How to Run with a Naked Werewolf
Nina had been through 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. 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 for the next few months, until the renovations were over. But at the moment, she could only concentrate on keeping her breakfast down.
The boat hit a particularly rough wave, 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,” a male voice 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, and glared 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 foiled 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.
“Jake Rumson,” he said, offering his hand. “I’m the 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 the 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, sipping the water.
“Well, those two made it easy,” Jake said, nodding
toward Ben and Cindy, the blond bombshell sunning on the deck. “I didn’t need a device to remember Ben Grandy. I was a big fan of his when he played at UConn. Damn shame what happened to his knee—his scholarship, future career, and all that.”
Nina nodded. “But he’s done well. Even without a degree, he’s built a good business for himself. He has a really solid reputation around town. You hired the right person.”
“Well, what do you know about Cindy Ellis over there?” Jake asked. “She owns the Cinderella Cleaning Service.”
“Never heard of her.” Nina lifted her brow. “She’s a maid?”
Deacon Whitney, the insanely rich twenty-eight-year-old who’d hired all of them, had never mentioned anything about a maid.
“Not exactly. Ms. Ellis—as she insists I call her—runs a sort of maid-slash-organizational guru service. She cleans and installs these crazy storage systems in some of the swankiest family-owned estates in Rhode Island. 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.”
“So is that why Mr. Whitney wants us to stay on the island full-time? So his relatives can’t interfere or influence us?”
Jake carefully considered his response to the question. There were a lot of factors in Deacon Whitney’s decision, many of which he had discussed at length with Jake. Whit wanted to be each contractor’s first priority until the job was completed. He wanted to prevent the contractors from being distracted by other clients’ demands. But his chief concern was the fact that there had already been several false starts to the renovations: he’d lost several contractors and workmen to “frayed nerves,” to put it politely. Deacon’s theory was that if he could keep the contractors from returning home from the island every night, he wouldn’t have to worry about whether they’d lose the nerve to come back in the morning.
A lifelong friend of Deacon’s family, Jake had spent the occasional afternoon on Whitney Island over the years and could have listed the strange occurrences, even without the paper-pale vendors stuttering out their tales of terror: 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 you. The smell of rosewater in upstairs bedrooms
where no one had sprayed perfume in decades. And of course, the sound of a woman’s weeping coming from the widow’s walk. He’d experienced all of this and more as Deacon’s guest on Whitney Island. And he hated every minute he spent there. But if his best friend in the world wanted him to lie through his teeth so he could resurrect that beautiful, cursed shell of a house, Jake would do it with a smile on his face.
“No, but that’s just one more pro for the list,” he said, offering her his most charming grin. “Whit wants to finish the project as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is have your full attention and have the team stay within shouting distance in case there are problems.”
Nina chanced a look out at the waves and caught a glimpse of the house they’d come to restore. 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 the rounded porte cochere that hid the massive front doors in a dark cavernous maw. The gardens were long past feral, dry withered grass strangling the remains of statuary and rosebushes. The façade of the house consisted of three levels, a loggia flanked by two-story wings leading into the main structure. The stories were marked by rows of windows, their dark surfaces reminding Nina of the blank stare of dolls’ eyes. A ring of tall chimneys crowned a flat slate roof, echoing the pattern of blunt cornices extending from the porte cochere.
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 of the pictures. She was trying to estimate the roof’s square footage when a feminine figure stepped to the wrought iron boundary. Nina gasped. A cold wave of nausea washed through her as the dark shape stared down at the approaching boat. For a moment, Nina thought she could make out the lines of an old-fashioned gown, a slim waist, long, dark twists of 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.
Everybody knew the story of the Crane’s Nest and the tragic death of its mistress. It was an urban legend among the local kids who grew up on the outskirts of Newport. Townies like Nina, who spent her time on the less picturesque stretches of beach trying to avoid the summer people, grew up hearing tales of the wailing ghost of Catherine Whitney who wandered the halls of the Crane’s Nest, searching for her killer, her lost treasure, a hidden illegitimate baby . . . The details varied depending on who was telling the story. It was a common dare among the high schoolers to go to the island and spend the night at the house. Very few kids managed to make it as far as Whitney Island without getting spooked and speeding back to the mainland. This led to a belief that the island was cursed, and no boat would moor on it.
Nina had lived in Newport for most of her life and this was the first time she’d ever laid eyes on the place. So it was only natural that her fertile imagination would bring the tortured ghost of Catherine Whitney to life after growing up on those stories. Right?
