by Wendy Francis
Sip cocktails in the lounge, bask in the summer sun by the pool, and experience the drama of the rich and famous firsthand in Wendy Francis’s newest novel, SUMMERTIME GUESTS (Graydon House; April 6, 2021; $16.99 USD). With its rich history and famous guests, The Seafarer is no stranger to drama. But the bustle at the social hotspot reaches new heights one weekend in mid-June when a woman falls tragically to her death from the tenth floor, unwittingly intertwining her life with the lives of the hotels’ guests and staff.
Claire O’Dell, reeling from the loss of her husband and possibly her job, has gone to The Seafarer for a little vacation…and to reconnect with a long-lost-love. Jean-Paul, the hotel’s manager, is struggling to keep his marriage and new family afloat. Bride-to-be Riley is at the hotel to plan her wedding with her fiancé ... or, she’s at the hotel with her fiancé while her mother-in-law tells them how to plan their wedding. Jason, whose romantic getaway with his girlfriend has not exactly gone the way he'd hoped and instead has him facing questions about his past that he can't bring himself to answer.
As their truths and secrets come to light, the lives of these four will collide in tragic, beautiful ways none of them could have expected that will teach them about the love they deserve and the strength they possess to change their lives for the better.
Friday June 11th, 2021
It wasn’t as if Riley could have anticipated what would happen later that day. None of them could. Because when you’re at a tasting for your wedding reception at one of Boston’s ritziest hotels, trying to decide between crab cakes or lobster quiches, no one thinks of anything bad happening. Or at least, this is what Riley tells herself later. Why she—and no one else there—could possibly be to blame.
At the moment, though, Riley is sitting at a table by the window, half-listening to her future mother-in-law while she sips gazpacho the color of marigolds. Something about wanting to know if the outdoor terrace can be transformed into a dance floor, assuming the weather cooperates. If Riley were asked to gauge her interest in planning her own wedding, she would characterize it as mild at best. Her only requirement being that she and Tom marry in July—and that the flowers are pale pink peonies from Smart Stems, the shop where she has worked for the past three years.
It was Tom who’d suggested the Seaport District for their reception, Boston’s new up-and-coming neighborhood, and Riley had happily agreed. It’s an easy spot for guests to travel to, and the setting is over-the-top gorgeous with views of both the city and the water. Not to mention the promise of fresh seafood—an almost impossible request if they were to wed in Riley’s hometown of Lansing, Michigan, where everything remains hopelessly landlocked.
But she hadn’t counted on Tom’s mother wanting to be so, well, involved. Maybe it’s the fact that Riley’s own mother passed away a few short years ago, and so Marilyn feels compelled to step up and fill her mother’s shoes. A retired schoolteacher, her mother-in-law-to-be still tackles each new day with the necessary energy for a classroom of boisterous second-graders, a gusto which she now seems to be funneling into her son’s nuptials. At first, Riley was grateful, but while she sits listening to the hotel’s wedding coordinator drone on about the Seafarer’s rich history, she’s beginning to feel as though she has stepped into one of those horrible, never-ending lines at Disney for a ride she doesn’t particularly want to go on.
Riley is well aware that the Seafarer is one of the most coveted venues for weddings, especially in light of its recent renovations. It’s no secret that New England’s most glamorous, its most fashionable clamor to stay here and that the Seafarer’s well-appointed rooms are typically booked months in advance. She should be grateful that they’re even considering it as an option. Rumor has it that everyone from Winston Churchill to Taylor Swift has been a guest (as the saying goes, if you want to appear in the society pages of the Boston Globe, then spend a few hours at the Seafarer’s exclusive summer cocktail hour from four to six). As for out-of-towners hoping to take in the full scene that Boston can be—with its attendant snobbishness and goodwill and weird accents wrapped into one—the Seafarer, Riley understands, puts you in the heart of it.
Not that she has anything against tradition, but if it were up to her alone, she would probably choose a smaller, more modest setting, a wedding with no more than fifty guests. There’d be a justice of the peace and rows of white chairs lining the harbor, the wind whipping her veil in front of her face. Naturally, she’d want a reception afterward, but Riley counts herself as the type of girl who’d be equally content with trays of fish tacos and margaritas under a tent as with oysters on the half shell served in a tony hotel restaurant.
