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Crowned and Moldering

Crowned and Moldering

Chapter One

I gazed up at the neglected beauty and tingled with excitement. I was so ready to turn this old eyesore into the grand masterpiece it had once been.

The venerable lighthouse mansion was situated on a large tract of land surrounded by a once-lovely green lawn that had become overgrown and scruffy with crabgrass and brown weeds. A fine layer of sand covered the entire expanse, having been carried by the wind from the dunes on the beach nearby.

The lighthouse tower stood a few yards away to the north of the house. To the west, the rough, rocky breakwater speared into the sea. Waves crashed and a fine mist of salt water was spewed in every direction.

"I love my job," I murmured as I grabbed the thick roll of blueprints from the narrow backseat of my truck. I slammed the door shut and marched across the sprawling lawn.

The rough March wind gusting off the ocean lifted my mop of wavy red hair and blew it around until I couldn't see straight. I finally had to stop at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the front porch or risk tripping on the steps. I set down the tool chest I was carrying and shoved the hair back off my face. And that's when I beheld the wondrous sight before me at the top of the stairway.

MacKintyre Sullivan, world-famous, bestselling thriller writer and former Navy SEAL, stood with his arms crossed as he leaned against one of the smooth Doric columns that braced the roof covering the wide porch. The man looked for all the world like some handsome, dashingly entitled lord of the manor—if the lord of the manor happened to be an unrepentant pirate with a wicked smile and a gleam in his dark blue eyes.

Mac had moved to Lighthouse Cove a few months ago and almost immediately looked into buying the famous mansion by the lighthouse. The purchase had to be approved by both the town Planning Commission and the Historical Society. Not only was the mansion a local landmark with a lot of history attached to it, but also the new owner of the home would be responsible for upkeep of the lighthouse—for which our town was named.

"Those are the new blueprints?" Mac asked, pointing at the thick roll of papers in my hands. "So this is it? No more delays?"

"No more delays—I promise you." I picked up my tool chest and made my way up the eight steps and onto the sturdy wooden porch. Flashing him a determined smile, I added, "And no more red tape from the Planning Commission. No more whining from the Historical Society. And, especially, no more tiny white rats to send me screaming from this house again."

He laughed, and I couldn't blame him. It was still a source of deep embarrassment to me that a few weeks ago, I had spotted the little-bitty rodent skittering across the kitchen floor. With a shriek, I had dashed out of Mac's kitchen and hadn't stopped until I'd made it all the way across the wide lawn to my truck.

What can I say? Rats creep me out.

"Then we're finally ready to get started." He pushed away from the column and strolled toward me. "I've cleared my schedule for the next two weeks."

"Perfect." Because, to be honest, Mac's busy schedule had also produced a number of holdups lately. Flying off to New York, meeting with editors, dining with agents, going on book tours. Deadlines. The world-famous writer was a busy man.

I recalled one more unhappy distraction that had occurred recently and prayed there would be no more funerals, please. We didn't need anyone else dying in Lighthouse Cove. Besides being unbearably sad, the recent suspicious death of a dear friend had indeed thrown a shocking wrench into the schedule, causing yet more delays to Mac's plans to start the renovation of his new home.

Another gust of wind rushed up from the ocean, but before it could whip my hair into a greater tangle of curls, I turned toward the wind and lifted my face to catch the mist.

"Man, I love it out here," Mac said, sliding his hands into the pockets of his Windbreaker.

"It's a good day." Cold, windy, with dark clouds forming out on the horizon; there would be rain within a few hours. Still, it was wonderful to be here, ready to begin the job of rehabbing the most iconic house in Lighthouse Cove for the hunky Mac Sullivan.

I checked my watch, eager to begin. Once my guys and I finished going through the house with Mac, I would work out a schedule and make up a list of supplies and equipment we would need. And within a few days, my crew and I would start restoring this wonderful old Victorian to its former glory.

"Wade and Sean should be here any minute," I said, referring to my foreman, Wade Chambers, and one of my most reliable crew members, Sean Brogan.

"In that case," Mac said, "I'll get this out of the way." And with that, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me.

I didn't protest. I should've, but instead I sighed and wrapped my arms around his neck, reveling in the warmth of his touch. This really was not a good idea. And I would put a stop to it any minute now.

A truck horn sounded out on the highway and I jolted and took a quick step backward. It took me a moment to catch my breath. "Uh, that must be the guys."

