be hungry, dear,” Mama said. “I can be ready by then.”
As Mama and Whitt headed inside, Mooney held back while Finley put on her shorts and t-shirt, watching her every move for greater insight.
When none was revealed, she asked, “You okay?” Mooney’s eyes never left Finley. “You seemed a bit quiet for a moment there.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just get a little day-dreamy sometimes.”
“It might help if you shared the burden, you know. We all love you.”
“I know. Not just yet, though. But soon. I promise.” Finley realized she had started to cry. “Damn. Where did that come from?”
“From me prying too much.” Mooney had taken Finley in her arms while she cried, her body wracked with sobs by now.
“I am so sorry. I thought I had it under better control.” Finley quickly wiped her face on her towel. “Don’t let Mama see.”
“You did have it under control—until I pried. You even laughed a few times today.” Mooney touched her friend’s arm gently. “I am the one who should be sorry.”
“You ladies coming to dinner?” Mama called from the house. “You had better hurry. Whitt and I are going to beat you!”
The Bungalows turned out to be loft-like buildings set in the dunes on the expansive Gurney’s property. Originally a wooden lodge that offered massages and saunas to visitors from the city who weekended in the sleepy fishing village that was Montauk, the spa had become an upscale mega-complex with multiple options for guests.
They arrived at their Bungalow just before sunset and settled around the firepit, which the staff had lit for them. The bottle of Billecart Salmon champagne that Finley had ordered—one of Whitt’s favorites—was perfectly chilled. A waiter stood ready to open it. Whitt scanned the appetizer menu quickly, made a few suggestions that were readily accepted, and then placed their order. Then she added in another bottle of champagne.
The evening was picture perfect. Calm water gently rippled by a soft ocean breeze, the sky turning the color palette upside down as it faded from clear blue to shades of pink and orange and finally yellow before the large blaze that was the sun slipped below the horizon. A few evening walkers ambling, hand in hand, down the sandy stretch. The warmth of the bonfire easing out the fatigue of the day.
“Ladies, we have the best of friends and family here, and I, for one, plan to celebrate tonight,” Whitt said, raising her flute in toast and taking a sip. “We can walk up the beach to the house if we get tipsy. We can eat dinner here or fill up on canapes. We can drink to every success and cry over every failure with abandon.”
“What has you in such a good mood?” Finley was curious about her sister’s strangely animated state of mind. “We know you love your new job. Is there something else going on too? Maybe a new guy?”
Whitt hesitated. God, don’t let me put her in a deeper funk, thinking everyone has a life but her. But I like him, and he called and said he misses me.
“Maybe…” Whitt’s voice trailed off.
“Are you going to tell us about him, or are we going to have to pull it out of you?” Finley asked, poking her mother in the ribs gently. “Mama isn’t getting any younger, and I am sure she would like grandkids. If it isn’t me, then it has got to be you!”
“He’s just a guy I met a few months ago. Actually, Charlie introduced us,” Whitt turned to Mooney and explained. “Charlie is my best friend in Manila. Hunter plays in her band.”
“Charlie’s in a band? How long has she been doing that?” Finley asked. “More importantly, tell us about Hunter!”
“I didn’t tell you that Charlie’s lead singer and guitarist for The Raiders? She’s great. Powerful, bluesy voice and pretty good at ‘pickin’ the geetar,’ as Mama and Daddy would say.” Whitt took another sip of her champagne. “As for Hunter, he’s the bassist—and before Mama has an apoplectic fit, this is his hobby. He actually works at WHO. Other than that, not much to tell. It’s nice hanging out with him. We’ll see.”
Finley smiled. Whitt was playing her usual coy, close-to-the-chest self. That the girl even mentioned him means she likes him—really likes him. Just because I suck at the love game doesn’t mean the game isn’t worth it. Damn, I am a romantic. That sucks more than being bad at it!
By the time the appetizers came, they had finished the first bottle of champagne and were well into the second. Dinner at Scaparelli’s had been a nice idea that faded as the night wore on. They toasted Mama for her birthday and for having such great taste in men, namely Daddy. They toasted best friends who always have your back. They even toasted themselves for being great people and knowing how to pick their friends. The last toast was perhaps the most poignant: they toasted to life.
