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Cover of Night(5)
Author: Linda Howard

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"-even 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?"

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