Cover Of Night (Chapter 2)

Cate hurried down the stairs, hoping Sherry hadn't been overwhelmed by an unexpected influx of customers while Gate had been upstairs dealing with the twins. As she approached the kitchen door, she heard Sherry's voice, rich with amusement. "1 wondered how long you were going to keep your head stuck under that sink."

"I was afraid if I moved, she'd swat my ass, too."

Gate skidded to a stop, her eyes wide in astonishment. Mr. Harris had said that? Mr. Harris? And to Sherry? She could see him saying something like that to another man – maybe – but when he was talking to a woman, he could barely put two words together without blushing. And there was an ease to his tone she'd never heard before, one that made her doubt her own cars.

Mr. Harris… and Sherry? Had she missed something there? It couldn't be; the idea of those two together was too outlandish to be real, like… like Lisa Marie and Michael Jackson.

Which told her that anything was possible.

Sherry was older than Mr. Harris, in her mid-fifties, but age didn't matter much. She was also an attractive woman, hefty but curvy, with reddish hair and a warm, outgoing personality. Mr. Harris was – well, Cate had no idea how old he was. Somewhere between forty and fifty, she guessed. She pictured him in her mind's eye; he looked older than he probably was, and it wasn't because he was wrinkled or anything like that. He was just one of those people who was born old, with a seen-it-all manner. In fact, now that she really thought about it, he might not even be forty yet. His nondescript hair, somewhere between brown and dishwater blond, was always too shaggy, and she'd never seen him when he wasn't wearing a pair of grease-stained, baggy coveralls. He was so lanky the coveralls hung on him, looser than a prostitute's morals.

Cate felt ashamed; he was so shy she actually avoided looking at him or casually chatting, not wanting to stress him out, and now she felt guilty because not drawing him out was easier than getting to know him and putting him at ease, as Sherry had obviously done. Cate, too, should have put herself to the trouble, should have made the effort to befriend him, as everyone here had made the effort to befriend her when she'd first taken over the B and B. Some neighbor she'd been!

She went into the kitchen, feeling as if she were stepping into the twilight zone. Mr. Harris literally jumped when he saw her, his face turning red, as if he knew she'd overheard. Cate jerked her thoughts back to Mr. Layton's weird actions and away from the possibility of a romance going on beneath her nose. "The guest in number three climbed out the window and left," she said, then lifted her shoulders in an "I don't know what the hell's going on" gesture.

"Out the window?" Sherry echoed, equally puzzled. "Why did he do that?"

"I don't know. I have his credit card number, so it isn't as if he can run out on the bill. And his stuff's still here."

"Maybe he just wanted to climb out the window, see if he could."

"Maybe. Or he's nuts."

"Or that," Sherry agreed. "How many nights is he staying?"

"Just last night. Checkout's at eleven, so he should be back soon." Though where on earth he could have gone, she couldn't imagine, unless he'd felt a sudden urge to visit the feed store. Trail Stop didn't have any shops or restaurants; if he'd wanted breakfast, he should have eaten here. The nearest honest-to-God town was an hour's drive away, so he wouldn't have time to go there, eat, then get back before it was time to check out – not to mention that it would be self-defeating, if he simply hadn't wanted to eat with strangers.

Mr. Harris cleared his throat. "I'll be… um – " He looked around, clearly discomfited.

Guessing that he didn't know where to put his empty cup, Cate said, "I'll take it," and held out her hand. "Thanks for stopping by. I wish you'd let me pay you, though."

He stubbornly shook his head as he gave the cup to her. Determined to be more friendly, she continued, "I don't know what I'd have done without you."

"None of us know how we got along before Cal settled here," Sherry said cheerfully, moving to the sink, where she began loading dishes into the dishwasher. "Waited a week or more for someone from town whenever we needed repairs, I guess."

