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Cover Of Night (Chapter 28)

The first snowflake drifted down just after five that afternoon. Cate stopped in her tracks, staring at it in consternation. Several more flakes followed the first one; then they all disappeared in a swirl of wind.

"Did you see that?" she asked Cal.

"Yep."

It was early in the season for snow, though not unheard of. With any luck, those few flakes didn't have any buddies. Rain had started falling in earnest several hours ago. As cold as the temperature had gotten, though, falling steadily through the afternoon hours as they climbed higher and higher, they had to assume a real snowfall was possible.

Snow wasn't good for a couple of reasons, the biggest one of which was that they wouldn't be able to continue. The footing was treacherous enough when they could see where they were stepping; if the way was covered with snow, they would be risking life and limb. Nor were they dressed for snow, or for weather this cold. They'd left the ponchos on as protection against the wind and rain, but they didn't have the layers necessary to keep them warm.

She'd been shivering for some time now, even though she'd put on her sweatshirt jacket and pulled up its hood as well as the hood of the poncho.

Cal pulled out the rough map Roy Edward had drawn of the abandoned mines. "Are we close to one of them?" Cate asked, moving to his side to look at the piece of paper. She hoped so; they had to get out of this weather before nightfall, which was only a couple of hours away. They would freeze if they had to stay out in this all night.

"I don't think so," he said. He pointed to an X. "That's the closest one. and by my reckoning we're about here." He indicated another spot. "If Roy Edward was anywhere near accurate with his guess, we're at least a mile from there, plus another five hundred or so feet in altitude. At the pace we've been traveling, we wouldn't make it by dark. Even if we could, we need to stop now, and get dry and warm. Your shoes are soaked."

Unfortunately, he was right. Her feet were so cold and painful she was already hobbling. If getting anywhere required any climbing, she couldn't do it. "What are we going to do?"

"You're going to get somewhere out of the wind and stay there while I scout around. Here's where I earn my keep."

Since the wind was swirling from every direction, she didn't know where that would be. But he found a big fir with branches so thick the ground beneath it was dry, and she sat down there, with her knees hugged up under the poncho to preserve her body heat. She looked up at him through the rain, seeing how reddened his face was from the cold and wind, and remembered that he wasn't dressed any more warmly than she was. His only advantage was that his boots were waterproof, so his feet were still dry. "Be careful," she said, because that was the only thing she could think of.

"If I can't find an overhang, I'll make us a lean-to." He began removing all of his climbing gear, putting it beside Cate and placing the coil of rope on top. He gently touched her cheek, then was gone. All he took with him was his trenching tool. She watched him stride off through the rain with as much energy as if he had steel springs inside his legs, while every muscle in her body was aching, not just from the rigorous exercise she'd given them that day but from shivering for so long.

Tiredly she pulled the front of the poncho up over her nose so the air she was breathing would be warmer. Instantly she felt better able to endure the cold, though wind still whistled through the trees and rain dripped all around her. The sloping branches of the big fir created a natural runoff, like a living umbrella spread over her head.

They had been gone from Trail Stop for twenty-four hours. What was going on there now? She and Cal hadn't been able to talk, because they had spent the day either strung out across a rock face or hiking uphill, neither of which made conversation easy. They had stopped when they had to, then pressed on, always aware of time slipping away.

Half an hour later, the rain became mixed with snow. Cate stared out at it, willing the white flakes away. She didn't mind snow flurries, though she wished the weather had stayed as warm as it had been the day before; she just didn't want snow on the ground. Down in the valley, they probably weren't getting any snow at all.

As the flakes became larger and the ground began taking on a white tint in the growing gloom, she wondered where Cal was, and what he was doing.

Cal had picked up a broken limb as thick as his thumb and was using it to poke into any clump of undergrowth that looked as if it might harbor a small cave, an overhang, anything that would provide them sufficient shelter for the coming night. He was acutely aware that bears wouldn't have gone into den yet – the season was still too early – so he'd hung the trenching tool back on his belt and instead unbuttoned the right pocket of his camouflage jacket, pulling out his bolstered nine-millimeter automatic. Normally he would have worn the holster on his belt, or strapped to his thigh if he'd been on a mission, but while climbing rock, he hadn't wanted to wear it where it could become snagged. Instead he had secured it in his coat and made certain the pocket was buttoned. When the jacket had been rolled and secured on his back, the automatic had been snugged against his body. The pistol wasn't the best weapon for facing a bear, but it was a hundred times better than a trenching tool.

