Title: The House on Druid Lake
Author: Isabelle Adler
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 10/04/2021
Heat Level: 3 - Some Sex
Genre: Paranormal, LGBTQIA+, contemporary, gay, PNR, Halloween, haunted house, shifters, architect, mystery/suspense, office drama, ghost, mythical creatures, werewolf
A new city, a new job, a new home—things are definitely looking up for Oliver Foster. An aspiring young architect, embarking on a successful career in Baltimore, all he wants is to put the pain of a broken heart and broken trust behind him. The last thing he needs is another ill-advised romantic entanglement. But despite his best intentions, Oliver can’t help his growing fascination with Nym Brown, the mysterious owner of Lakeside Lodge.
When Oliver rents an apartment in an old Victorian house overlooking Baltimore’s Druid Lake, he expects it to be quaint and shabbily charming. But as Halloween draws near and all things spooky come out to play, Oliver becomes convinced there is more going on at Lakeside Lodge than meets the eye, aside from the faulty plumbing. His neighbors are a whole new definition of quirky, and his enigmatic, gruff landlord is both intimidating and dangerously attractive.
Dark and sinister secrets lurk behind the house on Druid Lake’s crumbling façade. Unearthing them might yet put Oliver’s future—and his heart—on the line.
The House on Druid Lake
Isabelle Adler © 2021
All Rights Reserved
Lakeside Lodge looked more like Dracula’s castle than a gingerbread house.
Oliver paused on the stone steps that cut across a long grass knoll and peered up at his new place of residence. It was difficult to get a proper look at the house from the road, obscured as it was by the tall chestnut oaks and red maples that surrounded it. But from this viewpoint, just outside the wrought-iron gate, the massive gable above the front porch was clearly visible, as was the turret on the right side of the roof.
Comparing the house to a castle was perhaps an exaggeration, at least where size was concerned. But it certainly possessed an old-world fairy-tale charm and an intangible aura of mystery. It had been evident even in the few photos that accompanied the online listing which had sold Oliver on it in the first place, making him contact the real estate agent and take it sight unseen. Well, that and the exceptionally low rent combined with the nice location right on Druid Lake and next to the park, just a few minutes’ drive away from Oliver’s new job in Central Baltimore.
Also, Jake would’ve hated it, and Oliver felt a particular satisfaction about no longer having to conform to Jake’s plans and wishes.
However, now that Oliver stood in front of the house in the failing light of an early October afternoon, a heavy duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he couldn’t deny there was something disquieting, even disturbing, about the jumble of architectural elements piled in a haphazard fashion. The building was three stories high, crowned with a shingled mansard roof with prominent dormer windows which must have commanded a stunning view of the lake across the road. A wide front porch boasted square tapered columns, and a fanciful pediment in the shape of a stylized owl with outspread wings adorned the gable. It was very Victorian, with touches of Gothic Revival and American Craftsman thrown into the mix. But the style skewed heavily to whimsical as if the architect (or maybe the owner) couldn’t stop themselves from adding all their favorite design elements to the project. Like a magpie decorating its nest with every manner of shiny, without sparing a thought to the harmony of it all. The end result, though imposing, was more reminiscent of a cheesy B-movie haunted mansion than an actual apartment building, old as it might be. The wilted lawn and unkempt tree garden that stretched into the backyard didn’t help the impression, though the grounds, as befitting a mansion, were much more expansive than those of any of the neighboring properties.
By the time Oliver climbed the stairs to the porch, he’d begun to suspect the reason for the low rent. Up close, everything exhibited signs of mild, to even prominent, disrepair. The wooden handrails were chipped, with some of the spindles broken or missing, and the shallow steps creaked dangerously under Oliver’s weight, whose physique had once been described by his best friend, Pam, as “waifish.” For the first time since he’d boarded the plane to Baltimore, equipped with a healthy supply of hopeful enthusiasm and a single bag containing his most prized belongings, doubt stirred at the back of his mind.
Oliver tried the handle, but the front door was locked. There also wasn’t any sign of an intercom, which left either the grimy doorbell button or the heavy brass knocker. Oliver chose to knock and then listened as the sound echoed dully within until everything was still again. He’d shielded his eyes and stood on his toes, trying to peek through the stained-glass transom window when the door was suddenly yanked open, and he came face-to-face with a wall of plaid.
“What do you want?” a gruff voice boomed.
Oliver risked lifting his gaze. The voice belonged to a tall, broad-shouldered man blocking the doorway. Oliver resisted the urge to take a step back under his annoyed glare.
“Hi,” he offered. “I’m Oliver Foster. I’m here about the apartment I rented.”
That last sentence came out more as a question than a statement, his voice rising in pitch, and Oliver winced internally.
He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose while the man regarded him in sullen silence. Finally, he opened the door wider and stepped back, granting Oliver access with a wave of his hand.
A single overhead light illuminated the hallway. A threadbare patterned rug spanned the length of it, leading toward a dark mahogany staircase at the back. Tiny brass plaques, tarnished with age, marked the apartment numbers on slotted mailboxes hanging on the wall to his right. Below them stood an empty black lacquered umbrella bucket. A faint smell of dust and mildew permeated the air, and Oliver’s earlier premonition about the state of his chosen accommodations intensified.
“What an unusual place,” he ventured, still determined not to give in to negativity. “Must have a lot of history.”
