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Cover of Night(9)
Author: Linda Howard

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."

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