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Cover Of Night (Chapter 1)

The guest who was staying in room 3, of Nightingale's Bed and Breakfast, which Gate Nightingale privately thought of as the He-Man room because it was almost unrelievedly masculine, stopped in the doorway of the dining room, then almost immediately stepped back out of sight. Most of the patrons who were enjoying Gate's morning offerings didn't even notice the man's brief appearance; those who did probably didn't think anything about his abrupt departure. People here in Trail Stop, Idaho, tended to mind their own business, and if one of her guests wasn't in the mood for company while he ate, that was fine with them.

Gate herself noticed him only because she was bringing in a platter of sliced ham from the kitchen at the same time, and the kitchen door was directly opposite the open hall doorway. She made a mental note to go upstairs the first chance she got and see if he – his name was Layton, Jeffrey Layton – wanted her to bring up a breakfast tray. Some guests didn't like eating with strangers, plain and simple. Taking a tray up wasn't anything unusual.

Nightingale's B and B had been open for almost three years. The Bed part of the business was often slow, but Breakfast was booming. Opening her dining room to the public for breakfast had been a happy accident. Instead of having one large dining table where everyone would sit together – assuming all five of her guest rooms were occupied at the same time, which had never happened – she had placed five small tables, each seating four, in the dining room so that her guests could eat in relative privacy if they wanted. Folks in the little community had quickly realized that Nightingale's offered some fine eating, and before she knew it, people were asking if it was okay if they stopped by tor coffee in the mornings, and maybe for one of her blueberry muffins as well.

As a newcomer she wanted to fit in, so because she had the extra seats, she said yes, even though mentally she had groaned at the thought of the added expense. Then, when they tried to pay her, she had no idea what to charge, because the cost of breakfast was included in the room rental; so she'd been forced to handprint a menu with prices and post it on the porch by the side door, which most of the locals used instead of walking around to the front of the big old house. Within a month she'd squeezed a sixth table into the dining room, bringing her total seating capacity to twenty-four. Sometimes even that wasn't enough, especially if she had guests in residence. It wasn't unusual to see men leaning against a wall while they drank their coffee and munched on muffins, if all the seats were taken.

Today, however, was Scone Day. Once a week she baked scones instead of muffins. At first the community folk, mostly from ranch and lumberjack stock, had looked askance at the "fancy biscuits," but the scones had quickly become a favorite. She had tried different flavors, but the vanilla was a runaway favorite because it went well with whatever jam the customer preferred.

Gate set the platter of fried ham down in the middle of a table, exactly halfway between Conrad Moon and his son so that neither could accuse her of playing favorites. She had made that mistake once, putting a platter closer to Conrad, and ever since then the two had kept up a running commentary about whom she liked best. Gordon, the younger Moon, would be joking, but Cate had an uneasy feeling that Conrad was looking for a third wife and thought she'd fill the position just fine. She thought otherwise, and made certain she never gave him any accidental encouragement with the ham placement.

"Looks good," Gordon drawled, as he did every day, stretching out his fork to capture a slice.

"Better'n good," Conrad added, unable to let Gordon top him in the compliment department.

Thank you," she said as she hurried away, not giving Conrad a chance to add anything else. He was a nice man, but he was about her father's age, and she wouldn't have picked him even if she weren't too busy to even think about starting to date.

As she passed by the Bunn double coffeemaker, she automatically checked the level of the coffee in the pots, and paused to start a fresh batch. The dining room was still full, and people were lingering longer this morning. Joshua Creed, a hunting guide, was there with one of his clients; folks always hung around when Mr. Creed was there, just to talk to him. He had an aura of leadership, of authority, that people naturally responded to. She'd heard he was retired from the military, and she could believe it; he radiated command, from his sharp, narrow gaze to the square set of his jaw and shoulders. He didn't come in very often, but when he did, he was usually the center of respectful attention.

