Authors: Carolyn Hart
Dead By Midnight
To Deborah Schneider with love
len Jamison looked every one of his fifty-two years, his fair hair flecked with silver, his aristocratic face mournful, his six-foot-two frame too thin. He hunched at the desk in his study and felt a sense of panic, like the beginnings of a fire flickering at his feet then billowing to an inferno. How much longer could the firm go on?
There wasn’t enough money coming in. The appointment book had too many empty spots. Maybe they shouldn’t dump Kirk even though cutting him should save at least a hundred thousand a year. He hated looking into Kirk’s blue eyes, which held the hurt puzzlement of a kicked dog. Of course, Kirk was young. Not yet thirty. He was a brilliant lawyer. He’d find a job. But he wouldn’t find a job on the island. There were only two other firms and neither intended to expand. Not in times like these. Kirk needed to stay on Broward’s Rock. Glen tried not to think how desperately Kirk needed to be here.
Glen wondered if it would do any good to talk to Cleo again. If Kirk stayed, Laura wouldn’t be so angry with him, either. It was a misery to go to the office and see Kirk, tight-lipped and grim. Then he shook his head. He knew in his heart that Cleo wouldn’t agree to keep Kirk. Maybe it had been another mistake to give Kirk a couple of months to wind down his cases. But that had seemed the decent thing to do and Cleo had agreed.
Glen had been a little surprised at her acquiescence but grateful he didn’t have to face her disapproval. He was getting enough disapproval around town. A couple of times at the Men’s Grill, he was sure he’d been avoided by clients. In fact, Ted Toomey had canceled an appointment a few days after word got around that the firm was letting Kirk go. Ted had said evasively that he was still giving the matter that they had intended to discuss some thought. One more empty slot in the appointment book. The money wasn’t coming in and Cleo wanted . . . Cleo wanted many things. He’d given in over the trip to Paris for Christmas.
When the kids were little, he and Maddy and the kids came home from the midnight service and put the baby Jesus in the crèche. Now the crèche was in the attic with the other Christmas decorations that had been in his family for generations. The decorations Maddy and the kids had made together were boxed up, too.
Cleo had wanted all new decorations for their first Christmas together. He’d hated the tree. Shiny white with all blue balls, the tree reminded him of a department store. The kids hated the tree, too. They hated everything Cleo did. This year she had waved away the idea of decorating. After all, they’d be in Paris . . .
The kids had been unhappy ever since he married Cleo. He used to be excited to have his children home. Not anymore. Maddy had been gone so long now. He still felt the clutch of emptiness in his gut when he thought of her and the night the police came to the door to tell him about the accident. The first few years he’d been in a daze, working, trying not to think, hurting. He owed everything to Elaine. She’d given up her job in Atlanta and come to help and be there for the kids. The kids loved their aunt.
He felt guilty every time he passed the first bedroom on the second floor that had been Elaine’s room. Now she lived in the cottage not far from the gazebo. She’d acted as if the new quarters were fine. Maybe she liked the cottage, but she didn’t like Cleo any more than the kids did. Cleo had insisted Elaine needed a life of her own. After all, she’d done a good job with the kids. Maybe she’d like to go back to Atlanta. But Elaine had been on the island for so many years now. She had her friends, a life she’d built, and of course Tommy was still in high school. That was another problem. Well, Tommy had acted up. He had to find out who was boss. The matter was settled.
Anger was everywhere around him. Pat Merridew had worked for the firm for so many years, but Cleo had insisted Pat was frumpy and they needed a young and charming receptionist. Firing Pat hadn’t saved money. Cleo was paying the new girl even more. Glen hated to remember the ugly look on Pat’s face when he saw her yesterday on the street. And then there was Kirk . . .
Glen shied away from thinking about Kirk. It would be a relief not to have to face him every day. They’d given him two months to close down his cases. Three more weeks and he’d be gone.
Cleo told him to buck up. Everything would get better.