Mac was smiling broadly as he let go of me. "Must be."

I coughed softly, knowing the guys' truck wouldn't actually show up in front of Mac's house for another minute or two. I just needed to give myself a few more seconds to recover from the unexpected kiss. "Hmm."

He laughed and stroked my hair. "I'm crazy about you, Irish."

I was kind of crazy about him, too. But since I was afraid of setting myself up for a fall, I gave him a weak smile and said nothing.

Mac and I had grown close over the past few months, since he'd moved to Lighthouse Cove. It helped that he'd rented the guest apartment over my garage and lived only a few yards away from me. We'd had a few late-night adventures while chasing down a killer and, yes, there had been a few kisses. I had hoped that maybe we'd grow closer and, well . . . Anyway, things got complicated the morning I saw him escorting a gorgeous blond supermodel out of his apartment. Ever since then I'd been rethinking the idea of getting involved with one of the most-sought-after bachelor millionaires in the world.

I probably should've demanded to know what he'd been thinking by flirting with me while seeing some supermodel on the side. But it wasn't like me to be pushy that way, an obvious flaw in my character. Don't get me wrong, I could be plenty assertive in other areas, but when it came to men and dating and such, I tended to hold back. Considering my checkered dating history, it made sense. In the past nine years, I'd dated exactly three men. One turned out to be gay, another was a car thief, and the third ended up dead—or, to put it more bluntly, murdered. Was it any wonder that I didn't want to probe too much? Better to just walk away with my sanity and ego intact.

That was one more reason why I should've ended the kiss as soon as it began. Another was that kissing a client on the job probably wasn't the most professional thing I could've been doing right then, especially with my crew guys about to drive up at any second. But did that stop me? Obviously not.

In my defense, Mac was a world-class kisser.

I shook off those thoughts and took the opportunity to study the elegant old porch. It was wide and stretched across most of the front and halfway along the north side of the house, following the curve of the corner tower. Double Doric columns gave the graceful, circular porch a worldly style that belied the mansion's utilitarian roots. With its incomparable ocean view, the porch could be turned into a wonderful outdoor living/dining space.

Currently, though, it was pretty shabby. The floor planks were dull and a few of the boards around the outer edges were spongy and crumbling after sustaining years of damage from the sun and ocean air. Once those boards were replaced, we could re-sand the surface and add several coats of clear varnish, and all of it would be shiny and new again.

Things wouldn't go so easy for the beams above our heads. The porch roof had actually begun to sag from water damage, and those rotten headers and crossbeams would need replacing immediately. The sooner we started work on this portion of the house, the better. I figured if I could see the wood decomposing with my own eyes, it had to be even worse beneath the surfaces.

I jotted down more notes on my tablet and then used the device to take some photographs of the decaying beams in order to remind myself how bad the damage was.

Wade's truck finally came into view and Mac jogged down the steps and over to meet the guys. I took the moment to regroup, breathing in more ocean air and staring at the spectacle of waves tumbling and crashing against the rocky coastline.

Once I'd cleared my head and regained my senses—that kiss really was more potent than I'd realized—I was able to relax and watch Wade's truck jerk and buck to a stop. There was nothing wrong with his truck; the lurching was due to the timeworn cracks and potholes that pitted Old Lighthouse Road, right up to the edge of Mac's property. I had a feeling he would want to repave the path eventually, unless he liked replacing tires on his SUV more often than usual.

I waved to my guys, who were unloading their tool chests and ladders, with Mac lending a hand. Since they had things well in hand, I continued making notes on the exterior repairs we would need to make to bring the house back to its former splendor.

For some unknown reason, people in Lighthouse Cove had always called this place the lighthouse mansion. Yes, the house stood within a few yards of the lighthouse, but it was the mansion part of the phrase that had always seemed misleading. That was because our town was famous for its abundance of breathtakingly massive Victorian homes, while Mac's new place wasn't all that large. But the home had a quiet, stately presence, unencumbered by the ostentatious gingerbread detailing that Victorians were known for. The term mansion just seemed to suit it.

Despite the lack of decorative clutter, the mansion still had many of the classic Queen Anne features, including the convoluted roof lines, the seemingly random placement and sizes of the windows, the multiple chimneys, and the many different surface textures that changed from floor to floor and gable to gable.

