Colin MacDowell was one jet-lagged werewolf. The trip from Scotland to Aunt Geraldine’s private island off the coast of Washington State hadn’t seemed this arduous the last time he’d made it. Apparently a seventeen-year-old pup could take more travel abuse than a thirty-two-year-old Were.
A dark-haired werewolf in human form named Knox Trevelyan had greeted Colin at SeaTac International on this balmy June afternoon and had escorted him to a private helipad. Knox operated an air taxi service, one of many businesses owned by the powerful Trevelyan pack in the Seattle-Tacoma area.
“I’m really sorry about your aunt,” Knox said as he loaded Colin’s suitcase and carryon into the helicopter.
“Thank you. It was a shock.” Colin was touched by the sincerity in Knox’s voice.
Colin’s Scottish Aunt Geraldine and her Vancouver-born mate Henry Whittier had avoided Trevelyan pack politics in favor of a quiet existence on their little island. Henry’s death a few years ago hadn’t made much of a stir in the local Were community, which was how Geraldine had wanted it. Colin hadn’t expected anyone to mourn Geraldine’s passing, either.
“I was there when she died,” Knox said.
“Yeah. Her personal assistant, Luna Reynaud, called me in the middle of the night. I flew over to the island with the best Were medical team in Seattle. They tried, but they couldn’t save her. Her heart just gave out.”
“So it was you who made that emergency run?” Colin held out his hand to the pilot. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that.”
Knox returned his handshake firmly. “I wish we’d been in time.”
“From what her lawyer said, nobody could have made it in time. But considering how they’d avoided being part of the community, you went beyond what could be expected.”
“They didn’t have much of a pack mentality, but they donated generously to our environmental work.”
Colin nodded. “I did know about that.”
“Besides, Geraldine was a hoot. I’d pick her up every month or so for her recreational shopping trips in Seattle. Even after Henry passed away, she still loved hitting the resale shops for designer clothes and shoes.”
“I’m sure she did.” The thought was bittersweet. Geraldine had specified that the contents of her closet be donated to charity, so he’d see to it while he was there. She’d willed a few pieces of jewelry to her household staff, and he’d distribute that, too.
Knox sighed. “Damn shame. Well, might as well get you over there.”
“Right.” Colin climbed into the small chopper. Once he was settled in, his jet-lagged brain nudged him to do the polite thing and ask how the Trevelyan pack was faring.
“Quite well,” Knox replied. “My father runs a tight ship, and all the various concerns, including my air taxi service, are showing healthy profits.”
“Excellent.” Colin remembered another bit of disturbing Were news that he wanted to check out while he was in America. “We got word over in Scotland about the Wallace pack – two brothers each taking human mates. Is any of that happening in your pack?”
“Not that I’ve heard. But I met Aidan and Roarke Wallace last year, and they both seem happy with their choices. Maybe taking a human mate can work in some cases.”
“It seems bloody reckless to me.” Colin had used those very words the last time he’d had an argument about human-Were mating with his younger brother Duncan.
Knox shrugged. “Time will tell.”
“It’s a colossal mistake.” Colin shuddered at the possibility of humans breaching the security of the Were world. Through the ages, werewolves had suffered horribly whenever humans had uncovered their existence, so secrecy was the only protection they had.
Humans could be business associates, perhaps friends, and occasionally even lovers. But they couldn’t be trusted with the knowledge that Were packs controlled much of the wealth in major cities all over the world. One Were mating with one human risked all Weres losing everything, not to mention how it would dilute the werewolf gene pool.
Then there was the issue of whether the half-breed offspring would be Were or human, something the parents wouldn’t know until their child reached puberty. Colin couldn’t imagine waiting until then to discover if he’d sired a Were or a human. He shuddered at the thought.
Knox reached for his headset. “You could be right, but at this point it’s not a problem we’re dealing with in Seattle.” He turned to Colin. “Ready to go?”
“Yes.” Or as ready as he’d ever be. The sound of the rotor sabotaged any further conversation, and he was happy to slip back into his jet-lagged stupor. Exhaustion coupled with guilt sapped his desire for small talk.
