Cover Of Night (Chapter 12)

"So," her mother said casually that night as they were sitting on the boys' beds and packing their things, "is something going on between you and Calvin Harris?"

"No!" Stunned, Cate almost dropped the pair of jeans she'd been folding and stared at her mother. "What gave you that idea?"

"Just… something."

"Like what?"

"The way you two are together. Sort of awkward, and sneaking looks at each other."

"I haven't been sneaking looks."

"If I weren't your mother, that righteously indignant tone might work. As it is, I know you too well."

"Mom! There's nothing going on. I'm not – I haven't – " She stopped and laid her hands in her lap, smoothing her fingers over the small garment. "Not since Derek died. I'm not interested in going out with anyone."

"You should be. It's been three years."

"I know." And she did – but knowing something and doing it were two different things. "It's just – so much of my time and energy is taken up with the boys and this place… adding something else, someone else, to the mix would be more than I could handle. And I haven't been sneaking looks," she added. "I was worried today about giving a statement to Marbury because I didn't know if Calvin had told him about hitting Huxley on the head. If I 'sneaked' a look at him, it was because of that."

"He looks at you."

Now Cate had to laugh. "And probably blushes while he looks away as fast as he can. He's very shy. I think I've heard him say more in the past two days than I have in the rest of the time we've lived here. Don't read more into it than is there. He probably sneaks looks at everyone."

"No, he doesn't. I haven't noticed he's particularly shy, either. When he was putting the new lock on the attic door and the boys were practically crawling all over him, he was chatting with me like he does with Sherry and Neenah."

Cate paused, remembering that she'd overheard Calvin chatting with Sherry. Evidently there were some people he felt comfortable with, but she herself obviously wasn't one of them. The thought caused an odd little pain in the pit of her stomach. Instinctively shying away from examining the cause, she forced herself back to the conversation. "Anyway. Before you start scheming to throw us together, think for a minute: neither of us is exactly a good catch. I'm chronically broke, and I have two children. He's a handyman. No one is beating down our doors."

Sheila's lips twitched as she fought a smile. "Then you'd probably make a good couple, since you're so evenly matched."

Cate didn't know whether to feel amused or horrified. She was now on a handyman's level? She hadn't been raised to be a snob, but she'd worked in the corporate world, and she had ambitions. They weren't great ambitions, but they did exist. As far as she could see, Calvin was perfectly content to be what he was. On the other hand, given her chosen occupation of owning and operating a bed-and-breakfast, what could be handier than having her own handyman? God knows she couldn't have survived without him these past three years.

She gave a spurt of laughter. "Well, I have considered asking him to move in."

Her mother blinked in surprise.

"Giving him room and board in exchange for free repairs," Cate explained, laughing again as she got up to get the boys' underwear out of their dresser drawers. While she was up she stuck her head out the door to check on the boys, who were playing with their cars and trucks in the hallway. She had put them out there so she and her mother could get their clothes packed without them helping, which would have guaranteed mayhem. They were building some sort of fort with their blocks, and crashing their cars into it. That should keep them safely occupied for a while.

"Sweetheart, it is time to consider beginning to go out with men again," Sheila continued. "Though God knows the pickings here are so slim Calvin is just about all there is. If you moved back to Seattle – "

Ah, there it was, the real reason behind her mother's sudden interest in Calvin. Cate made a rueful face. This was just another campaign to convince her to leave Idaho.

Cate waited until she paused for breath, then reached out and touched her hand. "Mom, of all the advice you've ever given me, do you know what I treasure the most?"

Sheila drew back a little, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. "No, what?"

"When Derek died, you told me a lot of people would be giving me advice about living and dating and so on, and not to listen to any of them, not even you, because grief had its own timetable and it was different for everyone."

If there was anything Sheila hated, it was having her own words turned back on her. "Well, good God!" she said in a tone of total disgust. "Don't tell me you fell for that profound claptrap!"

Cate burst out laughing and pitched backward across Tanner's bed, both fists raised in victory.

Sheila threw a pair of balled-up socks at her. "Ungrateful wretch," she muttered.