Cate was vaguely surprised; she'd thought Mr. Harris had always been here. He certainly fit in with the locals as if he'd lived here all his life. The sense of shame rose in her throat again. Sherry referred to him by his first name, while Cate had always called him Mr. Harris, effectively putting him at a distance. She didn't know why she did it, but there it was.

"Mommmmy!" Tucker bellowed from the top of the stairs. "Time's up!"

Sherry chuckled, and Cate saw a brief smile tug at Mr. Harris's mouth as he gave Sherry a two-fingered salute and picked up his toolbox, evidently intent on making a getaway before the boys came back downstairs.

Cate rolled her eyes heavenward, silently asking for a little peace and quiet, then stepped into the hall. "Tell Tanner he may get out of the naughty chair."

"Awwight!" The gleeful shout was followed by the sounds of jumping. "Tannuh! Mommy said to get up! Let's build a fort and bawwicade me and you in it." Caught up in his enthusiasm for his game, he ran back to their room.

Cate was torn between amusement at his Elmer Fudd pronunciation and puzzlement at his word choice. Barricadey Where had he come up with that? Maybe they'd been watching old westerns on television; she needed to keep a closer watch on their entertainment.

She checked the dining room: it was empty; the morning rush was over. After she and Sherry cleaned the dining room and kitchen and Mr. Layton returned to get his things, she could change the sheets on the bed and clean the room, then she'd have the rest of the day to get things ready for her mother's visit.

Mr. Harris had left. Going over to help with the dishes, Cate bumped her hip against Sherry's. "So, what's up with you and Mr. Harris? Is there something going on between you two?"

Sherry's mouth fell open, and she gave Cate a look of absolute astonishment. "Good God, no. What gave you that idea?"

Her reaction was so genuine that Cate felt foolish for having jumped to the wrong conclusion. "He was talking to you."

"Well, hell, Cal talks to a lot of people."

"Not that I've seen, he doesn't."

"He's just a little shy," Sherry said, in what was probably the understatement of the month. "Besides, I'm old enough to be his mother."

"You are not – unless you were really, really precocious."

"Okay, so that's an exaggeration. I do like Cal – a lot. He's a smart man. He might not have a college degree, but he can fix just about anything."

Cate agreed with that. Whatever needed repair at the B and B, from carpentry to electrical work to plumbing, Mr. Harris handled it. He also filled in as a mechanic, if need be. If ever anyone had been born to be a handyman, Mr. Harris had been.

Ten years before, fresh out of college with her degree in marketing, she would have disdained people who did physical work – people with their names sewn on their pockets, as they had been described in her circle – but she was older and wiser now, she hoped. The world needed all types to make things work, from the planners to the doers, and in this little community someone who could fix things was worth his weight in gold.

She began cleaning the dining room while Sherry finished in the kitchen; then she vacuumed and dusted downstairs – at least in all the public areas. Thank goodness the huge old Victorian had two parlors. The front one, the big one, was tor use by her guests. The small one in back was the den where she and the boys relaxed in the evenings, where they watched television and played games. She didn't bother even picking up their toys in there; for one thing, her mother wasn't due for hours vet and the boys would have their things dragged out again before she got here, so Cate didn't waste the effort.

Sherry poked her head out of the kitchen door. "All through in here. I'll see you in the morning. Hope your mom gets here okay."

"Thanks. I do, too; she'll never let me hear the end of it if she has car trouble or something."

Trail Stop was so remote that there was no easy way to get there, no nearby airports for commercial flights, and only one road in. Because her mother hated the small propeller planes she could have flown on to get closer, and because renting any sort of vehicle at their tiny landing strip was almost "mission impossible," she chose to fly into Boise, where she knew there would be rentals available. That made for a long drive and yet another sore point with her concerning Gate's chosen home. She didn't like having her daughter and grandsons living in another state, she didn't like Idaho – give her a metropolitan area over a rural one any day – and she didn't like the inordinate trouble it took her to visit. She didn't like it that Cate had bought a B and B, which meant she seldom had any free time; in fact, Cate had visited her parents only once since buying the B and B.