He was allowing himself only so much time to find a rock shelter. There were plenty of overhangs, but they were either too shallow or the rock was cracked or the ground beneath them didn't seem stable. Some of them had water running out of them; since one of his requirements was that their shelter be dry, that eliminated those possibilities. If he didn't find one soon, he'd have to use the remaining light, poor as it was, to build a lean-to. Since the ground wasn't exactly level, he hoped it wouldn't come to that.

Finally he saw something that had possibilities. A prow of granite jutted out at a slight upward angle, balanced on another giant slab. These weren't going anywhere – they'd been there so long they were mostly buried, with mature trees growing on top of the prow. Another of those giant firs grew on the south side of the opening underneath, partially blocking it. Brushing aside the limbs that hung almost to the ground, he squatted and surveyed the interior. It was about ten feet long and shallow, no more than five feet deep, and the highest point in the opening was about the same. That was good, because small spaces were easier to warm than large ones.

He'd brought a small flashlight, so he clicked it on and swept the light into every corner, looking for snakes, dead rats, live rats, anything with which he wouldn't want to spend the night. There was debris, of course, and some insects that scurried away from the light. The fire would take care of them.

He broke a small limb off the fir and used it to sweep out his chosen sanctuary, then used the trenching tool to gather more branches from the surrounding trees, not taking too many from any one tree, and laid the limbs in a Crosshatch pattern on the floor of the opening. Not only would the evergreen freshen the musty smell, but the limber branches would provide something of a cushion for the sleep mat. He could sleep on the ground, rolled up in his blanket, but Cate would be more comfortable on the rough mattress.

At least they could have a fire tonight. The slope they were on faced east, away from the shooters. The trees overhead would filter the smoke through their branches, breaking it up so it didn't form a plume, and the weather would dissipate it anyway. A little light and a lot of warmth would go a long way toward making them more comfortable. Besides, he had to get Cate's shoes dry.

The rain had changed completely to snow, and it began swirling down fast enough that the ground began turning white despite being so wet. He didn't like that, not just because of the snow, but because after dark the temperature would plummet and whatever was wet would develop a slick coating of ice. Their only hope was if this was a fast-moving front, with warmer rain behind it.

He had other things to do, but he didn't want to leave Cate sitting alone in the cold any longer than he had to. The sooner she got into their little shelter and he could get a tire started, the sooner she could pull off her wet shoes and socks and start warming her feet. He could finish securing the shelter afterward.

There was about twenty minutes of light left by the time he could make his way back to her; the thin layer of snow was incredibly slippery. Several times he had to use the trenching tool to catch himself. The drops of water still on the tree branches were beginning to freeze, making a faintly clinking sound in the wind.

"I have us a place," he said, and she looked up from where she'd buried her face against her knees. The poncho was pulled up over her nose to warm the air she breathed, and her eyes were more alert; they had begun to take on the dullness of suffering, which had worried him a lot more than he'd let her see. "It's dry, and we can build a fire."

"You said the magic word." She crawled out from under the sheltering branches with more energy than she'd shown crawling under them. The rest had refreshed her. She would have been in much better shape if he'd insisted she wear boots, but he hadn't expected rain and snow. He didn't have arthritis to warn him of changing weather, and he hadn't been able to watch the Weather Channel for the past couple of days. For all he knew, a record-breaking early-season blizzard had been predicted.

"The rain has started freezing," he said. "Getting back is going to be tough, because the ground is so slippery. Don't take a step unless you're holding on to something."

"Got it." She pulled out her hammer and gripped it in her left hand as he loaded himself down with all the gear he'd earlier removed. He started out, moving as easily under the weight as he had without it, and she carefully followed.

Cate's feel were still miserably cold and wet, but while she'd been resting, she had constantly flexed her toes to increase the blood flow in them, so she wasn't as clumsy as she'd been before. Still, she hoped the shelter he'd found wasn't far, because light was fading fast and the snow was getting heavier, filtering down through the trees in eerie silence.

