Under the Midnight Cloak, page 1
Under the Midnight Cloak
Copyright © 2012 by S.Y. Thompson
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Under the Midnight Cloak
Mystic Books Imprint
Copyright © 2012 by S.Y Thompson
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval with system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The characters, incidents and dialogue herein are fictional and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
ISBN 978-1-61929-095-2 (eBook)
eBook Conversion January 2013
First Printing 2013
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Cover design by Donna Pawlowski
Regal Crest Enterprises, LLC
3520 Avenue H
Port Arthur, Texas 77627
Find us on the World Wide Web at http://www.regalcrest.biz
Published in the United States of America
This is my opportunity to give credit to the exceptional people who helped me see a dream made a reality. Charley Hepple, Kathryn Yates, Linda North and Laura Zelinsky all selflessly devoted their time and considerable efforts to beta this tale into a completed story. Charley, in particular, saved me from using the same word multiple times in one sentence, let alone a single paragraph. Sue Carls, who started me thinking about writing novels.
Gun Brooke, you've been a great friend and I never could have done this without you.
My undying thanks to the people at Regal Crest, who had enough faith in this story to actually pick it up. From the editors to the art department, all of you make it seem so easy. Many thanks to Verda Foster for her patience in editing and wonderful suggestions.
Dedicated to my friends for their encouragement to keepdoing what I love best and to Kathryn Yates, who helped developthe original premise of this story six years ago.
Under the Midnight Cloak
Mystic Books Imprint
LEE PUSHED A lock of sweat dampened blonde hair behind her ear and reached for another article of clothing. Four months ago she never would have expected to be moving out of her family home, but a lot had changed. Although she traveled frequently, often for months at a time, she always returned to this somewhat archaic mansion where she'd grown up. When she needed solace and familiarity, she thought of this place, and though she still considered the manor home, events had transpired to induce a necessary relocation.
Footsteps outside the open bedroom door reached her ears and she smiled, recognizing the high-heeled gait, as well as the fog of perfumed spice, preceding her visitor.
"Lee? You in here?"
Jasmine Yang walked into the room, heedless of an invitation. Her long black hair shimmered under the artificial lights as Lee looked down on her. She didn't consider herself a giant, but Jasmine barely reached her shoulder. The adage that appearances could be deceiving most definitely applied to this woman and she used all of her considerable talents as Lee's agent.
"What is it, Jazz?"
An aggravated expression crossed Jasmine's face, but settled quickly into a neutral facade. "Don't call me that. So, you're really going to do this?"
"You make it sound like I'm having a lobotomy instead of making a little move."
"Little? You're going to the Adirondack Mountains! Have you completely lost touch with reality? What are you going to do out there in the sticks?" Her ebony eyes narrowed, urging Lee to reconsider.
Ah, so this is an intervention.
Lee found the whole idea amusing and more than a little misguided. A large part of her occupation involved spending time alone with the natural world and there was never any problem finding something to do. Boredom wasn't part of her vocabulary since interesting and unplanned events always happened in the wild. She didn't need Jazz to protect her. She needed the woman to promote her photography, a part of the business Lee preferred to avoid since that meant dealing directly with the public.
"I'm a nature photographer, remember? Maybe I'll do something crazy like, I don't know--take pictures?"
"Funny. And when you have a showing?"
"And here I thought you cared. Don't worry, you won't lose any money. It's less than five hours if I take Adirondack Northway, so it's not like I'm moving to the moon."
Typically, Jasmine wasn't easily deterred. "Does this have anything to do with your father?"
Lee flinched. She hadn't seen that one coming. Douglas Grayson wasn't a subject she liked to talk about. They'd never been close, she considered him little more than a sperm donor. After her mother left them his political career seemed to be the only thing he cared about. She doubted he'd even notice she was gone.
"The Congressman?" she asked dryly. "Hardly. He stays out of my way and I stay out of his. Besides, this move will be good for him, too. Having an openly gay daughter around could hurt him at reelection time."
"You don't mean that."
"I don't?" She settled into the sarcasm like the arms of a familiar and supportive friend.
"This is New York. No one cares about your...orientation."
Lee snorted silently to herself. Was that why Jazz couldn't even say gay? "If you say so."
She reached down and plucked a photograph from her pillow. She hadn't seen the picture in years and had re-discovered it in her closet while pulling out supplies. The face was familiar, though the low quality Polaroid paper left the image grainy. It was her great aunt; the woman responsible for Lee's altered plans. Aunt Chris was in her twenties in the photo and holding a tawny jaguar cub with tiny black spots. It was one of Lee's favorites as a child and made her want to become a nature photographer in the first place.
