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Cover Of Night (Chapter 15)

Teague was almost in position outside Creed's cabin when the front door banged open. He froze in place, wondering if the place was rigged with motion sensors or night-vision cameras that he hadn't spotted during his reconnaissance, and whether or not Creed would shoot first, and try to identify him later. As a result, Creed had slammed into his pickup truck and was fishtailing down the rutted lane that was his driveway before Teague could react.

"Shit!" Teague grabbed his Motorola CP150 two-way hooked to his belt, thumbed the "talk" button. "The subject just left in his pickup, coming toward the road. Follow him."

"What about you?" came Billy's reply, his tone very quiet but his voice clear.

"Send someone back for me. Don't let him give you the slip – and don't let him see you."

"Roger that."

Still swearing, Teague carefully reversed the path he'd taken. He could have made better time if he'd moved down into the lane, but he would also leave boot prints, and he preferred staying in the rough. He wondered what had happened to cause Creed to take off like a cat with its tail on fire, and whether he'd be better off waiting here and taking his shot whenever Creed returned, instead of following.

The problem was, Creed might be gone for days, and Teague had no intention of sitting on his ass that long. He wanted to know where Creed had gone. Even more to the point, he'd rather chase the action than wait for it to come to him – more fun that way.

Less than half an hour after Creed had hung up on him, a thunderous pounding on his door made Cal wonder if the thing would come off its hinges before he could get it open. It wasn't locked, so he yelled, "For God's sake, turn the doorknob!"

Creed powered into the room like an avalanche, his jaw set and his fists clenched, just as Cal had known they would be. "What happened?" Creed demanded in a hoarse growl.

"It started last Monday," Cal said, turning away to grab a couple of long necks from his beat-up, avocado-green refrigerator. He popped off the tops and handed a bottle to Creed, who took it in a grip that made Cal wonder if he intended to crush the bottle in his bare hand. "A guy staying at Cate's bailed out the window and drove off, left his stuff behind."

Immediately Creed's hazel eyes took on the analytical expression Cal knew so well. "I was there Monday morning," Creed said. "She was busier than usual. Who was he running from?"

"Don't know who or why. He didn't come back. On Tuesday, Cate reported him missing, but because he left under his own steam, the sheriff's department didn't do much more than check the area hospitals and instruct deputies to be alert for signs of an accident. Also on Tuesday, some guy called Cate pretending to be from a car rental agency, trying to track this guy down. Later Cate called the rental agency but found they had no record of this guy ever renting a car from them."

"Caller ID record?" Creed asked.

"Unknown name and number. I guess the phone company could give us more info than that, but why would they? No crime was committed, no threats made. Same with Cate's customer – he hadn't run out on his bill, so no crime was committed, so the cops aren't interested."

"What was the guy's name?"

" Layton. Jeffrey Lay ton."

Creed shook his head. "Never heard of him before."

"I hadn't either." Cal tipped back his head and poured down some cold beer. "Then, on Wednesday, these two guys checked into Cate's." He explained why Cate had been suspicious, and that one of the men had evidently overheard her and Neenah talking in the kitchen. "Next thing they knew, the guy calling himself Mellor came through the door with a pistol in his hand, demanding Cate give them the stuff Layton had left behind."

"I hope she didn't argue," Creed said grimly.

"She didn't. In the meantime, I was going into town to pick up some stuff, and I stopped by to get her mail. I thought she was acting weird, kind of jumpy and distracted, and when she gave me her mail, she'd put the stamps on upside down."

He saw Creed make the leap. "Smart girl," lie said approvingly.

"I took the chance I was jumping into idiot-land, parked the truck down the road, and got the shotgun out from behind the seat. Then I sneaked back and went in. Found one guy in the foyer, pistol in his hand, sneaking peeks out the window. Clubbed him in the head, and went looking for Cate. I heard voices upstairs, followed them to the attic, Cate was hauling Layton's suitcase out, and this other guy was holding Neenah by the hair, her head jerked sideways, with the barrel of his pistol jammed against her temple. I got the drop on him, convinced him his only way out alive was to drop his weapon and let Neenah go. Cate gave him the suitcase, and I saw them on their way."

He'd left a lot out of the telling, but Creed had known him a long time and could read between the lines; he knew exactly how Cal had sneaked up on the two men.

"This was Wednesday?"

"Yeah," Cal reaffirmed.

"Fuck."

That needed no response. Creed's instinct was to hunt them down and make them pay – very painfully – but the incident had happened three days ago and they were long gone.

Creed made a frustrated sound in his throat, then sagged onto Cal's secondhand sofa. "Are they okay?" he asked. "Neenah and Cate?"

"Cate was shaky, but her mother was here to help, plus Cate had the twins to take her mind off things. Neenah didn't have anyone – in private, I mean. All the neighbors gathered round, but you and I both know the reaction kicks in when everybody leaves and you're alone."

Creed leaned forward to prop his elbows on his spread knees, his hands dangling down. Cal watched him closely as he continued, "I can tell she's having a tough time dealing. She's withdrawn, and she's got circles under her eyes like she isn't sleeping. Plus there's that big bruise on her face."

