North Hampton did not exist on any map, which made locating the small, insular community on the very edge of the Atlantic coast something of a conundrum to outsiders, who were known to wander in by chance only to find it impossible to return; so that the place, with its remarkably empty silver-sand beaches, rolling green fields, and imposing, rambling farmhouses, became more of a half-remembered dream than a memory. Like Brigadoon, it was shrouded in fog and rarely came into view. Perpetually damp, even during its brilliant summers, its denizens were a tight-knit, clubby group of families who had been there for generations. In North Hampton, unlike the rest of Long Island, there were still potato farmers and deep-sea fishermen who made a living from their harvests. Salty sea breezes blew sweetly over the rippling blue waters, the shoals were heavy with clam and scallop, and the rickety restaurants served up the local specialties of porgies, blowfish, and clam chowder made with tomatoes, never milk. The modern age had made almost no impression on the pleasant surroundings; there were no ugly strip malls or any indication of twenty-first-century corporate enterprise to ruin the picturesque landscape. Across from the township was Gardiners Island, now abandoned and left to ruin. Longer than anyone could remember, the manor house, Fair Haven, had been empty and unoccupied, a relic in the gloaming. Owned by the same family for hundreds of years, no one had seen hide or hair of the Gardiners for decades. Rumors circulated that the once-illustrious clan could no longer afford its upkeep or that the line had withered and died with its last and final heir. Yet Fair Haven and its land remained untouched and had never been sold. It was the house that time forgot, the eaves below its peaked roof filled with leaves, the paint chipped and the columns cracked as it sunk slowly toward dilapidation. The island’s boat docks rotted and sagged. Ospreys made their homes on the unadulterated beaches. The forests around the house grew thick and dense.
Then one night in the early winter, there was a sickening crunch, a terrible noise, as if the world were ripping open; the wind howled and the ocean raged. Bill and Maura Thatcher, married caretakers from a neighboring estate, were walking their dogs along the North Hampton shore when they heard an awful sound from across the water. “What was that?” Bill asked, trying to calm the dogs. “It sounded like it came from there,” Maura said, pointing to Gardiners Island. They stared at Fair Haven, where a light had appeared in the manor’s northernmost window. “Look at that, Mo,” Bill said. “I didn’t know the house had been rented.” “New owners, maybe?” Maura asked. Fair Haven looked the same as it always did: its windows like half-lidded eyes, its shabby doorway sagging like a frowning old man. Maura took the dogs by the grass but Bill continued to stare, scratching his beard.
Then quick as a blink, the light went out and the house was dark again. But now there was someone in the fog, and they were no longer alone. The dogs barked sharply at the steadily approaching figure, and the old groundskeeper realized his heart was pounding in his chest, while his wife looked terrified. A woman appeared out of the mist. She was tall and intimidating, wearing a bright red bandanna over her hair and a tan raincoat belted tightly around her waist. Her eyes were gray as the dusk. “Miss Joanna!” Bill said. “We didn’t see you there.” Maura nodded. “Sorry to disturb you, ma’am.
” “Best you run along now, both of you, there’s nothing to see here,” she said, her voice as cold as the deep waters of the Atlantic. Bill felt a chill up his spine and Maura shivered. They had agreed there was something different about their neighbors, something otherworldly and hard to pin down, but until this evening they had never been afraid of the Beauchamps. They were afraid now. Bill whistled for the dogs and reached for Maura’s hand, and they walked quickly in the opposite direction. Across the shore, one by one, more lights were turned on in succession until Fair Haven was ablaze. It shone like a beacon, a signal in the darkness. Bill turned to look back one more time, but Joanna Beauchamp had already disappeared, leaving no sign of footprints in the sand or any indication that she had ever been there. chapter one Cat Scratch Fever Freya Beauchamp swirled the champagne in her glass so that the bubbles at the top of the lip burst one by one until there were none left. This was supposed to be the happiest day of her life—or at the very least, one of the happiest—but all she felt was agitated.
This was a problem, because whenever Freya became anxious things happened—like a waiter suddenly tripping on the Aubusson rug and plastering the front of Constance Bigelow’s dress with hors d’oeuvres. Or the normally lugubrious dog’s incessant barking and howling drowning out the violin quartet. Or the hundred-year-old Bordeaux unearthed from the Gardiner family cellar tasting like Three Buck Chuck—sour and cheap. “What’s the matter?” her older sister, Ingrid, asked, coming up by Freya’s elbow. With her rigid modeling-school posture and prim, impeccable clothes, Ingrid did not rattle easily, but she looked uncharacteristically nervous that evening and picked at a lock of hair that had escaped her tight bun. She took a sip from her wineglass and grimaced. “This wine has a witch’s curse all over it,” she whispered, as she placed it on a nearby table. “It’s not me! I swear!” Freya protested. It was the truth, sort of. She couldn’t help it if her magic was accidentally seeping out, but she had done nothing to encourage it.