It was so hard to believe she was gone.
Tears stung her eyes and she quietly blinked them away. She was still in shock over her aunt's sudden death. Last she'd heard, Chris was very healthy. When Lee was young, the woman had seemed invincible. It was a cliché that she had died falling down a set of stairs. Some unthinking coroner at the funeral home even had the audacity to give Lee the statistics; 12,800 annually. The problem was that she hadn't been very old, only sixty-seven. For some people that might be considered elderly, but not for a woman who'd been active her entire life.
The unexpected death was one of the reasons for Lee's move. The universe had thrown her a curve, shown her how fleeting all of this could be. She didn't want to spend another minute of her life surrounded by people
"Is that her?"
Lee jumped slightly. She'd all but forgotten Jasmine was still in the room. She held the photo up for Jasmine to see. Lee watched her almond shaped eyes as Jasmine looked at the picture.
"Yes. Christine Mafdet."
"Mafdet, what kind of name is that?"
"Egyptian...I think. She's my great aunt on my mother's side. I Googled the name once. Mafdet was an Egyptian goddess, supposedly half-cat. She was a panther and protected the king's chamber."
"Nice." From the dry tone, Lee didn't think Jazz meant what she said. "Cute kitty, though."
"It's a jaguar. Now, if there's nothing else? I'm in a hurry."
"Won't you miss New York?"
Lee had to admit she'd probably yearn for the diversity of restaurants and the comfort this house brought, but there were so many more things she wouldn't think twice about.
"Like what? The crowds, the traffic and constant noise? Muggings in Central Park?"
"You make it sound like New York is a terrible place to live. I just don't understand." Jasmine shook her head slightly and frowned. "I love the excitement of this city and opportunities to show corporate America that a woman can make it in a man's world. Doesn't it just make your blood sing?"
"I know, but you're a city girl."
"So are you, or you were. What's changed?"
"Nothing. Can't you just accept that I need a break?"
Lee released a tired sigh. "Debbie."
Jasmine surprised her by snorting out loud. The woman was always so prim and proper that it was quite unexpected. "That bitch didn't deserve you. You can do so much better."
Lee reached down and picked up an old Hallmark Valentine's Day card from Debbie and held it up for Jasmine to see. It had the usual greeting card mush on the outside but was blank inside except for a hastily scrawled I love you.
Yeah right. Debbie couldn't even be bothered to pen something personal. That's how much she'd been in love.
Lee knew from the beginning, at least subconsciously, that Debbie Mason wasn't the one for her. She was a die-hard romantic and Debbie cared only for other peoples' perception of her, the word on the gossip mill, and the latest Paris fashions. They were polar opposites. How they'd ever gravitated into the same circles, she couldn't fathom.
"Did I ever tell you why I broke up with her?"
Jasmine frowned again and Lee realized it was out of character for her to open up to anyone in this way. No doubt Jasmine was thinking the same thing, but it was too late to clam up now, and for once she felt the need to share the incident with someone. Her full lips compressed into a tight line.
"Right after Aunt Chris' funeral, I was coming down the stairs." Lee tilted her chin to indicate the staircase outside her bedroom door. "I heard Debbie's voice and I knew she was on her cell. I tried to be quiet so as not to interrupt her call."
"I'm not going to like this, am I?"
Lee smiled, but there was no amusement in it. "She was telling someone that she hadn't managed to get the combination to the safe because I was in a state. Did she think I wouldn't be upset?"
"That bitch," Jasmine said. "I always thought she was a money hungry grub, but I didn't think she was an outright thief."
"How do you think I felt? Anyway, that's just the problem. Everyone I meet is always after the money. When they find out it belongs to my father, that none of it is mine until I inherit and that he's as healthy as a horse, things change. Then the focus shifts to the best way to marry into the family, get on his good side, or break into the safe."
"Human nature, honey." Although her expression showed compassion, Jasmine's verbal response just reinforced her decision.
"Well, I've had enough." Jasmine opened her mouth to speak, but Lee cut her off. "I'm going, so deal with it."
"I guess maybe you do need a break."
Davis, the butler, stepped into the doorway. "Anything else, ma'am?"
"Just this last box. I'll get the bag myself."
"Very good, ma'am."
Davis spoke like an old world servant, but was very much a part of the family. Just going gray at the temples, he'd been around since Lee could remember. She relinquished the cardboard box and shoved a few more articles of clothing into her leather satchel. The Hallmark stayed with the rest of the pile on her bed. Grabbing the bag, she walked out of the room. Jasmine trailed a perfumed cloud of cloves and oriental spice behind her.
