Nightshade, p.14
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       Nightshade, p.14

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
 
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  we get out of here.” He said a quick prayer and jumped.

  He knew how to fall, off a building, down stairs, out of a plane. Without the child, he would simply have tucked and rolled. With her, he swiveled his body to take the brunt of the impact, so that he would land on his back and cushion her.

  The impact stole his breath, wrenched his shoulder, but he was up almost as soon as he landed, with Liz still cradled against his chest. He sprinted toward the road and was halfway there when he heard the first shot.

  Chapter 10

  Althea drew out her conversation with the police dispatcher, pausing in her own chatter to take in the information that her backup’s ETA was ten minutes. She sincerely hoped Colt had managed to get Liz away from the cabin, but either way, it looked like it was going to go down as smooth as silk.

  “Thanks, Fran. I’m looking forward to seeing you and Bob, too. Just let me get some idea of where I am from Harry. I don’t have a clue.” Beaming a new smile in Harry’s direction, Althea cupped a hand over the phone. “Do you have, like, an address or something? Bob’s going to come pick me up and take a look at my car.”

  “No problem.” He glanced over as Tidal Wave came in from the kitchen. “Hope you made enough breakfast for our guest,” Harry told him. “She’s had a rough morning.”

  “Yeah, there’s enough.” Tidal Wave turned his hard brown eyes on Althea, narrowed them. “Hey! What the hell is this?”

  “Try for some manners,” Donner suggested. “There’s a lady present.”

  “Lady, hell! That’s a cop. That’s Wild Bill’s cop.”

  He made his lunge, but Althea was ready. She’d seen the recognition in his eyes and had already reached for her weapon. There wasn’t time to think or to worry about the other two men, as two hundred and sixty pounds of muscle and bulk rammed her.

  Her first shot veered wide as she went flying, slamming against an antique table. A collection of snuff bottles crashed, spewing shards of amethyst and aquamarine. She saw stars. Through them, she saw her opponent bearing down on her like a freight train.

  Pure instinct had her rolling to the left to avoid a blow. Tidal Wave was big, but she was quick. Althea scrambled to her knees and gripped her weapon in both hands.

  This time her shot was true. She had only an instant to note the spread of blood on his white T-shirt before she leapt to her feet.

  Donner was heading for the door, and Kline was swearing as he dragged open a drawer. She saw the glint of chrome.

  “Freeze!”

  Her order had Donner throwing up his hands and turning into a statue, but Kline whipped out the gun.

  “Do it and die,” she told him, stepping back so that she could keep both Kline and Donner in sight. “Drop it, Harry, or you’re going to be staining the carpet like your friend there.”

  “Son of a bitch.” Teeth set, he tossed the weapon down.

  “Good choice. Now, on the floor, facedown, hands behind your head. You, too, Romeo,” she told Donner. While they obeyed, she picked up Kline’s gun. “You two should know better than to invite a stranger into the house.”

  Lord, she hurt, Althea realized now that her adrenaline was leveling off. From the top of her head to the soles of her feet, she was one huge ache. She hoped Tidal Wave’s flying tackle hadn’t dislodged anything vital.

  She caught the thin wail of a siren in the distance. “Looks like old Fran told the troops to come in. Now, in case you don’t get the picture, I’m the law, and you’re under arrest.”

  Althea was calmly reading her prisoners their rights when Colt burst in, a gun in one hand, a knife in the other. By her calculations, it had been roughly three minutes since she’d fired the first shot. The man moved fast.

  She spared him a glance, then finished the procedure. “Cover these idiots, will you, Nightshade?” she asked as she picked up the dangling receiver. “Officer Mooney? Yes, this is Lieutenant Grayson. We’ll need an ambulance out here. I have a suspect down with a chest wound. No, the situation’s under control. Thank you. You were a big help.”

  She hung up and looked back at Colt. “Liz?”

  “She’s okay. I told her to wait by the road for the cops. I heard the shots.” His hands were steady. He could be grateful for that. But his insides were jelly. “I figured they’d made you.”

  “You figured right. That one.” She jerked her head toward Tidal Wave. “He must have seen me with Wild Bill. Why don’t you go find us a towel? We’d better try to stop that bleeding.”

  “The hell with that!” The fury came so suddenly, and so violently, that the two men on the floor quaked. “Your head’s cut.”

  “Yeah?” She touched her fingers to the throbbing ache at her right temple, then studied her blood-smeared fingers in disgust. “Hell. That better not need stitches. I really hate stitches.”

  “Which one of them hit you?” Colt scanned the three men with icy eyes. “Which one?”

