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The House on Biscayne Bay

Chapter One


I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to live in Florida. The house looms before me, a pale stone behemoth jettisoning from the swampy earth. It casts a long shadow, towering three stories high with a parapet on top as though it's readying itself to guard against intruders. Its palatial size and exterior appear to have been plucked from some European city and dropped on this godforsaken plot of land in Miami. There are arches and flourishes all around the building, the fanciful embellishments reminiscent of a wedding cake's intricate design. Enormous glass-paned windows dominate the facade, equally impressive doors leading out to a front patio set atop a stone staircase made of the palest coral that matches the house's exterior walls.

The grass sways a few feet away conjuring images of snakes slithering through the tall blades. What sort of reptiles do they have in Florida? Large ones capable of felling a full-grown person? This feels like the end of civilization as we know it-a far cry from Manhattan and the sensibilities we have grown accustomed to.

The house is nearing completion, the progress an undeniable sign of just how long my husband has been keeping this secret.

Robert took me to Italy for our honeymoon years ago, and it appears he gathered a great deal of his inspiration from the grand houses we saw on our trip there.

There weren't alligators in Italy, though.

And it wasn't this hot.

A thin line of sweat trickles between my shoulder blades, my already dampened gown sticking to my skin as I trudge away from my husband's roadster toward our future home. As a little girl sitting in the pews of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, I often thought about the fires of hell as I prayed for my immortal soul. I envisioned the devil's playground to have a climate like this one, but in all my wild imaginings, Lucifer didn't have iguanas.

Men mill about the property, working on the construction Robert has planned. It looks to be rough work, heavy pieces of stone being carried from one side of the house to another, the radiant sun beating down on the men. It must be hell doing such strenuous physical labor in this stifling heat.

A few cast curious glances our way, no doubt wanting to get a measure of the new owners; some low chuckles drift toward us, and my cheeks burn as I realize they're likely laughing at me and how out of place I look in such a rugged environment. When Robert told me he was taking me for a trip to Miami for my birthday, I fancied a romantic weekend at one of the luxurious resorts that have cropped up along Florida's east coast. I thought the surprise he mentioned would be an elegant necklace or perhaps a pair of earrings. After all, forty feels like a momentous occasion that should be marked, albeit with something smaller than real estate.

"What do you think, Anna?" my husband asks, spreading his arms out expansively as though he could encompass the whole of the property in his reach, seemingly oblivious to my obvious discomfort. "Isn't it amazing? There's no other house for as far as the eye can see and then some."

I'm saved from a response by an insect swarming perilously close to my face.

It hovers in midair, likely calculating its plan of attack, before it finally retreats with an irate buzz as though recognizing me as an interloper and reluctantly ceding its territory.

I wish I could hie off with it.

There are those who hate city life, the houses close together, the streets teeming with people, the noise, and the bustle, but I've grown accustomed to it, find familiarity in the sounds that play in the background of my days.

The silence here is deafening.

"Anna?" Robert asks again.

I take a deep breath, lifting my skirt out of the swampy muck.

"I would like to see the rest of it," I announce, biting back a string of blistering curses.

"You should see the best part," Robert announces, pointing past the house to the view of Biscayne Bay. "You can't put a price on this location."

I could, and my price would have one zero attached to it whereas I fear Robert's has quite a few dangling behind an astonishing number.

I trudge past the house, and I walk toward the water's edge, careful to keep a healthy distance between me and the bay. I've always had an uneasy relationship with the ocean. It's lovely to look at, but never having learned to swim, I am terrified by the crashing waves.

The closer we get to the bay, the breeze grows, offering a respite from the heat.

The water is undeniably stunning, sparkling beneath the sunlight, nothing but horizon before us. For an instant, a breath, I can understand what drew Robert to the property. I imagine there's a great deal you would put up with for a vista such as this one.