The money flow would have to get better soon.
ichard Jamison parked his rust-streaked 2004 Pontiac in the shade of a live oak. He left the windows down and pulled a stained duffel from the trunk. The house looked just as he remembered it, a gracious Lowcountry antebellum home, tabby exterior moss green in the June sunshine. Wicker furniture on the shaded verandah looked inviting. He’d like to settle in a rocker with a rum collins. He and Glen could talk over old times. He’d have to go cautiously with Glen. It would never do for Glen to realize that Richard had come to the island to seek financial backing. If he presented everything just right, he could persuade Glen that he was giving him a good investment opportunity.
Richard hefted the duffel. He was curious to meet his hostess. He’d been in Singapore when Glen remarried. Maddy had been dead for six years now, maybe seven. He wondered how the kids felt about a stepmother. Especially a stepmother who was only a few years older than Laura. And how did Glen’s sister, who had since then served as chatelaine of the antebellum home, feel about the new Mrs. Jamison?
Kids . . . As he climbed the front steps, he gave a slight shake of his head. Not kids anymore. Laura must be about twenty-four. Kit was in graduate school. Tommy was in high school.
An old friend had written him about Glen’s second wife. “Cleo’s hot, a tall brunette, sultry brown eyes, leggy but stacked. Cleo’s one lucky lady. Whatever she does succeeds. High school beauty queen. Top grades in law school. Bowls over guys with one glance. Her favorite game’s roulette. The ball always seems to fall in her pocket. Don’t know what she saw in Glen except he’s top drawer when it comes to an old Southern family and her roots are middle class. She grew up in Hardeeville, mom a teacher, dad a fireman. They lived in a modest frame house on an unpaved road. Plus, Glen used to have a lot more cash till the meltdown in ’08. Cleo came to work at the firm, made partner in a year, married Glen the next year.”
Richard shifted the duffel, punched the doorbell. He’d selected his wardrobe with care, a boring blue oxford-cloth shirt, poplin slacks, and cordovan loafers, a far cry from his usual frayed tee, baggy shorts, and flip-flops. He’d shaved the stubble that he preferred, even sported a short haircut. He hoped the preppy look would reassure Glen that his wild cousin Richard could, with the proper financial backing, become a pillar of the community.
When the white door opened, Cleo Jamison pushed the screen, held it wide for him. Dark brown hair cupped a long face with deep-set brown eyes, a straight nose, and full lips. A summery blouse emphasized the curve of her breasts. Sleek jade slacks molded to her legs. She smiled. “You must be Richard.” Her throaty voice made him think of cast-aside pillows and rumpled sheets. She reached out a perfectly manicured hand, the fingers long, slim, and warm, to take his hand.
Richard felt a flood of desire. His response was immediate and instinctual. For an instant, a hot current sizzled between them.
Cleo relinquished his hand. Her gaze was abruptly remote. Her lips curved in a conventional, polite smile.
He stepped inside, once again under control. But she’d responded for a flicker of an instant. Hadn’t she?
A door opened toward the end of the hall. A tall man walked wearily toward Richard and Cleo.
Richard felt an instant of shock. Glen’s fair hair was silvered, his face drawn and tired; his clothes hung too loosely on his body. “Hey, Glen.” Richard forced a robust shout.
Glen’s slightly reedy voice was raised in welcome. “Hey, little buddy, welcome home.”
leo was well aware that Kit Jamison had been in her father’s study for almost fifteen minutes. She felt a surge of triumph. It had taken all her cleverness to delicately maneuver Glen into a state of acute dissatisfaction with his daughter. He’d almost proved intractable, but Cleo’s will had prevailed. Funny that he should be so devoted to unstylish, awkward, socially graceless Kit. Of course, she looked like her father, fair-haired, fair-skinned, slender, but her pale blue eyes were humorless, her thin face ascetic. Sure, Kit was academically brilliant, but she didn’t have the smarts to go after a well-paying career. Kit’s plan to go to the Serengeti to help catalog declining lion populations as a volunteer biologist might be admirable, but let her manage on somebody else’s dollar. Asking Glen to support her intellectual and nonpaying lifestyle would have been all right a few years ago, but Glen not only lost half of his savings in the crash, he’d been panicked enough to sell when the Dow was plunging down toward seven thousand. Cleo’s lips thinned. He should have asked her. But he hadn’t.
