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Authors: Maggie; Davis

Wild Midnight

BOOK: Wild Midnight
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Wild Midnight

Maggie Davis

 

Prologue

 

A peach silk dressing gown folded loosely about her slender body, she sat before the mirror, the long mass of her hair unbound as Dan had liked it. Morning sun filled the room and caught golden glints in the slightly curling, dark auburn hair which reached almost to her waist.
 

Beyond the light-filled window the oaks that surrounded the old mansion bent their branches in a brisk November wind. The scent of burning leaves drifted into the room, and she could hear dimly the distant growl of a lawn mower trimming the last remnants of green grass in sheltered places.
 

Rachel moved a small copper coin with the tip of her fingernail across the dressing table, separating it from the other small tokens of Dan’s existence. The bright sunlight picked out the soft, worn etching of an oak tree on the coin’s face. The pre-Revolutionary penny, of Pennsylvania issue and virtually priceless to any collector, had been her present to Dan on their first anniversary.
 

The Goodbody family’s grandfather clock on the first floor landing, its ancient brass pendulum swinging, counted off the minutes of this generation as it had for seven preceding ones; the rooms of the old house on Philadelphia’s Main Line echoed the clock’s litany of a calm and peaceful acceptance of life, and fleeting time.
 

With an effort at a matching serenity that she couldn’t feel, Rachel bent her head to the other, tangible evidences of past happiness spread before her: Dan’s sensible, conservative wristwatch with gold link band from Cartier, his Swarthmore class ring, two dog-eared ticket stubs that she had found in his pockets for a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.
 

She propped her arm on the dresser edge, chin in her hand as she studied these precious scraps of Dan’s possessions, feeling him so near and yet so far from her life. She knew she should put his things in the safe deposit box, but she lingered over them; his presence was all around her even now, like the pervasive sunshine flowing into the room from the bank of windows.
 

The rest of Dan’s property, those mute symbols of great wealth held but never displayed, were in the wall safe in the library. The accountants and family tax lawyers had long ago reviewed the estate records: all the deeds to old Philadelphia city holdings; the elaborate old Brinton summer home at Lake Hope; the certificates of stocks, bonds, and other securities; even the inventories of Brinton family furniture, china, and silver that had been assigned as gifts to Philadelphia museums.
 

How much easier it was, she thought sadly, to accept the documents of mere wealth, rather than the small, intimate things like the worn pasteboard ticket stubs Dan had kept to remember a rainy night and a sublime Mozart concert.
 

Her hand closed over the rare old copper penny. He was still far too real. It had been a year, and in a year pain and loss were supposed to have dulled, fading in sweet memory. After all these months she had forced herself to face the outward signs of her loss. Not peacefully—not yet, because she’d been too young, and too happy with Dan. But she could bring herself now to do what she had never thought she could do—slip the plain gold band of her wedding ring from her finger and place it in the box on top of their marriage certificate.
 

RACHEL STARBUCK GOODBODY, MARRIED TO DANIEL COFFIN BRINTON. She could be thankful that all the letters and notes of condolence no longer had to be answered; that, too, was long past.
 

Taken so suddenly, and too soon, to the everlasting distress of his young and beautiful wife.
And the endless correspondence that had confronted her like a punishment: notifications of his death to committees he had served on; contributions to organizations, which had to be terminated; even the change of their name on mailing lists—all long completed.
 

In time, peace will come.
If it came, it came slowly, she now knew. The material things of this world remained. Daniel Brinton did not.
 

Rachel put her head in her hand and with the other blindly groped for the ring. She knew she should close the metal box, press the clasp to lock it, and in so doing seal the past forever. On the landing even the ancient Sheraton clock struck the hour as if acknowledging an end to all of it—to life, and young love, and the happiness she’d known.
 

Unsteadily she lifted the gold ring and slipped it back on her finger.
Willful Rachel Brinton.
She could almost hear her mother’s murmured words; unyielding in grief, headstrong still in spite of gentle, lifelong constraints.
 

Not yet, she thought, placing her fingers over the cool clasp of the ring on her flesh. She wouldn’t give up wearing the last symbol of what she had lost. At that moment, because there was no knowing the future, this was the way she wished it to be.
 

 

 

The tide’s at full: the marsh with flooded streams Glimmers, a limpid labyrinth of dreams.
 

The Marshes of Glynn
 

 

 

Chapter One

 

One moment Rachel Brinton was half asleep, her chin propped on her wrist in the sunlight that streamed through the open truck window. The very next moment the old Ford swerved and seemed to explode out from under her.
 

She had just opened her mouth to yawn. As the truck dropped into a deep pot hole she fell forward, her chin hitting the truck’s dashboard, snapping shut on her tongue. She suddenly saw stars, spirals. Then the handle of one of Mr. Wesley Faligant’s shovels, carried between the truck’s seat and the rear window, hit her on the back of the head.
 

Rachel didn’t hear the thud of the truck’s back axle hitting the sand, nor the quick, indrawn hiss of fright from the old black man beside her as he downshifted frantically, stepping on the gas pedal at the same time. The truck’s rear wheels caught, spun upward, then abruptly dropped back down again into the hole. She hit the dashboard once more, this time with her nose.
 