"Yes, I know: you were in labor for twenty days – "

"Twenty hours. It just seemed like days."

Both boys came running in. "Mommy, what's funny?" Tucker demanded, jumping onto the bed with her.

"What's funny?" Tanner echoed, jumping to the other side of her.

Cate wrapped her arms around them. "Mimi is. She's been telling me funny stories."

"What kind of stories?"

"About when I was a little girl."

Their eyes got big and round. Their mommy being a little girl was a concept that was just too unbelievable. "Mimi knew you then?" Tucker asked.

"Mimi is Mommy's mommy," Cate said, glad she didn't have to say that ten times really fast. "Just like I'm your mommy."

She saw Tanner's lips move as he silently repeated the words Mommy's mommy. He stuck his finger in his mouth as he regarded Sheila with laser-beam intensity.

"I feel like a zoo animal," Sheila complained.

"Zoo?" Tanner asked around his finger, his interest caught.

"Zoo! Mimi's taking us to the zoo!" Tucker shouted with glee.

"Trapped," said Cate, grinning at Sheila.

"Ha ha. I happen to think that's a great idea. We certainly will go to the zoo," she promised firmly. "If you behave and go to bed when you're supposed to."

Once the boys saw her putting their clothes in their suitcases, the jig was up, as Cate had known it would be. Their excitement almost fizzed out of control. They started dragging out the toys they wanted to take with them, which of course would have required chartering a plane for that purpose alone. Cate let Sheila handle the situation, since she would be in charge of them for the next couple of weeks and the boys needed to get even more in the habit of listening to her.

Finally they were packed, with a limit of two toys each. By then they were winding down, and Cate left Sheila to the chore of getting them bathed and into their pajamas while she went downstairs and tackled the job of switching their car seats from her Explorer to Sheila's rental. She should have done that in the daylight, she thought after wrestling with the straps and buckles in the overhead dome's dim light. Finally the seats were secure, and she trudged back inside to make name and address tags for the seats, since they would have to be checked in to the plane's luggage hold. She made another trip outside to put the tags on the seats.

The September night was chilly, and Cate wished she'd grabbed a jacket before going out. She paused for a moment, staring up at the star-shot sky. The air was so clear there seemed to be thousands of stars hanging overhead, many more than she'd seen anywhere else.

The night surrounded her, but it wasn't silent. The roar of the river was constantly in the background, accompanied by the rustle of leaves as the wind whispered through the trees. The uppermost branches were already starting to turn color; fall was coming fast, and as winter took hold, business would slack off to the point that some weeks she wouldn't have any paying guests at all. Maybe she should start serving lunch during the slow season, she thought. Just simple stuff, like soups and stews, sandwiches; they were easy to make and would keep some money coming in. When snow was two and three feet deep on the ground, the promise of hot soup or stew or chili would bring the citizens of Trail Stop over. Heck, it might even bring Conrad and Gordon Moon in from their ranch.

Sheila's question about Cal swam back into her mind. She had never even remotely connected him with anything romantic – but then, she hadn't thought romantically about anyone. She still couldn't get her mind around that concept, but she felt that odd little pain in her stomach again as she wondered once more why he was so closemouthed around her. If he could chat with other people, why not her? Was something wrong with her? Did he shy away from her because he didn't want her to get ideas about him? The idea was almost laughable – and yet it wasn't. She had two small children. A lot of men didn't want to get involved with women who had children from a previous marriage.

But why was she even thinking this way about Cal? She had no basis for that supposition. She'd never been interested in him in that way, and if he had any such ideas about her, then he was the world's best actor, because he'd revealed nothing.

She shoved the whole subject away. It was nuts, and she was nuts for letting herself obsess about it. She should be making plans for the next two weeks.

While the boys were gone, she could get some things done, such as clean out the freezer and pantry, and pile rocks around the circumference of the parking lot to make it more official-looking than just some gravel spread around. She could go through their clothes and pack up the things that were too small or too worn, and put them in the attic. She should probably donate the clothes to a shelter or something, but she couldn't bring herself to part with their things vet. She still had all their baby clothes, the tiny onesies, the bibs and socks and adorable little shoes. Maybe by the time they started school, she would get over this ridiculous attachment to their outgrown clothing; if she didn't, she could foresee the entire house being used as storage.