She knew the consequences and would never risk something so important. Freya could feel Ingrid attempting to probe through the underlayer, to peer into her future for an answer to her present distress, but it was a useless exercise. Freya knew how to keep her lifeline protected. The last thing she needed was an older sister who could predict the consequences of her impulsive actions. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk?” Ingrid asked gently. “I mean, everything’s happened so fast, after all.” For a moment Freya considered spilling all, but decided against it. It was too difficult to explain. And even if dark portents were in the air—the dog’s howling, the “accidents,” the smell of burnt flowers inexplicably filling the room—nothing was going to happen. She loved Bran.
She truly did. It wasn’t a lie, not at all like one of those lies she told herself all the time, like This is the last drink of the evening, or I’m not going to set the bitch’s house on fire . Her love for Bran was something she felt in the core of her bones; there was something about him that felt exactly like home, like sinking into a down comforter into sleep: safe and secure. No. She couldn’t tell Ingrid what was bothering her. Not this time. The two of them were close. They were not only sisters and occasional rivals but the best of friends. Yet Ingrid would not understand. Ingrid would be appalled, and Freya did not need her older sister’s reproach right now.
“Go away, Ingrid, you’re scaring away my new friends,” she said, as she accepted the insincere congratulations from another cadre of female well-wishers. The women had come to celebrate the engagement, but mostly they were there to gawk, and to judge and to titter. All the eligible ladies of North Hampton, who not too long ago had harbored notso-subtle dreams of becoming Mrs. Gardiner themselves. They had all come to the grand, refurbished mansion to pay grudging homage to the woman who had won the prize, the woman who had snatched it away before the game had even begun, before some of the contestants were aware that the starting pistol had been shot. When had Bran Gardiner moved into town? Not so long ago and yet already everyone in North Hampton knew who he was; the handsome philanthropist was the subject of rumor and gossip at horse shows, preservation society gatherings, and weekend regattas that were the staples of country life. The history of the Gardiner family was all everyone talked about, how the family had disappeared many years ago, although no one was sure exactly when. No one knew where they had gone or what happened to them in the interim, only that they were back now, their fortune more impressive than ever. Freya didn’t need to be able to read minds to know what the North Hampton hens were thinking. Of course the minute Bran Gardiner arrived in town he would choose to marry a teenage barmaid.
He seemed dif erent, but he’s just like the whole lot of them. Men. Thinking with their little heads as usual. What on earth does he see in her other than the obvious? Bartender, Freya wanted to correct them. Barmaid was a serving wench with heaving bosoms carrying tankards of beer to peasants seated at rickety wooden tables. She worked at the North Inn, and their gourmet brew came only in pints and had hints of prune, vanilla, and oak from the Spanish casks in which it was stored, thank you very much. She was indeed all of nineteen (although the driver’s license that allowed her to pour drinks said she was twenty-two). She was possessed of an arresting, effervescent beauty rare in a time when emaciated mannequins were the zenith of female pulchritude. Freya did not look like she was starving, or could use a good meal; on the contrary, Freya looked like she got everything in the world she ever wanted, and then some. She looked, for lack of a better word, ripe.
Sex seemed to ooze from every pore, to slither from every inch of her glorious curves. Small and petite, she had unruly strawberry blond hair the exact shade of a golden peach, cheekbones that models would kill for, a tiny little nose, large, catlike green eyes that slanted just a little at the tip, the smallest waist made for wearing the tightest corsets, and, yes, breasts. No one would ever forget her breasts—in fact, they were all the male population looked at when they looked at Freya. Her face might well be unrecognizable to them, but not so the twins, as Freya liked to call them— they were not too big, they did not display that heavy voluptuousness that droll ex-boyfriends called “fun bags,” which sounded to Freya too much like “fat bags”; no, hers were exquisite: perfectly round with a natural lift and a creamy lusciousness. She never wore a bra either. Which, come to think of it, was what had gotten her into trouble in the first place. She had met Bran at the Museum Benefit. The fund-raiser for the local art institution was a springtime tradition. Freya had made quite an entrance. When she arrived, there was a problem with a strap on her dress, it had snapped—ping!—just like that, and the sudden exposure had caused her to trip on her heels—and right into the arms of the nearest seersucker-wearing gentleman.
Bran had gotten what amounted to a free show, and on their first meeting, had copped a feel—accidentally, of course, but still. It happened. She had fallen—literally—out of her dress and into his arms. On cue, he had fallen in love. What man could resist? It was Bran’s acute embarrassment that had endeared him to her immediately. He had turned as red as the chrysanthemum on his lapel. “Oh god, sorry. Are you all right . do you need a . ?” And then he was just silent and staring, and it was then that Freya realized the entire front part of her spaghetti-strap dress had fallen almost to her waist, and was in danger of slipping off entirely— which was another problem, as Freya also did not wear any underwear.