  “The one I shot. The one who’s currently bleeding to death. Now get me a towel, and we’ll see if we can have him live long enough to go to trial.” When he didn’t respond, she stepped between him and the wounded man. Colt’s intentions were clear as crystal. “Don’t pull this crap on me, Nightshade. I’m not a damsel in distress, and white knights annoy the hell out of me. Got it?”

  “Yeah.” He sucked in his breath. There were too many emotions ripping through him. None of them could change the situation. “Yeah, I got it, Lieutenant.”

  He turned away to do as she’d asked. After all, he thought, she could handle the situation. She could handle anything.

  * * *

  It wasn’t until they were in the plane again that he began to calm. He had to at least pretend to be calm for Liz’s sake. She’d clung to him, begging him not to send her back with the police, to stay with her. So he’d agreed to fly back with Liz in the copilot’s seat and Althea in the jump seat behind.

  Looking lost in his coat, Liz stared through the windscreen. No matter how Colt had tried to bundle her up, she continued to shiver. When they leveled off, heading east, the tears began to flow. They fell fast, hot, down her cheeks. Her shoulders shook violently, but she made no sound. No sound at all.

  “Come on, baby.” Helpless, Colt reached out to take her hand. “Everything’s all right now. Nobody’s going to hurt you now.”

  But the silent tears continued.

  Saying nothing, Althea rose. She came forward, calmly unstrapped Liz. Communicating by touch, Althea urged Liz to shift, then took her place in the chair. Then she gathered the girl on her lap, cradled her head on her shoulder. Enfolded her grief.

  “Don’t hold back,” she murmured.

  Almost at once, Liz’s sobs echoed through the cabin. The pain in them cut at Althea’s heart as she rocked the girl and held her close. Devastated by the weeping, Colt lifted a hand to brush it down Liz’s tangled hair. But she only curled closer to Althea at the touch.

  He dropped his hand and concentrated on the sky.

  * * *

  It was Althea’s gentle insistence that convinced Liz it would be wise to go to the hospital first. She wanted to go home, she said over and over again. And over and over again, Althea patiently reminded Liz that her parents were already on their way to Denver.

  “I know it’s hard.” Althea kept her arm tight around Liz’s shoulders. “And I know it’s scary, but the doctor needs to check you out.”

  “I don’t want him to touch me.”

  “I know.” How well she knew. “But he’s a she.” Althea smiled, rubbing her hand down Liz’s arm. “She won’t hurt you.”

  “It’ll be over real quick,” Colt assured her. He fought to keep his easy smile in place. What he wanted to do was scream. Kick something. Kill someone.

  “Okay.” Liz glanced warily toward the examining room again. “Please …” She pressed her lips together and looked pleadingly at Althea.

  “Would you like me to go in with you? Stay with you?” At Liz’s nod, she drew the gi
rl closer. “Sure, no problem. Colt, why don’t you go find a soft-drink machine, maybe a candy bar?” She smiled down at Liz. “I could sure use some chocolate. How about you?”

  “Yeah.” Liz drew in a shaky breath. “I guess.”

  “We’ll be back in a few minutes,” Althea told Colt. He could read nothing in her eyes. Feeling useless, he strode down the corridor.

  * * *

  Inside the examining room, Althea helped Liz exchange her tattered clothes for a hospital gown. She noted the bruises on the girl’s flesh, but made no comment. They would need an official statement from Liz, but it could wait a little longer.

  “This is Dr. Mailer,” she explained as the young doctor with the soft eyes approached the table.

  “Hello, Liz.” Dr. Mailer didn’t offer her hand, or touch her patient in any way. She specialized in trauma patients, and she understood the terrors of rape victims. “I’m going to need to ask you some questions, and to run some tests. If there’s anything you want to ask me, you go ahead. And if you want me to stop, to wait a while, you just say so. Okay?”

  “All right.” Liz lay back and focused on the ceiling. But her hand remained tight around Althea’s.

  Althea had requested Dr. Mailer because she knew the woman’s reputation. As the examination progressed, she was more than satisfied that it was well deserved. The doctor was gentle, kind and efficient. It seemed she instinctively knew when to stop, to give Liz a chance to regroup, and when to continue.

  “We’re all done.” Dr. Mailer stripped off her gloves and smiled. “I just want you to rest in here for a little while, and I’m going to have a prescription for you before you leave.”

  “I don’t have to stay here, do I?”

  “No.” Dr. Mailer closed a hand over Liz’s. “You did fine. When your parents get here, we’ll talk again. Why don’t I see about getting you something to eat?”

  As she left, Dr. Mailer sent Althea a look that clearly stated that they, too, would talk later.