The client, a handsome dark-haired man she judged to be in his late thirties, was just the sort of outsider she liked the least. He was obviously well off, if he could afford Joshua Creed, and though he was dressed in jeans and boots like most of the people in the room, he made certain, in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways, that everyone knew he was Someone Important despite his show of camaraderie. For one thing, he'd rolled up his shirtsleeves and kept flashing the thin, diamond-set watch on his left wrist. He was also just a shade too loud, a shade too hearty, and he kept mentioning his experiences on a game hunt in Africa. He even gave everyone a geography lesson, explaining where Nairobi was. Cate managed to refrain from rolling her eyes at his assumption that local was synonymous with ignorant. Weird, maybe, but not ignorant. He also made a point of explaining that he hunted wild animals mostly to photograph them, and though on an emotional level Gate approved of that, her common sense whispered that he was just saying it to give himself an out in case he didn't kill anything. If he was any kind of photographer, she'd be surprised.

As she hurried on to the kitchen, she wondered just when she'd started looking at newcomers as "outsiders."

The dividing line between her Hie before and her life now was so sharply defined that sometimes she felt as if she weren't even the same person. There hadn't been a gradual change, giving her time to analyze and process, to slowly grow into the woman she was now; instead there had been jagged breaks, abrupt upheavals. The period between Derek's death and her decision to move to Idaho was a steep, narrow valley into which sunshine had never reached. Once she and the boys had arrived here, she'd been so busy getting the B and B open and settling in that she hadn't had much time to worry about being an outsider herself. Then, almost before she knew it, she was as much part of the warp and weave of the little community as she ever had been in Seattle; more, even, because Seattle was like all big cities, filled with strangers and everyone moving in individual little bubbles. Here, she literally knew everyone.

Just before she reached the kitchen door, it opened, and Sherry Bishop stuck her head out, a quick look of relief crossing her face when she saw Gate approaching.

"What's wrong?" Gate asked as she rushed through the door. She looked first to the kitchen table, where her four-year-old twins, Tucker and Tanner, were industriously digging into their cereal; the boys were sitting on their booster chairs exactly where she had left them. They chattered and giggled and squirmed, as usual; all was right in their world. Rather, Tucker chattered, and Tanner listened. She couldn't help worrying because Tanner talked so little, but their pediatrician hadn't seemed alarmed. "He's fine," Dr. Hardy had said. "He doesn't need to talk because

Tucker is talking for both of them. He'll talk when he has something to say." Since Tanner was completely normal in even' other way, including comprehension, she had to assume the pediatrician was right – but she still worried. She couldn't help it; she was a mother.

"A pipe burst under the sink," Sherry said, sounding harassed. "I turned off the valve, but we need the water back on fast. The dishes are piling up."

"Oh, no." Other than the obvious difficulty or having no water to cook or wash dishes with, another problem loomed even larger: her mother, Sheila Wells, was en route from Seattle for a week-long visit, and was due in that afternoon. Since her mother wasn't happy about Cate and the twins leaving Seattle to begin with, Gate could just imagine her comments about the area's remoteness and lack of modern conveniences should there not be any water.

It was always something; this old house seemed to need almost constant maintenance and repair, which she supposed was par for the course with old houses. Still, her finances were stretched to the breaking point; she could use just one week in which nothing went wrong. Maybe next week, she thought with a sigh.

She picked up the kitchen phone and from memory dialed the number of Earl's Hardware Store.

Walter Earl himself answered, catching the phone on the first ring as he usually did. "Hardware." He didn't need further identification, since there was only one hardware store in town, and he was the only one who answered the phone.

"Walter, this is Cate. Do you know where Mr. Harris is working today? I have a plumbing emergency."

"Mistuh Hawwis!" Tucker crowed, having caught the name of the local handyman. Excited, he banged his spoon against the table, and Cate stuck her finger in her ear so she could hear what Walter said. Both boys were staring at her in delight, quivering with anticipation. The community handyman was one of their favorite people, because they were fascinated by his tools and he didn't mind if they played with the wrenches and hammers.

