Better Homes and Hauntings
Ignoring the Frantically Waving Red Flags
BEWARE ALL ENTERPRISES that start with the purchase of Crocs.
Nina Linden glared down at the bright orange clogs protecting her from slipping on the deck of the S.S. Sine Waves and, for the third time that morning, cursed her assistant’s poor choice in boating shoes. Too wrapped up in the details of the Whitney project for shopping, Nina had told Carrie she needed something safe to wear when ferrying back and forth between Narragansett, Rhode Island, and Whitney Island, something that wouldn’t be ruined by traipsing through the gardens she was responsible for resuscitating. Nina should have been more specific. She should have said, No foam-rubber shoes in radioactive colors that make me walk like a hobbled duck.
But considering that she was barely able to pay Carrie—who was a competent and loyal assistant in all areas save fashion sense—Nina knew she shouldn’t
complain. The shoes, while unfortunate, were not what she needed to focus on right now. She needed to pull herself out of her negative funk. This was the start of a new phase in her life. Demeter Designs would be a going concern. Hell, it would be a sought-after service among the ridiculously rich. All she had to do was survive the next three months.
Nina leaned her forehead against the sun-warmed teak railing of the perfectly lovely yacht used to ferry the renovation staff back and forth to Whitney Island, a small spit of land twenty miles southeast of Newport.
Nina had been through so much worse than seasickness in the past year. Near-bankruptcy. Identity theft. Stolen garden tools. This was going to be an adventure, she promised herself. She’d played it too safe with Rick, and it had cost her. She needed this time away. She needed to clear her head.
The other passengers seemed nice enough. They’d all boarded the Whitney yacht at the same time, and of course, Nina had immediately managed to whack the GQ cover model running the boat in the shin with her rolling suitcase. Instead of getting annoyed, he’d simply offered her a brilliant white smile and taken her bag in addition to his own.
The other woman on board, a sweet-faced blonde who might have doubled for a fairy-tale princess if not for her Jessica Rabbit figure, was clearly at home on the rocking, creaking vessel. The minute she’d stowed her bags, she’d slipped on her sunglasses, slipped off her shoes, and begun sunning herself on the deck on top of the tiny cabin. For a moment, Nina thought she was the girlfriend of their benefactor, but then she realized
how unlikely it was that social-media magnate Deacon Whitney would have let his girlfriend make the crossing with “the help.” Nina wasn’t exactly sure what the other woman’s role was to be in this . . . mission of theirs.
Twenty-eight and so upwardly mobile he practically had his own galaxy, Mr. Whitney was the sole programmer/creator of EyeDee, a social-networking site with nearly one billion users that had changed the face of online interactions. Users could “EyeContact” anyone from former high school classmates to childhood friends to—heaven forbid—their parents and share every waking moment of their lives. Whitney had launched the site just after graduating from New York University, eventually parlaying a public offering of his company’s stock into one of the largest personal fortunes in the United States. He was now using that fortune to restore his family’s dilapidated Gilded Age mansion to its former glory, using the team now assembled on the yacht.
Nina knew she should walk over and say hello to the others. They were going to be working and living together on the Crane’s Nest property over the next few months, until the renovations were finished. But at the moment, she could only concentrate on keeping her breakfast down.
The boat hit a particularly rough wake, pitching Nina back against the cabin. She moaned, bending at the knees and propping her arms against her thighs.
A smooth, tanned hand appeared at the corner of Nina’s vision, bearing brightly wrapped candies. She startled, drawing up to her full height, and swayed. The
other hand steadied her at the elbow. “Whoa, there,” he said, a laughing lilt to his soothing tone.
“Sorry about that.” Nina groaned, squinting up at the owner of the outstretched hand.
“Seasick, huh?” he said, eyeing her sympathetically over the rims of his mirrored aviators.
“Ever since I was a kid,” she said, glaring at the water glittering in the distance. “I ruined every family fishing trip. My brother always told me it would help to keep my eye on the horizon. But I think my brother is a dirty liar.”
“Try these,” he said, pressing a few foil-wrapped candies into her clammy palm. “Ginger drops. They’ll help your stomach. And as far as the horizon goes, I think it’s better to concentrate on more immediate surroundings.”
Unwrapping the candy, Nina followed his line of sight to the blonde’s long, tanned legs and rolled her eyes. Of course, he was eyeing the pretty blonde. He was practically a work of preppy art himself. Perfectly mussed sandy hair, bright blue-green eyes twinkling out over the aforementioned aviators. Pressed khakis, a light purple madras under a navy sport coat. He was fit and tan and managed to pull off the “lavender shirt” thing without seeming effeminate.