  “You did do fine,” Althea said, helping Liz to sit up. “Do you want me to go see if Colt found that candy bar? I don’t imagine that’s the sort of food Dr. Mailer had in mind, so we’ll have to sneak it while we can.”

  “I don’t want to be alone here.”

  “Okay.” Althea took her brush from her purse and began to untangle Liz’s hair. “Let me know if I’m pulling.”

  “When I saw you downstairs—at the cabin—I thought you were another of the women they brought up. That it was going to happen again.” Liz squeezed her eyes shut. Tears spilled through her lashes. “That they were going to make me do those things again.”

  “I’m sorry. There wasn’t any way to let you know I was there to help you.”

  “And when I saw Colt at the window, I thought it was a dream. I kept dreaming somebody would come, but no one did. I was afraid Mom and Dad just didn’t care.”

  “Honey, your parents have been trying to find you all along.” She tipped Liz’s chin upward. “They’ve been so worried. That’s why they sent Colt. And I can tell you he loves you, too. You can’t imagine the stuff he’s bullied me into doing so he could find you.”

  Liz tried to smile, but it quivered and fell. “But they don’t know about— Maybe they won’t love me after they find out … everything.”

  “No.” Althea’s fingers firmed on Liz’s chin. “It’ll upset them, and it will hurt them, and it’ll be hard, really hard, for them. That’s because they do love you. Nothing that happened is going to change that.”

  “I—I can’t do anything but cry.”

  “Then that’s all you have to do, for now.”

  Liz swiped a shaky hand across her cheeks. “It was my fault I ran away.”

  “It was your fault you ran away,” Althea agreed. “That’s all that was your fault.”

  Liz jerked her head away. The tears gushed out again as she stared at the tiles on the floor. “You don’t understand how it feels. You don’t know what it’s like. How awful it is. How humiliating.”

  “You’re wrong.” Gently, firmly, Althea cupped Liz’s face again, lifting it until their eyes met. “I do understand. I understand exactly.”

  “You?” Air shuddered out between Liz’s lips. “It happened to you?”

  “When I was just about your age. And I felt as though someone had carved something out of me that I’d never get back again. I thought I’d never get clean again, be whole again. Be me again. And I cried for a long, long time, because there didn’t seem to be anything else I could do.”

  Liz accepted the tissue Althea pressed into her hand. “I kept telling myself it wasn’t me. It wasn’t really me. But I was so scared. It’s over. Colt keeps saying it’s over now, but it hurts.”

  “I know.” Althea cradled Liz in her arms again. “It hurts more than anything else can, and it’s going to hurt for a while. But you’re not alone. You have to keep remembering you’re not alone. You have your family, your friends. You have Colt. And you can talk to me whenever you need to.”

  Liz sniffled, rested her cheek against Althea’s heart. “What did you do? After. What did you do?”

  “I survived,” Althea murmured, staring blankly over Liz’s head. “And so will you.”

  Colt stood in the doorway of the examining room, his arms piled high with cans of soda and candy bars. If he’d felt useless before, he now felt unbearably helpless.

  There was no place for him here, no way for him to intrude on this woman pain. His first and only reaction was rage. But where to channel it? He turned away to dump the cans and candy onto a table in the waiting room. If he couldn’t comfort either of them, couldn’t stop what had already happened, then what could he do?

  He scrubbed his hands over his face and tried to clear his mind. Even as he dropped them, he saw Liz’s parents dashing from the elevator.

  This, at least, he could do. He strode to meet them.

  * * *

  Inside the examining room, Althea finished tidying Liz’s hair. “Do you want to get dressed?”

  Liz managed what passed for a smile. “I don’t ever want to put those clothes on again.”

  “Good point. Well, maybe I can scrounge up—” She turned at a flurry of movement in the doorway. She saw a pale woman and a haggard man, both with red-rimmed eyes.

  “Oh, baby! Oh, Liz!” The woman raced forward first, with the man right on her heels.

  “Mom!” Liz was sobbing again even as she threw open her arms. “Mom!”

  Althea stepped aside as parents and child were reunited, with tears and desperate embraces. When she spotted Colt in the doorway, she moved to him. “You’d better stay with them. I’ll tell Dr. Mailer they’re here before I go.”

  “Where are you going?”

  She slid her purse back on her shoulder. “To file my report.”

  * * *

  She did just that before she went home to indulge in that long, steamy bath. She soaked until her body was numb. Giving in to exhaustion, both physical and emotional, she fell into bed naked and slept dreamlessly until the battering on her door awoke her.

  Groggy, she fumbled for her robe, belting it as she walked to the door. She scowled at Colt through the peephole, then yanked the door open.