Calvin Harris didn't have a phone, but he customarily stopped by the hardware store every morning to pick up whatever supplies he would need for the day's work; so Walter usually knew where he could be found. When she had first moved here, Cate had been taken aback that someone wouldn't have a phone in this day and age, but now she was accustomed to the system and didn't think anything of it. Mr. Harris didn't want a phone, so he didn't have a phone. Big deal. The community was so small, finding him wasn't a problem.

"Cal's right here," Walter said. "I'll send him your way."

"Thanks," said Cate, glad she didn't have to hunt him down. "Could you ask him what time he thinks he can get here?"

Walter's voice rumbled as he relayed the question, and she heard a softer, indistinct mumble that she recognized as Mr. Harris's voice.

Walter's voice sounded death' through the phone. "He said he'll be there in a few minutes."

Saying good-bye and hanging up, Cate breathed a sigh of relief. With any luck the problem would be minor and the water would soon be on again, with minimal impact on her finances. As it was, she needed Mr. Harris's fix-it genius so often she was beginning to think she would come out better to offer him free room and board in exchange for repairs. He lived in rooms over the feed store, and while they might be bigger than any of her bedrooms, he still had to pay for them, plus she could throw in meals. She would lose a bedroom to rent, but it wasn't as if the bed-and-breakfast had ever been filled to capacity. What held her back was the slightly unwelcome prospect of having someone permanently in the house with her and the twins. As busy as she was during the day, she wanted to keep the nights just for them.

Mr. Harris was so shy, though, she could easily see him mumbling something after supper and disappearing into his room, not to be seen again until the morning. But what if he didn't? What if the boys wanted to be with him instead of her? She felt small and petty for worrying about such a thing, but – what if they did? She was the center of their voting lives, and she didn't know if she could give that up yet. Eventually she would have to, but they were just four, and all she had left of Derek.

"Well?" Sherry prompted, her brows raised as she waited for news, good or bad.

"He's coming right over."

"Caught him before he got started on another job, then," said Sherry, looking as relieved as Gate felt.

Gate looked at the boys, who were both sitting watching her, their spoons held suspended. "You two need to finish your cereal, or you won't be able to watch Mr. Harris," she said sternly. That wasn't exactly the truth, since Mr. Harris would be right there in the kitchen with them, but they were four; what did they know?

"We'll huwwy," Tucker said, and both resumed eating with more energy than precision.

"Hurry," Gate said, emphasizing the r sound.

"Hurry," Tucker obediently repeated. He could say the sound when he wanted to, but when he was distracted – which was often – he fell back into babyish speech patterns. He talked so much; it was as if he didn't take the time to properly say the words. "Mistuh Hawwis is coming," he told Tanner, as if his brother didn't know. "I'm gonna play with the dwill."

"Drill," Gate corrected. "And you will not. You may watch him, but leave the tools alone."

His big blue eyes filled with tears, and his lower lip trembled. "Mistuh Hawwis lets us play with them."

"That's when he has time. He'll be in a hurry today, because he has another job to do when he leaves here."

When she first opened the B and B, Gate had tried to keep them from bothering the handyman while he was working, and since they'd been just one at the time, the job should have been easier, but they had shown remarkable skill in slipping away. As soon as she turned her back, both boys zoomed back to him like magnets to steel. They had been like little monkeys, poking into his toolbox, running off with anything they could pick up, so she knew they had been as severe a trial to his patience as they had been to hers, but he'd never said a word of complaint, and for that she blessed him. Not that his silence on the matter was surprising; he seldom said anything, period.

The boys were older now, but their fascination with tools hadn't waned. The only difference was that now they insisted on "helping."

"They don't bother me," Mr. Harris would mumble whenever she caught them, ducking his head as his cheeks colored. He was painfully shy, rarely looking her in the eve and actually speaking only when he had to. Well, he did talk to the boys. Maybe he felt at ease with them because they were so young, but she had heard his voice mixed with the boys' higher-pitched, excited tones as they seemed to carry on real conversations.

She glanced out the kitchen door and saw three customers lined up to pay their bills. "I'll be right back," she said, and went out to take their money. She hadn't wanted to put a cash register in the dining room, but her breakfast business had made it necessary, so she had installed a small one by the outside door. Two of the customers were Joshua Creed and his client, which meant the dining room would soon be emptying out, now that Mr. Creed was leaving.