“I can’t reveal everyone,” the coordinator is saying in hushed tones, “but it’s no secret that some of Boston’s greatest legends have celebrated their nuptials with us.” Riley shoots Tom a sideways glance, as if to say Is she for real? but her fiancé’s chin rests firmly in his hand, his attention rapt. He’s eating up every word.
“Well, Gillian, it’s all very impressive,” Tom’s mother says, slipping her reading glasses back into her pocketbook after a review of the menu. Her hair is pulled back in a severe ponytail, her lips coated in her trademark color, fuchsia. “It’s no wonder Boston’s finest flock here for their special occasions. The view alone is to die for.” She gestures toward the expanse of crystalline water out the window, the romantic outline of the city’s financial district in the distance. “Kids, wouldn’t it be something to come back here every year to toast your anniversary?”
Marilyn shoots Riley a wink, as if the two of them are in cahoots to convince Tom that this is the spot, meant to be. There’s no need to point out that she and Tom could never afford such a venue. They already discussed it over dinner the other night when Marilyn revealed that she’d gone ahead and booked an appointment for a tasting at the Seafarer on Friday and how she hoped Riley wouldn’t mind. “I don’t want you to worry about money, dear,” she instructed. “Tom’s dad and I would be honored to host. Tom is our only child after all.”
And Riley had breathed a tiny sigh of relief while swallowing her pride. Not because she wants an extravagant wedding but because it means that she and Tom can now channel the nest egg they’ve been building toward a mortgage on a new home instead of toward an elaborate one-day celebration. It’s a much more sensible use of their money, and Riley, having grown up poor verging on destitute, is nothing if not sensible.
Can she really imagine herself celebrating her marriage here, though? Tom keeps missing her not-so-thinly veiled comments about the food on the menu, which leans toward the bite-size variety that he hates (precisely because it never fills him up), but he has said nothing. Maybe he’s just being polite. Riley quickly scans the room for other future newlyweds, but most of today’s diners appear to be here for business lunches—buttoned-up men in suits and women in sharp blazers with silk shifts underneath. A few couples, perhaps away for a romantic long weekend, and a group of older women sharing a bottle of wine, sit wedged into the corners. It’s a lovely space, but is it too lovely?
She shifts in her seat and tries to picture her dad here, wearing his familiar old sports coat that’s nearly worn through at the elbows, his khaki pants and penny loafers, pretending to feel comfortable when he wouldn’t know which fork to reach for, which glass to use.
When Marilyn turns toward to her and says, “Don’t you agree, Riley?” Riley feels her cheeks flushing because she hasn’t been paying attention. She has no idea what her future mother-in-law is referring to.
“I’m sorry. What was the question again?” She’s slightly annoyed that Tom can’t—or won’t—decide on a few things himself or at the very least rein his mother in. Especially because they talked about this very thing—not letting Marilyn take over the tasting—last night! They’re discussing the appetizers, apparently, and all Riley knows is that she doesn’t want crudités. If there’s one rule she’s abiding by, it’s that her wedding menu will include only those foods that she can pronounce.
It seems there should be a box on a list that they can check for the Standard Reception—something not overtly cheap but not insanely expensive, either. Tom squeezes her knee beneath the table, though it’s unclear if it’s meant as encouragement or as a reprimand for her not giving this conversation one hundred percent. What Riley really wants to know is this: How can she avoid attending any more tastings with Marilyn? Should she just agree to the Seafarer right now and be done with it?
“Mom was wondering,” Tom says in complete seriousness, “if you thought it would be better to have cold and hot hors d’oeuvres or just cold since the wedding will be in July?”
“Oh, right.” Riley pretends to consider her options. “Good point. It’s bound to be hot, so I wonder—”
But somewhere between the words so and wonder, a loud whistle of air followed by a deafening blast socks through the room like a fist, sending Riley to grab the table and Tom to reach for her hand. Marilyn’s fork drops from her elongated fingers, clattering onto her plate, and the room seems to shake for a brief moment. There are shouts followed by an eerie hush while the dining room settles back into itself. Riley watches the other diners who begin to mumble to each other across their tables, asking if they’re okay and spinning in their seats to better determine the source of the blast. The woman at the adjacent table hovers on the edge of her chair, as if considering diving underneath the table.