She hoped the valley was getting snow. She hoped the shooters staked out on the mountainside were getting ten feet of snow dumped on their asses. She hoped they'd been in the rain all day, and were now frozen into human Popsicles. The mountains often got snow when the valley didn't, but she hoped this wasn't one of those times.

"We'll have to turn back, won't we?" she asked softly.

"Probably." He didn't sugarcoat it. She was glad. She could deal better with reality than with rosy pictures that dealt more in wishes than fact. "Unless it's so bad we have to wait it out."

He paused on a particularly slippery patch and used the trenching tool to hack a stepping place in the ground. With his poncho covering the supplies on his back, he looked like some misshapen monster, but she figured she looked the same.

Physically she was as miserable as she could remember ever being. Steam puffed from her open mouth, and she made an effort to close it and breathe through her nose, which gave her a dragon effect. She distracted herself by thinking about how she could show this to the boys this winter. They would love playing dragon.

"Here it is," he finally said, sweeping aside the branches of a giant fir and using his flashlight to show her the interior of a slanted overhang. "I swept it out and laid down those fir limbs for a cushion. Crawl in and get comfy while I gather firewood.

She didn't ask where he intended to find dry wood; she had absolute faith that if there was any out there, he would find it. She stopped at the entrance and pulled off her wet poncho, reaching out to hang it on one of the fir branches, then quickly ducked inside. An extra flashlight would have come in handy, but she didn't have one.

"Here," he said, pulling a thin green tube out of his pack. As soon as she saw it, she knew what it was, having seen them in stores that carried outdoor gear. He bent it to start the chemical reaction and the tube began to glow.

Light was a wonderful thing. She immediately felt better, even though she was just as cold and miserable as before.

He knelt at the entrance and began shedding supplies and gear, trying to wiggle out of most of it without pulling off his poncho, though he especially didn't want to get his blanket and the sleep pad wet. All of the climbing gear went at one end; she pulled hers off and placed it down there, too.

She had become used to the weight of the water in the improvised sling, but as soon as she took it off, she breathed a huge sigh of relief as her back and shoulder muscles relaxed. The water was a big part of their burden, each of them carrying about twenty pounds of it, or two and a half gallons.

"Do you have dry socks with you?"

"In my pocket."

"Before you do anything else, get those wet shoes and socks off, dry your feet, and put on fresh socks." Then he was gone, ducking back into the night. She watched the bob of the flashlight for a moment, then did exactly as he'd said. He was the survival expert, not she.

She put aside her wet shoes and with difficulty peeled off the two pairs of socks. Her feet looked dead white. She cupped her hands around her toes, but her hands were also cold and that didn't give her much relief. Briskly she began rubbing her feet, both to get them dry and to get the blood flow going again. What she needed was a pan of hot water to soak them in, but this overhang didn't have plumbing, so she kept rubbing and chafing, and slowly began to warm both her hands and her feet.

The light the chem tube gave off was dim and weird green in color, so she couldn't tell if her toes were getting a little pink or not, but they felt somewhat warmer. Quickly she pulled the fresh socks out of her pocket and put them on. Joy of joys, they had absorbed some of her body heat; it was almost like wrapping her feet in heated towels. The sensation quickly faded, but it was wonderful while it lasted.

Her sweatpants were wet from the knees down, but she didn't have another pair of pants to put on. Then she remembered the silk long johns she'd put in her jacket pocket. She got them out, then swiftly shucked the wet sweatpants and pulled on the formfitting long johns. They were dry, but felt too insubstantial in the cold, so she pulled her blanket around her, then started arranging the meager space in their shelter.

That consisted of rolling out the sleep pad on the layer of tree limbs he'd put down, then placing his blanket roll on top of it. She moved their slings of water to the back of the space, where she hoped they wouldn't freeze, and got out a bottle of water for each of them. Their available food was more muesli, some individual boxes of raisins, and miniature PayDay candy bars. To her surprise, his pack yielded some corn chips. She shrugged; maybe he was a corn chip fanatic. She could understand that. For a few days every month, she would kill for chocolate – perhaps not literally, but she would certainly knock down old ladies in the grocery store parking lot to get to any Hershey's bars they might have in their shopping bags.