Nina sighed. She had to get a grip. The Crane’s Nest job would be the crown jewel of her portfolio. This job would gain her entrée into the Eastern Seaboard’s most exclusive circles and the rich potential clients that made up those circles. She would build her business. She would rebuild her life and her credit rating from the ground up. She would stop imagining scary shadow people on the roof. That could lead nowhere good.
“Feeling better now that you’re on solid ground?” Jake asked, pressing a cold soda can into her hand. She accepted it gratefully and guzzled the better part of the bubbly elixir before answering.
“Much, thanks,” she said glancing over shoulder again toward the still-uninhabited roof. “I swear I’m not this high-maintenance on dry land.”
“Hey, you’re the first girl to throw up on that boat for reasons unrelated to alcohol. That sets you in a class all your own,” Jake assured her.
“That’s . . . not particularly flattering,” she mused. “Jake, are we the only people on the island? Surely Mr. Whitney sent a prep team ahead of us to clean the staff quarters or stock the kitchen?”
Jake shrugged. “Cindy’s crew came out to clean up the dorms for us. And the catering staff from Whit’s
office stocked the kitchen. But they left days ago. Why do you ask?”
Nina chuckled weakly, sorry now that she’d said anything. “It’s just silly. I thought I saw someone on the roof, right before I got sick.”
Jake smiled at her, but there was a hitch to the expression, a hesitation that made Nina curious. “We’re the only ones here, I promise. There’s nobody else. What you saw? It was probably just a trick of the light.”
Nina thought better of commenting that tricks of light rarely wore hoop skirts. But before she could come up with a more suitable response, a chopping noise in the distance caught their attention. A tiny black dot in the sky grew closer and closer, the sound of its blades beating a regular rhythm against the wind. The unmarked helicopter landed about forty yards to their left, the displaced air beating a patch of perfectly nice purple gypsy flowers into the dirt. Nina winced at the sight. She doubted the delicate stems would recover from that.
Oblivious to Nina’s botanical distress, Jake helped her to her feet. “That’s Whit!” he shouted over the noise, that happy grin brightening his face again.
The helicopter landed nimbly on the shaggy but level patch of grass. A slim, long-legged man in jeans and an open blue Oxford shirt emerged from the helicopter. He slapped the helicopter door twice, prompting the pilot to take off. As the wind whipped his Oxford aside, Nina caught a glimpse of Captain America’s shield underneath.
Deacon Whitney ran a billion-dollar company and he still wore comic book hero T-shirts.
And of course he would show up before she was fully recovered from a siege of vomiting and possible hallucinations. As the helicopter and its hair-wrecking winds disappeared into the horizon, she did her best to straighten her mussed clothes and look presentable. She took one last breath-freshening sip of her soda and followed the others to greet Mr. Whitney.
Deacon was all long, lean limbs and angular lines, with high, sharp cheekbones and a jawline most matinee idols would sell their mothers for. But his hair was a shaggy, curling mess of light brown, completing the “disgraced aristocrat” look as much as the rumpled business casual clothes. Much as he had when they’d first met at his corporate offices, Deacon gave Nina the immediate impression of being uncomfortable with his surroundings. He’d covered it quickly enough, with easy, unaffected charm and firm handshakes all around, but Nina recognized the look of someone who was stressed and uneasy. She’d seen it in the mirror every morning for months.
Despite the kindred twinge she felt for another neurotic, she was determined to stay as far away as possible from Deacon Whitney. She’d dealt with easy charm before. She’d had more than her fair share of men whose money made the world go round, who thought they were so damn smooth they could lie to your face and get away with it. Nina had no interest in falling prey to that brand of man again, even if it came wrapped in a yummy, geek-chic package.
Jake stepped close and whispered something in Deacon’s ear. Deacon frowned and glanced at Nina. Suddenly self-conscious, she combed her fingers through her hair. “Excuse me for just a second,” Deacon said.
Leaving the trio of contractors to their own devices, Deacon and Jake wandered down the lawn a bit, clearly having some discussion of details. Deacon seemed unhappy, glancing over at Nina and then at the house, shaking his head. Jake shrugged and, judging from the smirk on his face, had just made some completely inappropriate comment. Deacon rolled his eyes skyward, as if asking heaven why he’d been saddled with this man as his friend. Deacon’s expression of exasperation was too well practiced. And Jake was too good at blithely ignoring it.
Jake poked Deacon’s shoulder, making Deacon roll his eyes again. So Jake nudged a second time, shoving him toward Ben, Cindy, and Nina.
