There was a storm coming. Lee could smell it on the wind. The temperature had fallen at least ten degrees from the mid-seventies she’d enjoyed that morning. Deep, threatening thunderclouds roiled overhead, promising a great blow before it was over. It was only four in the afternoon, but with the sun obscured and the tempest pending, the day had the feel of early evening.
As a wildlife photographer who had traveled all over the world, she understood exactly how cold it could get in the mountains in a relatively short period of time. For that reason, she stood at the rear of Mafdet Manor wielding an ax like a lady Paul Bunyan, splitting her own wood.
Lee placed a short piece of timber upright on the chopping block and pushed her shirtsleeves further up her arms. In deference to the dropping temperatures, she’d donned a blue-checked flannel shirt, but she wore it more like a jacket. It was unbuttoned and she had a black tank top underneath.
Her flesh glistened with perspiration and a steady trickle slid down one side of her face. Lee’s blond hair was wet at the edges of her hairline, rendering it a dark brown and unknowingly setting off her fine chiseled features. Her muscles rippled as she held the tool in a two-handed grip and swung it up over her head. She didn’t notice how the tank rode up to expose her midriff to the cooling breeze. Rather, she concentrated on how it felt to wield the ax. At the apex of the swing, Lee grunted slightly and reversed direction. The head of the implement glinted in the waning light and flew back along its axis. In one strike, the log split neatly in two and the head of the ax bit deeply into the chopping block.
Without pause, she pushed the pieces aside and replaced them with yet another short stump. Her body moved cleanly through the motions as she added to the growing pile of firewood, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Intense green eyes and coal-black hair swirled through the images in her head. She’d only seen Jamison Kessler for a few minutes on the highway, but thoughts of the woman refused to leave her alone.
Jamison probably wasn’t even aware of the raw animal sexuality she radiated, but Lee had noticed. She’d already pictured how to photograph her; the technical settings, the lighting. She shivered and envisioned the woman wearing something more revealing than a park ranger’s uniform; perhaps cutoff jeans, ragged around the thighs, and a white tank fully displaying those powerful arms that the duty attire attempted to conceal. Tanned flesh from so many hours in the sun would be set off like bronze against the snowy color of the shirt. Lee saw strong, alabaster teeth flash as Jamison smiled up at her and toward the camera. The concept was so real that she actually gasped from the reaction that flashed through her stomach.
How would she look chopping this wood? Lee suddenly wondered.
Muscles would flex, shifting over bone and sinew with the movements. Sweat would form on Jamison’s brow and bead on her skin, a rivulet trailing down between her breasts…
Cleo unexpectedly rushed from where she’d been standing next to the tree line, barking furiously. Lee jumped and barely managed to keep from slicing her leg with the ax.
“Oh, God! Cleo, you scared the shit out of me.”
The photographer stood for a second catching her breath and willing her heart to stop hammering. She was confused and without question, aroused. She could feel the dampness at her center when she shifted.
What the hell is wrong with me? I’m daydreaming about a woman who couldn’t possibly be interested in me and I shouldn’t be interested in her either. Didn’t I learn anything from Debbie?
On the heels of that thought, another woman invaded her mental landscape. Her own mother. It’s only natural; she’d inform Lee in her clinically detached way. It’s all right to be attracted to someone and even to act on that desire. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking it will last forever. Enjoy it and move on.
At least Cleo had stopped barking. Lee swung the ax again, cleaving the log neatly in two.
“You’re good at that.”
Lee spun around in surprise and froze at the unexpected sight before her. Jamison Kessler knelt not quite five feet away with her hand extended toward Cleo. The beagle was stretched toward the stranger as far as her doggie body would go so she could sniff the outstretched fingers. Normally, Cleo would be all over someone new, taking full advantage of being adored for the wonderful creature she knew herself to be. Instead, she seemed wary, not quite sure of what to make of this woman. But Lee couldn’t tear her eyes away from twin pools of forest green. Her heart had begun to pound again and her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Jamison’s lips parted and dimples creased her cheeks and Lee was lost.
She was aware she was staring, but couldn’t tear her gaze away from the smile she’d been daydreaming about moments before. For a thoughtless eternity, she mapped the beautiful face, only noticing now a thin band of tan around the inside of Jamison’s green irises. The color of aged whiskey.
The mesmerizing smile faded and a frown grew between dark eyebrows before Lee realized her visitor had asked a question.
“Are you okay?”
“What?” Lee released one hand from the ax and pushed her bangs back from her forehead. “Yeah, of course. I didn’t hear you drive up.”