  “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t book you for disturbing the peace. My peace.”

  He held out a flat, square box. “I brought you pizza.”

  She blew out a breath, then drew one in—as well as the rich scent of cheese and spice. “That might get you off. I guess you want to come in with it.”

  “That was the idea.”

  “Well, come on, then.” With that dubious invitation, she walked away to fetch plates and napkins. “How’s Liz holding up?”

  “Surprisingly well. Marleen and Frank are as solid as they come.”

  “They’ll have to be.” She came back to set the plates on the table. “I hope they understand they’re all going to need counseling.”

  “They’ve already talked
to Dr. Mailer about it. She’s going to help them find a good therapist back home.” Trying to choose his words properly, he took his time sliding pizza onto the plates. “The first thing I want to do is thank you. And don’t brush me off, Thea. I’d really like to get this out.”

  “All right, then.” She sat, picked up a slice. “Get it out.”

  “I’m not just talking about the official cooperation, the way you helped me find her and get her out. I owe you big for that, but that’s professional. You got anything to drink with this?”

  “There’s some burgundy in the kitchen.”

  “I’ll get it,” he said as she started to rise.

  Althea shrugged and went back to eating. “Suit yourself.” She was working on her second slice when Colt came back with a bottle and two glasses. “I guess I was too tired to realize I was starving.”

  “Then I don’t have to apologize for waking you up.” He filled both glasses, but didn’t drink. “The other thing I have to thank you for is the way you were with Liz. I figured getting her out was enough—playing that white knight you said irritates you so much.” He looked up, met her eyes. There was a new understanding in them, and a weariness she hadn’t seen before. “It wasn’t. Telling her it was all right, that it was over—that wasn’t enough, either. She needed you.”

  “She needed a woman.”

  “You are that. I know it’s a lot to expect—over and above, so to speak—but she asked about you a couple of times after you left.” He toyed with the stem of his glass. “They’re going to be staying in town at least for another day, until Dr. Mailer has some of the results in. I was hoping you could talk to Liz again.”

  “You don’t have to ask me that, Colt.” She reached out for his hand. “I got involved, too.”

  “So did I, Thea.” He turned their joined hands over, brought them to his lips. “I’m in love with you. Big-time. No, don’t pull away from me.” He tightened his grip before she could. “I’ve never said that to another woman. I used alternate terms.” He smiled a little. “I’m crazy about you, you’re special to me, that kind of thing. But I never used love, not until you.”

  She believed him. What was more frightening, she wanted to believe him. Tread carefully, she reminded herself. One step at a time. “Listen, Colt, the two of us have been on a roller coaster since we met—and that’s only been a short while. Things, emotions, get blown out of proportion on roller coasters. Why don’t we slow this down some?”

  He could feel her nerves jittering, but he couldn’t be amused by them this time. “I had to accept that I couldn’t change what had happened to Liz. That was hard. I can’t change what I feel for you. Accepting that’s easy.”

  “I’m not sure what you want from me, Colt, and I don’t think I can give it to you.”

  “Because of what happened to you before. Because of what I heard you telling Liz in the examining room.”

  She withdrew instantly and completely. “That was between Liz and me,” she said coldly. “And it’s none of your business.”

  It was exactly the reaction he’d expected, the one he’d prepared for. “We both know that’s not true. But we’ll talk about it when you’re ready.” Knowing the value of keeping an opponent off balance, he picked up his wine. “You know they’re giving Scott a fifty-fifty chance of making it.”

  “I know.” She watched him warily. “I called the hospital before I went to bed. Boyd’s handling the interrogation of Kline and Donner for now.”

  “Can’t wait to get at them, can you?”

  “No.” She smiled again. “I can’t.”

  “You know, I heard those shots, and it stopped my heart.” Feeling more relaxed, he bit into his pizza. “I come tearing back, ready to kick butt, crash through the door like the cavalry, and what do I see?” He shook his head and tapped her glass with his. “There you are, blood running down your face …” He paused to touch a gentle finger to the bandage at her temple. “A gun in each hand. There’s a three-hundred-pound hulk bleeding at your feet, and two others facedown with their hands behind their heads. You’re just standing there, looking like Diana after the hunt, and reciting Miranda. I have to say, I felt pretty superfluous.”

  “You did okay, Nightshade.” She let out a small, defeated breath. “And I guess you deserve to know that I was awfully glad to see you. You looked like Jim Bowie at the Alamo.”

  “He lost.”

  She gave in and leaned forward to kiss him. “You didn’t.”

  “We didn’t,” he corrected, pleased that her mouth had been soft, relaxed and friendly. “I brought you a present.”

 
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