Bright morning sunlight cut through the window shades, blinding Finley awake. She was surprised—she had actually slept. Or maybe she had just passed out. She was surprised that her head didn’t hurt. She could hear her mother in the kitchen making coffee. Finley checked the time. Ten o’clock. Shower water could be heard running in one of the other rooms, and Finley decided that would be a good first step this morning.
Showered and dressed, she felt more human. Finley could remember the toasts and good-natured banter. More importantly, she could remember feeling safe, loved, cared for. Maybe this weekend was as much about her coming to grips with loss as it was a celebration of her mother’s journey through life.
“How is everybody doing? And what are we doing today?” Finley poured herself a cup of her favorite Caffe Nero blend as the others slowly came into the kitchen. Mama was, of course, fully dressed and coifed. Mooney had showered but her hair was still wet. Whitt had just pulled a sweater over her silk pajamas, and Finley was somewhere in between, wearing a sundress but without makeup.
“Aren’t we a motley crew?” Mooney grabbed a mug, poured herself a glass of milk, and selected one of the cruffins Mama had laid out. “Wherever did you get these divine confections, Mrs. Blake?”
“It wasn’t my doing,” Mama said. “They were on the counter this morning with a note from Miles saying he had made extras yesterday and wanted to share. What a nice man!”
Whitt leaned over to her sister, smirked, and whispered, “Do you think he did it?”
“You better stop before Mama hears you!” Finley mouthed as she contemplated another round of the Murder Game. “But…could be.” Louder, she repeated, “What are we doing today?”
“Whitt had talked about going to look in some of the shops,” Mama said, putting her cup in the dishwasher. “It might be nice to see what they have.”
And with that, it was decided that they would all be going shopping. Mama left a thank you note for Miles as they loaded into the car for the twenty-minute drive to East Hampton. Fall hadn’t reached the Hamptons yet, but Finley could feel the rounded edges of the sunshine through the car window, bright but not quite as sharp as it had been just a week ago.
“The write-up in the Luxe guide said that most of the shopping in Montauk is geared toward keepsakes and t-shirts,” Whitt mentioned as they drove along the tree-lined streets leading into the town of East Hampton. “They said the better stores are in Southampton, East Hampton, and Amagansett. So, I figured we could start there.”
Whitt found a parking spot on the street just a block off the bustling main road lined with gift shops, bookstores and other quaint retail establishments catering to both local and tourist tastes alike. While Mama, Whitt, and Mooney perused the dress shops, Finley nosed through a stack of used books outside a vintage clothing shop. She had taken some shots of downtown East Hampton but preferred the dunes and water of Montauk as a subject to well-heeled Hampton ladies doing their weekly shopping.
They had said they would meet outside Bagels and Bananas, the local high-end provisioner, but Finley couldn’t resist going in. After scanning the coffees and spices, pates and cheeses, and breads and spreads, she settled on a small bag of hot apple cider doughnuts. No bigger than an Oreo, each one packed a wallop of flavor in every bite. Finley was well into her third doughnut when the others arrived.
“What are you scarfing?” Whitt asked, reaching into the bag that sent out cinnamon-dusted smoke signals when touched.
“You are going to ruin your lunch, dear,” Mama said. “Both of you.”
Mooney paused for a minute, considering what Mama said before choosing a doughnut from the dwindling bag. She had just popped the last bite into her mouth when she heard her name.
“Mona? Mona Allen?” She turned to see one of her clients, Mike Lanahan, approaching the group.
She swallowed and brushed imaginary crumbs from her mouth and hands before answering. “Mike, what a pleasure to see you. Are you just here for the weekend or staying up for the season?”
The man was of average height with an athletic build he was clearly proud of based off of his body language. He was attractive but not handsome, his straight, dark brown hair starting to gray. Mooney remembered that he was in commercial real estate and that he frequently stayed in the Hamptons until just after Thanksgiving when he liked to head to St. Barts for the holidays.
“I’m here until December and then heading south.” He turned to address the rest of the group. “You ladies here for the weekend?”
“Yes. this my friend, Finley; her sister, Whitt; and their mother.” Mooney hesitated. She wasn’t sure what to call Mama besides Mama.
Mama took care of it. “Kat Blake,” she said, extending her hand.