Although he’d spent five summers on the island – from the age of twelve until he turned seventeen – he hadn’t been back since. What was done was done, and he couldn’t change anything now, but regret weighed on his soul.
He could come up with a million excuses for why he hadn’t visited. He’d been busy earning an economics degree. Then he’d dealt with his father’s poor health, and eventually he’d taken over as laird of Glenbarra. But surely in the past fifteen years he could have spared a week or two?
Nostalgia gripped him as the chopper approached Seattle. The Space Needle rose like an exclamation mark that would forever identify the city, and would forever remind him of the day he’d spent playing tourist with Geraldine. She’d treated him to dinner in the Needle’s revolving restaurant where he’d gazed endlessly at the lights that sparkled below them like the Milky Way.
Closing his eyes, Colin leaned back against the headrest and dozed. He roused himself as the chopper veered northwest and skimmed over Puget Sound headed for the San Juans, an archipelago that included dozens of islands large and small. They all had official names on the map, but Colin had forgotten what his aunt’s island was called. Now he just thought of it as Le Floret.
On his first visit, he’d told Geraldine that the island looked like a giant clump of broccoli rising from the sea. She’d promptly declared they would call it Le Floret from now on instead of whatever boring name the map showed. She’d laughed whenever she’d told that story. She’d had a great laugh.
As Knox began the descent, wind from the spinning blades ruffled water bright as polished chrome. Colin blamed the glare for making his eyes water. Taking off his Wayfarers, he wiped away the moisture before settling the sunglasses back in place. Soon he’d walk into Whittier House, and Aunt Geraldine wouldn’t be there. That was going to be very tough.
A maverick to the end, she’d nixed the idea of a funeral. Her lawyer had read Colin her final instructions over the phone, and they were typical Geraldine. Just dump my ass – I mean ashes – in with Henry’s and sprinkle them on Happy Hour Beach while you toast us with a very dry martini. Make sure we’re shaken, not stirred.
Then the lawyer had dropped the bombshell. Geraldine had left all her worldly possessions – the island, the turreted, Scottish-style mansion Henry had built for her, and every valuable antique in that mansion – to Colin. It was an incredibly wonderful gesture, but he wished to hell she hadn’t done it.
Much as he’d loved his irreverent aunt, he had no use for an island and an estate halfway around the world from Glenbarra. Sure, he had some fond memories of Le Floret and Whittier House, but keeping the property would be sentimental and impractical. As the new laird, he couldn’t afford to be either.
Geraldine’s lawyer had provided the name of a reputable Were real estate agent from Seattle, and Colin had contacted him before leaving Scotland. The agent would arrive the following afternoon, which would give Colin a chance to scatter the ashes and get some sleep.
That left the matter of the staff at Aunt Geraldine’s estate. That old codger Hector was still the groundskeeper, but the others had been hired since Colin had last visited. Perhaps the new owner would need them, but if not, Colin would hand the more recent hires a generous severance check and a letter of recommendation. He’d set up some sort of pension for Hector in recognition of his many years of service.
Selling a place that had meant so much to his aunt didn’t make him particularly happy. Geraldine had probably hoped that he’d cherish the estate as she had. But he couldn’t imagine flying more than twelve hours each way and dealing with an eight-hour time difference on a regular basis.
Logically, he had no choice but to unload what could become an albatross around his neck. The proceeds would bolster the MacDowell coffers, and after years of his father’s financial neglect and Duncan’s carefree lifestyle, the coffers could use some bolstering.
* * *
The rapid beat of helicopter blades vibrated the crystal chandelier over Luna Reynaud’s head and sent music and rainbows dancing through the entry hall. Tension coiled in her stomach. This Scottish laird had the power to ruin everything for her and the rest of the staff if he refused to consider her plan.
But he would consider it. He had to. She’d finally found a place where she belonged, and for the first time in her life she was part of a close-knit Were community. She wasn’t about to give that up without a fight. The loss of Geraldine had been a cruel blow, and she grieved along with the rest of the staff. If, on top of that, she lost this precious haven, too . . .
Well, she wouldn’t. No doubt Colin would arrive planning to sell the island. Although Geraldine had lovingly recounted tales from the five summers he’d spent here, he hadn’t been back since, so how much did he really care about it?