All of those were valid points. Cate admitted it, and had even told her mother so. She herself would have preferred to stay in Seattle, if she'd had a choice.

But she hadn't, so she'd done what she'd thought was best for the twins. When Derek died, leaving her with nine-month-old twins, not only had she been devastated by losing him, she had been forced to face reality about their finances. Their combined incomes had provided a good living, but Cate had gone to part-time when the boys were born and most of her work she'd done from home. With Derek gone, she had to work full-time, but the cost of quality day care for the boys had been prohibitive. It almost didn't pay for her to work. Her mother couldn't, help with their care, because she worked, too.

They had savings, and Derek had purchased a hundred-thousand-dollar insurance policy, intending to add to it as his income increased. They'd thought they had all the time in the world. Who could have anticipated a healthy, thirty-year-old man dying from a staph infection that attacked his heart? He'd gone rock climbing for the first time since the twins were born, scraped his leg, and the doctors said the bacteria had likely entered his body through the small wound. Roughly thirty percent of people carry the bacteria on their skin, they'd explained, and normally have no problems. But sometimes a break in the skin allowed infection to start, and maybe for some reason the immune system was temporarily depressed, say from stress, and the infection would roar through the body despite all efforts to stop it.

The how and why mattered, on an intellectual level, but emotionally all she knew was that she was suddenly a twenty-nine-year-old widow with two baby boys to care for. From there on out, all of her decisions had to be made with them in mind.

With their savings and the insurance money, and careful budgeting, she could have remained in Seattle, close to both her family and her in-laws. But there would have been nothing left over to pay for the twins' college education, plus she would have had to work such long hours she wouldn't have seen much of her own children. She'd gone over and over her options with her accountant, and the most logical plan he could devise was to move to an area with a lower cost of living.

She had been familiar with this area of Idaho, in the Bitter-roots. One of Derek's college buddies had grown up here, and told him the rock climbing was great. He and Derek had spent a lot of Weekends climbing. Then when she and Derek met at climbing club and began dating, it was only natural she would join the weekend climbs. She loved the area, its ruggedness, the staggeringly beautiful scenery, the peacefulness. She and Derek had stayed at the B and B she now owned, so she had even been familiar with the place. The former owner, old Mrs. Weiskopf, had been struggling to take care of it, so when Cate decided to go into the inn business and made an offer, the old lady had jumped at it and now lived in Pocatello with her son and his wife.

The cost of living in Trail Stop was certainly lower, and from the sale of their condo Cate had made a tidy profit, which she promptly set aside in the boys' college funds. She was determined not to touch that money unless it was a matter of life or death – theirs. She lived completely on the proceeds from the B and B. which didn't allow much room for extras. But the morning food business gave her a little leeway, if nothing went wrong and she had no unexpected expenses, such as this morning's plumbing emergency. Thank God it had been so minor – and thank God Mr. Harris had refused payment.

There were pros and cons to the life she'd chosen for herself and the boys. One of the pros, the biggest one, was that the boys were with her all day, even' day. Their young lives were as stable as she could possibly make them, with the result that they were happy and healthy, and that was enough to keep her there. Another pro was that she liked being her own boss. She liked what she was doing, liked cooking, liked the people in the community. They were just people, maybe more independent-minded than their metropolitan counterparts, but with quirks, strengths, and weaknesses like everyone else. The air was clear and clean, and the boys were perfectly safe playing outside.

One of the items in the con column was the area's remoteness. There was no cell phone service, no DSL. for the computer. Television was a satellite system, which meant a heavily snow-blocked reception. There was no such thing as a quick trip to the grocery to pick up a few items; grocery shopping involved a one-hour trip each way, so she made the journey every other week and bought mountains of supplies. The boys' doctor was also an hour away. When they started school, she would have to make that drive twice a day, live days a week, which meant she'd have to hire help. Even collecting the mail took effort. There was a long line of rural mail boxes down at the main road, more than ten miles distant. Anyone heading that way was obliged to take the community's outgoing mail and bring back whatever had been delivered – which meant keeping a supply of rubber bands handy to keep each person's mail separated from the others – and then deliver it to the recipients.