“Let me—” And then he tried to step away but still keep her covered, which is when the hand-onboob happened, as he had tried to pull up the slippery fabric, but instead his warm hand rested on her pale skin. “Oh god . ” he gasped. Jesus, Freya thought, you’d think he’d never even gotten to first base with the way he was acting! And quick as a wink—because really, this whole experience just seemed to torture the poor guy—Freya’s dress was back in its rightful place, safety pin procured, cleavage appropriately covered (if barely—nudity seemed a natural progression given the deep cut of the neckline), and Freya said, in that natural, off-the-cuff way of hers, “I’m Freya. And you are . ?” Branford Lyon Gardiner, of Fair Haven and Gardiners Island. A deep-pocketed and generous philanthropist, he had made the largest contribution to the museum that summer, and his name was prominently featured on the program. Freya had lived in North Hampton long enough to understand that the Gardiners were special even among the old and wealthy families in this very northern and easternmost part of Long Island, which wasn’t Long Island at all (definitely not Long-guy-land, provenance of big hair and bigger malls and more New Jersey than New York), but a place of another dimension entirely. This little hamlet teetering at the edge of the sea was not only the last bastion of the old guard, it was a throwback to a different time, a bygone era. It might have all the accoutrements of a classic East End enclave, with its immaculate golf clubs and boxy hedgerows, but it was more than a summer playground, as most of its townsfolk lived in town year-round.
Its charming tree-lined streets were dotted with mom-and-pop grocery stores, its Fourth of July parade featured wagon-pulled firetrucks, and its neighbors were far from strangers, they were friends who came to visit and sip tea on the veranda. And if there was something just a bit odd about North Hampton—if, for instance, Route 27, which connected the moneyed villages along the coast, did not appear to have an exit into town, or if no one outside of the place had ever heard of it (“North Hampton? Surely you mean East Hampton, no?”)—no one seemed to mind or notice very much. Residents were used to the back country roads, and the fewer tourists to clog the beaches the better. That Bran Gardiner had been long absent from the social scene did not distract from his popularity. Any quirks displayed were quickly excused or forgotten. During the rebirth of his house, for instance, Fair Haven would be dark for days, but one bright morning the colonnade would appear completely restored, or else overnight the house would suddenly boast new windows or a new roof. It was all a mystery since no one could remember seeing a construction crew anywhere near the property. It was as if the house were coming alive on its own, shaking its eaves, shining with new paint, all by itself. Now it was the Sunday of the Memorial Day holiday, and what better way to kick off another idyllic summer in the Hamptons than with a celebration at the newly restored manor house? The tennis courts gleamed in the distance, the view of the whitecaps was unparalleled, the buffet tables heaved under the weight of the extravagant spread: chilled lobsters as big and heavy as bowling balls, platters of fresh, sweet corn, pounds and pounds of caviar served in individual tiny crystal bowls with mother-of-pearl spoons (no accoutrements, no blini, no crème fraîche to dilute the flavor). The unexpected rainstorm that morning had put a little damper on the plans and the party had been moved to the ballroom and out of the crisp white tents that stood empty and abandoned by the cliffside.
That Bran was thirty years old, smart, accomplished, unmarried, and rich beyond imagination made him the perfect catch, the biggest fish in the bridal pond. But what most people did not know, or care to know, was that most of all, he was kind. When Freya met him, she thought he was the kindest man she had ever met. She felt it—kindness seemed to emanate from him, like a glow around a firefly. The way he had been so concerned about her, his embarrassment, his stammer—and when he had recovered enough, he had brought her a drink and never quite left her side all evening, hovering protectively. There he was now, tall and dark-haired, wearing an ill-fitting blazer, shuffling through the party and accepting the well wishes of his friends with his customary shy smile. Bran Gardiner was not at all charming or erudite or witty or worldly like the men from his background, who relished zooming about the unpaved streets in their latest Italian sports cars. In fact, for an heir, he was awkward and self-conscious and Talented Mr. Ripley -ish—as if he were an outsider to an elite circle and not the very center of the circle itself. “There you are.
” He smiled as Freya reached to straighten his bow tie. She noticed the sleeves of his shirt were worn, and when he put an arm around her she smelled just the slightest hint of body odor. Poor boy, she knew he had been dreading this party a little. He wasn’t good with crowds. “I thought I’d lost you,” he said. “Are you all right? Can I get you anything?” “I’m perfect,” she said, smiling at him and feeling the butterflies in her stomach begin to calm. “Good.” He kissed her forehead and his lips were soft and warm on her skin. “I’m going to miss you.” He fiddled nervously with the monogram ring he wore on his right hand.
