Nightshade, p.13Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
He might be right about that, but Althea knew there was something else that needed to be said. “She might not be there, Colt.”
“We’re going to find out.” He banked the plane and headed west.
Because she could see the worry come into his eyes, Althea changed tack. “Tell me, what rank were you in the air force?”
“Major.” He drummed up a smile. “Looks like I outrank you.”
“You’re retired,” she reminded him. “I bet you looked swell in uniform.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing you in dress blues. Look.”
Following his direction, she spotted a cabin below. It was a three-level structure fashioned from redwood. She noted two others, separated from each other by lines of trees.
“None of them fit.”
“No,” he agreed. “But we’ll find the one that does.”
They continued to search, with Althea peering through binoculars. Hideaways were snuggled here and there, most of them seemingly unoccupied. A few had smoke puffing out of a chimney and trucks or four-wheel-drive vehicles parked outside.
Once she saw a man in a bright red shirt splitting wood. She spotted a herd of elk grazing in a frosty meadow, and the flash of white-tailed deer.
“There’s nothing,” she said at length. “Unless we want to do a documentary on— Wait.” A glint of white caught her attention, then was lost. “Circle around. Four o’clock.” She continued to scan, searching the snow-dusted ridges.
And there it was, two stories of whitewashed logs, a trio of windows facing west, the deck. At the end of the sloping gravel drive sat a muscular-looking truck. As further proof of habitation, smoke was spiraling out of the chimney.
“That could be it.”
“I’m betting it is.” Colt circled once, then veered off.
“I might take that bet.” She unhooked the radio mike. “Give me the position. I’ll call it in, get a surveillance team up here so we can go back and talk a judge into issuing a warrant.”
Colt gave her the coordinates. “Go ahead and call it in. But I’m not waiting for a piece of paper.”
“What the hell do you think you can do?”
His eyes flashed to hers, then away. “I’m setting the plane down, and I’m going in.”
“No,” she said, “you’re not.”
“You do what you have to.” He angled for the meadow where Althea had spotted the grazing elk. “There’s a good chance she’s in there. I’m not leaving her.”
“What are you going to do?” she demanded, too incensed to notice the perilous descent. “Break in, guns blazing? That’s movie stuff, Nightshade. Not only is it illegal, but it puts the hostage in jeopardy.”
“You’ve got a better idea?” He braced himself. They were going to slide once the wheels hit. He hoped to God they didn’t roll.
“We’ll get a team up here with surveillance equipment. We figure out who owns the cabin, get the paperwork pushed through.”
“Then we break in? No thanks. You said you’d been skiing, right?”
“You’re about to do it in a plane. Hold on.”
She jerked her head around, gaped through the windscreen as the glittering meadow hurled toward them. She had time for an oath—a vicious one—but then she lost her breath at the impact.
They hit, and went sliding. Snow spewed up the side of the plane, splattering the windows. Althea watched almost philosophically as they hurtled toward a wall of trees. Then the plane spun in two wicked circles before coming to a grinding stop.
“You maniac!” She took deep breaths, fighting back the worst of her temper. She would have let it loose, but there wasn’t enough room to maneuver in the cabin. And when she murdered him she wanted to do it right.
“I landed a plane in the Aleutians once, when the radar was down. It was a lot worse than this.”
“What does that prove?” she demanded.
“That I’m still a hell of a pilot?”
“Grow up!” she shouted. “This isn’t fantasyland. We’re closing in on suspected kidnappers, suspected murderers, and there’s very possibly an innocent kid caught in the middle. We’re going to do this right, Nightshade.”
With one jerk, he unstrapped himself, then grabbed both her hands at the wrists. “You listen to me.” She would have winced at the way his fingers dug into her flesh, but the fury in his eyes stopped her. “I know what’s real, Althea. I’ve seen enough reality in my life—the waste of it, and the cruelty of it. I know that girl. I held her when she was a baby, and I’m not leaving her welfare up to paperwork and procedure.”
“Forget it.” He shoved her hands aside, jerked back. “I’m not asking for your help, because I’m trying to respect your ideas of rules and regulations. But I’m going after her, Thea, and I’m going now.”
“Wait.” She held up a hand, then dragged it through her hair. “Let me think a minute.”
“You think too damn much.” But when he started to rise, she shoved a fist into his chest.
