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Cover of Night(7)
Author: Linda Howard

Cate felt ashamed; he was so shy she actually avoided looking at him or casually chatting, not wanting to stress him out, and now she felt guilty because not drawing him out was easier than getting to know him and putting him at ease, as Sherry had obviously done. Cate, too, should have put herself to the trouble, should have made the effort to befriend him, as everyone here had made the effort to befriend her when she'd first taken over the B and B. Some neighbor she'd been!

She went into the kitchen, feeling as if she were stepping into the twilight zone. Mr. Harris literally jumped when he saw her, his face turning red, as if he knew she'd overheard. Cate jerked her thoughts back to Mr. Layton's weird actions and away from the possibility of a romance going on beneath her nose. "The guest in number three climbed out the window and left," she said, then lifted her shoulders in an "I don't know what the hell's going on" gesture.

"Out the window?" Sherry echoed, equally puzzled. "Why did he do that?"

"I don't know. I have his credit card number, so it isn't as if he can run out on the bill. And his stuff's still here."

"Maybe he just wanted to climb out the window, see if he could."

"Maybe. Or he's nuts."

"Or that," Sherry agreed. "How many nights is he staying?"

"Just last night. Checkout's at eleven, so he should be back soon." Though where on earth he could have gone, she couldn't imagine, unless he'd felt a sudden urge to visit the feed store. Trail Stop didn't have any shops or restaurants; if he'd wanted breakfast, he should have eaten here. The nearest honest-to-God town was an hour's drive away, so he wouldn't have time to go there, eat, then get back before it was time to check out - not to mention that it would be self-defeating, if he simply hadn't wanted to eat with strangers.

Mr. Harris cleared his throat. "I'll be... um - " He looked around, clearly discomfited.

Guessing that he didn't know where to put his empty cup, Cate said, "I'll take it," and held out her hand. "Thanks for stopping by. I wish you'd let me pay you, though."

He stubbornly shook his head as he gave the cup to her. Determined to be more friendly, she continued, "I don't know what I'd have done without you."

"None of us know how we got along before Cal settled here," Sherry said cheerfully, moving to the sink, where she began loading dishes into the dishwasher. "Waited a week or more for someone from town whenever we needed repairs, I guess."

Cate was vaguely surprised; she'd thought Mr. Harris had always been here. He certainly fit in with the locals as if he'd lived here all his life. The sense of shame rose in her throat again. Sherry referred to him by his first name, while Cate had always called him Mr. Harris, effectively putting him at a distance. She didn't know why she did it, but there it was.

"Mommmmy!" Tucker bellowed from the top of the stairs. "Time's up!"

Sherry chuckled, and Cate saw a brief smile tug at Mr. Harris's mouth as he gave Sherry a two-fingered salute and picked up his toolbox, evidently intent on making a getaway before the boys came back downstairs.

Cate rolled her eyes heavenward, silently asking for a little peace and quiet, then stepped into the hall. "Tell Tanner he may get out of the naughty chair."

"Awwight!" The gleeful shout was followed by the sounds of jumping. "Tannuh! Mommy said to get up! Let's build a fort and bawwicade me and you in it." Caught up in his enthusiasm for his game, he ran back to their room.

Cate was torn between amusement at his Elmer Fudd pronunciation and puzzlement at his word choice. Barricadey Where had he come up with that? Maybe they'd been watching old westerns on television; she needed to keep a closer watch on their entertainment.

She checked the dining room: it was empty; the morning rush was over. After she and Sherry cleaned the dining room and kitchen and Mr. Layton returned to get his things, she could change the sheets on the bed and clean the room, then she'd have the rest of the day to get things ready for her mother's visit.

Mr. Harris had left. Going over to help with the dishes, Cate bumped her hip against Sherry's. "So, what's up with you and Mr. Harris? Is there something going on between you two?"

Sherry's mouth fell open, and she gave Cate a look of absolute astonishment. "Good God, no. What gave you that idea?"

Her reaction was so genuine that Cate felt foolish for having jumped to the wrong conclusion. "He was talking to you."

"Well, hell, Cal talks to a lot of people."

"Not that I've seen, he doesn't."

"He's just a little shy," Sherry said, in what was probably the understatement of the month. "Besides, I'm old enough to be his mother."

"You are not - unless you were really, really precocious."

"Okay, so that's an exaggeration. I do like Cal - a lot. He's a smart man. He might not have a college degree, but he can fix just about anything."

Cate agreed with that. Whatever needed repair at the B and B, from carpentry to electrical work to plumbing, Mr. Harris handled it. He also filled in as a mechanic, if need be. If ever anyone had been born to be a handyman, Mr. Harris had been.

Ten years before, fresh out of college with her degree in marketing, she would have disdained people who did physical work - people with their names sewn on their pockets, as they had been described in her circle - but she was older and wiser now, she hoped. The world needed all types to make things work, from the planners to the doers, and in this little community someone who could fix things was worth his weight in gold.

She began cleaning the dining room while Sherry finished in the kitchen; then she vacuumed and dusted downstairs - at least in all the public areas. Thank goodness the huge old Victorian had two parlors. The front one, the big one, was tor use by her guests. The small one in back was the den where she and the boys relaxed in the evenings, where they watched television and played games. She didn't bother even picking up their toys in there; for one thing, her mother wasn't due for hours vet and the boys would have their things dragged out again before she got here, so Cate didn't waste the effort.

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