A smile touched her lips. Tanner had once offered her a Hershey's Kiss to make her feel better. She'd burst out laughing and hugged him exuberantly, confirming in his mind that chocolate could heal all woes.

Cal reappeared, carrying an armful of sticks and twigs under his poncho. He dumped them in a dry spot, then took the trenching tool and swiftly dug a small pit at the inside edge of their enclosure. When he was finished, he said, "I need some rocks," and he was off again. Finding rocks didn't take as long as finding dry wood. He made a couple of trips, lining the bottom of the pit with the rocks. Then he arranged a layer of twigs, then the sticks on top. "This is just to get a fire started; then I'll look for more wood," he said as he seized the bag of corn chips and tore it open. He popped one chip into his mouth, then took out another one. Laying it aside, he got the waterproof box of matches and lit a match, but instead of holding the flame to the twigs, he picked up the corn chip and delicately held it to the match.

To her surprise the chip began to flame, fire sitting in the curve of the chip like a baby in a swing. "I'll be damned," she murmured.

"High oil content," he said, sliding the chip under the twigs.

She leaned forward, watching the corn chip in fascination as the twigs began to catch and smoke curled upward. "How long will it burn?"

"Never timed it. Long enough. Don't let the fire get too hot; feed it just enough to keep it going until I get back with more wood." He went back into the night.

The fire was engrossing, and the warmth that began to bathe her face was pure heaven. She watched the corn chip until it was no more and was tempted to light another one, but instead she carefully monitored the little fire and let it die down before she fed it another small stick.

He amassed what looked like a small mountain of sticks and dry bark in the far end of their shelter before he deemed it enough. Then he cut voting, limber branches from the nearby trees and sat just under the overhang while he quickly lashed together a frame, using long strips of fiber pulled from the branches themselves to tie evervthing together. He began weaving the remaining branches in and out of the frame, overlapping and interlocking. When he was finished, he propped one end of the frame against the outside edge of their enclosure and drove a stick into the ground to prop up the other end. He'd made a screen that blocked most of the opening, to hold in more of their precious heat and keep out the wind, and he'd done it in little more than half an hour.

Then he sighed and rubbed his hands over his face, and she saw how tired he was.

"Sit down, she said, moving over on the pad to give him room. She handed him a bottle of water and a bag of muesli. "I also have raisins and PayDay bars, if you want them."

"Both," he said. "We've burned a lot of calories today."

They were silent while they ate. so tired they had to concentrate on the act of chewing. When she ate the raisins, she could almost feel the sugar in them racing through her bloodstream in a rapid burn. She laid the little cardboard box beside the fire, to feed to it later.

He noticed her shoes and moved them closer to the fire, as well as her socks. That was when he saw her sweatpants. He froze for a moment, then slowly reached out and drew them closer to the fire, too, arranging them so the wet parts were nearest the heat. He darted a quick glance at her, clearly wondering if she was naked under the blanket.

Smiling, she parted the edges of the blanket to show her silk long johns. Some of the tension went out of his shoulders, and he gave her a rueful smile in return. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."

After they ate, nothing seemed as interesting as getting some sleep. He pulled off his boots and dropped the light stick down in one of them, effectively turning out the light except for the green glow coming from his boot and the much more comforting light from the fire. Wrapping himself in his blanket, he stretched out between her and the opening to the shelter.

Cate lay down on the pad and pulled her blanket around her. "Aren't we keeping watch tonight?"

"No need." His voice was a sleepy murmur.

"We'll take turns on the pad."

"I'm fine here. I've slept on the ground more nights than I can remember."

She started to protest, but her eyes were too heavy. Instead she sighed and dropped off to sleep.

She woke sometime later – could have been an hour, could have been several hours – shivering as cold air crept under the edges of her blanket. She opened her eyes to find Cal sitting up and feeding another stick to the fire, so evidently the cold had awakened him, too. Light flared brighter as the stick caught and began to burn, but she couldn't tell any difference in the amount of heat.

The night had grown a lot colder. She could feel a difference in the air that came around and through the screen he'd built. How much colder would they have been if the screen hadn't been there? She curled on her side, pulling her knees up in an effort to conserve her body heat. He glanced at her, saw her eyes open.