“I said wait.” Then she tipped her head back, closed her eyes and thought it through.
“How far is it to the cabin?” she asked after a moment. “Half a mile?”
“More like three-quarters.”
“The roads leading in were all plowed.”
“Yeah.” Impatience shimmered around him. “So?”
“It would have been handier if I could have been stuck in a snowdrift. But a breakdown’s good enough.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about working together.” She opened her eyes, pinned him with them. “You don’t like the way I work, I don’t like the way you work. So we’re going to have to find a middle ground. I’m calling this in, arranging to have the local police back us up, and I’m going to have them get word to Boyd. See if he can get some paperwork started.”
“I told you—”
“I don’t care what you told me,” she said calmly. “This is how it’s going down. We can’t go bursting in there. Number one, we might be wrong about the cabin. Number two,” she said, cutting him off again, “it puts Liz in increased jeopardy if they’re holding her there. And number three, without probable cause, without proper procedure, these bastards might wiggle out, and I want them put away. Now, you listen …”
* * *
He didn’t like it. It didn’t matter how much sense it made or how good a plan she’d devised. But during the long trek to the cabin she defused whatever arguments he voiced with calm, simple logic.
She was going in.
“What makes you think they’ll let you inside just because you ask?”
She tilted her head, slanted a look up from under her lashes. “I haven’t wasted any on you, Nightshade, but I have a tremendous amount of charm at my disposal.” She lengthened her stride to match his. “What do you think most men will do when a helpless woman comes knocking, begging for help because she’s lost, her car’s broken down and”—she gave a delicate shiver and turned her voice into a purr—“and it’s so awfully cold outside.”
He swore and watched his breath puff away in smoke. “What if they offer to drive you back to your car and fix it?”
“Well, I’ll be terribly grateful. And I’ll stall them long enough to do what needs to be done.”
“And if they get rough?”
“Then you and I will have to kick butt, won’t we?”
He couldn’t help but look forward to that. And yet … “I still think I should go in with you.”
“They’re not going to be sympathetic if the little woman has a big strong man with her.” Sarcasm dripped in the chilly air. “With any luck, the local boys will be here before things get nasty.” She paused, judging the distance. “We’re close enough. One of them might be out for a morning stroll. We don’t want to be spotted together.”
Colt shoved his fists into his pockets, then made them relax. She was right—more, she was good. He pul
She kissed him, hard. “Same goes.”
She turned, walked away with long, ground-eating strides. He wanted to tell her to stop, to tell her he loved her. Instead, he headed over the rough ground toward the rear of the cabin. This wasn’t the time to throw her any emotional curves. He’d save them for later.
Blocking everything from his mind, he sprinted through the hard-crusted snow, keeping low.
Althea moved fast. She wanted to be out of breath and a little teary-eyed when she reached the cabin. Once she came into view of the windows, she switched to a stumbling run, pantomiming relief. She all but fell against the door, calling and banging.
She recognized Kline when he opened it. He wore baggy gray sweats, and his bleary eyes were squinting against the smoke from the cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth. He smelled of tobacco and stale whiskey.
“Oh, thank God!” Althea slumped against the doorjamb. “Thank God! I was afraid I’d never find anyone. I feel like I’ve been walking forever.”
Kline sized her up. She was one sweet-looking babe, he decided, but he wasn’t big on surprises. “What do you want?”
“My car …” She pressed a fluttering hand to her heart. “It broke down—it must be a mile from here, at least. I was coming to visit some friends. I don’t know, maybe I made a wrong turn.” She shuddered, wrapped her parka closer around her. “Is it all right if I come in? I’m so cold.”
“There ain’t nobody up around here. No other cabins near here.”
She closed her eyes. “I knew I must have turned wrong somewhere. Everything starts to look the same. I left Englewood before sunup—wanted to start my vacation first thing.” Staring up at him, wide-eyed, she managed a weak smile. “Some vacation so far. Look, can I just use the phone, call my friends so they can come get me?”
“I guess.” The broad was harmless, Kline decided. And a pleasure to look at.
“Oh, a fire …” With a moan of relief, Althea dashed toward it. “I didn’t know I could be so cold.” While she rubbed her hands together, she beamed over her shoulder at Kline. “I can’t thank you enough for helping me out.”
