Cover Of Night (Chapter 13)

When Teague opened the porch door into the B and B's dining room, the delicious aroma of fresh baking assailed him. He paused, inhaling deeply. The room was big but filled with small tables and with people, some of whom stood around with a cup of coffee in one hand and a muffin in the other, instead of taking a seat – not that there were many vacant seats.

He took a good look around, marking one or two faces that looked familiar. He could put a name to one face, that of Walter Earl, who owned the little hardware store here. In all likelihood, that meant Earl could put a name to Teague's face, which in turn meant he had to be extra careful not to do or say anything suspicious, and when the plan actually came down, he couldn't let any of the locals see him.

The buzz of conversation died down as his presence was registered and everyone got a good look at him, not being shy about it, either. Some even turned around in their chairs to eye him. Probably whatever dustup the two city boys had caused made the locals a little antsy, not that they would ever have been shy about looking over an outsider.

Their interest died fairly fast. The city boys would have stood out like sharks in a pool of guppies – though they'd found out pretty quick that these guppies had teeth. Teague, on the other hand, looked like one of them, because he was one of them. He was wearing old boots, jeans worn white from years of use, and a faded flannel shirt against the sudden chill the weather had taken. On his head was a green John Deere cap, definitely not new. He could have been any one of them.

A woman came into the dining room, bearing a tray containing muffins and butter that she unloaded on one of the tables, deftly placing a muffin-filled plate in front of each person while the butler went in the middle. Each table already bore an assortment of jams and jellies. She smiled at Teague in passing, saying, "I'll be right with you."

From Goss's description, he knew this was the owner. Funny how Toxtel and Goss had given such different descriptions. Toxtel had shrugged and said, "She's nothing extra. Brown hair, brown eyes. Average." Goss, on the other hand, had smiled and said, "She's got a great ass, like an athlete. Round and muscular. Small tits. Lanky build, except for that ass. Like a runner, maybe. Long, wavy hair, and this funny-looking, kissable mouth." Toxtel had snorted at that, but Goss had ignored him. The difference told Teague as much about each man as it did about the B and B owner.

Her name was Cate Nightingale. Dumb name, Nightingale. What kind of a name was that? He'd done some checking, so he knew she wasn't a local. How had she ended up at Trail Stop? If you weren't born here, why would anyone come to Trail Stop? The few little businesses had to be barely hanging on, providing service to the community and the neighboring ranches, but God knows, they couldn't be making much. Still, for the folks born here, this was home and a few of them had stayed when common sense said they should have moved on years ago.

Having finished delivering the tray full of muffins, she came back to him. "What can I get you? A muffin, or just a cup of coffee?"

She had a nice voice. She didn't look like someone who would take what didn't belong to her, but that wasn't his problem.

As if suddenly remembering his manners, he grabbed the cap off his head and stuck it in his back pocket. "Uh – I'm looking for Joshua Creed, but those muffins do look good. One, please, and a cup of coffee."

"Coming right up." She looked around. "Take any seat you like; we're very informal here. Just ask any of the men about Mr. Creed, and if one person doesn't know where he is, someone else will."

He nodded and she whipped through the door into the kitchen, where he glimpsed another woman working. No sign of a kid, though, and in his experience a kid made its presence known. If there was one, it was probably old enough to be in school, and would be home this afternoon.

One of the tables was occupied by a group he recognized by their clothes as outsiders. Climbers, he thought, catching enough of their conversation to confirm his guess. And from the way they were dressed, they weren't going out climbing. Were they going home today? The weekend was just starting, but maybe they had a climb planned at another location. They bore watching, to see if their vehicle was packed up when they left.

He approached the table where Walter Earl was sitting, and gravely nodded his head in acknowledgment. "Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but do any of you know where I can find Joshua Creed?"

"Don't I know you?" Walter Earl asked with a slightly puzzled expression.

Teague pretended to study him. "Maybe. Your face looks familiar. My name's Teague." Eying wouldn't be smart, because Earl might remember his real name later.