"Cold?" he asked, and she nodded. He added another stick to make the fire hotter.

She squinted at her watch but in the uncertain light couldn't make out the time. "What time is it?"

He must have already checked his watch, because he said, "Just after midnight." They had been asleep a couple of hours, at least.

"Is it still snowing?" She was thirsty, so she sat up to take a quick sip of water, then swiftly snuggled back under the blanket.

"Yeah. There are three or four inches on the ground."

Three or four inches wasn't a vast amount of snow, but under the circumstances, it might as well have been a blizzard. They simply weren't equipped to handle snow; they weren't dressed warmly enough, plus the underlying ice made even the simplest task dangerous. And it was still snowing.

He lay back down, too, his back to her, the way they had slept in the basement, except now they weren't cuddled together. Of course, the pad was barely wide enough for one, but there were other options.

She considered those options, wondering if she was truly ready to take such a step. She looked at the back of his head, at the shaggy dark blond hair, and the answer was a simple yes. Yes, she could very happily wake and see that head on the pillow beside her for the rest of her life. She wanted him. She wanted to explore the mysteries of who he was, what had made him, every complicated detail of him. She wanted to make love with him, laugh with him, share her life with him. Whether he was interested in taking on a widow with two children was something she would have to find out, but she knew he was interested in her on at least one basic level.

"Cal," she whispered, reaching out to touch his back.

That was all. He rolled over and looked at her, his gaze crystal clear and direct. The moment stretched between them, a fine tension pulling tight every muscle in her body, which was humming with a need that silently asked and was answered.

He tossed aside his blanket and crouched beside her, reaching under her blanket to peel the silk long johns and underwear down her legs and place them on top of the piles of gear. Her sudden nakedness made her heart thunder in her chest, made her clench her legs together to contain the sudden jolt of heat and sensation. Abruptly she felt so aroused she was afraid she might come at his first touch. She didn't want that, she wanted to feel him inside her, feel the deliciousness of hard strokes that built and built until she couldn't take any more and broke.

On his knees beside her, he unfastened his pants and pushed them down. His penis thrust up and out, blue veins prominent and the head dark with engorged blood. She reached out to grasp him, and he caught her hand, the move so last she saw only a blur. "No." His eyes were narrow as he lifted the blanket and moved on top of her, kneeing her clenched thighs apart and pushing his hips between them. "I've waited so long to make love to you; I don't want to come in your hand."

She knew, oh, she knew. She wanted to relax but she couldn't, her entire body was coiled and tense. Her legs clamped around him, pulling him to her. Her hips lifted, seeking, but the angle was wrong and his erection was a stiff rod between them, pushing and making her gasp with pain. He fought her grip, levering himself away far enough to get his hand between them while she desperately tried to pull him back.

"Jesus,'" he said between clenched teeth. "Cate – God! Let me – " He dragged the head of his penis into place and worked it inside her, then pushed hard.

She heard herself taking ragged breaths, almost sobbing. It hurt. She was surprised by how much it hurt. She was wet and aroused, but almost locked with tension. She wanted to cry. Site wanted to scream. She wanted to buck him off and be rid of this hot, full, stretched sensation, and at the same time she wanted him to thrust hard and fast until this horrible tension was gone and she could relax again. Her fingers dug into his back, found his muscles as tight as hers.

He was sucking in deep breaths, too, his entire body shaking as if he were straining against some irresistible force. She turned her head and saw his fingers sunk into the web of branches beneath the pad, the muscles in his forearm standing out and quivering.

He made a raw sound, and pressed his forehead against hers. "If I move, I'll come."

If he didn't move, she would die.

They strained against each other, desperately fighting to control the savage urgency that gripped them. She whimpered, feeling as if she'd been caught in some great vortex that was about to tear her to pieces, whirling her closer and closer to some unbearable destruction. She gave a small scream and her inner muscles clamped convulsively around him. Her sight dimmed, the world went away, and she began coming.

His control broke and he braced over her, his whole body surging, flexing, thrusting, pushing so deep she screamed again. He shook with the force of his climax, shook and cursed and groaned so harshly the sounds seemed to tear from his chest.

Slowly, so slowly, he collapsed onto her.