Yes, she had a lot with which to occupy herself while the boys were gone. Maybe she'd be so tired at the end of the day she wouldn't be in tears from missing them so much.

That reminded her that if she didn't gel inside in a hurry, they would already be asleep. She wouldn't have the opportunity to tuck them in and read them a story for the next two weeks, so she didn't want to miss tonight.

Sheila was just getting them into their pajamas when Cate entered the steamy bathroom. "All clean," Tucker said, beaming up at her.

She bent to kiss the top of his head, hugging him close and then straightening with him in her arms. He snuggled close, his head on her shoulder, making her heart squeeze at the knowledge that these days were flying by and soon they would be too big for her to pick up – not that they'd want her to. By then they probably wouldn't want her hugging and kissing them, either.

Cate picked up Tanner, who wound his arm around her neck and smiled winsomely at her. She pulled back a little, narrowing her eyes at him, which might have been a little more effective if she hadn't been patting his back at the same time. "You're up to something," she said suspiciously.

"Not," he assured her, and smothered a yawn.

They were tired and ready for bed. but too excited to settle down. First they couldn't decide what story they wanted to hear; then Tanner wanted one of his dinosaurs to hold, which meant Tucker had to decide which toy he wanted, too. Finally he settled on his Batman figure, which he bounced around on the covers.

Tanner laid down his dinosaur and gave her a very serious look. "I'm going to be in the army when I grow up," he announced.

Tucker nodded, too caught up in a yawn to say anything.

Last week they'd been set on being firemen, so Cate could only wonder at how fast they changed. "Do you know where kings keep their armies?" she asked in wide-eyed seriousness.

They both shook their heads, their own eyes going big.

"In their sleevies."

For several long seconds they stared at her in silence, then began giggling as they got the joke. Sometimes she had to explain jokes to them, but that frustrated them and they loved it when they caught on all by themselves. Behind her her mother gave a soft groan, probably because she remembered that at the twins' age repetition was the name of the game and now she could count on hearing that joke at least a hundred times over the next two weeks.

Cate read them their story, which lulled them to sleep within five minutes. She kissed them good night, then tiptoed out of the room.

Sheila saw the tears in her eyes and hugged her. "You'll be all right, I promise. Just wait until the first day of school; that's when you'll cry your eyes out."

Through her tears Cate had to laugh. "Thanks, Mom, that's such a comfort to know."

"Yes, but if I told you it wouldn't bother you at all, when the day came you'd know I'd lied and you wouldn't trust me again. Of course," Sheila said thoughtfully, "I didn't cry at all when Patrick started school. As I remember, I turned handsprings on the lawn."

Sheila continued to reminisce about Patrick, keeping Cate smiling, until they went to bed. As soon as Cate told her mother good night and closed her bedroom door, however, her eyes filled and her chin wobbled. The boys had never been away overnight before. She was devastated by the prospect. They'd be so far away; if anything happened it would lake her hours and hours to get to them. She wouldn't be able to hear them playing during the day, their shouts and squeals and laughter, the pounding of their feet as they raced around. She wouldn't be able to hug them tight, feel their little bodies close to her own and know they were okay.

Bitterly she wished she'd kept her mouth shut about them going home with her mother, but at the time she'd been panic-stricken – which had been a perfectly normal reaction to having had a gun pointed at her. Her only thought had been to get her children away from any possible danger.

She hadn't known cutting the apron strings would be so difficult. Nor had she intended to cut them now?. When they were five would have been about right. Or six. Maybe even seven.

She had to laugh at herself, a watery gurgle that caught in a hiccup. Part of her had wanted them to be more independent, because being a single parent of two active little boys wasn't easy. She felt as if she never had any downtime, as if she had to be alert every minute of every day, because they could get into trouble in a second. If they were older, more responsible, she could relax a little. She just didn't want them to be older and more responsible right now.

Giving herself pep talks didn't help; neither did reasoning with herself. She cried herself to sleep, already missing the boys so much she ached.