Well, not terribly effeminate. Definitely metrosexual.
Watching his eyes trace the line of the blonde’s ankles, Nina subconsciously rubbed a hand over the bridge of her nose, which tended to burn if she wasn’t religious with the sunscreen—the price of being a redhead. Typical, she thought wryly: the blonde got ogled, and she got treated like a kid sister.
The man’s lips quirked a bit when he realized Nina had caught him looking. “Jake Rumson,” he said, offering his hand. “Amateur yachtsman and chief architect who’s supposed to be undoing the mess we’re getting into.”
“Nina,” she said. “Linden.”
“Like the tree,” he said, smiling. “You’re with Demeter Designs.”
“Like the tree, exactly,” she said, a genuine grin breaking through her uneasy expression. She tamped it down quickly. “Not everybody catches that.”
“I cheated,” Jake whispered, the smooth façade melting a bit to reveal a naughty-schoolboy smile. “I got a look at Whit’s staff list ahead of time. You’re the landscape architect, and you’re named after a tree, and bam, instant mnemonic device.”
“Do you use little tricks like that often?” she asked.
“You’re reducing my famous charm to parlor tricks? That’s harsh,” Jake teased, elbowing her in the ribs.
Months before, this sort of casual contact, particularly from a man she didn’t know, would have made Nina edgy and uncomfortable. She was proud that she’d progressed enough that her only response was a faint blush.
“Well, what do you know about Cindy Ellis, over there?” he asked. “She owns the Cinderella Cleaning Service.”
“Never heard of her.” Nina lifted her brow. “She’s a maid?” Whitney’s extensive service contract hadn’t mentioned anything about providing maid service.
“Not exactly. Ms. Ellis—as she insists I call her—runs a sort of maid-slash-organizational-guru service. She
cleans and installs those crazy storage systems in some of the swankiest family-owned estates in Rhode Island. Families who own places like that are always circulating collections of antique furnishings, Christmas decorations, that sort of thing. Ms. Ellis can organize, store, and reset those furnishings on a seasonal system that even the dumbest millionaire could figure out.”
“Are you saying we’re working for a dumb millionaire?” Nina asked, the corners of her lush mouth tilting up.
Jake snorted, grinning at her over the rims of his aviators. “First of all, Whit’s a billionaire. And second, it wasn’t his idea to hire her. The Crane’s Nest has been virtually looted by various generations of Whitneys over the years, but there are bound to be a few valuables tucked away where the relatives’ enterprising little paws couldn’t reach. The family is demanding that Whit catalogue every item of historical or monetary value and save it so that they can do battle over them later.”
Nina frowned. “But it’s Mr. Whitney’s house.”
“House, yes. Furnishings, no. And Whit’s too decent of a guy to follow my advice, which involved letters from attorneys and a lot of four-letter words.”
Nina giggled but covered it with a cough. Despite his slick exterior, Nina believed she was going to like Jake—or at least, his ability to make her forget how miserable she was for a moment. If nothing else, he was sharing insider information about their mysterious employer, a precious commodity in this harebrained scheme she’d signed on for—living full-time on the job site for an open-ended period of time with people she barely knew.
Mr. Whitney had informed Nina during her interview that he wanted to be each contractor’s full-time first priority until the job was completed, that he wanted to reduce opportunities for the contractors to be distracted by other clients’ demands. But according to two contractors Nina had overheard in Whitney’s waiting room, his chief concern was the fact that there had already been several false starts to the renovations. He’d previously lost contractors and workers to “frayed nerves,” courtesy of angry thumping footsteps on the stairway between the second and third floors, strange shifting shadows that darted around at the corners of one’s eyes, the overwhelming sense that someone was watching. The upstairs bedrooms smelled of rose water when no one had sprayed perfume there in decades. And of course, there was the sound of weeping that came from the widow’s walk. Keeping the restorers from returning home every night was supposed to prevent them from losing their nerve to come back to the island in the morning. Not to mention that it would save them the lengthy water commute.
Nina cleared her throat, trying to find an innocuous reason for the staff to be sequestered. “Would Mr. Whitney’s shaky relationship with his extended family have anything to do with our being hidden away on the island for the summer? I know I wouldn’t want to take the chance that one of us could be persuaded to sneak stuff back to the mainland.”
“No, but that’s just one more pro for the list,” Jake said brightly, offering her his most charming grin. “Whit wants to finish the project as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is to have your full attention
and have the team stay within shouting distance in case there are problems.”
Nina arched a sleek red brow. “That sounded like a well-rehearsed statement.”
Jake’s smile stayed resolutely in place, as if he hadn’t heard her.