She became aware that he was incredibly heavy, for someone who looked so lean. And he was hot, his body heat counteracting the frigid air creeping into their little enclosure. She was still clutching at his back, and she forced her hands to relax. They slid down his back, brushed over the smoothness of his bare buttocks.

Her cheeks were wet. She didn't know why she was crying, and she really wasn't; she was gasping for breath and trying to slow her galloping heartbeat, but the tears kept leaking from her eyes. He kissed them away, nuzzled her temples, her jawline, and finally settled on her mouth. She felt the stickiness of his semen leaking out of her, but he didn't withdraw even though she could tell that he'd softened. Staying inside her saved time.

The second time was much, much slower. She came again, but though he got hard, he couldn't climax, and he didn't seem to care. He just kept moving against her like the ripple of wind on a lake, riding her to a third climax before she begged him to stop. She was going to be sore and she suspected he would be, too, but still she hated that moment when their flesh separated, and she had to bite her lip to keep from crying out in protest.

They managed to clean up, using some of the bottled water; then he pulled up his pants and with a groan collapsed back onto the sleep pad, pulling her down on top of him. With both blankets over them and sharing their body heat, she was much warmer than before and quickly dozed off, to waken when he shifted beneath her.

She touched his face, loving the stubble that scraped her palm, loving, too. the way he pressed a light kiss to her palm before dosing his eyes again.

"You stopped blushing." she murmured, tracing her fingertip over the curve of his tipper lip. Suddenly the subject seemed important. "Why did you stop blushing?"'

He opened his eyes, his gaze steady on her face. "Because you started."

She had blushed around him lately; she'd been so confused by the abrupt change in her feelings for him that she'd felt completely unbalanced.

"When you moved here." he said, "I knew you weren't ready." His quiet voice wrapped around her like a touch. The snow outside had muted all other sounds except the gentle crackling of the fire, and his voice. "You were still in shock from losing your husband, still grieving. You had a wall around you that didn't let you see me as a man."

"I saw you." she protested. "You just seemed so shy – "

A faint smile quirked his lips. "Yeah. The whole town got a kick out of watching me blush and stammer like a schoolkid when you were anywhere around."

"But that was – From the very beginning? Three years ago?" She was surprised. No, she was astounded, and completely shocked. She couldn't have been so totally oblivious, so blind to something a thirteen-year-old would have noticed.

"From the first time I saw you."

"Why didn't you say something?" She felt indignant that everyone else knew and she'd been completely in the dark.

"You weren't ready," he repeated. "There were only two men you addressed as 'mister' – Creed and me. Think about it."

She didn't have to think about it. The truth was there like a highway billboard. They were the only two truly eligible men in Trail Stop – Gordon Moon didn't count – and she had firmly put them at a distance.

"When you called me by my first name, I knew the wall was down," he said, lifting his head to kiss her.

"Everyone knew." She couldn't get over that.

"Not only that – uh – I guess I have another confession. Your house didn't need that much work. They would sabotage it, do things like cutting a wire or loosening a pipe fitting so you'd have a leak, just to throw us together. They thought it was funny to watch me fall all over myself if you spoke to me."

She stared at him, trying to decide whether she should laugh or get angry. "But – but," she sputtered.

"I could take it." He smiled at her. "I'm a patient man. And they were doing what they could to get us together. They didn't want to lose a good handyman."

Okay, now she was completely at sea. "Why would they lose you?"

"I'd been out of the Marines a month when you came to Trail Stop. I was cruising around the country, not sure what I wanted to do. and I came to visit Creed. He was my commanding officer in the Corps, and we became friends. He got out… oh, eight years ago, I guess, and I hadn't seen him since, so I looked him up. I'd been here a couple of weeks and was getting ready to move on when you moved in. I saw you, and stayed. Simple as that."

What was simple about it? "I thought you lived here! I thought you'd been here for years!" She was almost wailing, though she didn't know why, other than because she felt like such an idiot.

"Nope. I've been here two weeks longer than you."

She stared down at the tender expression in his eyes, saw the toughness and completeness of him as a man, the utter strength, and she wanted to weep. She opened her mouth, intending to say something important and meaningful, but the words that came out were neither.

"But I have a mouth like a duck!"

He blinked, and in complete seriousness said, "I like ducks."

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