I glance down at the rocky seawall, a nearly six-foot drop between the land and the water. The turquoise sea crashes against the coral, forming white foamy caps. It's an abrupt change from land to ocean; should we put up a railing or something for safety?

Robert laughs when I posit the question. "And ruin the view? Besides, to do it the length of the property would cost an absolute fortune. We'd be better off just heaving our money into Biscayne Bay."

It feels like we're already doing that.

"What about hurricanes?" I ask, turning back to face Robert lingering behind me.

"The architect working on the house has built it to withstand hurricanes."

Is such a thing possible? It seems hubristic to assume that anything man makes can meet Mother Nature's fury.

I turn and peer over the edge of the seawall. Fish flit back and forth beneath the water, their bright colors like vibrant jewels flashing in the sunlight.

You don't see that in New York, I suppose.

I lean forward-

A bloodcurdling shriek peals through the air.

My shoes slip on the wet ground below, my legs shaking, my body lurching forward-

A hand settles on my waist, fingers curving around my dress, settling just above my hip bones, tugging me backward away from the sea.

I jump, startled by the motion, my heart thumping wildly as I struggle to get my rattled nerves under control.

"Wh-what was that?"

"Peacock," Robert answers, his voice in my ear, his breath hot against my neck. His fingers dig into the soft flesh at my waist. "They're loud birds and they're all over the property."

I swallow, the rush of fear leaving a bitter, acidic taste in my throat. "It sounded human."

He chuckles, his fingers stroking over my waist as though soothing a skittish animal. "I had the same thought the first time I heard them. You get used to it."

Somehow, I doubt that.

I turn to move out of his grasp, but Robert doesn't let me go.

"Be careful. We've already had a worker fall into the water during the construction."

I swallow, the sea no longer looking so pretty or the fish so enticing. "What happened to him?"

"He drowned or so I'm told."

"How horrible. Poor man."

I glance back at the house, trying to imagine living here knowing that I'm only hundreds of yards away from where a man lost his life.

"It's not very deep, but if you're too short to stand and you can't swim, it doesn't really matter, does it?" Robert muses.

I want to go back to New York.

Oh, it's beautiful on the bay to be sure, the way deadly things can be beautiful. The water is a lovely sparkling shade of blue, the sun shines brightly, and the trees and palms are a vibrant green. If you cast your gaze in the right direction, it is possible to see nothing but unending sea. It's a beautiful place, which is likely what leads so many to their folly in the first place-they believe they can make it theirs when it's obvious Miami is its own entity, stubborn and unwilling to bend to another's conception of what it could be.

I imagine there is a type of person who would thrive here, one who can see the beauty that lingers amid the danger, who can put down roots in this perilous place where the ever-present risk of a hurricane threatens to upend them, but that person is certainly not me. I don't belong here.

"It's surely a grand piece of property," I say, choosing my words carefully, because undeniably, it is that, with this panoramic view of Biscayne Bay, and given the state of near-finished construction and Robert's nature, what choice do I have? His mind is clearly already made up. "And a far too generous birthday gift."

I wrap my arms around Robert and press my lips to his. His whiskers are coarse against my skin as our mouths meet, twenty-two years of marriage in the gesture. I like to think that I know Robert better than anyone, that as a wife I can predict his moves before he makes them, but here he has caught me entirely unawares.

If my husband can hide a plan as enormous as this one, what other secrets does he have up his sleeve?

Robert releases me, his hands lingering on my waist for a moment before setting me aside. I duck my head, embarrassment filling me as I remember the workers lingering around the property privy to this emotional display.

Love and frustration wind their way inside me like twin snakes. If twenty-two years of marriage have taught me anything, it's to choose my battles. I wish he'd asked what I thought before he bought the damned place, but the genius of all of this is that in bestowing the property to me as a birthday gift, he neatly backed me into a corner. To refuse or complain would make me appear ungrateful. If he had consulted me, I would have told him that I have no desire to live among bugs the size of small dogs, the lace fan I brought woefully inadequate to combat the heat and humidity. If he had consulted me, I might have been able to head this impending disaster off at the pass as I have so many of Robert's other more questionable ideas.