It was impractical as a second home, or in his case, second castle. Geraldine had called it a house, but no mere house had four towers, sixteen turrets, fourteen bedrooms, ten fireplaces and twenty giant tapestries.
But if Luna could convince Colin that this old pile, as Geraldine used to call it, would make a fabulous Were vacation spot, half the battle was won. If he’d trust her to manage it for him, then voila, an income stream for him and jobs for her and the staff. Most important of all, she wouldn’t have to leave a place that felt like home and people who had become her family.
She planned to appeal to his business sense, but she hoped he had a sentimental streak, too. Repeating the stories Geraldine had told her might stir his nostalgic memories and make him reluctant to sell.
She wouldn’t start her campaign right away, though. First she’d let him settle in and recover from his long journey. To help him do that, she’d provide him with every comfort Whittier House had to offer.
Preparations for his stay had begun the moment she’d been told of his arrival. When Geraldine was alive, Luna had managed the household while Dulcie and Sybil cleaned, Janet cooked, and Hector took care of the grounds with the help of some local teenaged Weres. But so much hinged on Colin’s visit that Luna had spent the past few days working side-by-side with Dulcie and Sybil.
She’d oiled woodwork, polished silver, and scrubbed the pink marble floor in the entry hall until she could see her face in it. This morning she’d wielded a duster on an extension pole to clean the magnificent chandelier that greeted visitors when they first walked through the carved front door. Then she’d switched it on to make sure that every facet sparkled.
But now late afternoon sunlight streamed through a window set above the massive door, a window placed there specifically to fill the entry hall with rainbows on sunny days. Luna turned off the artificial light. No point in letting Colin think she wasted resources. He was a Scot, after all, and they were supposed to be frugal.
Although she’d spent the first twelve years of her life in New Orleans, the city that proudly suggested “Let the good times roll,” she could be frugal, too. Thriftiness was one of the virtues that she intended to mention when she proposed her concept. Self-reliance was another.
She’d never known her father, and her mother had died when she was eight. She’d fled her grandmother’s house at fourteen and had been on her own ever since. She’d survived just fine.
Pulling her phone from the pocket of her tailored slacks, she called Dulcie. “Time for y’all to line up.”
“I heard the helicopter. I’ll get Sybil.” Dulcie’s voice was breathless. No doubt she was anxious about this moment, too, because she knew that they had to impress their visitor or risk leaving the island forever.
“Get Janet, too.”
“She’ll be watching her soap.”
“I know.” Janet’s skills rivaled those of Emeril, but she was also addicted to soap operas and had a flat screen in the kitchen. “Tell her to TiVo it and march herself out here. We want him to fall in love with Whittier House all over again, so fawning is in order.”
“I’ll get her.”
“Thanks. I estimate we have less than five minutes before Hector meets him at the helipad and brings him in.” She mentally crossed her fingers. She didn’t worry so much about the behavior of the two housekeepers and the cook, who all understood the gravity of the situation.
Hector was a different story. He’d been working for Geraldine and Henry ever since their marriage forty-five years ago. He considered himself part of the family rather than an employee. At sixty-eight, he was probably ready to retire now that they were both gone. He had nothing to lose and didn’t take kindly to direction.
When she’d suggested using the electric cart to transport Colin and his luggage to the house, Hector had rolled his eyes. “It’s just Colin, for crying out loud. He knows the place backwards and forwards. He doesn’t expect that kind of mollycoddling.”
“He might now that he’s a laird.” Luna wasn’t clear on exactly what being a laird entailed, but the title sounded elegant to her. Certainly worthy of being met with an electric cart.
“It’s no more than a hundred yards,” Hector had said. “Ferrying a perfectly healthy Were from the helipad to the front door is plain ridiculous, and Colin would think I’d gone senile if I tried it. Most folks have wheels on their suitcases. If he doesn’t, I’ll help carry. That’s plenty hospitable, if you ask me.”
Luna had known better than to argue with Hector. Short of driving the cart herself, which she didn’t intend to do because she wanted to be waiting in the entry hall with the staff lined up like they did in the movies, she was stuck with letting Colin walk and drag his suitcase along the curved and somewhat bumpy path from the helipad to the front door.