The next morning Cate got up even earlier than usual so she could help her mother get the boys and their stuff loaded in the SUV, as well as do her normal morning cooking. She made hot oatmeal for the boys. because the predawn air was downright cold, but they were too sleepy to eat more than a few bites. Knowing they'd never last all the way to Boise without getting hungry, she prepared each of them a zippered plastic bag of cereal, and sent along two apples just in case.

Dawn hadn't yet arrived when they shepherded the boys outside. Even the cold air didn't rouse them very much. They climbed into their seats, looking adorable in their jeans and sneakers, their little flannel shirts left unbuttoned over their T-shirts. They had resisted wearing jackets, so Cate had gone outside and started the SUV ahead of time, turning the heater on high, and the interior was nice and warm. They settled in, each clutching a chosen toy. Cate kissed each of them, told them to have fun and that they should do what Mimi told them to do, then hugged her mother. "Have a safe trip," she managed to say without her voice quivering too much.

Sheila hugged her in return, patting her back just as she had when Cate was little. "You'll be fine," she said soothingly. "I'll call when we get home, and I'll call or e-mail every day."

Cate didn't want to mention the word homesick where the boys might hear her – she didn't want to plant a seed, in case they knew what the word meant – so she said, "If they get teary – "

"I'll handle it," Sheila interrupted. "I know you agreed to this when you were scared and then nothing happened and you're thinking you were worried for no reason, but… tough. You agreed, and I'm holding you to it. I don't like cutting my visit short, but I'll get the rest of my time when I bring the boys home."

Nothing like some of her mother's no-nonsense commentary to brighten her world, Cate thought, laughing as she got in another hug. Then her mother got behind the wheel, and Cate leaned down for a last look at the boys. Tucker was already asleep. Tanner looked drowsy, but he gave her an impish smile and blew her a kiss. Cate pretended to be staggered by the impact and he giggled.

They would be okay, she thought as she watched the taillights disappear down the gravel road. She had doubts about herself.

From his observation point, Teague watched the SUV slow as it approached the bridge, then pick up speed. The lights from the dashboard showed a middle-aged woman behind the wheel. The passenger seat was empty.

The logical supposition was that, leaving this early, the woman had a flight to catch. He couldn't imagine why a lone woman would come to the middle of nowhere for a solitary vacation, but maybe she was some high-powered executive who just wanted to get away from everything, and Trail Stop was certainly a good place to do that.

During the wee hours he'd reconnoitered the community. Two rental vehicles had been parked on the far side of the B and B meaning just one was left now. He'd watch for it. Slipping among the houses, he'd looked at angles, deciding the best positions his men could take for the most effective lines of lire. A couple of dogs had barked, but he was very good at clandestine movement and neither of them had taken real alarm; no lights had come on, so he guessed the inhabitants were accustomed to the occasional bark.

These people wouldn't roll over and play dead. They would fight back as well as they could, and probably every house had some sort of weapon in it. Out here, with bears and snakes and other wildlife, it paid to keep at least a pistol handy. He wasn't worried about the pistols; they wouldn't have the distance. Ditto the shotguns. It was the rifles that would give him problems, and it was a sure thing that some of the men would hunt deer, so they'd have powerful weapons that shot powerful rounds.

He marked the buildings from which the locals would be able to effectively return fire, which, if he positioned his men right, would be few. The houses were too spread out, with a lot of open ground that they couldn't safely cross. There were maybe thirty, thirty-five buildings total. The road angled to the left side of the roughly comma-shaped area, putting most of the houses on the river side, on the right, which was good because it clustered people on the side where they had literally nowhere to go. Not only was there a seventy-foot bluff on that side, but the river itself was an effective barrier.

Any escape attempts would necessarily come from the left, where there were fewer houses for cover. The mountains on that side were mostly impassable, but before he started this dance, he intended to explore them himself, looking for possible escape routes. These people would know their own backyard; there might be an abandoned mine that cut all the way through a fold of the mountain. If there was, he wanted to know about it.

Then the next step would be to locate Joshua Creed.