Creed's hands knotted into fists, but he didn't move from Cal's sofa.

Cal leaned down, looked his former commanding officer in the eye, and very softly said, "You're a candy-ass coward if you don't go hold that woman now when she needs holding."

Creed shot to his feet and opened his mouth to deliver a blistering tirade, then abruptly shut it. "Fuck," he said again. "Fuck!" Then he stomped to the door and was gone, the stairs thudding beneath his boots as he went down them two at a time.

A slight smile curving his mouth, Cal shut the door.

Teague couldn't believe his luck. Sometimes the sunshine just poured down on a man, now didn't it? That bastard Creed had driven straight to Trail Stop, of all places.

They weren't likely to have a better opportunity than this. The hour wasn't as late as he'd like, but most people in Trail Stop were middle-aged, at least, with a few old geezers, so it wasn't as if they were hitting the singles bars every night and staying out until the wee hours. There were a few younger people, like the Nightingale woman, and one couple looked about the same age as her, but that was about it. He'd bet every inhabitant was at home, snug as a bug. Come to think of it, he ions betting on that – betting the success of this plan on what he knew from observing people and his skill in reading them.

"Hurry up," he whispered into the two-way.

"I'm hurrying," Billy whispered in return. He was tinder the bridge, putting detonators into the packages of explosives they'd stolen from a construction site some months before. Teague believed in being prepared; you just never knew when you might need to blow something to hell and back. Billy had to move carefully because the slabs of rock under the bridge were wet with spray, and slippery; one false step and he was in the swiftly moving creek, being swept toward that murderous river.

Slowly Billy made his way out from under the bridge, carefully unrolling the reel of wire in his hand. Teague could have gone with wireless detonators, but in his experience they weren't as reliable – not to mention they could be accidentally set off by a signal from someone else. Not good. Playing out the wire in this terrain took time, time during which Creed might leave, but like almost everything else in life, using wire was a judgment call and Teague had made it.

His nephew Blake was set up at the nearest firing position, infrared scope attached to his hunting rifle. As soon as Billy had turned over the wire to Teague, he would get into position at the next firing position over.

Troy, his cousin, was up the nearest utility pole with his insulated cutters, waiting for league's signal. Because Trail Stop was so small and so isolated, the power company and the phone company shared the poles. Troy would cut the power line first, then the phone line – and then Teague would blow the bridge.

Creed hesitated on Neenah's porch, his fist raised to pound on her door. He was so wound up that instead of driving he'd walked to her house, which was about a hundred yards from the feed store with another house tucked between them, but the hundred yards had done nothing to ratchet down the tension coiling in him.

Only the knowledge that he would scare her half to death if he started beating on her door staved his hand. Hell, she'd probably heard him stomp across the porch with all the lightness and grace of Paul Bunyan and had run out the back door in fear for her life. He grimaced. What in hell was wrong with him? He'd spent a lifetime, two lifetimes, moving soundlessly behind enemy lines and across this damn mountain range: now all of a sudden he was stomping?

He knew what was wrong. It was the sudden, gut-wrenching knowledge that Neenah could easily have died on Wednesday – and not only was there nothing he could have done to save her, she would have died without knowing how he felt. He'd have lived the rest of his life knowing he hadn't taken the chance and now it was too late. All the excuses he'd given himself over the years – very good excuses – suddenly seemed pretty lame. Call was right. He was a candy-ass coward.

Creed had felt fear before; every good soldier had. He'd been in situations so tense he'd given up hope of ever relaxing his sphincter again – but he'd never before been frozen into inaction.

He tried to bolster his nerve. What was the worst that could happen? Neenah could reject him, that was all.

And just the thought of that was enough to curdle his blood and make him want to run. She could reject him. She could look at him and say "No, thanks" as if she were turning down nothing more important than a stick of chewing gum. At least if he never asked, he'd never have to face the sure knowledge that she didn't want him.

But what if she did? What if she would say yes, if only he dared ask?

Shit. Piss. Fuck. He sucked in a deep breath and knocked – gently.

A moment of silence stretched out so long he fought a deep surge of despair. Her lights were on; why wasn't she answering the door? Maybe she'd peeked out a window while he'd been dithering there and seen who it was, and didn't want to talk to him. Hell, why should she? He was nothing to her; he'd made damn sure of that, by giving her a wide berth for years. He'd never said anything to her other than a few pleasantries whenever he was in the feed store, which wasn't that often.

What the hell. He knocked again.

"Just a minute," came a faint call, and he heard the sound of approaching footsteps.

A couple of feet from the door she hesitated, and said, "Who is it?"

That was probably the first time she'd asked who it was before opening the door, at least here in Trail Slop, he thought grimly, and he hated that her sense of security had been shattered.

"Joshua Creed."

"My goodness," he heard her mutter to herself; then the lock clicked and she opened the door.

She'd been getting ready for bed. She wore a white nightgown and a long blue robe that she'd belted snugly around the waist. He'd never seen her wear her silvery brown hair any way except pulled back from her face and held with a scarf, which struck him as very old-fashioned, or pinned up in a knot. It was loose now, straight and sleek, falling around her face and over her shoulders.