Sybil, who was in her mid-forties, arrived in the entry hall ahead of Dulcie and Janet. Short, dark-haired, and plump, Sybil had given up on finding a mate and now spent her free time making decorative items from driftwood. Dulcie, a curvaceous, fiftyish redhead with traces of gray in her curly hair, showed up next. She’d been widowed young and still dreamed of finding someone to share her golden years.
That wasn’t the case with Janet, a buxom blonde in her late forties who had no interest in another mate. She’d adored her late husband and couldn’t imagine anyone else measuring up. Janet entered the hallway last. She wore a bib apron over her T-shirt and jeans.
Luna recognized the cook’s shirt because it was one of Janet’s favorites. It spelled out YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS! in bright red letters across her ample chest. Fortunately the apron covered most of the message. Geraldine had never required uniforms of her staff, so they all dressed for comfort and as an expression of their personal style.
Sybil favored sweats and loose cotton blouses that disguised her ample figure, while Dulcie liked capris and sparkly T-shirts that highlighted her shape. Luna wondered now if Colin would be expecting uniforms. The three female Weres looked more like girlfriends who’d met for coffee than a trained staff of professionals. But it was too late to do anything about it, now.
Besides, with Geraldine gone, Luna wasn’t sure how much authority she had to make changes. Probably none, and besides, she didn’t want to alienate anyone by implying that their clothing wasn’t appropriate. They’d approved of her plan for saving their jobs, but that didn’t mean she was in charge of the entire operation. At least not yet.
In fact, she was technically the junior member of the group since she was the last one hired. Nobody deferred to her. In fact, all three affectionately teased her about her Southern accent and her celibate existence, which was admittedly unusual for a female Were of twenty-seven.
Luna didn’t mind the teasing, but she wasn’t ready to explain that she was a virgin who’d never dared to have a relationship with a Were or a human. Her human mother had died without telling her that she’d been fathered by a Were. On a stormy night soon after her fourteenth birthday, she’d had her first period, which she’d expected, followed by her first shift, which she hadn’t.
She’d run away, convinced that she was a monster who would be hunted and killed. Although she eventually figured out she wasn’t the only Were in the world, she also knew that she was a half-breed. She assumed that wasn’t a good thing and could mean rejection if any Were found out.
She’d buried that secret deep and kept on the move, trusting neither humans nor Weres. She hadn’t felt safe until she’d set foot on Le Floret and had met Geraldine. For the first time she’d remained in one place long enough to bond with Were females. Maybe someday she’d work up the courage to confide her half-breed ancestry to her new friends if they all managed to stay here under Colin’s ownership.
She’d lived on the island less than a year, replacing a Were who’d made the mistake of patronizing Geraldine as if age had left her mentally incapable. Luna was grateful for that departed Were’s tactless behavior, because it had allowed Luna to live in a place that had felt like home from the moment she’d arrived.
Janet took off her apron and glanced around, as if searching for a place to put it. Now every word on her shirt stood out as if written in flashing neon.
“I think wearing the apron is better,” Luna said. “That way he knows immediately that you’re the chef. He’ll be tired from all that traveling, and he’s dealing with grief just like the rest of us. He might have trouble remembering who we are and what each of us does.”
Sybil grinned. “Personally, I think he’ll remember that T-shirt, no problem.”
“My T-shirt?” Janet glanced down at her chest and groaned. “I completely forgot I was wearing this one.” She quickly donned the apron again. “I’m not used to having a male around.”
“Hector’s a male,” Dulcie pointed out.
“I mean a male, as in broad shoulders, narrow hips, nice tush. In other words, not Hector.”
“I hadn’t even thought about whether he’d be good-looking or not,” Sybil said. “Does anybody know?”
“Geraldine showed me a picture of him when he was seventeen,” Luna said. “He was tall and skinny, with big hands and feet.” And a beautiful smile, but she decided not to mention that. They’d accuse her of being interested, which she wasn’t.
Dulcie threw back her shoulders and tugged down the hem of her rhinestone-studded shirt. “You know what they say about big hands and big feet. And he’ll probably sound like Sean Connery. I’d love me some Scottish brogue.”
“Geraldine said he was privately tutored to minimize his accent,” Luna said.