“Uh-oh,” Mr. Wesley groaned under his breath. He kept downshifting as the truck rocked violently. “Him there,” the old black man whispered. “There he is—I sees him, that beau debbil under the trees!”
 

Rachel lifted, the shovel handle from her neck and pushed it away. “What?” she managed. “Mr. Wes, what happened?” The old plantation road they’d been following was no more than a sandy track through a tunnel of wild sabal palms and massive live oaks, the latter draped with long streamers of gray Spanish moss typical of the beautiful but melancholy South Carolina low-country woodlands. The road’s surface was so pocked with holes and washouts that Mr. Wesley always kept a supply of pine slabs in the bed of the pickup in case they had to get the shovels, dig out the rear wheels, and put the boards under them so they could churn their way through.
 

But this was no ordinary pothole, Rachel knew. It had to be something more to cause Mr. Wesley to almost wreck the truck. Holding her hand to her slightly bleeding lip, she tried to peer through the dust-encrusted glass in front of her.
 

The ancient Ford pickup had come to a full stop, temporarily mired in the hole. The sound of its engine’s skip-a-beat roar faded as the black man took his foot off the gas pedal and let it idle.
 

Rachel took her first deep breath since she’d shot from her seat and the long braid of her mahogany-colored hair flew back over her shoulder. Mr. Wesley was still muttering, glancing through the windshield at what he saw. Or thought he saw.
 

The thick stillness of the woods had immediately enveloped them. Far away in the unseen river marshes the croak of a water bird came faintly. The light under the spreading live oak trees was green-gold, slivered with pale dusky shadows. Rachel couldn’t restrain a shiver. She wasn’t naturally fearful, but the part of her that was very much a transplanted city person couldn’t help but be shaken. She suddenly remembered rattlesnakes lying in the dust of the road—she’d already seen one in the two months she’d been there—and the glimpse she’d had of a cougar, the big cat the Gullah people called a panther.
 

“What happened, Mr. Wes?” she repeated. She peered through the dusty windshield, following his gaze.
 

Now that they were no longer moving with a breeze flowing over the front of the truck, a strong marigoldlike odor wafted into the cab from several thousand paper-wrapped bundles of tomato plants in the back. No more than half a mile ahead of them in a freshly plowed field, the members of the Ashepoo River Farmers Cooperative and a group of high school volunteers were waiting for them so they could plant the tomato slips before nightfall. Every moment was precious; they had lost more time than they’d intended on the long journey to and from the farmers’ market in Savannah, where they’d bought the plants early that morning.
 

Mr. Wesley had managed to get the truck at least partly out of the hole, its body slanting sidewise as one rear wheel freed itself. Now he gripped the steering wheel tensely, his proud old profile with its slightly beaky nose and full lips pointed at some spot in the light and shadow-dappled woodland. “That beau debbil, there he is,” Mr. Wesley muttered again with a strange note of foreboding. “He watchin’ there right now, yes he is.”
 

Rachel couldn’t see anything, and she wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to tell her. The Gullah dialect spoken by the black people was still fairly mysterious to her northern ears; she usually had to ask Mr. Wesley to repeat something at least twice before she could understand, often to their mutual embarrassment. Now she wondered as she peered into the magically deceptive light and shadows in the woods if there were anything out there at all. Or if Mr. Wesley, usually the soul of dignified reserve, had just been spooked by another one of his famous low-country “hants.” The old black man was a firm believer in low-country ghosts. But then, she thought quickly, so was everybody else in this part of the world, black or white. Most southern ghosts were predictable: ladies in white looking for their long-lost Civil War lovers, or the clink of phantom shovels that could be heard burying pirate gold out on the lonely beaches of the sea islands. But Mr. Wesley Faligant’s ghosts were transplanted from Africa and particularly terrifying—”hot steams” in the deep woods that paralyzed one with fear, three-legged black pigs and two-headed sheep that warned of catastrophe, and the walking dead that appeared on lonely country roads at night, their heads twisted completely around and running backward. In spite of herself, Rachel shivered again.
 

“Mr. Wes,” she whispered, “what’s a beau—”
 

Then she saw the gate.
 

The road made an L at this point, the barely discernible track turning abruptly into an area of scrubby pines, meandering across a meadow enclosed by the earth dikes of long-abandoned rice fields bordering the Ashepoo River, and beyond that, the reaches of St. Helena Sound. At the forks of the road a steel and aluminum cattle gate had materialized overnight, its stanchions set in still-damp concrete.
 

Rachel stared. It wasn’t a ghost that had alarmed Mr. Wesley, but a very strong, modern aluminum cattle gate blocking their way. And it meant trouble.
 

Someone had closed off the right of way the farmers cooperative had been using for weeks. There was no other entrance to the co-op’s field except to go back to the town of Draytonville, detour around the state highway and through the south river road, a distance of at least fifteen miles. Now, without warning, they were shut out.
 

BOOK: Wild Midnight
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