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Essence Of Midnight
By Julie Kenner Susan Kearney Julie Elizabeth Leto
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCAITLYN RAINE SAT on the hard concrete bench and watched, mesmerized by the great cat's regal beauty. Muscles rippled under the midnight-black coat as the beast stalked behind the fencing, its copper-colored eyes never leaving her own.
This section of the Audubon Zoo had been her favorite place to escape since she'd moved to New Orleans nineteen months ago. How many times had she come here, walking alone through the famous Garden District to get to this solitary spot? The zoo provided a peace she couldn't find in her job or in herself. The cages and habitats, each specifically designed for a unique species, provided an ordered respite from a world that never quite made sense. A world where Cate just never quite fit in.
But the world would provide no cage for Caitlyn. She'd find no safe haven, and there were no easy answers. She'd spent her whole life stalking demons, the kind on the street and the kind that lived inside her. But still they came. Night after night she hit the streets, hunting down the killers and the rapists and the vandals. And day after day she testified in court. The stalwart detective. Just the facts, ma'am. No need to get emotional. No need to let the jury know you saved their children by gettingthat monster off the street. Why bother? There would just be another monster to take his place tomorrow.
But no matter how futile, Cate did her job. And she did it well. She had to. How else could she prove that the voice in her head was wrong? That familiar low whisper with her mother's southern drawl. You're a bad girl, Caitlyn. A cursed girl. You shouldn't never have been born.
Amazing that the voice could persist even after the woman was gone. The day Cate had graduated from high school, her mother had walked away, taking her anger and her superstitions with her, and leaving seventeen-year-old Cate to fend for herself.
It hurt, yes. But it was also a relief.
The woman herself was gone.
But the voice in her head remained, and so Cate came here to the zoo to escape that proclamation, to silence that persistent voice. And hour after hour she'd lose herself in the sweet pleasure of doing nothing but watching the great cats move about. Their lives were her escape, and she loved them for it. But it was the one called Midnight that she loved the most. Even more aloof than his counterparts, and certainly more violent, the cat had been relegated to private quarters - a smaller habitat off the main panther area. And Cate had kept silent vigil, watching the cat, feeling absurdly, pathetically, as if there was a bond between them.
Today, she'd once again succumbed to the urge to come here, ignoring Adam's offer to buy her a beer and his protest that it wasn't right to spend her birthday alone. She sighed. He was probably right. She probably should have accepted her partner's offer, but she just couldn't handle company or the false camaraderie. Not now. Not when she was alone and turning thirty.
With a tug, she hefted her backpack into her lap, then pulled out a package wrapped in gold paper. It was from Kimberly, the only person in the world Cate might actually call a close friend. They'd met in Los Angeles, and for some reason Kimberly had taken a liking to Cate, managing during the years Cate worked for the LAPD to break through one or two of Cate's thick stone walls.
Cate twisted the package, examining its sides and corners, and imagining that it held something fabulous. Unlike Cate, who'd happily shop at Goodwill for the rest of her life, Kimberly had good taste and knew how to wield it.
With a little sigh, Cate allowed herself to wish that Kimberly was at home by her telephone. But her friend was out of reach, happily tripping through Europe, and Cate had no idea how to locate her. And despite her law-enforcement connections, using Interpol to track down a girlfriend for a birthday-blues chat seemed a little extreme. Even for a thirtieth birthday.
"Besides," she said, looking once again toward the panther, "I've got you."
The cat stopped stalking and cocked his head, those copper eyes peering at her over the wide, flat nose. Cate shivered, suddenly certain the beast had understood her. She licked her lips. "I hope it's okay if I spend my birthday with you."
A few more seconds passed, and the cat's gaze never wavered. Then he blinked - a gesture Cate took as acquiescence - and resumed pacing the habitat. Cate scowled, shaking her head at her own foolishness as she turned her attention from the cat back to the package in her lap.
She found an untaped section of the thick gold paper and slipped her pinkie nail - the only one she hadn't bitten off - under, edging it along until the tape peeled up. Slowly, she urged the tape away, careful not to let any of the gold color catch on the adhesive. The box was small, but Kimberly had used a lot of tape. It took almost ten minutes, but finally Cate managed to remove the wrapping paper intact. She folded it into a square and tucked it into her purse before turning to the box.
Her unwrapping ritual was grueling and probably a little silly, but Cate loved it. Loved the anticipation that came from peeling back layer after layer of colored paper and tape to get to the goody buried deep inside. With a present, you always knew the digging was worth it. With people, you simply couldn't be that sure.
Excerpted from Essence Of Midnight by Julie Kenner Susan Kearney Julie Elizabeth Leto Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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