“Even better.” Dulcie smiled. “A cultured Scottish brogue.”
Janet elbowed her. “Cool it, Dulcie. He’s thirty-two, so he’s young enough to be your kid.”
“Just barely! I may be a wolf, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a cougar, too.”
“Plus he’s probably pledged to some high-placed Were back in Scotland,” Sybil added. “Someone to fill the slot as the next lairdess.”
“Lairdess?” Janet frowned. “I don’t know beans about Scottish titles, but that can’t be right.”
Sybil started to giggle. “Yeah, that has to be wrong. Can you imagine being called Your Lairdess?”
“Especially if she has some junk in the trunk.” Dulcie got the giggles, too.
Janet began prancing around with her fanny sticking out. “Make way for Her Royal Lairdess! Her Royal Lairdess is coming through!” She was in mid-prance, with everyone laughing, including Luna, when the front door opened.
She swung around to face the door. So much for the dignified greeting she’d planned. Then she looked into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, and forgot every blessed preparation she’d made for this moment.
Colin MacDowell was, hands down, the most beautiful creature in the universe.
* * *
Apparently Luna had expected someone who looked like the seventeen-year-old in the picture she’d seen. But that gangly teenager had been replaced by an adult Were who took her breath away.
His features had matured into crisp, classic lines – strong nose, deep-set eyes, chiseled jaw. If pressed to name the color of his collar-length hair, she’d call it brown. But that wouldn’t begin to explain the strands of gold, bronze, and caramel highlighted by the sunlight pouring through the front door.
He wore slacks, a dress shirt unbuttoned at the neck, and a sport coat. On anyone else, the clothes would be ordinary, but Colin, backlit as he was, looked like a god, or perhaps an angel. And not one of those gauzy, delicate angels, either. Colin radiated power.
She drew in a breath and the sweet scent of him filled her with a kind of hunger she’d never felt before. His scent was familiar, as if she knew him from somewhere, and yet that was impossible.
Tucking his sunglasses into the breast pocket of his jacket, he released the handle of his rolling bag and stepped toward her. His smile was a ghost of the one she’d seen in his teenaged picture. Carefree innocence had been replaced with a polite gesture tinged by weariness. She wanted to wrap her arms around him and give whatever comfort she could.
“Hello.” He held out a large hand to her. “I’m Colin MacDowell, Geraldine’s nephew.” A slight accent that sounded almost British flavored his speech.
“I know.” Her words were more an expression of awe than a comment. That rich baritone of his would charm a female regardless of the accent. She took his very warm hand and held on as she gazed at him with rapture.
His eyebrows lifted in a subtle but unspoken question.
That silent signal brought her back to reality and her plan. She let go of his hand and cleared her throat. “We are so pleased to welcome y’all to Whittier House.”
‘Y’all?” He looked puzzled. “You’re not from the Trevelyan pack, are you?”
“I’m not from Seattle, your . . .” Grace? Highness? Lairdness? She should have researched his title and figured out what to call him. She’d been so busy scrubbing and polishing that she hadn’t thought of it. “Your, um, sirness.” She winced. That wasn’t right, either. Behind her she heard a snort from someone, probably Janet.
Colin ducked his head, obviously hiding a smile. Great. Now he was laughing at her.
When he looked up again, his face was composed but some of the weariness had left his expression. “Colin’s fine. Where are you from?”
“New Orleans, Louisiana, sir.”
“Colin,” he prompted again.
“Colin.” Saying his name felt like a privilege. She’d have to get over this hero-worship, though, if she expected to convince him that he could leave Whittier House in her capable hands.
“I didn’t know any Weres lived that far south.”
She gave him the story she’d used with everyone. “My parents were loners, and after they died, I came up here to be with other Weres.” It was a partial truth. She’d come in search of her father, not knowing he’d died before she was born.
“And your name is . . .?”
“Oh!” Her face grew hot. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t introduced herself. “I’m Luna Reynaud. I was your aunt’s personal assistant for about ten months, and I managed the household for her.”
“I’ll bet she also taught you to mix a very dry martini, shaken, not stirred.”