The man grunted, studying him from under drawn eyebrows. His eyes, the color of light amber, glinted in the low light. Together with his pale skin, overgrown dark hair, and menacing stance, they created an unnerving effect. Oliver shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny, wondering whether the scowl was directed at him, or if it was simply a part of the man’s natural disposition.
“Where’s your luggage?” the man asked.
“It’s only this.” He indicated his bag. “I’m having the rest of my stuff shipped over. I gathered the apartment came fully furnished?”
“Yeah.” The man turned and walked toward the staircase, forcing Oliver to trail after him. “My name’s Brown. I’m the landlord and building super. My apartment is across the hall from yours.”
They passed what appeared to be a large sitting parlor on one side of the hallway and a closed door on the other, but Brown stopped at neither. They climbed one flight of stairs to the first-floor landing, ancient floorboards groaning with their every step. Oliver clutched the banister, but Brown seemed unconcerned about the possibility of the staircase crumbling under his powerful frame.
“Why don’t you leave the front door open?” Oliver asked. “What about mail and delivery people?”
“They know to leave stuff on the porch,” Brown said without turning. “Usually whoever comes home first brings the mail in.”
This was…a curious arrangement. Oliver wasn’t sure he liked the idea of his landlord or his neighbors sifting through his mail.
“Aren’t you afraid someone might steal your packages?” he ventured. “It’s a rather busy street.”
Brown did turn to him then, pausing for a moment on the top stair and looking down at him.
“All the more reason to keep the door locked. Besides, no one is stupid enough to steal from here,” he said and continued on, leaving Oliver gaping at the inconsistency of those two statements.
There were only two apartment doors on the landing, facing each other across a narrow stretch of hall. Another small door, perhaps a utility closet, was tucked under the stairs. Brown produced a key from the front pocket of his flannel shirt, unlocked the door marked 1B, and gestured for Oliver to follow inside.
Oliver would be lying if he said he didn’t cross the threshold with some trepidation, given the overall shabbiness, but as Brown flicked on the lights, he could see nothing out of the ordinary. If anything, the apartment was much sparser than he’d imagined. The living room, with its high windows, ornate cornices, and a fireplace tucked in a corner, opened into a small kitchen outfitted with decades-old appliances and laminate flooring. A long couch faced the windows and the wall between them, but as far as Oliver could see, there was no TV.
This looked much closer to the pictures in the posting than the dilapidated exterior, at least. And everything was clean. Worn out, certainly, but not dirty. Someone must have put in the work of scrubbing the hardwood floors and giving the walls a fresh lick of paint as the whole place smelled of pine-scented cleaner rather than mildew. Oliver lowered his duffel bag onto the floor, next to the narrow side table by the entrance, and took a cautious step inside, taking in his surroundings.
“There are some towels and bedding in the linen closet next to the bathroom,” Brown said, pausing by the breakfast counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. “If you want hot water, I suggest showering in the mornings. It can run out quickly this time of year, especially in the evenings.”
An image of Brown standing in the shower, a stream of steaming water gliding over his skin and plastering his dark hair to his forehead popped unbidden into Oliver’s mind. It was as sudden as it was surprising, considering the man’s complete lack of geniality. Oliver cleared his throat and turned to the windows to conceal his blush, shivering with the draft that made the heavy curtains flutter. He was simply tired from his flight, letting his thoughts wander in silly directions.
“Okay. Is there anything else I should know, Mr. Brown?” It didn’t help matters that he could still see the man’s faint reflection in the windowpane, set against the gathering gloom outside.
“Rent is due on the first of every month. I’ll send you the link for the pay app for this month’s fee and deposit.”
“Or I can just slide the envelope with the cash under your door.”
Brown’s reflection frowned.
“You know,” Oliver said, “because it’s all so old-fashioned around here?” He paused for effect. There was only silence. “Forget it; it was a bad joke.”
“I don’t care either way, as long as you pay on time,” Brown said gruffly. “Takes a lot to keep this place up and running.”
Oliver supposed it was true. Old buildings were notorious money pits where maintenance was concerned, and from what he’d seen so far, the “up and running” part was a bit of a stretch. What the house needed was nothing short of a complete overhaul, but he judged it better not to say so to the landlord.
“Here are your keys.” They jingled as Brown put them on the entrance side table. “One for the apartment and one for the front door. I’m right across the hall if you need anything.”
He somehow managed to make it sound like a warning rather than an invitation.
“Um, sure,” Oliver said, turning back to him. He hoped he’d composed himself enough not to betray his earlier embarrassment. “Wait. Can you recommend a place where I can order takeout? After that airplane food, I’m kinda starving.”
He’d have to do some grocery shopping tomorrow after work, but he had absolutely nothing planned for dinner tonight. As if to emphasize his words, his stomach rumbled, too loud in the quiet of the room, and he flushed again, the heat creeping up to his hairline.
Brown’s gaze traveled from Oliver’s feet to his face as if taking his measure.
“There’s a decent pizza joint nearby,” he said. “I can get you their menu flier.”
“That’d be great!” Oliver said, sounding fake cheerful to his own ears. The conversation, mundane as it was, had made him more and more flustered. Or was it the other man’s looming presence? Either way, Oliver couldn’t wait to be alone and get settled, preferably after a nice, hot meal.
Brown nodded and turned to leave without sparing another word. The door closed softly behind him, leaving Oliver alone, with only the ticking of the mantle clock to fill the silence.