Walter's face cleared. "That's it. You've been in the store a time or two, haven't you?"

Once, to get some shotgun shells, but in a place like this people tended to remember anyone they didn't normally see every day. "I have," Teague said. Maybe it was good the old man remembered him; it placed him in the others' minds as someone who belonged.

"Josh took a client deer hunting," Walter offered. "Monday, wasn't it?" He looked at the others for confirmation.

There were several nods. "Sounds right," another man said. "I don't remember when he said he'd be back."

"Should be today or tomorrow, though; he usually keeps his hunts to four or five days. Says that's about his limit on tolerating most of them."

"In that case, he should have brought this one back yesterday," another man said, and they all laughed.

league allowed himself a small smile, to go along. "A bad one, huh?"

"Let's just say he thought highly of himself. Isn't that right, Cate?" Walter said as the Nightingale woman approached with Teague's muffin and coffee.

"Isn't what right?"

"This last client of Josh's, the one who was in here with him on Monday, was a real likable guy."

She snorted. "Yeah, I just loved the geography lesson he gave us." She turned to Teague. "Where're you sitting?"

"I'll just stand," he said, taking the plate and cup from her. "Thank you, ma'am."

She smiled and whisked away. He watched her take note of the level of coffee in even cup she passed and then go straight to the coffeemaker, where she lifted a pot off the heating plate and then went around the room providing warm-ups. Because he was a man, he also watched her ass. Like Goss said, it was an eye-catcher.

"Cate's a sweet woman," Walter said, and Teague looked around to find all the occupants of the table watching him with various levels of aggression. Protective of her, were they?

"No need to look at her like that," an old man who looked close to ninety said. "She's spoken for."

What was up that they felt the need to warn him away from Cate Nightingale? Teague manufactured another smile, which was about his limit, and lifted one hand. "I was just about to say she reminds me of my daughter," he lied. He didn't have a daughter, but these old farts didn't know that.

It worked. They all relaxed, and the smiles came back out. Walter leaned back in his chair and returned to the original subject. "Josh might come in here when his client leaves, might not. He's not a regular like the rest of us. Did you leave a message on his answering machine?"

"No, I didn't bother. Someone told me I might find him here," Teague answered. "This guy I know is trying to find a guide for some important client who decided out of the blue he wauled to go hunting, so I thought of Creed. Since the guy needs someone pronto, no need to leave a message. I'll just tell him to move on to the next name on the list." He paused. "Unless Creed has a satellite phone, maybe?"

Walter rubbed his jaw. "If he does, he's never mentioned it. Can you call a satellite phone from a regular phone?"

"Have to be able to; otherwise there's no point in 'em," the old man said testily.

"Guess you're right," Walter admitted. He looked back at Teague. "Josh is the best guide there is, no doubt about it. His clients bag trophies more often than anyone else. Too bad your friend missed him."

"His loss," Teague said briefly. Holding his coffee in one hand and balancing the plate on top of the cup, he lifted the muffin and took a big bite. His taste buds exploded with delight. He could detect walnuts and apple, cinnamon, and something else he couldn't identify. "Damn," he muttered, and took another bite.

Walter laughed. "Cate bakes a mean muffin, doesn't she? Every time I have one I think, no way can her scones top her muffins – but then on Scone Day I wish she'd make scones more often."

Teague had heard of scones, but he'd never tasted one, and wasn't really certain what one was. He hated fancy food, and usually wouldn't even touch a muffin, but he was glad he'd taken this one. Assuming Ms. Nightingale lived through Toxtel's plan for Trail Stop, Teague thought he might have to stop by the B and B again; these muffins were tasty.

He'd found out what he needed to know about Creed, so there was nothing else to do now except keep watch and see what happened. Did a kid show up after school? Did the climbers leave? Did anyone else come to stay at the B and B? And if Creed didn't come to Trail Stop often enough to be considered a regular, then league would have to come up with some way to neutralize him, which could get messy.