On the second floor, a shingled overhang sheltered a set of arched Palladian windows braced by more Doric columns. I made a note to check those charming old fish-scale shingles for termite damage. A small balcony off the master bedroom on the second floor cried out for a new railing. The copper gutters circling the third-floor tower would have to be replaced. I could see the gaping holes from where I was standing.

I hadn't seen the basement yet, but according to the blueprints, it ran the entire length and width of the house. You didn't see that feature in many Victorian homes, and if Mac wanted to, he could probably create the biggest man cave in town. But chances were good that some load-bearing posts and a beam or two would have to be replaced before any other work could occur. Wind and water damage was the price a homeowner paid to have a house this close to the shoreline.

I took a quick walk down the steps and around to the south side of the house, where a jewel-box-sized solarium had been built to connect with the first-floor parlor, or living room. It was a true rarity, made of strong white galvanized wrought iron and tempered-glass panels. I stared through one of the windows and saw the worn brick floor in a room just large enough to contain a few dozen plants and some potted trees, along with a small conversation area made up of a settee and a chair or two. It would be the perfect sunny place to read a book or take a nap.

The presence of a solarium might've seemed frivolous at first glance, but I'd read that the navy had built it specifically to grow citrus trees in pots, in order to provide juice for the sailors who were once stationed here. No scurvy for those boys.

Past the solarium was the root cellar with its thick wooden door, detached, deteriorating, and leaning against the side of the house. As I'd noted on my last visit, there were shutters hanging off their frames and several bricks missing from the chimney at the back of the house. The paint on most of the exterior walls was peeling badly, but there was plenty of other work to be done before we could start scraping, sanding, and painting.

Call me perverse, but seeing all the damage just made me more excited to explore the entire house. I took a quick moment to stare up at the spectacular sight of the lighthouse tower standing sentinel over the town and this stretch of the coast. It never failed to impress me with its clean white surface shooting one hundred feet into the sky. I'd climbed its spiral wrought-iron staircase many times over the years and knew the view at the top was sensational. Gazing up at the glass-walled lantern room at the very top, I wondered if Mac had ever been up there. I would have to remember to ask.

I circled back to the front where Sean, Johnny, Wade, and Mac were trudging up to the porch with tool chests, a ladder, and other equipment for the walk-through.

"Hey, boss," Sean said, laying his eight-foot ladder down at the far end of the porch and out of the way.

"Hi, guys," I said. "Are we ready to get started?"

"You bet," Wade said.

Johnny nodded. "Let's do it."

Even though I had a key to the front door, I gestured to Mac. "You go ahead. It's your new home."

He unlocked the door, walked in, and looked around. I knew he was familiar with the first-floor rooms, but he'd never seen the whole place from attic to basement. Mac had bought the house after barely half an hour of walking through a few rooms and strolling around the property. That was all the time it had taken for him to fall in love and make an offer.

"I had the power and water reconnected a few weeks ago," Mac said, "so the lights should work."

"If there are still any bulbs in the fixtures," Wade said.

Mac grinned. "Right."

Wade flicked the nearest light switch and the foyer lit up nicely, thanks to the old-fashioned chandelier hanging from the twelve-foot-high ceiling. "Oh, man. This place is awesome. Look at all that mahogany paneling."

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" I ran my hand over the rich wood surface of the stairwell. Unlike some Victorian entryways that were dark and narrow and barely had room to hold an umbrella stand, this one was a large, square, well-lit room. On one side of the foyer was a double doorway leading into a paneled living room, and on the other was an arched doorway that led to a formal dining room.

The broad staircase hugged the wall from the second landing down, until it curved and widened to meet the parquet flooring of the foyer. Roomy staircases always made me think of my father, who specialized in them because the old-fashioned, steep, skinny Victorian stairways made him claustrophobic.

The ceilings of all the first-floor rooms were twelve feet tall with ten-inch-wide crown molding, a picture rail below that, and carved plaster medallions in the center of the ceilings that created a base for hanging chandeliers. In addition, the dining room had twelve-inch-high baseboards and a chair rail. Even though some of the crown molding, the leaf-patterned cornices, and the stone corbels were crumbling with age, the rooms had maintained their elegance. And we could easily replicate and replace the damaged embellishments.

Sean walked over to the living-room fireplace and studied the mantel. "Holy moly," he muttered, running his hand along the smooth, highly varnished, six-inch-thick piece of wood. "This is fantastic."

Mac joined him. "From what I was told, it was taken off the ship that went down in Lighthouse Cove Bay."