“As a matter of fact, she did.” She paused, thinking that might be a subtle hint that he could use a drink. “I can fix one in about two minutes if you’d like a –”
“I don’t need it yet. But her instructions for scattering her, uh, . . . ashes . . .” He looked down and swallowed. “Hers and Henry’s, that is. She wants me to toast the . . . the occasion with her favorite beverage.”
His barely disguised grief tugged at her heart. “On Happy Hour Beach.”
He raised his head and sorrow clouded his blue eyes. “Yes.”
“Bless your heart.” Luna’s throat tightened. She might have guessed that Geraldine would want her ashes scattered there along with her husband’s. The two urns sat waiting on the mantel of Geraldine’s sitting room fireplace, but as Luna wasn’t next of kin, the lawyer hadn’t revealed Geraldine’s instructions for those ashes.
Behind her someone sniffed. Luna suspected it was Sybil, the most tender-hearted of the staff. Another couple of seconds spent on the topic, and everyone would be crying, which wouldn’t help Colin get through this.
Luna injected brisk efficiency into her voice. “I’ll help with that, then.”
“The martini or the scattering?”
“Whatever y’all want.”
“Then I’d like help with both.”
“Absolutely.” The urge to wrap her arms around him swamped her again and she tamped it down. “Now let me introduce the rest of the staff.” She turned to discover that Janet, Dulcie, and Sybil had lined up as they’d originally practiced. Each of them seemed to be working hard to hold it together, which she appreciated.
A warm rush of loyalty and sense of family made her more determined than ever to save everyone’s job. She gestured to each one in turn. “Janet is our chef, and she’s amazing. She can make most anything in the world.”
He stepped forward and shook Janet’s hand. “Can you make haggis, then?”
To Janet’s credit, she didn’t blink. “Maybe not on short notice, but given a little time to research, I can –”
“Not necessary. I think haggis is dreadful stuff. If you can make salmon the way I remember, then I’ll be overjoyed. I think there was a plank involved.”
“I know exactly what you mean, and I can do that.”
“Thank you. I’ll look forward to it.”
The soft burr in his voice nearly put Luna into a trance again. She forced herself to concentrate as she introduced Dulcie and Sybil. “These two are the housemaids, and you’ll never find more dedicated and professional workers. If you need anything, buzz them on the intercom.”
“I’ll come running,” Dulcie said as she shook his hand.
“And I’ll come walking,” Sybil said. “I don’t do that running thing, but I know all the hallway shortcuts, so I’m almost as speedy as Dulcie.”
Colin smiled at her. “Don’t rush on my account. All I need right now is a hot shower.”
Luna thought of him standing in that hot shower and was gripped by a yearning she’d worked to subdue ever since puberty. Normally whenever she felt desire for a male, she’d been able to block it. Giving in to her sexuality would have been reckless when she had no idea how lovemaking affected Weres, or in her case, half-breeds. And she certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone and reveal her ignorance or her half-breed status.
But Colin’s potent appeal broke through every defense she’d constructed. Her body grew moist, and she ached in places she’d managed to ignore for years. She hadn’t counted on this complication, but she couldn’t allow it to distract her from her goal.
Hector’s voice boomed out from the doorway. “Are you going to keep the poor boy standing in the hall forever, or can I take him up to his room?”
Luna glanced at the lanky Were holding Colin’s leather carryon bag. Impatience flattened his mouth into a thin line and his shock of white hair stood on end where he’d run his fingers through it. Logically he’d feel Geraldine’s loss more than anyone here because of his long association with her, so Luna cut him some slack. Perhaps grief made him more cantankerous than usual.
She hadn’t discussed her plan with him because she was afraid he’d be against it. He’d often told her he liked the peace and quiet of this isolated island. If her plan succeeded, it would bring a constant flood of guests.
“I thought Colin would like to meet everyone,” she said. “But perhaps that wasn’t –”
“I did want that.” Colin leveled his blue gaze on her again. “Thank you all for coming out to greet me. I would have hated walking into an empty hallway.”
A hallway without Geraldine in it, Luna realized. “That wouldn’t have been right,” she said. Although she’d had more than a week to adjust to Geraldine being gone, Colin had never stayed in this house without his aunt being here, too. “But we’re done with the introductions, so Hector can take y’all upstairs.”