Despite the thickness of the walls between Glen’s study and hers, the sounds of acrimony penetrated.
Cleo rose from her chair. She paused in the sunlight that poured through the large, wide window to admire the glitter of the emerald bracelet on her wrist, a gift from Glen, then strolled toward the hallway. She knocked briskly on Glen’s study door, swung it wide.
Kit jerked to face the door, her narrow face folded in a furious frown. Without makeup, her fair skin was pallid, though marred now by red patches of anger.
Cleo’s voice was pleasant. “Kit, won’t you stay for lunch?”
Kit flung out one hand. Her hands were graceful and elegant despite chipped nails. “I’d rather eat with hyenas.” Head down, she rushed toward the door.
Glen pushed up from his chair. “Kit, come back here. Apologize to Cleo.”
The only answer was the clatter of steps in the hallway and the slam of the front door.
arwyn Jack straightened the collar of the green polo. His fingers luxuriated in the crinkly feel of the cotton mesh. His thick, sensuous lips curled in the half smile that made women his for the taking. Women couldn’t resist his tangle of thick chestnut curls and sloe-brown eyes that held a reckless glint. He felt on top of the world, invincible.
He looked around the dim, small room, seeing only its cramped lack of space and shabby furnishings, blind to its scrubbed cleanliness and the lovingly hand-pieced quilt on the bed.
He gave a final approving glance at the mirror and moved into the hall. He was tall, muscular, and well built, but he walked with a slight limp. He’d been the best running back in the state when he was a junior and there was already talk of how he’d have his pick of colleges when he graduated. An accident while mowing a hayfield ended his football dreams and his college hopes. He’d never bothered much about grades. Who needed them if you could run like the wind?
In the kitchen, he walked to the old oak table, pulled out a chair. This room, too, was clean and bright with daffodil-yellow curtains at the windows.
Bella Mae Jack’s cotton housedress was crisp and starched. A big woman, she moved slowly now that she’d reached her seventies. She no longer cleaned homes for a living but she baked and cooked for the weekly farmers’ market that was held every Saturday in the park near the harbor. She was careful with her money, always frugal, unfailingly honest. She turned, a plate in her hand. “Sausage patties and dilly bread.” She stopped, peered nearsightedly, her pale worn face folding into a frown. “You march back to your room and take that nice shirt off. You have work clothes. Wear them.” Her voice was stern.
Darwyn hesitated for only a fraction, then, with a shrug, he came to his feet. When he’d played football, he liked to hurt opposing players. Darwyn had a cold, dark core, the product of abusive years before his drug-ridden parents died and he came, a withdrawn and wary seven-year-old, to live with his grandmother. Only for Bella Mae would he ever be meek.
In his room, he shrugged and carefully pulled off the polo. Soon he would wear fine clothes whenever he liked.
at Merridew walked back and forth across her small living room, too angry to sit and try to relax. Finally she stopped at the closet, reached for her light jacket. Even though it was summer, the nights were cool in the woods. She slid a small flashlight into her pocket and retrieved her BlackBerry from her purse. She didn’t need a BlackBerry now, not since she’d lost her job. But she always carried a phone in the woods in case of an accident.
She edged out of the back door, careful to keep Gertrude from following. “Not safe for you, sweetie.” Gertrude was only permitted outside on a leash and their walks avoided the lagoon with its leathery black king, a nine-foot alligator who would see Gertrude as an hors d’oeuvre. “You stay inside.” The door shut, muffling the disappointed whine of the elderly dachshund. Pat walked swiftly, the way familiar now. She’d begun her late-night forays when she found it hard to sleep after she was fired.
Pushed by hatred, she walked the half mile to the Jamison property and stood in the shadows of an old live oak, glaring at the dark windows. Long ago, the land had been home to one of the island plantations. There were stories of a ghostly little girl wandering on summer nights, looking for her father, who had been killed in the Battle of Honey Hill. What if a ghost began to haunt the house? Or maybe a poltergeist might make its presence known by little destructive acts.