The boys were short on playmates, too. There was one child near their age: Angelina Contreras, who was six and in first grade, which meant she was in school during the day. The few teenagers often stayed with friends or relatives in town during the school year, coming home only on the weekends, because of the distance involved.

Gate wasn't blind to the problems caused by her choices, but overall she thought she'd made the best decision for the boys. They were her prime consideration, the underlying reason for every action she took. The responsibility of raising them, caring for them, fell on her shoulders, and she was determined they wouldn't suffer.

Sometimes she felt so alone she thought she would break under the stress. On the surface everything was completely normal, even mundane. She lived in this small community where everyone knew everyone else; she raised her kids; she bought groceries and cooked and paid bills, dealt with all the normal homeowner worries. Each day was almost completely like the one that had gone before.

But since Derek's death, she had constantly felt as if she were walking on the brink of a cliff, and one misstep would send her over. She alone had the responsibility for the boys, for providing for them, not just now, but in the future, too. What if the money she'd set aside for their college education wasn't enough? What if the stock market tanked when they were eighteen, what if interest rates plummeted? The success or failure of the B and B was totally on her shoulders – everything was totally on her shoulders, every decision, every plan, every moment. If she'd had only herself to worry about, she wouldn't have been terrified; but she had the boys, and because of them she lived on the edge of panic.

They were only four, little more than babies, and utterly dependent on her. They had already lost their father, and even though they didn't remember him, they had certainly felt his absence in their lives, and would feel it more keenly as they grew older. How could she make up for that? Was she strong enough to guide them safely through the headstrong, hormonal teenage years? She loved them so much she wouldn't be able to bear it if anything happened to them, but what if the decisions she'd made were all wrong?

There were no guarantees. She knew that, knew that even if Derek were still alive, there would be problems; but the big difference would have been that she wouldn't be alone in facing them.

Because of the boys, when Derek died she'd forced herself to function, forced the grief into an inner prison where she could keep it controlled until she was alone at night. She had cried through the nights for weeks, months. But during the day she had focused on her babies, on their needs, and in a way, three years down the road, that was still how she got by. Time had dulled the sharp edge of grief, but it hadn't disappeared. She thought of Derek almost every day, when she saw his expressions chasing across the lively faces of his sons. A picture of them together was on top of her dresser. The boys would look at it, and they knew that was their daddy.

She'd had seven great years with him, and his absence had torn a huge hole in her life, her heart. The boys would never know him, and that was something she couldn't make up to them.

Her mother arrived just after four that afternoon. Cate had been watching for her, and when the black Jeep Liberty pulled into the parking area, she and the boys ran out to meet her.

"There are my boys!" Sheila Wells cried, jumping out of the Jeep and squatting down to hug the twins to her.

"Mimi, look," Tucker said, showing her the toy fire engine he held.

"Look," Tanner echoed, displaying a yellow dump truck. Both boys had picked out a prized possession for her to admire.

She didn't disappoint. "Goodness, look at that. I haven't seen a better fire engine or dump truck in – well, I don't think I ever have."

"Listen," Tucker said, turning on the siren.

Tanner scowled. His dump truck didn't have a siren, but the back did lift up and the gate swung open, dumping whatever was in the truck bed. He bent down, scooped some gravel into the bed, then held it over Tucker's fire engine and dumped the gravel all over it.

"Hey!" Tucker yelped indignantly, shoving at his brother, and Cate stepped in before a fight could break out.

"Tanner, that wasn't a nice thing to do. Tucker, you shouldn't shove your brother. Turn that siren off. Both of you give me the toys. They'll be in my room; you can't play with them until tomorrow."