“If it’s the same room, I know the way.”
“It’s the same room,” Hector said. “I made sure of that. But I’ll go with you and see that everything’s the way you like it.”
Dulcie and Sybil both stiffened as if ready to take offense at the suggestion they hadn’t prepared Colin’s room well enough.
Luna sent them a warning glance, and they kept quiet. In Luna’s opinion, Hector had a right to be a little protective of Colin. They would have shared memories of Geraldine that the rest of them did not. “Thanks, Hector. Colin, let me know when to mix up that martini.”
He looked out the front door, which was still open. “It’s nearly happy hour, although I suppose if the sun doesn’t set until after nine these days, happy hour could be anytime from now until then.”
“Janet could fix us some food to take along if you’re getting hungry.” That would be a good idea, regardless. She didn’t want a tipsy Were on her hands.
“Food would be nice,” he said. “Just sandwiches, something simple.”
“I’ll pack a light dinner,” Janet said. “How soon do you want it to be ready?”
Colin glanced at his watch. “An hour?”
“That’s fine.” Janet nodded. “I’ll bring a basket to Geraldine’s sitting room. The wet bar’s there.”
“I remember.” A smile flitted across his face. Then he glanced at Luna. “Does that work for you?”
“Of course. I’ll be in Geraldine’s sitting room in an hour with a martini shaker and a basket of food.”
“Make sure to bring two glasses. I hate to drink alone.”
Colin turned to Hector. “Ready?”
“Been ready.” Hector started toward the curving marble staircase, and Colin followed.
Luna stayed in the hallway with Dulcie, Sybil, and Janet as Colin carried his suitcase up the stairs. He looked about as wonderful from the back as he did from the front.
After they disappeared down the corridor, Dulcie was the first to break the silence. “Oh, baby.” She packed a wealth of appreciation into those two words.
Luna couldn’t agree more, but she wasn’t about to say so. “Thanks for not responding to Hector’s remark about the condition of the room. Colin may be the closest thing to family he has left.”
“That’s true,” Janet said. “Whittier House has been Hector’s whole life.”
“He’s still a pain in the rear, but I’ll lay off for now.” Dulcie put her hand on her heart and sighed dramatically. “Because any friend of Colin’s is a friend of mine.”
“You might as well give up that project, Dulcie,” Sybil said. “He only has eyes for our Southern belle, here.”
Heat swept through Luna. “That’s not true!”
“Yeah, it is.” Janet gave her a knowing look.
“Don’t count me out, yet,” Dulcie said.
Janet slung an arm around Dulcie’s shoulders. “Sorry old girl. Luna has the inside track on this one. And it’s about time our little magnolia blossom had some romance in her life.”
Luna’s pulse skyrocketed at Janet’s implication, but she shook her head and adopted a businesslike tone. “Not happening. Too much at stake.”
“But sweetie,” Janet said. “That’s exactly why you should seduce that beautiful Were. The male of the species tends to mellow out after good sex. A roll in the hay might tip the scales in your favor.”
Both the subject and her lack of experience caused her face to flame. “I don’t think so. I’m not . . . great at that kind of thing.”
Dulcie grinned at her. “I wouldn’t worry about it, toots. Something tells me he is.”
* * *
Colin had dreaded walking into Whittier House now that Geraldine was gone, but it hadn’t been too bad thanks to Luna Reynaud. Yes, her wavy dark hair, fair skin, and wide green eyes would capture any male’s attention, but it wasn’t her beauty that had lifted his heavy heart. It was her endearing lack of sophistication.
He could see immediately why Geraldine had hired her. Earnest sincerity was a quality his aunt had prized, and Luna had that, plus a subtle vulnerability that inspired his protective instincts. He had no doubt Luna had taken excellent care of Geraldine, but Geraldine had probably mothered Luna more than a little bit.
It was obviously a happy household, even in grief. He’d felt better the minute he’d heard laughter coming from behind the closed door. He’d known from Hector’s scowl that the groundskeeper disapproved of laughter at a time like this. But Colin had been pathetically grateful for that first glimpse of Luna’s smiling face when he’d opened the door. She’d banished the shadows he’d expected to find and had replaced them with sunshine.