Sean's eyes bugged out. "Seriously? This is from the Glorious Maiden?"

"That's what the guy from the Historical Society told me. It was part of the ship's bow. Apparently the Coast Guard members stationed here would occasionally find pieces of the ship washed up on the rocks and were able to put some of them to good use."

"Cool," Sean whispered. "The fireplace is great, too."

I agreed. Beneath the wood mantel, the chimneypiece was made of black marble and the fender was cast iron. Whimsically painted tiles lined the jambs. The inner brick walls were blackened from decades of fire and smoke. I thought the fireplace suited Mac perfectly, giving the room a strong, masculine vibe.

"Let's see what condition it's in," Wade said. He got down on one knee and bent over to get a look at the flue. "Looks clear." He reached in and fiddled with the damper. "Seems to move well. I'll make sure everything's working once we've started the job."

"Thanks," Mac said. "I appreciate it."

"Part of the service," Wade said, standing and slapping his hands together to get rid of the soot he'd gotten on him.

I wandered over to the floor-to-ceiling bay window at the opposite end of the room from the foyer. It was one of my favorite features of the house and it faced north, giving Mac a fantastic view of the coastline. The windows looked to be in good condition, but given their age, I suspected we'd have to replace the sashes and hardware and, in some cases, the glass itself.

Wade went out to the porch and carried a card table into the house. He set it up in the living room and I spread the blueprints out, rolling them backward a few times to get them to lay flat. Now I'd be able to refer to the new prints anytime I needed to.

I pulled out my tablet again. "If you're ready, I thought we could start at the top with the third-floor attic and work our way down. The only room I've really seen is this one, plus the kitchen, although I didn't stick around in there long enough to make many notes. We'll take another look around before we leave."

"Yeah, we've all heard about your adventures in the kitchen." Sean snickered.

I groaned out loud. "Okay, fine. So I was freaked out by a rat."

Johnny blinked dramatically. "Rat? I heard it was the tiniest mouse ever seen in these parts."

"It was a rodent," I said through clenched teeth.

Johnny and Sean laughed at my expense and I finally had no choice but to join in. What could I say? I suppose I was glad my guys were comfortable enough around me to give me grief on a daily basis. I would've hated to have a crew that treated me like the boss.

As we climbed the stairs, Mac talked about turning the attic space into another bedroom. I thought that was a smart idea, even though the house already had six bedrooms. It was always good to finish off a room that was still showing studs, if only to provide better insulation to the whole house. I imagined the attic was in that unfinished condition, but maybe not. It might've been used as a bedroom during World War II, when the mansion was famously occupied by a group of coastguardsmen charged with safeguarding the Northern California coastline from Japanese submarines.

The stairs leading from the second floor to the attic were a bit steeper and narrower than the main staircase. Back in the day, the attic would have been the servants' quarters and, as a rule, no one was very concerned over the help having to carefully maneuver down a scary staircase.

Mac led the way up and used his key to unlock the door. He jiggled the handle a few times but couldn't get the door opened.

"I got it unlocked, but it's stuck."

"Let me try," Sean said with a grin. "I'm younger and in better shape than you."

Everyone laughed. Mac was in fabulous shape and only a few years older than Sean, but Sean was the biggest, strongest guy on my crew. That was saying a lot, because the men who worked for me were plenty sturdy. But Sean was my expert when it came to demolishing a room with a single sledgehammer.

Mac stepped aside and Sean grabbed the doorknob with both hands, pulling as hard as he could. He gave it a few more tries before admitting defeat. "That door is stuck."

Mac patted him on the back. "You gave it a good try."

Sean stared at the door, scratching his head, unwilling to give up the fight.

I looked at Mac. "Do you mind if we break it down and replace it later? It's probably swollen shut from years of water damage so you'll probably want to get a new one, anyway."

"Yeah," he said with a shrug. "Might as well."

"You'll need a sledgehammer," I said.

"I'll get one from the truck," Johnny said, and hustled downstairs and outside. He returned in less than two minutes, carrying a sledgehammer and a powerful-looking ax. He held them out and Sean, who had pulled his work gloves on in the meantime, reached for the ax. Mac, Wade and I moved quickly down the stairs and out of Sean's swinging range.

"Everyone safe?" Sean asked.

"Yeah," Johnny said, stepping out of Sean's way. "Take your best shot."

© Kate Carlisle


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