"Is something wrong?" she asked anxiously, stepping aside so he could enter. She closed the door behind him.

"I just heard about what happened Wednesday," he said, his tone a little rough, and he watched all expression fade right out of her face. She lowered her eyelids, closing herself off; his heart pinched as he realized Cal was right, she wasn't handling the incident well and had no one to turn to. She'd been alone a long time, he thought, which was strange because everyone in Trail Stop thought of her as a friend. She'd been here when he'd retired from the Corps, changing little over the years. To his knowledge, she didn't date at all. She ran the feed store, occasionally she would visit with a friend, and at night she came home alone. That was it. That was her life.

"Are you all right?" he asked, his deep voice coming out in little more than a rumble. Before he could stop himself, he reached out, gently brushing her hair back from her right temple so the dark bruise there was fully revealed.

She quivered, and he thought she might jerk back, but she didn't. "I'm fine," she said automatically, as if she'd already provided the same answer many times over.

"Are you?"

"Yes, of course."

He moved closer, his hand touching her back. "Why don't we sit down," he suggested, urging her toward the sofa.

Two lamps were all that lit her cozy living room, so he wasn't certain, but he thought her color warmed. "I'm sorry, I should have – " She broke off and would have veered toward a chair; with a subtle shift of his body he prevented that, steering her back toward the sofa. She sat down on the middle cushion, hard, as if her legs had suddenly gone out from under her.

Creed sat beside her, close enough that his thigh would touch hers if he shifted just a bit. He didn't, remembering suddenly that she'd been a nun.

Did that mean she was a virgin? He broke out in a sweat, because he didn't know. Not that he would be having sex with her tonight or anything like that, but – had any man ever touched her? Had she ever dated at all, as a teenager? If she was completely inexperienced, he didn't want to do anything to scare her, but how in hell was he supposed to find out?

And why had she stopped being a nun? The only thing he knew about nuns was that line "Get thee to a nunnery," which told him exactly nothing. Well, he'd watched a couple of episodes of The Flying Nun when he was a kid, but all that had told him was that when lift and thrust exceeded drag, flight was achieved. Big help that was.

All right, so he was scared shitless. But this wasn't about him. This was about Neenah. Neenah being terrified and having no one to talk to.

He relaxed, sitting back and letting the overstuffed cushions cradle him. This was very much a woman's room, he thought, looking at the lamps and the plants, the photographs, the books and knickknacks, some kind of sewing clamped in a round wooden frame and laid aside. There was a television, a nineteen-incher, wedged among books on top of what looked like an antique sideboard. A fireplace occupied the left wall, and glowing embers told him she'd lit a fire against the early chill.

She hadn't relaxed; she was still silting upright: he couldn't see anything except her back. Good enough. Maybe she needed that sense of anonymity.

"I was career Marine Corps," he finally said, watching her shoulders straighten in surprised attention. "In for twenty-three years. I saw a lot of action, was in a lot of tight situations. Some of them I thought I wouldn't get out of, and when I did, sometimes I'd shake so hard I thought my teeth would crack. The combination of shock and adrenaline crash can do a number on you, take you a while to get over it."

A moment of silence ran between them, as palpable as a touch. He could hear her breathing, even�C soft inhale-exhale, the faint rasp and slither as she rubbed a fold of her robe between her thumb and finger. Then she murmured, "How long does it take?"

"Depends."

"On what?"

"On whether or not you have someone to hold you," he said, reaching out and gently grasping her shoulder's, easing her back.

She didn't actively resist, but he could sense her surprise, her initial reluctance. He gently tucked her into the curve of his arm, drawing her close. She blinked up at him, the expression in her pure blue eyes solemn, questioning, hesitant. "Shhh," he murmured, as if she'd protested. "Just relax."

Whatever she saw in his face must have reassured her – God, how could she be so blind? – because with the barest hint of a sigh, she let the steel flow out of her bones, let herself sink and mold against his side, into his warmth, as he pulled her closer.

She was soft and warm and she smelled good. His senses swam at her nearness, at the delirium of finally holding her, feeling her, smelling her. She buried her face in his shoulder, trembling. Her shoulders jerked a little, and he murmured something soothing as he cuddled her closer.

"I'm not crying," she said, her voice muffled and faintly forlorn.

"Go ahead if you want to. What's a little snot between friends?"

She burst out laughing, the sound muffled against him, and tilted her head back to look at him. "I can't believe you said that."

He kissed her. He'd wanted to for, God, years, and when she turned her face up, her lips were just inches from his, so, what the hell, he did it. He cupped her face in his hand and kissed her as gently as he could, giving her plenty of space to pull back if she wanted to – but she didn't. Instead she gripped his shoulder with one hand and kissed him in return, her lips parting, her tongue easing out to touch his.

The earth shook; a gigantic boom rocked the entire house. A tiny part of Creed credited the upheaval to the kiss, but the bigger part of him knew better, and he wrapped both arms around her as he rolled the two of them off the sofa to the floor, covering her protectively with his body.

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