"Cate," Mr. Creed said, inclining his head toward her. He was tall and broad-shouldered, his dark hair silvering at the temples, and his face weathered from the elements. His hazel eyes were narrow, his gaze piercing; he looked as if he could chew nails and spit out bullets, but he was always respectful and kind when he spoke to her. "Those scones of yours just keep getting better and better. I'd weigh four hundred pounds if I ate here every day."

"I doubt that, but thanks."

He turned and introduced his client. "Cate, this is Randall Wellingham. Randall, this lovely lady is Cate Nightingale, the owner of Nightingale's Bed and Breakfast, and incidentally the best cook around."

The first compliment was debatable, and the second one a downright lie, because Waller Karl's wife. Milly, was one of those natural cooks who seldom measured anything but could cook like an angel. Still, it couldn't hurt business to have Mr. Creed saying things like that.

"I can't argue with any of that," Mr. Wellingham said in his too-hearty tone, holding out his hand while his gaze swiftly raked down her before returning to her face, his expression saying that he was unimpressed with either her or her cooking, Cate forced herself to shake hands. His grip was too firm, his skin too smooth. This wasn't a man who did a lot of physical work, which would have been okay in itself if he hadn't plainly looked flown on all the other people there because they did. Only Mr. Creed was spared. but then only someone blind and stupid would treat him with disdain.

"Are you staying long?" she asked, just to be polite.

"Just a week. That's all the time I can manage away from the office. Every time I leave, the place goes to hell." he said, chuck ling.

She didn't comment. She imagined he owned his own business, considering the wealth he flashed, but she didn't care enough to ask. Mr. Creed nodded, placed his black hat on his head, and the two men exited to let the next customer step up to pay. Two more people joined the queue.

By the time she had taken their money and refilled the coffee cups around the room, Conrad and Gordon Moon had finished, and she returned to the cash register, where she fended off Conrad's heavy compliments and Gordon's amusement. He seemed to think it funny that his father had developed a tendre for her.

Gate didn't think it funny at all when Conrad paused after his son had stepped out on the porch. He paused and swallowed so hard his Adam's apple bobbed. "Miss Gate, I'd like to ask – that is… are you receiving visitors tonight?"

The old-fashioned approach both charmed and alarmed; she liked the way he'd done it, but was horrified that he'd asked at all. Gate did her own swallowing, then stepped up to the plate, on the theory that sidestepping the issue would only bring on more approaches. "No, I'm not. I spend the evenings with my boys. I'm so busy during the day that night is the only time I have with them, and I don't think it would be right to take that away."

Still, he tried again. "You can't mean to give up the best years of your life – "

"I'm not giving them up," she said firmly. "I'm living them the way I think best for me and my children."

"But I might be dead by the time they're grown!

Now, there was a point of view that was sure to attract. She shot him an incredulous look, then nodded in agreement. "Yes, you might. I still have to give the opportunity a pass. I'm sure you understand."

"Not really," he muttered, "but I guess I can take rejection as well as any other man."

Sherry poked her head out the kitchen door. "Cal's here," she said.

Conrad's gaze moved to her, and zeroed in. "Miss Sherry," he said. "Are you by any chance receiving visitors – "

Leaving Sherry to handle the geriatric lothario as best she could, Cate dodged past her into the kitchen.

Mr. Harris was already on his knees with his head poked into the cabinet under the sink, and both boys were out of their chairs busily emptying his heavy toolbox.

"Tucker! Tanner!" She put her hands on her hips and gave them her best Mother glare. "Put those tools back into the toolbox. What did I tell you about bothering Mr. Harris this time? I told you that you could watch, but to leave his tools alone. Both of you, go to your room, right now."

