Nightshade, p.7
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       Nightshade, p.7

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
 
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  “Daddy!” He spread his arms and grinned. “Help me! Don’t let her do it!”

  “Sorry, son.” Boyd ruffled Keenan’s hair and gave him a solemn kiss. “Looks like you’re doomed. We’re going to miss you around here.”

  Always ready to prolong the inevitable, Keenan hooked his arms around Colt’s neck. “Save me!”

  Colt kissed the waiting lips and shook his head. “Only one thing in this world scares me, partner, and that’s a mama. You’re on your own.”

  Levering in Cilla’s arms, the boy made the rounds of the table. When he got to Althea, his eyes gleamed. “Okay? Can I?”

  It was an old game, one she was willing to play. “For a nickel.”

  “I can owe you.”

  “You already owe me eight thousand dollars and fifteen cents.”

  “I get my allowance Friday.”

  “Okay, then.” She took him onto her lap for a hug, and he sniffed her hair like a puppy. Colt saw her face soften, watched her hand slide up to stroke the tender nape of the boy’s neck.

  “It’s good,” Keenan announced, taking one last exaggerated sniff.

  “Don’t forget that eight thousand on Friday. Now beat it.” After a kiss, she passed him back to Cilla.

  “Deal me out,” Cilla suggested, and, settling her son on her hip, she carried him upstairs to bed.

  “A boy who can talk his way into a woman’s lap’s a boy to be proud of.” Sweeney grinned as he gathered the cards. “My deal. Ante up.”

  During the next hour, Althea’s pile of chips grew slowly, steadily. She enjoyed the monthly poker games that had become a routine shortly after Cilla and Boyd were married. The basic challenge of outwitting her opponents relaxed her almost as much as the domestic atmosphere that had seeped into every corner of the Fletcher home.

  She was a cautious player, one who gambled only when satisfied with the odds, and who bet meticulously, thoughtfully, even then. She noted that Colt’s pile multiplied, as well, but in fits and starts. He wasn’t reckless, she decided. Ruthless was the word. Often he bumped the pot when he had nothing, or sat back and let others do the raising when he had a handful of gold.

  No pattern, she mused, which she supposed was a pattern of its own.

  After Sweeney won a piddling pot with a heart flush, she pushed back from the table. “Anybody want a beer?”

  Everybody did. Althea strolled into the kitchen and began to pop tops. She was pouring herself a glass of wine when Colt walked in.

  “Thought you could use some help.”

  “I can handle it.”

  “I don’t figure there’s much you can’t handle.” Damn, the woman was prickly, he thought. “I just thought I’d lend a hand.”

  Maria had prepared enough sandwiches to satisfy a hungry platoon on a long march. For lack of anything better to do Colt shifted some from platter to plate. He had to get it out, he decided. Now that they were alone and he had the opportunity, he wasn’t sure how to start.

  “I’ve got something to say about this afternoon.”

  “Oh?” Her tone frosty, Althea turned to the refrigerator and took out a bowl of Maria’s incomparable guacamole dip.

  “I’m sorry.”

  And nearly dropped it. “Excuse me?”

  “Damn it, I’m sorry. Okay?” He hated to apologize—it meant he had made a mistake, one that mattered. “Watching that tape got to me. It made me want to smash something, someone. The closest I could come to it was ripping into you.”

  Because it was the last thing she would have expected, she was caught off guard. She stood with the bowl in her hand, unsure of her next move. “All right.”

  “I was afraid I’d see Liz,” he continued, compelled to say it all. “I was afraid I wouldn’t.” At a loss, he picked up one of the opened beers and took a long swallow. “I’m not used to being scared like this.”

  There was very little he could have said, and nothing he could have done, that would have gotten through her defenses more thoroughly. Touched, and shaken, she set the bowl on the counter and opened a bag of chips.

  “I know. It got to me, too. It’s not supposed to, but it did.” She poured the chips into the bowl, wishing there was something else she could do. Anything else. “I’m sorry things aren’t moving faster, Colt.”

  “They haven’t been standing still, either. And I’ve got you to thank for most of that.” He lifted a hand, then dropped it. “Thea, there was something else I wanted to do this afternoon besides punching somebody. I wanted to hold you.” He saw the wariness flash into her eyes, quick as a heartbeat, and had to grind down his temper. “Not jump you, Thea. Hold you. There’s a difference.”

  “Yes, there is.” She let out a long, quiet breath. There was need in his eyes. Not desire, just need. The need for contact, for comfort, for compassion. That she understood. “I guess I could have used it, too.”