“No problem.” He pulled the dangling cigarette from his mouth. “We don’t get much traffic up here.”
“I can see why.” She shifted her gaze to the windows. “Still, it is lovely. And this place!” She circled, looking dazzled. “It’s just fabulous. I guess if you were all cozied up by the fire with a bottle of wine, you wouldn’t mind sitting out a blizzard or two.”
His lips curled. “I like to cozy up with something other than a bottle.”
Althea fluttered her lashes, lowered them modestly. “It certainly is romantic, Mr—?”
“Kline. You can call me Harry.”
“All right, Harry. I’m Rose,” she said, giving him her middle name in case he’d recognized the name of Wild Bill’s cop. She offered her hand. “It’s a real pleasure. I think you’ve saved my life.”
“What the hell’s going on down there?”
Althea glanced up to the loft and saw a tall, wiry man with an untended shock of blond hair. She tagged him as the second male actor in the video.
“Got us an unexpected guest, Donner,” Kline called up. “Car broke down.”
“Well, hell …” Donner blinked his eyes clear and took a good look. “You’re out early, sweetie.”
“I’m on vacation,” she said, and flashed him a smile.
“Isn’t that nice?” Donner started downstairs, preening, Althea noticed, like a rooster in a henhouse. “Why don’t you fix the lady a cup of coffee, Kline?”
“Tidal Wave’s already in the kitchen. It’s his turn.”
“Fine.” Donner sent what was meant to be an intimate smile toward Althea. “Tell him to pour another cup for the lady.”
“Why don’t you—”
“Oh, I would love a cup of coffee,” Althea said, turning her big brown eyes on Kline. “I’m just frozen.”
“Sure.” He shrugged, shot Donner a look that made Althea think of one male dog warning off a competitor, then strode off.
How many more of the organization were in the cabin? she wondered. Or was it just the three of them?
“I was just telling Harry how beautiful your house is.” She wandered the living room, dropping her purse onto a table. “Do you live here year-round?”
“No, we just use it now and again.”
“It’s so much bigger than it looks from outside.”
“It does the job.” He moved closer as Althea sat on the arm of a chair. “Maybe you’d like to hang out here for your vacation.”
She laughed, making no objection when he brushed a finger through her hair. “Oh, but my friends are expecting me. Still, I do have two weeks …” She laughed again, low and throaty. “Tell me, what do you guys do around here for fun?”
“You’d be surprised.” Donner laid a hand on her thigh.
“I don’t surprise easily.”
“Back off.” Kline came back in with a mug of black coffee. “Here you are, Rose.”
“Thanks.” She sniffed deeply, curling her shoulders in for effect. “I feel warm and toasty already.”
“Why don’t you take off your coat?” Donner put a hand to her collar, but she shifted, smiling.
“As soon as my insides defrost a little more.” She’d taken the precaution of removing her shoulder rig, but she preferred more camouflage, as her weapon was snug at the small of her back. “Are the two of you brothers?” she asked conversationally.
Kline snorted. “Not hardly. You could say we’re partners.”
“Oh, really? What kind of business are you in?”
“Communications,” Donner stated, flashing white teeth.
“That’s fascinating. You sure have a lot of equipment.” She glanced toward the big-screen TV, the state-of-the-art VCR/DVD and stereo. “I love watching movies on long winter nights. Maybe we can get together sometime and …” She let her words trail off, alerted by a movement at the back of the loft. Glancing up, she saw the girl.
Her hair was tousled, and her eyes were unbearably tired. She’d lost weight, Althea thought, but she recognized Liz from the snapshot Colt had shown her.
“Why, hello there,” she said, and smiled.
“Get back in your room,” Kline snapped. “Now.”
Liz moistened her lips. She was wearing tattered jeans and a bright blue sweater that was tattered at the cuffs. “I wanted some breakfast.” Her voice was quiet, Althea noted, but not cowed.
“You’ll get it.” He glanced back at Althea, satisfied that she was smiling with friendly disinterest. “Now get on back to your room until I call you.”
Liz hesitated, long enough to aim one cold glare at him. That warmed Althea’s heart. The kid wasn’t beaten yet, Althea noted as Liz turned and walked to the door behind her. It shut with a slam.
“Kids,” Kline muttered, and lit another cigarette.