Nina asked, “Why do you call him ‘Whit’?”
Jake leaned against the cabin, copying her posture. “Our moms were close friends at college, so we’ve known each other since we were in diapers. Even when we were kids, you could tell he had something the rest of us didn’t, that spark of genius that meant he was either going to be a CEO or a supervillain. And in a very conservative prep school that valued conformity and had the resources to guarantee a certain ‘aesthetic standard,’ a scrawny, six-foot-three freshman who loved comics and D and D stood out. I had an easier time of it, but ‘Deke the Geek’ was bullied like it was his job. Instead of getting all bitter about it, he was still the most decent person I knew. Hell, when my parents refused to believe that a Rumson could have something as pedestrian as ADHD—despite an official diagnosis from people who actually went to medical school—it was Whit who figured out tricks to help me focus and study. I probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school, much less college, without his helping me. So I helped him avoid being tossed into Dumpsters whenever possible and came up with a nickname that didn’t remind him of the assholes we called classmates.”
Yes, Nina was going to like Jake Rumson—potentially douchey prep vibe and all.
“You OK there?” Cindy asked, sliding off her perch to fetch Nina a bottle of water from a pretty polished metal cooler. She eyed Jake suspiciously.
“Barely containing my vomit,” Nina said with a sigh.
Cindy’s brow furrowed. “Is . . . that ‘OK’ for you?”
“It’s normal for me,” Nina said, extending her hand for a shake. “Nina Linden.”
“Cindy Ellis. Nice to meet you,” she said, giving Jake one last warning look before ducking back around the corner of the cabin and into the galley.
“Somebody’s got a friend already,” Jake singsonged, wriggling his eyebrows at her.
“She just feels bad for me.”
Jake shook his head. “Nope, I have a sense for this sort of thing, Nina Linden, and you are a lady who draws people to her, like moths to a sassy but vulnerable flame. I’ll bet Deacon will fall all over himself when he sees you. I should warn you. He makes random Star Wars references when he’s nervous. So expect a lot of Lando Calrissian jokes.”
“Yes, who could resist the pasty-green girl who looks like she’s on the verge of puking?” Nina pushed her windblown mess of thick auburn hair out of her face.
“Some guys are into the Exorcist look,” he said, shrugging.
She let out an indignant grunt—half laugh, half gasp—and slapped at his shoulder.
“See? You’re feeling better already,” Jake said. “Hitting me with the force of a toddler must have required some energy—Ow!” He yelped as she whacked him again, with significantly more strength. He chuckled as a bit of color crept back into her cheeks. “You’ll be all
right.” He nodded to the horizon line again. “And here is your first introduction to the lady herself.”
Once the playground where the indecently rich escaped the heat and “vapors” of the big cities each summer, Newport was now a respectable tourist destination. The upper class still retreated to their private clubs and the middle class toured monuments to excess built by families such as the Vanderbilts and the Astors. During the so-called Gilded Age, mansions like the Breakers and Miramar set new standards in architectural extravagance, while the ever-so-riche matrons fought for dominance of the social scene. At the tail end of this era, Gerald Whitney had chosen to separate himself even further by building his home on his own private island.
Long before the Whitneys were a wealthy family, Gerald Whitney’s great-great-great-grandfather Loudon was a simple sailor who ferried people around the bays surrounding Rhode Island. Eventually, those little bays and inlets became very important to the Revolutionary War effort. Loudon volunteered his services and his growing fleet of boats to get the Colonial troops where they were most needed, all along the seaboard. His assistance was instrumental in winning some of those first early skirmishes. Loudon invested more and more into the boats as time went by and continued to allow the Colonials to use them. He was rewarded handsomely and made friends among the earliest politicians. He made a particular friend of the governor of Rhode Island when he managed to get the governor’s son to a doctor after he was wounded in battle. The governor showed his appreciation by rewarding him in
the way of the old country, with land grants. Of course, at the time, the island was virtually useless. Who would want to live on a tiny spit of land twenty miles off the mainland? But old Mr. Whitney thanked the governor profusely and held on to it. Gerald Whitney was the first to make any use of it.
As for the house itself, the Crane’s Nest rose out of the water like a drowned debutante, her fine lines eroded and obscured, tangling into the overgrown green expanse of Whitney Island. Nina could see evidence of what had once been an exacting geometric landscaping plan leading up to a rounded porte cochere, hiding the massive front doors in its dark, cavernous maw. The gardens were long past feral, with dry, withered grass strangling the remains of statuary and rosebushes. The façade consisted of three levels, a loggia flanked by two-story wings leading into the main structure. Rows of windows stared back at her with the blank sheen of dolls’ eyes. A ring of tall chimneys crowned a flat slate roof, echoing the pattern of blunt cornices extending from the porte cochere.