"But, Mommy – " Tucker began, always ready to mount a spirited argument to defend whatever it was he'd been caught doing. Tanner merely stepped back, still holding a wrench, and waited for Tucker to either fail or prevail. She could feel the situation beginning to spiral out of control, her maternal instinct telling her they were on the verge of outright rebellion. This happened every so often, pushing at the boundaries to see how far she would let them go. Never show weakness. That was her mother's sole advice for facing bullies, wild animals, or disobedient four-year-olds.

"No," Gate said firmly, and pointed at the toolbox. "Tools in the box. Now."

Pouting, Tucker threw a screwdriver into the box. Gate felt her back teeth grind together; he knew better than to throw his own things, much less someone else's. Swiftly she stepped over the toolbox, took his arm, and swatted his rear end. "Young man, you know better than to throw Mr. Harris's tools. First you're going to tell him you're sorry; then you're going to your room to sit in the naughty chair for fifteen minutes." Tucker immediately began to wail, tears streaking down his face, but Gate merely raised her voice as she pointed at Tanner. "You. Wrench in the box."

He scowled, looking mutinous, but he heaved a sigh and carefully placed the wrench in the toolbox. "Oooookay," he said in a tone of doom that made her bite her lip to keep from laughing. She had learned the hard way she couldn't give these two an inch, or they'd run roughshod over her.

"You have to sit in the naughty chair for ten minutes, after Tucker gets up. You disobeyed, too. Now, both of you finish picking up those tools and put them back in the box. Gently."

Tanner's lower lip came out as he imitated a miniature thundercloud, and Tucker was still crying, but to her relief they began doing as they were told. Gate looked around to find that Mr. Harris had pulled his head from the depths of the cabinets and was opening his mouth, no doubt to defend the little culprits. She raised her finger at him. "Not one word," she said sternly.

He blushed scarlet, mumbled, "No, ma'am," and stuck his head back under the sink.

When the tools had been restored to the box, though probably not in their proper places, Gate prompted Tucker, "What are you supposed to tell Mr. Harris?"

"I'm sowwy," he said, hiccuping in the middle of the word. His nose was running.

Mr. Harris wisely kept his head inside the cabinet. "It's o – " he started to say, then stopped. He seemed to freeze for a moment; then he finally mumbled, "You boys should mind your mother."

Gate seized a paper towel and wiped Tucker's nose. "Blow," she instructed, holding the towel in place, and he did with the excess energy he put into everything. "Now, both of you go up to your room. Tucker, sit in the naughty chair. Tanner, you may play quietly while Tucker's in the chair, but don't talk to him. I'll come upstairs and tell you when to swap places."

Heads down, the two little boys dragged themselves up the stairs as if they were facing a fate of unimaginable horror. Cate checked the clock to see what time Tucker would be released from punishment.

Sherry had come back into the kitchen and was watching Cate with a mixture of sympathy and amusement. "Will fucker actually sit in the chair until you go upstairs?"

"He will now. In the past his time in the naughty chair has been extended several times before so now he gets the idea. Tanner has been even more stubborn." And that was the understatement of the year, she thought, remembering the struggle it had been to make him obey. Tanner didn't talk much, but he personified "stubborn." Both boys were active, strong-willed, and absolutely brilliant when it came to finding new and different ways to get in trouble – and worse, danger. Once she had been horrified at the idea of even swatting their bottoms, much less spanking them, but before they turned two she had revised a lot of her former opinions on child-raising. They still had never had a spanking, but she no longer had confidence that they would get through their childhood without one. The thought made her stomach clench, but she had to raise them alone, discipline them alone, and keep them safe while somehow molding them into responsible human beings. If she let herself think too much about it, the long years stretching before her, she would almost drown in panic. Derek wasn't here. She had to do it by herself.

Mr. Harris cautiously backed out of the cabinet and looked up at her as if gauging whether or not it was safe to speak now. Evidently deciding it was, he cleared his throat. "Ah… the leak is no problem; it's just a loose fitting." Blood was climbing in his face as he spoke, and he quickly looked down at the pipe wrench in his hand.

She blew out a relieved breath and went toward the door. "Thank God. Let me get my purse and pay you."

"No charge," he mumbled. "All I did was tighten it."