After the breakfast bunch had cleared out and she and Sherry had cleaned up, Cate checked out her climbing group and saw them on their way. She didn't have anyone else coming in until the following weekend – another group of climbers – which she now realized wasn't good. With the boys gone, she would have preferred to stay busy.

Sherry left after the cleaning was finished, and Cate was alone in the house.

The silence was painful.

Because no one was arriving immediately, she didn't have to hurry to clean up all the rooms, but she threw herself into it with a vengeance. .After stripping the beds and getting started on the mound of laundry, she cleaned the bathrooms, vacuumed, dusted, and even cleaned the windows.

Then she got started on the boys' room, which might or might not have been a good idea. It really needed cleaning, but being in there – putting away their toys, cleaning out their closets, and straightening their clothing – reminded her of their absence. She tried not to watch the clock, but she kept glancing at her watch anyway, trying to gauge where they were by the time. It was impossible, of course; she didn't know �� the plane had been delayed for an hour or two, though she hoped her mother would have called her in that case, knowing she'd be worried if she didn't receive their safe-arrival call on time.

She didn't pause for lunch, because preparing something just for her didn't seem worth the effort. Several times she had to sniff back tears. This felt like grief, which was silly; she knew what grief really was. Still the feeling of having lost part of herself persisted, even though her apron strings hadn't been cut, just stretched a little… if several hundred miles could be considered "little."

"Apron strings, my ass," she muttered to herself. "More like the umbilical cord." And that comparison was extreme enough to make her laugh, just a little. They were fine. Her parents might not be fine by the end of the twins' visit, but the boys would sail through. She'd worked hard to make certain they felt utterly secure, which had given them the self-confidence to fly off With their grandmother for a two-week visit. They were eager to be on an airplane. They'd flown before, of course, but they'd been infants and didn't remember. She should be glad they were such brave little hearts.

Except two weeks was too long. She should have agreed to just one week.

When the phone rang shortly after three, she hinged for it.

"We made it," her mother said, sounding exhausted.

"Is everything all right? Was there any trouble? "

"Everything's great; there weren't any problems. They loved pushing the luggage cart. They loved watching the planes take off and land. They loved the tiny bathroom, which they both had to use. Twice. The pilots stopped by to talk to them before takeoff, and both boys now have a set of wings, which they haven't taken off."

They would probably still be wearing those wings when they came home, Cate thought, tears sparkling in her eyes even as she smiled at the thought.

"The first thing they saw when we got home was the riding lawn mower," her mother continued. "Your father is out there now with both of them in his lap, riding them around and around. The blades are disengaged," she added.

Cate could remember riding with her father on the lawn mower, and she got a mushy feeling around her heart knowing that now he was doing that with her children.

"So now you can stop sniffling," Sheila said. "They're not only having a blast, they've exhausted me and are now working on your father, which should give you a nice warm sense of revenge."

"It does," Cate admitted. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. Do you want me to send pictures? We've already taken a bunch."

"No, it takes too long for them to download, since I just have dial-up. Print them out and bring copies when you come back."

"okay. How did you do today?"

"Been cleaning like a maniac."

"Good. Now that yon have afternoons free, go get your hair done."

Cate laughed, and for the first time truly realized she could get a haircut. A trim, at least, wouldn't cost all that much, and she desperately needed one. "I think I will."

"Spend some time on yourself. Read a book. Watch a movie. Paint your toenails."

After they hung up, Cate realized that her parents' intention had been to give her a little break as much as it had been to have the boys to themselves for a while. She appreciated their concern, she really did, and would try to spend some time on herself. With that in mind, after she'd checked her e-mail and handled the reservations that had come in via the Web site, after she'd finished the laundry, after she'd copied down a list of ingredients for her next shopping trip – for some recipes she wanted to try – and after she had prepared supper for herself – a grilled cheese sandwich – she took her mother's advice to heart and painted her toenails.