Lanahan shook Mama’s, then Whitt’s, and finally Finley’s hand.
When he addressed Finley, his gaze lingered just a moment, making sure he caught her eye before releasing her hand.
“A pleasure, ladies. A pleasure indeed.” He returned his gaze to Mooney. “Look, since you are in town, why don’t you come to the house for dinner? I am having a small group of people over tonight. Very informal. I would love to have you join us if you don’t have plans.” Then arched an eyebrow and added, “I know it is short notice, but a home-cooked meal is so much more appealing than one in a restaurant. And my guy is a master, I must say.”
Mooney looked to Mama and then the sisters. “Your call.”
Mama responded first. “If it wouldn’t be an imposition,” she replied languidly.
“Never! I would be honored to have you join us.” Lanahan lowered his voice and held Mama’s eye, while giving her his most charming smile.
Mama nodded at Mooney.
“Then it is settled. We will see you for dinner,” Mooney said, stifling a snicker. “What time? And you will have to send us the address and directions.”
“Why don’t you come a bit early so we can have a chance to chat before the others arrive? Shall we say 6:30? We can have cocktails and catch the sunset. The others will toddle in around 7:00.” He was punching at his phone as he spoke. “There, I just sent you a pin so you’ll have the address.”
“By the way, where are you staying?” Lanahan brow furrowed slightly.
“Off the coastal road, a couple of houses down from Gurney’s,” Mooney replied.
“In Jameson’s place?” Lanahan recognized the location with a smirk. “Then you can walk down the beach if you want. I can lend you torches when you head back. Save you from driving.”
“Good to know. We might,” Mooney said. “Again, great to see you and see you tonight. Thanks!”
They watched as he crossed the street and headed toward the hardware store. He was intercepted by a tall, sandy-haired young man in jeans and work boots. The taller man looked primed for a fight, gesturing wildly and backing Lanahan against the wall. The latter seemed to deescalate the argument before they parted ways and walked in different directions.
“Wonder who that was?” Finley asked. “He didn’t look too happy.”
“Neither of them did, for that matter,” Whitt added. “I thought they were going to come to blows for a minute there.
“That is neither here nor there,” Mama said. “We need to figure out what we are wearing. I am not sure I have anything appropriate.”
“Is that really the case, Mama, or is that an excuse to buy something new?” Finley inquired.
“I never need an excuse, darling. If I want it, I get it. But you, dear, probably do need to get something nice for this evening.” Mama paused. “I saw the way he looked at you.”
“Mama, if he looked at me in white jeans and a tunic, then I don’t really need to buy anything nicer, now, do I?” Finley asked with a smile.
“Finley Walker, don’t get smart with me!” Mama tapped Finley on her bottom with her satchel, smiling as she did. “Go get something nice, girl, and don’t back-talk your mama.”
Mooney took over. “Why don’t you two find a restaurant and order drinks, and I will take Finley back to Noni’s and let her try that dress we thought she might like?”
With that, Mama and Whitt headed to 25 Main, a dining choice all agreed on, and Mooney and Finley walked to Noni’s dress shop.
“You certainly caught Mike’s attention,” Mooney mentioned. “Too bad he’s married.”
“That’s not bad at all, since I am not interested.” Finley was scanning through the racks for something she liked.
“Not interested in a multi-millionaire with an apartment on Fifth and a house in the Hamptons? Assuming he wasn’t married.” Mooney looked up from her dress search, holding out a red halter-necked jumpsuit. “Try this on.”
“No way to both—the idea of unmarried Mike and the jumpsuit.” Finley was holding a pair of black palazzo pants and a cream silk wrap shirt.
“I don’t know what to say. If I brought you a millionaire, you would say no?”
“A millionaire, maybe. Just not this one,” Finley said, shaking her head as Mooney shook the red jumpsuit in front of her like a cape.
“Try it on! Now!” Mooney pushed her friend toward the dressing room. “I won’t protest about you buying yet another black piece of clothing if you at least try on the jumpsuit.”
Heading to dinner that night, Mooney thought about what Finley had said. There was something about Mike that had put Finley off, and her friend normally had good instincts about people. What was it that Finley was sensing? Whatever it was, Finley was going to have to put up with it. Mike was going to have a hard time keeping his eyes off her in that red jumpsuit.