Surprised, she stopped in her tracks. "But your time is worth something –

"It didn't take a minute."

"A lawyer would charge an hour for that minute," Sherry observed, looking oddly amused.

Mr. Harris muttered something under his breath that Gate didn't catch, but Sherry evidently did because she grinned. Gate wondered what was so funny but didn't have lime to pursue the matter. "At least let me get you a cup of coffee, on the house."

He said something that sounded like "thank you." though it could have been "don't bother." Assuming it was the former, she went into the dining room and poured coffee into a large take-out cup, then snapped a plastic lid in place. Two more men came up to pay their bills; one she knew, one she didn't, but that wasn't unusual during hunting season. She took their money, surveyed the remaining customers, who all seemed to be doing okay, and carried the coffee back into the kitchen.

Mr. Harris was squatting down, restoring order to his toolbox. Gate flushed with guilt. "I'm so sorry. I told them to leave your tools alone, but – " She gave a one-shouldered shrug of frustration, then extended the coffee to him.

"No harm," he said as he took the cup, his rough, grease-stained fingers wrapping around the polystyrene. He ducked his head. "I like their company."

"And they love yours," she said drily. "I'll go up now and check on them. Thank you again, Mr. Harris."

"It hasn't been fifteen minutes yet," Sherry said, checking the clock.

Gate grinned. "I know. But they can't tell time, so what does a few minutes matter? Will you watch the cash register for a few minutes? Everything looked okay in the dining room, no one needed coffee; so there's nothing to do until someone leaves."'

"Got it," said Sherry, and Cate left the kitchen by the hall door, climbing the long, steep flight of stairs.

She had chosen the two front bedrooms for herself and the twins, saving the best views for the paving guests. Both stairs and hallway were carpeted, so her steps were silent as she turned to the right at the top of the stairs. Their door was open, she saw, but she didn't hear their voices. She smiled; that was good.

Stopping in the doorway, she watched them for a minute. Tucker was sitting in the naughty chair, his head down and his lower lip protruding as he picked at his fingernails. Tanner sat on the floor, pushing a toy car up an incline he'd made by propping one of their storybooks against his leg, and making motor noises under his breath.

Her heart squeezed as a memory flooded her. Their first birthday, just a few months after Derek's death, had brought them an avalanche of toys. She had never made motor noises to them: they were just learning how to walk, and their toys were soft, plush animals, or something to bang, or educational toys she was using to teach them words and coordination. They1 had been too young when Derek died for him to have played cars with them, and she knew her dad hadn't either. Her brother, who might have, lived in Sacramento and she had seen him only once since Derek's death. Without anyone having demonstrated motor noises for them, they had each seized one of their new, fat, brightly colored plastic cars and pushed them back and forth, saying something that sounded like "uudddden, uuddden"�Ceven capturing the gear changes. She had stared at them in total astonishment, for the first time truly realizing that a large part of their personalities came preset, and she might fine-tune their basic instincts but she didn't have the power to shape their entire psyches. They were who they were, and she loved every inch, even' molecule of them.

"It's time to swap," she said, and Tucker hopped out of the naughty chair with a huge sigh of relief. Tanner released the little car and let his head droop as far as it would go, the complete picture of pitiful dejection. He dragged himself up, invisible weights attached to his feet so he could barely walk. He moved so slowly she was beginning to think he might become old enough to start school before he made it to that chair. But finally he reached it and dropped into the seat, his body slumped.

"Ten minutes," she said, once again fighting the urge to laugh. He obviously thought he was doomed; his body language all but shouted that he had no hope of being released from the naughty chair before he died.

"I was good," Tucker said, coming to lean against her legs. "I didn't talk at all."

"That was very brave of you," Gate said, stroking her fingers through his dark hair. "You took your punishment like a man.

He looked up, blue eyes wide. "I did?"

"You did. I'm so proud."

His little shoulders squared, and he looked thoughtfully at Tanner, who showed every sign of expiring within moments. "Am I bwavuh than Tannuh?"

"Braver," Cate corrected.