Jamison stood and gestured to the woodpile, letting the flustered woman pull herself together. “It takes skill to split wood like that.”
Lee grinned and released her pent up breath. “You should have seen me a few minutes ago. The ax looked more like an out-of-control weed-eater.” Jamison laughed with her and the tension evaporated.
“Are you going to tell me you ran my license plate earlier so you could track me down? I told you I didn’t steal all that equipment you saw in the truck.” Lee had made the comments in a lighthearted effort to break the ice, but was surprised when Jamison flushed slightly.
“No, I wasn’t trying to track you down. At least, not for that. I heard a rumor that Mafdet Manor had a new resident and I wanted to come by and welcome you to the neighborhood.”
“Well, thank you, although it’s not much of a neighborhood. I don’t think there’s another house around for miles.” Lee realized she’d been staring at Jamison the whole time. She set the ax against the side of the house and picked up some wood.
“Here, let me help you with that.”
Lee was taken aback when Jamison suddenly invaded her personal space and bent down next to her. She leaned over to pick up a few logs, giving Lee an unobstructed view down her shirt at firm, rounded breasts unrestrained by a bra. When she lifted her head, her face was less than three inches away. Lee’s eyes widened slightly and she held her breath. Her hands began to shake and one of the logs slipped from her grasp. She must have made some sound, an inarticulate signal of panic.
“Is something wrong?”
Lee couldn’t speak. Her tongue refused to cooperate. She shook her head and stood to move toward the front of the house, aware that Jamison was only a few steps behind.
Kessler kept talking as if nothing unusual had happened. She didn’t seem to notice that Lee was shivering uncontrollably and desperately trying to rally her shattered senses. Grateful that the other woman was behind her, Lee closed her eyes for a second and took a deep, calming breath.
“As far as neighbors go, I guess I really am your closest, Miss Mafdet. I live a few miles east of here if you cut directly through the woods.”
Lee walked up the front steps and glanced at the jungle cat statues guarding her home. She fumbled with the knob of the heavy door and started across the entrance. She led the way into the library just off the foyer. Lee had been planning to build the fire in the first floor guest room, but this one would have to do for now. She’d just carry a few logs around to the room she’d made her own later. The library and the guest room shared a chimney and in times past would have helped to heat the home.
“Over by Meacham Lake?” Lee asked, thankful that her brain seemed to be functioning once again.
“Yes. You know the area?”
She shook her head. “I’ve been studying some of the park maps. I’m a photographer, as I’m sure you’ve probably already guessed. I used to come up here when I was younger, but it’s been so long I don’t really remember anything. And it’s Grayson, by the way. Lee.”
Jamison smiled again. “Lee then. I’ve lived here my whole life. Maybe I could show you some of the more beautiful places in the forest.”
Lee could tell Jamison had surprised herself by making the offer. She had a feeling the tall, imposing woman wasn’t usually so impulsive around a virtual stranger. “That’s really nice of you, but I can’t ask you to do that.”
She wasn’t just trying to be polite and let Jamison off the hook. Lee had enough trouble standing here trying to speak coherently. With her hormones raging out of control every time she looked at Jamison, being around her over an extended period of time could be dangerous.
Resolve filled the green eyes. “I insist. Trust me, there are some of the most spectacular places on Earth around here and you won’t find them on any map.”
In spite of her previous decision, Lee found herself being charmed. Why not spend some time together? Jamison obviously knew this area and maybe she’d even consent to let herself be photographed somewhere along the way.
She smiled and gave in. “All right. You talked me into it.”
“Great. Tomorrow’s Saturday. Is seven o’clock too early? We could go over to the Madawaska Flow and then up to the top of St. Regis Mountain. There’s a fantastic view from up there.”
“Sounds interesting and no, it’s not too early. When I’m shooting my schedule is all over the map so I can get the lighting I need.”
Kessler nodded and they walked toward the front door. Now that they had a plan to meet the following day, Lee was feeling tongue tied again. She didn’t quite know what to say, but then remembered something Jamison had told her.
“You said you’ve lived up here your whole life?” They stepped onto the front porch and Lee rested her hand on a chiseled feline head.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You must have known my Aunt Chris.”
Jamison started slightly and looked into her eyes. Her expression softened and Lee read sadness as well as a deeper emotion. Respect? Love?
“I can barely remember her. What was she like?”
“She was…” Jamison’s voice cracked and unexpected tears gathered in her eyes. She averted her head and tried to blink away the moisture.
Without thinking, Lee reached out and took a strong left hand between both of hers. “I’m sorry.”
