Meet An Infamous Nineteenth-Century Heiress In This Excerpt From The Thirteenth Husband

Books Features Historical Fiction
Meet An Infamous Nineteenth-Century Heiress In This Excerpt From The Thirteenth Husband

You might already be familiar with Greer Macallister through her excellent high fantasy series The Five Queendoms—which she writes under the name G.R. Macallister—but as an author, she cut her teeth writing historical fiction. (If you haven’t read her excellent The Arctic Fury, a dual-timeline thriller about a group of women lost in a remote wilderness while on the hunt for the lost Franklin expedition, well, consider this a nudge to correct that error.) And now her latest novel, The Thirteenth Husband, is set to dig into the life of a woman who became infamous for living an uninhibited, sexually liberated, and aggressively non-conformist life. 

The book is based on the story of the heiress Aimee Crocker, who inherited a ten million dollar fortune in the late nineteenth century, and was subsequently known for exploring the Far East, throwing extravagant parties from New York to Paris to San Francisco, and collecting a string of husbands, lovers, adopted children, snakes (yes, really), and more. The Thirteenth Husband aims to dramatize the remarkable, often unbelievable, life of a trailblazer.  

Here’s how the publisher describes the story. 

Tearing through millions of dollars, four continents, and a hearty collection of husbands, real-life heiress Aimee Crocker blazed an unbelievable trail of public notoriety, private pain, and the kind of strong independent woman the 1880s had never seen. Her life was stranger than fiction and brighter than the stars, and she whirled through her days as if she was being chased by something larger than herself. 

The Thirteenth Husband won’t hit shelves until August 6, but we’ve a look at the book’s first chapter for you right now. 

You know, don’t you, that I’ve been fighting this nearly my entire life?

I don’t expect sympathy, of course, from you or anyone. There’s been precious little of that. Certainly none from the tabloid press. People think the rich don’t struggle. And I understand why. Money solves so many problems, opens so many doors. That’s why I held on to mine instead of giving it away: it was the only power I could count on. Because I was so very rich, at almost any point in my life when I wanted to go somewhere, I went. For a woman in these times, that was no small thing.

But with the tabloids dogging my steps, painting me with their scarlet brush in my very girlhood, I had my own struggles. The press called me wild, among other things. They were outraged by the notion of a woman determined to make her own choices. They labeled me an adventuress, a hussy, a known menace. Even when the Philadelphia Inquirer loudly proclaimed me the queen of Bohemia, it wasn’t entirely a compliment. And when I’m dead, they’ll trumpet my husbands’ names in the headlines, as if my marriages were all that mattered. I am more than gold bands and paperwork.

Of course there are men in my story. Some would say an unseemly number. There’s love and scandal, heartbreak and poison, passion and deceit. It takes place in courtrooms and orphanages, palaces and temples, in Hawaii and Tokyo and the world around. And in my story, there are also questions. So many questions. One of which you are the answer to.

The three things that have haunted me all these decades are simple enough to name: the tabloids, the Spanish fortune teller’s prophecy, and the woman in white.

Where to begin? Not at the beginning. That would be expected, and you know as well as anyone, doing the expected was never my style. Let’s start, instead, in the middle.


All my life I have been drawn to that which I cannot clearly define. —­AC

I arrived in Spain fresh off the boat from Hawaii, twenty-­three years old and reeling from my first divorce, in search of a woman I didn’t know was already dead.

What had happened in Hawaii had scared me badly, made me think about a reckoning. Not that I believed in the musty Christian vision of heaven and hell, but if I were to find myself at those much-­written-­about pearly gates, where would I fall short? What did I regret leaving undone? So when the captain of my chartered vessel asked me for our next destination, I thought about the contessa, who had once been kind to me at a low moment, and I said, “Madrid.”

Captain Judd knew me well. He knew the contents of my passbook even better. So rather than deride me for naming a landlocked city, he said, “Would you prefer to go via Lisbon, Bilbao, or Barcelona?”

I pictured the map of Europe I recalled so clearly, rugged brown coastlines nudging up against the blue of oceans and seas. “Bilbao, I think.”

“A good choice.”

Even with no interest in the captain beyond the professional, I flirted a bit. “Would you tell me if you thought it was a poor choice?”

His smile was genuine. “I would not.”

We cabled ahead to Bilbao to have arrangements made for docking the Tropic Star and my travel beyond. With so many messages flying back and forth, so much to manage, I got on the train before realizing my letter to the contessa had gone unanswered. At the Burgos stop, I sent telegrams to make other inquiries. When I arrived in Madrid, the bad news was waiting for me: the contessa had passed away the previous year.

Another traveler might have cursed herself for coming all this way without arranging things more firmly beforehand, but I’ve never been that kind of traveler. In my view, why not go? I needed to be somewhere. Madrid was as good as any other place and better than most. Besides, most women of that age—­this was back in 1888, remember—­never traveled without husbands or households in tow. A woman alone was viewed with suspicion. Society’s rules defined the ideal woman of those days as one who made her family her entire purpose for being, their care her highest calling.

Is it any wonder I never fit in?

So after settling my things in an elegant, comfortable chamber at the Gran Hotel Inglés, I thought about what I most wanted to do. In a foreign country where I knew no one, with time and money no object, what should be my first step?

I changed into my plainest gown, secured my valuables in the hotel safe, and went in search of a local fortune teller. Spiritualism was still all the rage, the debunking crusades of the 1920s not yet a glimmer in a cynical Houdini’s eye. In the 1880s, if a divorced woman and a medium sat in a room together, the medium was the less suspect of the two.

The palm reader I found on that day in Madrid was of the mysterious and handsome school, which I’d found only slightly less common worldwide than the toothless and disreputable type. His skin and hair were dark, his fingers long and delicate, his receiving room full of fragrant flowers with waxy leaves that transported me straight back to that night in the orangery with the doomed, beautiful Miguel. I was journeying straight into the memories I’d once fled from. I thought I was being brave. I have found out since that bravery and foolishness are easy to mistake for one another.

Once I sat down across the table from him and paid his fee—­modest, considering—­the handsome Spanish fortune teller asked me, “Very well. What is your name?”

“Why do you need to know that?” I shot back, perhaps a little more aggressively than needed. 

“Shouldn’t we remain strangers? The less you know, the more impressive I’ll find it when you tell my future.”

He shook his head. “I have few questions. But I need something to call you. Any name will do.”

I made a snap decision. “You may call me Miss Crocker.”

“Very well, Miss Crocker. Your hand?”

I presented it, and he drew the palm toward him, lowering his face almost close enough to kiss it. I felt his breath in my hand as he looked, following lines, turning the entire hand to examine it from every angle.

Finally, I said, “Enough looking. What do you see?”

In a steady voice, nothing too dramatic, he said to me, “Ah, you need to be careful about getting married.”

My response was quick and sharp, my pain still fresh. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Perhaps my sarcasm was lost in translation. He may not have been familiar with the American phrase. In any case, his eyes met mine, and the next words out of his mouth were surprising indeed.

Teeth bared in a tight, threatening smile, the palm reader said, “Miss Crocker, you will have thirteen husbands. The thirteenth will bury you.”

A sharp, icy shiver went up the back of my neck. I held myself still so he wouldn’t see it. And I said, sounding like I could take a joke, “Well, I didn’t know that.”

The Thirteenth Husband will be released on August 6, but you can pre-order it right now. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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