Despite the warm, sunny afternoon, there was an air of melancholy to the house, and not just in the overall state of disrepair and decay. The patina of age and grime over the battered gray limestone seemed like a black mark on the house’s soul, a warning to passersby to move along. Contentment and happiness were not to be found in the Crane’s Nest.
The photos that had been provided for Nina’s bid hadn’t prepared her for the sheer size of the building. It felt as if the house could tumble down the sloping yard and swallow their little boat at any moment. All the
more reason for Nina to want to disembark as quickly as possible.
As they drew near shore, Jake ducked behind the helm and started making adjustments to the boat’s trajectory, calling out an occasional request to Cindy to pull a line or tighten a sail. With Nina out of commission and no other sailors aboard, Cindy’s reluctant, untrained help was the best Jake could get. The boat jolted with a splash and made a slow turn, causing Nina to groan.
She couldn’t help but feel as if they were intruding, their arrival disrupting the house’s slumber. The Crane’s Nest had stood for nearly one hundred years, untouched and uninhabited. And now Nina felt as if she’d wandered into a church full of people to ask directions, only to realize she’d interrupted a wake.
Nina felt Cindy approach from her right, staring up at the decrepit mansion.
“Just a little cottage built for two,” Cindy mused, sliding her cat’s-eye sunglasses up through her thick mane of curls. “Complete with twelve bedrooms, a formal dining room, and an evil spirit in the basement that wants to eat your soul, if the urban-legend Web sites I read are to be believed. I mean, who wouldn’t want this gem for their weekend place?”
“I don’t think the Whitneys were known for their subtlety,” Nina said, trying to focus on anything but the quivering tumble of her stomach.
“You realize that as the blonde, I’m probably going to be picked off first,” Cindy muttered.
“Picked off?” Nina asked.
“Did you not hear me mention the soul-eating ghoul in the basement?” Cindy teased. “In the movies,
the blonde always gets killed first, to establish the rules on Certain Death Island, such as ‘Don’t wander off on your own to go to the bathroom’ and ‘It’s not a great idea to wear a negligee to investigate spooky noises armed only with a flickering candle.’?”
“But you could be a postmodern blonde,” Nina suggested. “You could be Buffy or Naomi Watts in The Ring. They were always the last girls standing.”
“Oh, we’re going to get along just fine, hon,” Cindy told her, patting her shoulder. “You get extra cool points for any Jossverse reference.”
“Well, that’s a relief.” Squinting in the glaring afternoon light, Nina traced the line of the roof with her eyes, admiring the wrought-iron railing that enclosed the widow’s walk. There was potential for a terrace garden there, from what she’d seen in the pictures. She was trying to estimate the roof’s square footage when a dark feminine figure stepped up to the wrought-iron boundary. Nina gasped. A cold wave of nausea washed through her as the dark shape seemed to stare down at the approaching boat. For a moment, Nina thought she could make out the lines of an old-fashioned gown, a slim waist, dark twists of long hair blowing in the wind. But there was no detail to the face or form, only shadow. Nina shivered and braced herself against the bow, taking deep breaths. When she looked up at the roof again, the figure was gone.
“Is it always this quiet?” Cindy asked, surveying the island with a worried expression.
“Yes,” Jake called from behind the wheel. “The Crane’s Nest is the only home on the island. So, no crazy neighbors or barking dogs to keep you up at
night. Don’t worry, though. We’ll make some noise soon enough,” he told her. Cindy’s delft-blue eyes narrowed at the suggestion, and Jake’s cheeks flushed. “I meant with construction equipment and workers! Hammering, nailing . . . oh, good God, there is no recovery from this, is there?”
He looked to Nina for help, but the sudden deceleration of the boat plus the possible hallucinations of shadowy figures had finally tipped the scales in her battle with nausea. She was currently bent over the rail, saying good-bye to her breakfast.
Cindy rushed over to Nina, whipped a blue bandanna from her pocket, soaked it with Nina’s water bottle, and held it to the back of the ailing redhead’s neck. She looked to Jake, who surveyed the scene with a horrified expression. “What did you do?” she hissed at him.
“I didn’t do that to her. Poor inner ear dynamics did that to her.”
“Well, you must have done something! I know I’ve wanted to throw up since boarding this boat with you.”
“Me? What did I do?”
Cindy exclaimed, “You’re you. That’s all it takes!”
Oddly hurt, Jake turned on his heel and devoted his attention to running the boat. “Well, it can only get better from here.”