Jamison shook her head and spoke softly, her voice warm fondness. “It’s all right. Chris was amazing. She always had time for a stranger and saw the beauty in everything. The people of Harmon were her family and twice a year she would hold a huge party out here. The whole town was invited. Summer Solstice and Halloween were her two favorite times of the year.”
“Summer Solstice? I thought that had to do with some kind of old religious rites,” Lee smiled.
Jamison shrugged. “Maybe. I just know she loved celebrating the land…our home.”
Goosebumps erupted on Lee’s arms and she remembered she was holding the other woman’s hand. She let go and stepped back a pace. Something about what Jamison said had struck a chord, but she couldn’t quite figure out why.
“Well,” Kessler said, “I’d better head out. The storm will be here soon and it looks like it’s going to be a good one.”
“Right. Thanks again for stopping by.”
Lee was aware that her words were abrupt and sounded cold, but being around Jamison had her feeling off-balance. She couldn’t stop looking at her, drinking in the darkly gorgeous features and even now she yearned to touch her again. She had to gain some distance.
Jamison’s smile faded and she looked deep into Lee’s eyes. A quality she couldn’t name rested there. It was dark and sensuous and she couldn’t look away. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she promised softly.
The husky timbre vibrated along Lee’s nerves, resonating long after the woman had driven away. A few raindrops slapped the porch in front of her and she realized she’d been standing there alone for the last ten minutes.
“So much for distance,” she mumbled.
A peal of thunder shook the ground and Lee looked around the vacant front yard.
His hair was thick but coarse, predominantly dark brown yet shot through with silver. Deep sable eyes were kind and gentle, graced with the wisdom of the ages. They were soft and portrayed not only intelligence, but also the gentleness that housed his soul. Observant and cautious by nature, he was silent as he walked along the game trail. Pine needles were crushed quietly beneath his tender feet and the slightly acrid scent wafted into the thick evening air. Trees that he normally saw as companions of the natural world felt like they were closing in on him causing the blood to pump faster through his heart. The night was heavy all around, thick with the promise of a northeastern thunderstorm. Lightning flashed in the sky far away but he knew by an instinct older than time that the distance was deceptive. The storm would arrive soon and he’d have no choice but to seek shelter. Abruptly the forest fell silent. Crickets and frogs stopped their nocturnal racket with the suddenness of a radio that had been switched off.
He stood as tall as he could on short legs and peered into the darkness. Although he couldn’t see anything, he knew something was there. It wasn’t anything solid he could identify, but an evil deeper than the surrounding night that floated ominously on the strengthening wind and caused the hair on the nape of his neck to stand on end. His heart raced with fear. It was coming closer, of that he was sure. But he couldn’t tell from which direction.
Regardless of the avenue of approach, if he were still standing here when it arrived he’d be torn to shreds.
His instincts had led him north, away from his home and into this alien forest toward someone he sensed was in great danger. For a moment, he wondered if the thing coming toward him in the night was what he was meant to save the stranger from. As abruptly as it came, the thought was gone under the weight of more pressing issues.
He was no match for the evil if he encountered it. Although his night vision was extremely good, the beast would no doubt overpower him in an instant. No, it was safer to find shelter for now. He still had a destination to reach.
Remembering the unknown one that beckoned him, he spied a huge cypress tree fifty feet farther up the trail. Although only moments ago the trees had made him uncomfortable, they were suddenly a refuge. The trunk was slightly inclined and would be easy to climb. The branches were close together and heavy with foliage. It would be perfect for concealment and he knew through experience that a predator rarely looked up. With these thoughts in mind, he scaled the tree and settled in the fork of two thick branches. Only minutes later the thing that made him feel the urge to urinate passed along the game trail below.
Even with his enhanced vision he couldn’t make out the details of the shadowed hulk. He could only perceive a misshapen torso covered with dark hair and a grizzled snout full of wickedly sharp teeth, but very little real detail. All he knew was that it made him tremble and struggle to control the frightened whimpers that would surely draw the monstrous killer to where he hid.
Slowly the evil passed, carrying with it the stench of blood and rot. Eventually the night creatures resumed their song as though they had never been interrupted. He decided to rest and to continue his journey by the safety of the morning sun. The creature had been traveling the wrong way but would finally figure out its mistake and change direction. Until then it would give him enough time to find the person he knew needed help.
Soon the thunderstorm broke directly overhead. Rain fell steadily but not too hard, and soaked his thick hair through, creating a stream from his pointy chin. Wind buffeted him, but the moisture didn’t bother him. It was just another facet of nature. Eventually the storm passed and the raccoon fell asleep as he held fast to his lofty perch.