When Riley glances over at Gillian, she looks equally alarmed and as surprised as the rest of them, which means this isn’t some kind of bizarre emergency testing by the hotel. Whatever they heard was real. Significant. Riley’s eyes slide toward Tom, then Marilyn, whose face has turned a shade as pale as milk, then back to Tom.
“What on earth was that?” Marilyn gasps, her voice an octave too high, her fingers fluttering to her necklace. It’s a silver chain studded with azure stones, the kind of jewelry that Riley has come to associate with women of a certain age.
“I’m not sure.” Gillian’s voice cracks. “It almost sounded like some kind of explosion, didn’t it?” And then, as if remembering her wedding-coordinator cap, she rushes to reassure them. “But I’m sure it’s nothing like that. Maybe a blown transformer?
But both Riley and Tom exchange glances because no matter how ill-versed they are in loud noises, that definitely was not a transformer. It wasn’t so much a popping sound as a crash, she thinks. Did the massive chandelier in the lobby fall? Did it come from the kitchen? Construction work outside maybe? It’s hard to tell.
“Not to be overly dramatic, but it almost felt like an earthquake,” Riley says. “The table actually shook, I think.” And although she understands that the curiosity sparked inside her is somehow inappropriate, she wants an explanation. “Whatever it was,” she says, lowering her voice, “it sounded awfully close.”
“Yes, very close,” Marilyn agrees, still fiddling with her necklace.
And that’s when the screams begin. Not from the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, not from the lobby, but from outside, just beyond the elegant bay windows peering out onto the terrace that fronts the water, the ocean seemingly close enough to dip a hand into. Riley’s glance swivels toward the small crowd that’s beginning to form outside near the firepit and hot tub.
“If you’ll excuse me?” Gillian says, as if emerging from a fog, and rises awkwardly to her feet before heading toward the row of windows.
Riley’s gaze follows her, and suddenly, she, too, feels compelled to get up, as if an invisible string tugs her toward the window. She hurries forward and angles around Gillian for a better view. But when she does, she immediately regrets her decision. Because it’s not a collapsed scaffolding or an awning or even construction work that has caused the sudden shaking, the loud blast.
But a woman, lying facedown on the terrace, several yards beyond the window.
The body lies completely still, the woman’s legs scissored like a rag doll’s, her left leg angled upward awkwardly. A curtain of muddy blond hair shields her face from view. Riley watches while a few bystanders move hesitantly toward the woman, as if afraid of startling her, until someone kneels down and grasps her wrist, presumably to check for a pulse. A man in blue running shorts and a Red Sox T-shirt yells for someone to call 9-1-1.
To Riley, it looks as if the woman was perhaps reaching for a glass that slipped from her hand, her arms still outstretched above her head. Her body is long, lean, even elegant. Riley holds her breath, waiting, and feels Gillian stiffen beside her when a youngish man, nicely tanned and formally dressed, parts the crowd and gently encourages everyone to take a few steps back. He assures them that an ambulance is on the way and speaks with an authority that suggests his importance.
“That’s Jean-Paul, our manager,” Gillian says quietly as they watch him crouch down next to the woman and brush her hair away from her face.
Just then, a young man in the crowd throws his hand to his mouth and rushes off, and Riley stands on her tiptoes for a better view. And that’s when she sees it, too—the wild splash of bright red she hadn’t noticed earlier that lies at the far edge of the woman’s hair. And in that awful moment, Riley—and everyone else watching—understands. An image of a woman in her yellow summer dress, cartwheeling through the air from somewhere up high, perhaps her hotel balcony, spirals through her mind.
“Oh, my God.” It hits her all at once, a hollow pit forming in her stomach.
“Jesus,” says Tom, who has come up beside her to rest a hand on her shoulder. “She’s not moving.”
It’s obvious to them both, but somehow still needs to be said, as if by acknowledging it aloud, the woman might hear their words through the open window, might somehow will herself to move an inch, if only to give them a sign—a flutter of a hand, the shifting of a foot—that she’s going to be all right.
But her body remains completely, horribly still.
Excerpted from Summertime Guests by Wendy Francis, Copyright © 2021 by Wendy Francis
Published by Graydon House Books