“Jake just reminded me that ‘nice, nondouchebag’ employers’ greet people by name and make some effort to be sociable,” Deacon said, his cheeks flushing slightly. “So, hello, I’m Deacon Whitney, owner of this very large pile of bricks. Please excuse the dramatic entrance, but I’ve never been fond of boats.”
Nina would have liked to have known about the nonboat option. But perhaps there was no nonboat option for nonbillionaires.
“I chose each of you, not because you’re the biggest name in your field, but because you presented the most original ideas and I was excited to see what you would do with the place.”
“Not me,” Jake interjected cheerfully. “I was chosen because of favoritism.”
Deacon sighed and continued on as if Jake hadn’t spoken. “So, thank you for joining me here this summer and giving me your full time and attention in what I’m sure is your busy season. I promise the project will be worth your while. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t be afraid to come to me or Jake, here. And if you will follow me, we can get settled into the staff quarters.”
Nina had expected Whitney to take them into the main house to bunk in an abandoned guest room. But he led the group down an overgrown pebbled path around the house to a series of low-slung bungalow structures flanking the coach house and the stables.
“The original mistress of the house, Catherine Whitney, ordered the architect to build separate staff residences,” Cindy whispered to Nina as they trudged past the jagged remains of the greenhouses. “Even though the other cutthroat but ever-so-elegant Gilded Age ladies kept their servants close in case they had some urgent need for warm milk at midnight.”
Cindy Ellis started cleaning inns and B&Bs after her dad passed, she told Nina, working her way up the food chain. Her big break came when Martha Stark’s rotten teenage son had thrown a wild party, wrecking several rooms of her mansion on Cove Road while Martha was out of town for the weekend. Normally, Martha would have deferred to her own housekeeper for such a regular occurrence. But Martha was due to host her anniversary party in just a few days and poor
Esther couldn’t handle the cleanup and the party prep.
Cindy thought her father would be proud of what she’d built, her own operation, with her own staff and the pleasure of assessing each challenge as it came along to determine how she could use it as a way to grow. Even if those problems included a slightly eccentric boss, annoying male coworkers, and what appeared to be an enormous Scooby Doo set just waiting to launch spooks at her.
Nina intentionally lagged behind to put a bit more space between them and the men. “Do you know anything about Catherine’s . . . ?”
Cindy made an indelicate choking noise as she mimed being strangled. Nina frowned but nodded.
“About as much as you probably heard around the ghost story circles when we were kids,” Cindy whispered. “A celebrated society wife flees her much-older husband’s luxurious, recently completed summer retreat in 1900, only to be found the next morning floating in the bay not two hundred yards from her front door. She had suspicious bruises around her throat. There were a lot of whispers about the Whitneys’ marriage before the murder, and Mrs. Whitney’s history of spending so much time with the architect that designed their house didn’t help matters. The husband, Gerald, was immediately suspected and put through the indignity of being questioned by the police, but they either couldn’t or wouldn’t charge him with his wife’s murder. Gerald never recovered from the ordeal. The loss of his entire fortune in a series of bad investments sent him into a downward spiral, health-wise. He died in
1903 and their children, Josephine and Junior, were sent to live with relatives. The house was left fully furnished, clothes in closets, objets d’art still on the shelves, everything. The family never managed to recover their reputation or fortune. The house was abandoned, fell into disrepair, and here we are.”
Nina stared at her, hazel eyes wide. “Jake was right about you.”
Cindy’s own eyes narrowed at Jake, who had been frequently checking over his shoulder to make sure the girls were keeping up. “What did Rumson say about me?”
“That you were good at organizing,” Nina said, nudging her with an elbow. “That summary of the Whitneys’ sordid past was succinct and factoid-packed.”
Cindy blushed. “Oh, well, I like to keep things tidy.”
“Ladies?” Jake suddenly called from inside the dorm. “If you keep lollygagging, you’re going to miss the tour.”
The servant quarters were spartan, but it was obvious an effort had been made to make them comfortable. As they walked down the long hall of bedrooms, Jake explained that the original architect, John Gilbert, had designed a series of vents in the ceiling that allowed warm air to rise out of the room and kept the occupants cooler in the summer months.
The individual rooms were eerily quiet, each with two simple iron-frame beds, recently stripped of their ancient feather-tick mattresses. Ben’s crews had done basic renovations to three of the rooms, patching up holes in the plaster, painting, and giving the floors
a thorough cleaning. Deacon had taken the butler’s room, the largest in the building and the only one with a private sitting room. But in what Nina considered a remarkable show of fairness by their employer, each of the “new” rooms was decorated with the same simple queen bed, pale wood dresser, and nightstand. Ben’s and Jake’s rooms also included drafting tables. Nina imagined the queen beds were an accommodation for the sheer size of Ben’s six-foot-“good-God-how-tall-is-this-guy?” frame.