"Cleo!" Lee shouted. "Where's that damned dog?"
"What's your hurry?"
"I want to miss rush hour."
Jasmine panted a little trying to keep up climbing down the large, spiral staircase on spiked heels. "It's not like you to be so impetuous."
Lee shot a dubious look over her shoulder. She'd flown all over the world to get some amazing shots, often on the spur of the moment and without bothering to notify anyone.
"Cleo! There you are."
Her beagle, Cleopatra, was following Davis around a beat-up old dirt-brown pickup. The truck bed was loaded with cardboard boxes. When she heard her master's voice, Cleo threw her head back and bayed at the top of her lungs.
"Are you really going to drive this thing?"
"My Mercedes can't handle the terrain," Lee said wryly. Besides, she was flying under the radar and didn't want anyone to know who she was. In a way, this move was her chance to start over. "I bought this from Hector yesterday."
Lee grinned at Jasmine's startled disbelief, but didn't answer. She tossed the leather satchel into the back and opened the door. "Let's go, Cleo."
The beagle came running, panting in her excitement. She stood up with her feet on the running board and cast a look over her shoulder toward her master. Lee bent down, picked up the vertically challenged dog and then sat her on the bench seat. Finally, she shifted to offer Jasmine a perfunctory hug.
"You're covered in dog hair."
"You're such a snob." Having taken offense to the implication that Cleo was dirty, Lee wasn't joking.
"I'm not a snob."
Lee got into the truck and slammed the door. The smell of old tobacco assaulted her nose and a seat spring dug into her butt. Maybe she should have bought a new vehicle after all, but she wasn't going to give Jasmine the satisfaction of saying so. Resisting the urge to wrinkle her nose, she gave an off-hand wave through the open window.
"I'll give you a call." Without waiting for a response she drove away, her thoughts already on the future.
Getting out of the city seemed to take forever. First she had to navigate the Jersey Turnpike and then thread a maze of toll ways, but finally Interstate 87 opened up before her: the Adirondack Northway. The sun had already passed its apex and Lee pushed the truck's speed to reach the mountains before dark. The day was clear, temperature in the seventies, and she was excited about returning to her great aunt's forest home. She hadn't seen Aunt Chris since she was a child and wondered why her father didn't like going out there. For that matter, why hadn't she made the time when she became an adult? Was it old habit, a part of the family that seemed so far removed that she just didn't think about it?
Lee didn't know, but she did remember that she'd adored the old manor house where Aunt Chris had lived. At five years old she'd explored the residence and the grounds looking for secret passages, convinced that a knight had once lived there. It had been a favorite fantasy that she'd fallen asleep to many nights once back in the city. Over the years, fiction had given way to adulthood and she'd forgotten all about it. Now, the excitement of those old imaginings beckoned to her and she couldn't wait to see Mafdet Manor again.
Cleo helped keep her distracted by bouncing back and forth across the bench seat. At one point she stepped across Lee's lap and stood up to rest her paws on the doorframe and peer out the window.
"Move over, Cleo. You'r
Fortunately, traffic was light. She wrapped one arm around Cleo's stubby body and heaved her back over to her own place. Eventually the dog grew bored and stretched out for a nap with a resigned huff, leaving Lee free to watch the landscape change. Concrete, traffic jams and high rises gave way to clean air, tall trees and beautiful landscapes.
Lee drove left onto County Road 73 to go around Hurricane Mountain's southern side and the elevation began to rise dramatically. By the time she drove around Lake Placid, she'd climbed over sixteen hundred feet in elevation from the I-87 turnoff. Mountains loomed around her and trees filled the sides of the road. Traffic here was almost non-existent on a mid-week evening. She smiled. The stress of the city already felt distant.
The town of Harmon, in Franksburg County, was her next stop. Harmon was a small town only twenty minutes from her aunt's house and would be a good place to pick up a few essentials.
It was dusk when Lee drove into Harmon. Few businesses were open, though people were still out here and there. Carefully manicured sidewalks lined the sides of the two-lane streets, illuminated by bright overhead street lamps. Lights burned cheerfully behind the windows of the few homes she could see and a late night grocery stood just off the main street. Lee gratefully pulled into an open parking spot and killed the engine. She'd only stopped once for gas on the trip up and looked forward to stretching her legs.
"You stay here and guard the truck."
Cleo looked at her with a raised brow and she could almost imagine the dog questioning her orders. Who in their right mind would want the hunk of junk?
Lee left the window down a few inches and locked the door before walking inside. She was aware of the irony of coming to a small town where neighbors could probably still leave their homes unlocked at night, and here she was locking her truck.