“Yeah.” Althea smiled sympathetically. “Is she your sister?”
Kline choked on the smoke, but then he grinned. “Right. Yeah, she’s my sister. So, you wanted to use the phone?”
“Oh, yes.” Setting the mug of coffee aside, Althea rose. “I appreciate it. My friends’ll be getting worried about me soon.”
“There it is.” He gestured. “Help yourself.”
“Thanks.” But when she picked up the receiver, there was no dial tone. “Gee, I think it’s dead.”
Kline swore and strode over, pulling a thin L-shaped tool from his pocket. “Forgot. I, ah, lock it up at night, so the kid can’t use it. She was making all these long-distance calls and running up the bill. You know how girls are.”
“Yes.” Althea smiled. “I do.” When she heard the dial tone, she punched in the number for the local police. “Fran,” she said merrily, addressing the dispatcher as they had arranged. “You won’t believe what happened. I got lost, m
* * *
While Althea chatted with the police dispatcher, Colt shimmied up a pole to the second floor. With his binoculars, he’d seen everything he needed to see through the expansive glass of the cabin. Althea was holding her own, and Liz was on the second floor.
They’d agreed that if the opportunity presented itself, he would get her out of the house. Out of harm’s way. He might have preferred a direct route—straight through Kline and the other jerk in the living room, and on into the big guy doing kitchen duty.
But Liz’s safety came first. Once he got her out, he’d be coming back.
With a grunt, he swung himself onto the narrow overhang and clutched at the window ledge. He saw Liz lying on a rumpled bed, her body turned away and curled up protectively. His first urge was to throw up the window and leap inside. Afraid he might frighten her into crying out, he tapped gently on the glass.
She shifted. When he tapped again, she turned wearily over, unfocused eyes gazing into the sunlight. Then she blinked and cautiously pushed herself up from the bed. Hurriedly Colt put a finger to his lips, signaling silence. But it didn’t stop the tears. They poured out of her eyes as she rushed to the window.
“Colt!” She shook the window, then laid her cheek against the glass and wept. “I want to go home! Please, please, I want to go home!”
He could barely hear her through the glass. Afraid their voices would carry, he tapped again, waiting until she turned her head to look at him.
“Open the window, baby.” He mouthed it carefully, but she only shook her head.
“Nailed shut.” Her breath hitched, and she rubbed her fists against her eyes. “They nailed it shut.”
“Okay, okay. Look at me. Look.” He used hand signals to focus her attention. “A pillow. Get a pillow.”
A dim spark glowed in her eyes. He’d seen it before, that cautious return of hope. She moved fast, doing as he instructed.
“Hold it against the glass. Hold it steady, and turn your head. Turn your head away, baby.”
He used his elbow to smash the glass, satisfied that the pillow muffled most of the noise. When he’d broken enough to ease his body through, he nudged the pillow aside and swung inside.
She was immediately in his arms, clinging, sobbing. He picked her up, cradled her like a baby. “Shh … Liz. It’s going to be all right now. I’m going to take you home.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about anything.” He drew back to look into her eyes. She looked so thin, he thought, so pale. And he had a lot more to ask of her. “Honey, you’re going to have to be tough for a little while longer. We’re going to get you out, and we have to move fast. Do you have a coat? Shoes?”
She shook her head. “They took them. They took everything so I couldn’t run away. I tried, Colt, I swear I did, but—”
“It’s all right.” He pressed her face to his shoulder again, recognizing bubbling hysteria. “You’re not going to think about it now. You’re just going to do exactly what I tell you. Okay?”
“Okay. Can we go now? Right now?”
“Right now. Let’s wrap you in this blanket.” He dragged it off the bed with one hand and did his best to bundle it around her. “Now we’re going to have to take a little fall. But if you hang on to me, and stay real loose, real relaxed, it’s going to be fine.” He carried her to the window, careful to cover her face against the cold and the jagged teeth of broken glass. “If you want to scream, you scream in your head, but not out loud. That’s important.”
“I won’t scream.” With her heart hammering, she pressed hard against his chest. “Please, just take me home. I want Mom.”
“She wants you, too. So does your old man.” He kept talking in the same low, soothing tone as he inched toward the edge. “We’re going to call them as soon as
Nightshade by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 5.5 out of 5 / Based on44 votes