Next time he saw her, he’d ask what they’d been laughing about. He liked knowing that Geraldine had continued to surround herself with cheerful people. The one exception was Hector, who had always been on the grumpy side, even fifteen years ago.
“So everyone’s new except you, then,” he said as they headed toward the room at the end of the corridor, the same one Colin had been given as a teenager.
“Luna’s new. The others have all been here about ten years, I guess.”
“And she’s been here less than a year? She seems to fit right in, and to be a good sort.”
Hector didn’t respond.
Colin glanced at him. “You don’t like her?”
“It’s not a matter of like or don’t like. She’s hiding something. I’d take bets on it.”
“Apparently my aunt trusted her.”
Colin had a sudden thought. Hector’s nose could be out of joint if he’d expected to be part of scattering the ashes. “Listen, Hector, would you like to go with me down to Happy Hour Beach? I can tell Lunda to skip it –”
“Hell, no. I’m glad to have you two take care of it. Not my thing. Anyway, we’re here.” He gestured for Colin to go ahead of him into the bedroom at the end of the hall. “Let’s get you settled.”
Tabling the subject of Luna for now, Colin walked into the room Geraldine had chosen for him on his first visit. In the far right corner, a spiral metal staircase led to a trap door that opened onto the crenellated tower above. No teenager could resist a feature like that, and somehow she’d known, despite having no children herself.
The room was achingly familiar, with tattered paperbacks in the bookshelf along with a stack of board games. Two sports pennants, one for the Seahawks and one for the Mariners, were tacked to the wall over the bookcase. Grief lodged in his throat as he was swept back to his first summer, the summer after he’d reached puberty.
He’d known puberty would bring the ability to shift. All Were children were carefully instructed in how to deal with that change. But being told what to expect was a far cry from actually experiencing it.
A few times over the years he’d heard humans complain about those miserable years when they were neither child nor adult. He’d had to laugh. Sure, human kids had hormonal issues and zits, but they didn’t periodically shift into a creature with fangs and fur. Try dealing with that on a first date.
Until he’d learned to control that ability, he couldn’t go to a movie or an arcade frequented by human teens without worrying that the urge would suddenly come upon him. All a teenage boy had to fear was an unexpected erection. Weres risked an unexpected transformation that could get them killed.
Now he wouldn’t trade his Were status for anything, but those teenage years had been hell. His Aunt Geraldine and Uncle Henry had offered this island as a refuge while he was learning to adapt to a confusing new reality. Colin had liked Henry okay, but he’d adored Geraldine, who had seemed to understand his youthful insecurities.
Damn it, he should have come to see her when Henry had died several years ago. He should have flown over to offer whatever comfort he could. But he hadn’t, and that failure would haunt him for a long time.
“Far as I know, nothing’s been changed in here,” Hector said. “Aired and cleaned, of course, but not changed.”
“I’m glad it hasn’t changed.” That first summer, his aunt had been anxious about whether he’d like the drapes and bed linens she’d chosen for him, which depicted the night sky in silver against a dark blue background.
He’d thought the pattern was beautiful, and it had sparked an interest he still had. When she’d realized the astronomy décor suited him, she’d bought him a telescope. Winters were rainy here, but summers were generally clear, and he’d spent hours on the flat roof of the tower studying the heavens.
Colin set down his suitcase and turned to Hector. “Do you know if the telescope’s still around?”
“Probably in the closet. She wouldn’t have gotten rid of it.”
No, she wouldn’t have, because she’d probably thought he might come back and use it again. Walking over to the closet, he opened the door. The telescope box sat on a shelf over the clothes rod. All the wooden hangers were empty except one.
He turned on the light and his heart squeezed. She’d kept the Seattle Space Needle hooded sweatshirt he’d bought and left here to wear on cool summer nights. Taking off his sport coat, he hung it up, unzipped the sweatshirt, and slipped it from the hanger.
Maybe it smelled a little musty, but he didn’t care. Maybe it was a little tight through the shoulders. Didn’t matter. He tugged it on and zipped it partway up.
Then he glanced toward the doorway where Hector stood. “I miss her like the devil, Hector.”
The groundskeeper nodded.