"Brrrraverrr."

"Very good. Tanner."

"Tannerrrr," he repeated, making the sound growl.

"Remember to take your time, and you'll have it down pat."

Puzzled, he tilted his head. "Who's Damn Pat?"

"Tucker!" Horrified anew, Cate froze and her mouth fell open. "Where did you hear that word?"

If anything, he looked even more puzzled. "You said it, Mommy. You said 'Damn Pat." "

"Down, not damn!"

"Ohhh." He frowned. "Down Pat. Who's Down Pat?"

"Never mind." Maybe it was just a coincidence; maybe he hadn't heard the word damn at all. After all, there were only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, so how unusual was it that he would get some of them mixed up? Maybe he'd completely forget what he'd said if she just let the subject drop. Yeah, right. He'd savor it in private, then trot it out when it was certain to embarrass her the most – probably in front of her mother.

"Sit down and play while Tanner's in the naughty chair," she instructed, patting his shoulder. "I'll be back in ten minutes."

"Eight," said Tanner, reviving enough to give her a look of outrage.

She checked her wristwatch; damn if there weren't eight minutes left in his sentence. He'd already been in the chair for two of his punishment minutes.

Yes, sometimes her children definitely alarmed her. They could each count to twenty, but she certainly hadn't vet introduced them to subtraction, plus their concept of time tended to be either "right now" or "wait a long, long time.' Somewhere along the line, while he was observing instead of talking. Tanner had picked up some math skills.

Maybe he could do her taxes next year, she thought with amusement.

As she turned away, her gaze fell on the number 3 plainly lettered on the door across the hall from the stairwell. Mr. Layton! What with the plumbing emergency, plus the twins' disobedience, she had completely forgotten about bringing a breakfast tray up to him.

Swiftly she walked to the door; it was slightly ajar, so she knocked on the doorjamb instead. "Mr. Layton, it's Cate Nightingale. Would you like me to bring up a breakfast tray?"

She waited, but there was no answer. Had he left the room and gone downstairs while she'd been in the twins' room? The door had a stubborn squeak, so she thought she would have heard him if he'd opened it.

"Mr. Layton?"

Still no answer. Gingerly she pushed the door open, and the squeak came right on cue.

The bedcovers were thrown messily aside, and the closet door stood open, showing several articles of" clothing hanging from the pole. Each guest room had a small private bath and that door, too, was standing open. A small leather suitcase was on the folding Ing-gage stand, the lid open and propped against the wall. Mr. Layton, however, wasn't there. He must have gone downstairs while she'd been talking to the boys, and she simply hadn't heard the door squeak.

She started to back out of the room, not wanting him to return and think she was she snooping, when she noticed the window was open, and the screen looked slightly askew. Puzzled, she crossed to the window and tugged the screen back into place, latching it. How on earth had it gotten unlatched? Had the boys been playing in here, and tried to climb out the window? Her blood ran cold at the thought, and she looked out at the drop to the porch roof below. Such a fall would break their bones, possible even kill them.

She was so riveted with horror at the possibility it was a moment before she realized the parking area was empty. Mr. Layton's rental car wasn't there. Either he hadn't come back upstairs at all, or – or he'd climbed out the window onto the porch roof, swung down to the ground, and driven off. The idea was ridiculous, but preferable to thinking her little boys might be climbing out on the porch roof.

She left room 3 and returned to the twins' room. Tanner was still in the naughty chair, and still looked in danger of imminent demise. Tucker was drawing on their blackboard with a piece of colored chalk. "Boys, have either of you opened any of the windows?"

"No, Mommy," Tucker said without pausing in his art creation.

Tanner managed to lift his head and give it a ponderous shake.

They were telling the truth. When they lied, their eyes would get big and round and they'd stare at her as if she were a cobra, hypnotizing them with the sway of her head. She hoped they'd still do that when they were teenagers.

The only explanation left for the open window was that Mr. Layton had indeed climbed out it, and driven away.

Why on earth would he do such a strange thing?

And if he had happened to fall, would her insurance have covered it?

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