"We'll have the largest estate anyone in South Florida has ever seen," Robert announces.

What will it matter if no one ever wants to visit us here? And truthfully, I can't imagine why anyone would. The ocean is beautiful, yes, and the sun is shining brightly even if it is abominably strong, but we have sun and sea in Newport, and our bugs are a more respectable size. This place looks as though it would just as soon kill you as welcome you, and I half expect to see an overgrown alligator tottering by. For all intents and purposes, this might as well be the end of the world, and if it must be Florida-why must it be Florida?-I for one would vastly prefer to head north a bit and brave the wilds of Mr. Flagler's Palm Beach over Miami.

Part of marrying a man who builds things, who invests in the future, who sees opportunity where others view obstacles is that your life becomes a lesson in going along with plans you don't quite agree with yourself, in keeping quiet when faced with something that could be either a fantastic stroke of genius or utter folly.

Robert is a talented businessman whose hunches nearly always pay off, but this vision of his seems far too ambitious.

"It's a bit remote," I say hesitantly. "Although, I'm sure the warm climate will be welcome when winter comes," I add when he frowns.

We're both getting older-Robert twenty years my senior-so perhaps the more temperate weather will be a welcome change. With every year, it feels as though my body becomes more vulnerable, more susceptible to the strange aches and pains that come with time, the blistering cold certainly no friend of mine.

Robert smiles. "That it will. Mark my words-in a few years, everyone will want to come to Florida, and we'll have the most magnificent mansion in all of Miami, perhaps even the entire state."

Considering Whitehall, the impressive estate that Henry Flagler built in Palm Beach prior to his death, it's a lofty goal.

Robert's enthusiasm is nearly infectious, his charm such that I can almost believe him that anything is possible, that if anyone can transform this wild landscape into a manicured estate, it's him.

Robert's gaze drifts beyond me to some point off in the horizon. "Here he is now, the man who is going to bring this vision to life. The architect."

I turn, and Robert gestures toward a man standing over a makeshift table off in the distance with his back to us, hunched over a set of papers. I didn't notice him at first, my attention firmly on the marital problem at hand.

"Michael," he calls out.

The architect turns away from his sawhorses and plank slowly, reluctantly, almost. He's a tall, lean man, younger at first glance than I would have envisioned for a project of this magnitude. Unnervingly young.

Is this the first house he's ever built?

The architect smiles, making his way to us in quick, sure strides I can't help but envy considering the challenge of traipsing around the swampy ground in my impractical heels.

He exchanges a friendly greeting with Robert-his coconspirator in this audacious plan-before turning his attention to me.

"Michael Harrison at your service," he says, extending his hand to me.

"Anna Barnes," I reply, the warmth in my voice closer to New York than Miami.

You can gauge a lot about a person from their hands, and his tell the story of a man who isn't afraid to work with them, rough calluses adorning his skin. His long fingers are covered in smudged ink, and he has a bit of a zealous, dazed look in his eyes that calls to mind Frankenstein at work in his laboratory. Mr. Harrison isn't really looking at me; he's too busy surveying the landscape around him, and it's fascinating the way I can practically see his mind working on the project before him even as he's forced to engage in the social niceties at hand.

"Excuse me for a moment." Mr. Harrison releases me, reaching into the interior pocket of his suit jacket. He pulls out a tattered brown leather notebook, the edges cracked and peeling, a little pencil attached to the side, and begins scribbling something on the creamy pages, pausing every so often to gaze out at the water and back to his writing again.

Excerpted from THE HOUSE ON BISCAYNE BAY by Chanel Cleeton. Copyright © 2024 by Chanel Cleeton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The House on Biscayne Bay
by by Chanel Cleeton