It was one of his little tics, and Freya gave his hand a squeeze. Bran was traveling to Copenhagen tomorrow on behalf of the Gardiner Foundation, the family’s nonprofit venture dedicated to promoting humanitarian charities around the globe. He would be gone almost the entire summer for the project. Maybe that was why she was feeling so jittery. She didn’t want to be without him now that they had found each other. The first night they met, he hadn’t even asked her out, which annoyed Freya at first until she realized it was because he was simply too modest to think she would be interested in him. Instead he showed up the next night during her shift at the Inn, and the next night, and every night after that, just staring at her with those big brown eyes of his, with a kind of wistful yearning, until finally, she had to ask him out—she could see that if she left it up to him, they would never get anywhere. And that was that. They were engaged four weeks later, and this was the happiest day of her life. Or was it? There he was again.
The problem. Not Bran, not the sweet man she had pledged to love forever— he had been stolen away by the crowd and was now in the middle of chatting up her mother. His dark head was bent over Joanna’s white one, the two of them looking like the best of friends. No. He was not the problem at all. The problem was the boy staring at her from across the room and from all the way down the length of the great hall. Freya could feel his eyes on her, like a physical caress. Killian Gardiner. Bran’s younger brother, twenty-four years old, and looking at her as if she were on sale to the highest bidder and he was more than willing to pay the price. Killian was home after a long sojourn abroad.
Bran had told Freya he hadn’t seen his brother in many years, as he moved around a lot and traveled the globe. She wasn’t sure where he had just come from—Australia, was it? Or Alaska? The only thing that mattered was that when they were introduced, he had looked at her with those startling blue-green eyes of his, and she had felt her entire body tingle. He was, for lack of a better word, beautiful, with long dark lashes framing those piercing eyes, sharp-featured with an aquiline nose and a square jaw. He looked like he was always ready to be photographed: brooding, sucking on a cigarette, like a matinee idol in a French New Wave film. He had been perfectly gracious, well-mannered, and had embraced her as a sister, and to her credit, Freya’s face had betrayed none of the turmoil she felt. She had accepted his kiss on her cheek with a modest smile, had even been able to engage him in the usual cocktail conversation. The soggy weather, the proposed wedding date, how he found North Hampton (she couldn’t remember, she might not have been listening: she had been too mesmerized by the sound of his voice—a low rumble like a late-night disk jockey). Then finally someone else had wanted his attention and she was free to be alone—and that was when all the small but awful things at the party began to happen. Cat scratch fever. That was all it was, wasn’t it? Like an itch you couldn’t quite reach, couldn’t placate, couldn’t satisfy.
Freya felt as if she were on fire—that at any moment she would spontaneously combust and there would be nothing left of her but ashes and diamonds. Stop looking at him, she told herself. This is insane, just another of your bad ideas. Even worse than the time you brought the gerbil back to life (she’d gotten an earful from her mother for that one, lest someone on the Council found out, not to mention that zombie pets were never a good idea). Go outside. Get some fresh air. Return to the party. She glided over to the vase of pink cabbage roses, trying to suffocate her whirling emotions by inhaling their scent. It didn’t work. She could still feel him wanting her.
Goddamnit, did he have to be so good-looking? She thought she was immune to that kind of thing. Such a cliché: tall, dark, and handsome. She hated cocky, arrogant boys who thought women lived to service their voracious sexual appetites. He was the worst offender of the type—screeching up in his Harley, and that ridiculous hair of his—that messy, shaggy, bangs-in-your-eyes kind of thing, with that sexy, come-hither smolder: but there was something else. An intelligence. A knowingness in his eyes. It was as if, when he looked at her, he knew exactly what she was and what she was like. A witch. A goddess. Someone not of this earth but not apart from it either.
A woman to be loved and feared and adored. She looked up from the vase and found him still staring directly at her. It was as if he were waiting the whole time, for just this moment. He nodded his head, motioning to a nearby door. Truly? Right here? Right now? In the powder room? Was that not just another cliché that went with the motorcycle and the bad-boy attitude? Was she really going to go into the bathroom with another man—her fiancé’s brother, for god’s sake—at her engagement party? She was. Freya walked, as if in a daze, toward the aforementioned rendezvous. She closed the door behind her and waited. The face that stared at her from the mirror was flushed and radiant. She was so happy she was delirious, so excited she didn’t know what to do with herself. Where was he? Making her wait.
Killian Gardiner knew what to do with wanton women, it seemed. The doorknob turned, and he walked in, smooth as a knife, locking the door behind him. His lips curled into a smile, a panther with his prey. He had won. “Come here,” she whispered. She had made her choice. She didn’t want to wait a moment longer. Outside the door, in the middle of the party, the cabbage roses burst into flame.