Tucker opened his mouth to protest, saw her eyebrows lift in warning, and wisely said to Tanner, "I'm sowwy I pushed you."

Tanner eyed her, too, and like his brother decided that after the morning's punishment he shouldn't push his luck this afternoon. "I'm sorry I dumped on you," he said magnanimously.

Cate set her back teeth together to hold back a burst of laughter, and her gaze met her mother's. Sheila's eyes were round and she slapped a hand over her mouth; she knew very well there were times when a mother Must Not Laugh. A snort escaped, but she quickly mastered it as she stood and hugged her daughter. "I can't wait to tell your father this one," she said.

"I wish he could have come with you."

"Maybe next time. If you can't make it home for Thanksgiving, he'll definitely come with me then."

"What about Patrick and Andie?" Patrick was her younger brother, and Andie – Andria – was his wife. Sheila opened the back of the Jeep and they began hauling out luggage.

"I've already told them we might be here for Thanksgiving. If we're welcome, of course. If your guest rooms are booked, there goes that plan."

"I have two reservations for that weekend, but that still leaves three bedrooms, so there's no problem. I'd love it if Patrick and Andie could come, too."

"Her mother would throw a fit if Andie came here instead of having Thanksgiving at her house," Sheila said caustically. She liked her daughter-in-law a lot, but Andie's mother was another story.

"We want to help," Tucker said, tugging at a suitcase.

Since the suitcase outweighed him, Cate pulled out a carry-on bag, which was surprisingly heavy. "Here, you two take this bag. It's heavy, so be careful."

"We can handle it," he said, and they assumed expressions of determination as they each took a handle and grunted as they lifted the bag.

"Look how? strong you are," her mom said, and their little chests puffed out.

"Men," Cate muttered under her breath. "They're so easy."

"When they're not being difficult," Sheila added.

As they climbed the two steps to the porch, Cate looked around. Mr. Layton still hadn't returned. She didn't want to charge an extra night to his credit card; since she had no other guest coming in until tomorrow, he wasn't causing any problem by not checking out at eleven, but she was annoyed. What if he returned after she locked up for the night? She didn't give keys to her guests, so either he'd have to wake her – and maybe the boys, as well as her mother – or he could damn well climb back in the window the way he'd climbed out. Except she'd closed the window and locked it, so that wasn't possible. If he did disturb them after they'd gone to bed, she thought, she would definitely charge an extra night to his credit card. Besides, where else would lie stay?

"What's wrong?" Sheila asked, noticing her expression.

"A guest left this morning and hasn't, come back to check out." She lowered her voice so the boys wouldn't hear her and get ideas. "He climbed out the window."

"Running out on his bill?"

"1 have his credit card number, so he can't. And he left his things here."

"That is weird. And he hasn't called? Not that he could, since cell phones won't work out here."

"There are telephones," Cate said wearily. "And, no, he hasn't called."

"If he hasn't gotten in touch by tomorrow," Sheila said as she followed the boys inside, "pack up his stuff and sell it on eBay."

Now, there was a thought, though she should probably give him more than one day to claim his belongings.

Guests had made strange requests before, but this was the first one to walk off – well, drive off – and leave everything behind. She felt vaguely uneasy, and wondered if maybe she should alert the state police. What if he'd had an accident somewhere, driven off the road? But she didn't know where he could possibly have gone, and even though there was only one way out, there was an intersection about twenty miles away and he could have gone in any direction. Moreover, he'd climbed out the window, as if he were sneaking out. His absence might be deliberate, and there might be nothing wrong with him at all.

She had his telephone number on the form he'd filled out when he checked in. If he hadn't returned by tomorrow, she'd call it. And when this was straightened out, she'd make it plain to him he wouldn't be staying at her place again. The mysterious – or nutty – Mr. Layton was too much trouble.