Nina spent most of the tour staring up at the wainscoting and crown molding. It seemed bizarre that the architect would devote those decorative touches to a utilitarian building that guests of the Crane’s Nest would never see. She looked over her shoulder to see Deacon watching her while Jake chattered about updated plumbing. Just as her brain managed to communicate the “smile like a normal person!” message to her face, he looked away, to the tablet Jake was shoving in his face.
They found the ladies’ dormitory, which was a mirror image of the men’s building save for the larger bedrooms. The Crane’s Nest required more maids than footmen and valets, so the younger women slept four to a room in the same iron bed frames. The recently updated kitchen shared a door with the men’s dorm, so the mostly female cooking staff could provide for both sides during their off hours. Nina guessed that the multitude of locks on the ladies’ side of the shared door had been employed overnight to protect the servants from temptation.
Nina’s first night as a resident of Whitney Island was not a momentous one. Dinner had been a stilted, awkward affair, with the team seated around the long dining table in the men’s dorm, scarfing down take-out Japanese food that Jake had ferried across from the mainland in a cooler. Jake tried valiantly to get a conversation going, bringing up Deacon’s love for a particular sashimi bar in Boston near his corporate headquarters and funny stories from Jake’s family’s travels to Kyoto when he was a teenager. But it didn’t work. Ben was good for an ice breaker every few minutes, but the minute portions of rice and raw fish seemed inadequate fuel for him and he couldn’t seem to maintain a steady stream of conversation. Deacon seemed to thaw a bit when the group started making checklists and plans: cooking rotations, the shower schedule, a first day to-do list to determine exactly how far in over their heads they were with this project. They’d finished dinner and settled down to brass tacks, each presenting their immediate plans for the house—stabilizing/rehabbing the interior structures, salvaging what few furnishings and antiques were left—and how they would work around each other to prevent delays and power-tool-versus-garden-implement hissy fits.
Curled in her solitary bed that night, Nina dreamed she was pulling the sheets tight over a mattress. The mattress was hers. The sheets were hers. But the arms stretching out in front of her belonged to someone else. A large diamond winked from her ring finger, flanked by sapphires. The sleeves of her dress were beautifully cut blue muslin, rolled to the elbow as the soft white
hands smoothed the counterpane. She was pleased that she was able to provide clean, comfortable rooms for her staff. She knew how hard the servants worked to keep a home running. And while she certainly didn’t need to make up the beds, she found a certain satisfaction in seeing to them herself. She could walk down the rows of rooms, seeing a freshly made bed in each, and know that she’d done something productive with her day. Besides, the servants wouldn’t arrive for a few days anyway. And it seemed inhospitable to welcome them to their new home with bare beds.
She bent over the far corner of the mattress, tucking the sheet tightly. And when she rose up, she felt a large hand slide down the small of her back and give her backside a pinch. She squealed and the man’s other hand clapped around her mouth, pressing her back against his chest.
“Well, look what I found here,” an affectionate male voice whispered against her ear. “A pretty piece of skirt already bent over the bed.”
A thrill of fear and something more rippled up her spine as those hands slipped around her hips and pressed her bum against a solid male frame. Teeth closed gently over her earlobe, tugging insistently. She relaxed into the masculine embrace, sighing as the mouth moved from her ear to her neck. The hand cupped her chin, tilting her head back toward him. His grip tightened, moving to her throat, squeezing the breath from her lungs. Nina scratched and coughed and fought, but he was just too strong.
Suddenly, the pressure at her throat disappeared.
The scene shifted and she was underwater, watching waves roll over her head. She tried to swim to the surface, but she was held in place by a growing pressure around her legs, tugging her down like an anchor, crawling up her body like greedy grasping hands until it settled around her throat. She reached upward, trying to claw her way toward air, toward light, but was unable to make any progress. Now she saw herself, her arm extended over her head in some obscene ballerina’s pose. Her delicate blue muslin sleeve fluttered against the water like an angel’s wing, and she watched its motion as it slowly turned brown and disintegrated with age. The sleeve rotted away, leaving a grotesque, decaying limb behind, sloughing and dissolving until all that was left were bleached ivory bones reaching up toward the light.
In her head, she could hear screaming.
Nina bolted up from the bed, clawing at her throat and gasping for breath.