  “I still could.” It cost him to make the first move, this sort of move. But he stepped toward her and held out his arms.

  It cost her, as well, to respond, to move into his arms and encircle him with her own.

  And when they were close, when her cheek was resting against his shoulder and his against her hair, they both sighed. The tension drained away like water through a broken dam.

  He didn’t understand it, wasn’t sure he could accept it, but he realized it felt right. Very simply right. Unlike the first time he’d held her, there was no punch of lust, no molten fire in his blood. But there was a warmth, sweet and spreading and solid.

  He could have held her like that, just like that, for hours.

  She didn’t often let herself relax so completely, not with a man, and certainly not with a man who attracted her. But this was so easy, so natural. The steady thudding of his heart lulled her. She nearly nuzzled. The urge was there—to rub her cheek against him, to close her eyes and purr. When she felt him sniffing her hair, she laughed.

  “The kid’s right,” he murmured. “It’s good.”

  “That’s going to cost you a nickel, Nightshade.”

  “Put it on my tab,” he told her as she lifted her head to smile at him.

  Was it because she’d never looked at him quite that way that it hit him so hard? He couldn’t be sure. All he knew was that she was outrageously beautiful, her hair loose and tumbling into his hands, glinting like flame in the hard kitchen light. Her eyes were smiling, deep and tawny and warm with humor. And her mouth—unpainted, curved, slightly parted. Irresistible.

  He tilted his head, lowered it, waiting for her to stiffen or draw back. She did neither. Though the humor in her eyes had turned to awareness, the warmth remained. So he touched his lips to hers, gently testing, an experiment in emotions. With their eyes open, they watched each other, as if each were waiting for the other to move back, or leap forward.

  When she remained pliant in his arms, he changed the angle, nipping lightly. He felt her tremble, only once, as her eyes darkened, clouded. But they remained open and on his.

  She wanted to see him. Needed to. She was afraid that if she closed her eyes she might fall into whatever pit it was that yawned before her. She had to see who he was, to try to understand what there was about this one man that made him capable of turning her system to mush.

  No one had done so before. And she’d been proud of her ability to resist, or to control, and smugly amused by men and women who fell under the spell of another. In falling they had suffered the torments of love. She had never been certain the joys balanced those torments.

  But as he deepened the kiss, slowly, persuasively deepened it so that not only her lips, but also her mind, her heart, her body, were involved in that contact, she wondered what she had missed by never allowing surrender to mix with power.

  “Althea …” He whispered her name as he again, teasingly, changed the angle of the kiss. “Come with me… .”

  She understood what he was asking. He wanted her to let go, to tumble with him wherever the moment took them. To yield to him, ev
en as he yielded to her.

  To gamble, when she wasn’t sure of the odds.

  He closed his eyes first. The soft, drowsy warmth slid seamlessly into a numbing ache, an ache that was all pleasure. Her eyes fluttered closed on a sigh.

  “Hey! How about those beers— Oops!” Boyd winced and struggled not to grin. He slipped his hands into his pockets, and had to prevent himself from whistling a tune as his old friend and his former partner jumped apart like thieves caught in a bust.

  “Sorry, guys.” He strolled over to gather up the beer bottles himself. It occurred to him that in all the years he’d known Althea, he’d never seen that bemused, punch-drunk look on her face. “Must be something about this kitchen,” he added as he headed for the door. “Can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself occupied the same way in here.”

  The door swung shut behind him. Althea blew out a long breath.

  “Oh, boy” was the best she could manage.

  Colt laid a hand on her shoulder. Not for balance, he assured himself, though his legs were weak. Just to keep things nice and light. “He looked pretty damned pleased with himself, didn’t he?”

  “He’ll razz me about this,” she muttered. “And he’ll tell Cilla, so she can razz me, too.”

  “They’ve probably got better things to do.”

  “They’re married,” she shot back. “Married people love talking about other people’s—”

  “Other people’s what?”

  “Stuff.”

  The more unraveled she became, the more Colt liked it. He was positive that only a privileged few had ever seen the cool lieutenant flustered. He wanted to savor every moment of the experience. Grinning, he leaned back against the counter.

  “So? If you really want to drive them crazy, you could let me come home with you tonight.”

  “In your dreams, Nightshade.”

  He lifted a brow. Her voice hadn’t been quite steady. He liked that—a whole lot. “Well, there’s truth in that, darling. Might as well be straight and tell you I’m not willing to wait much longer to turn that dream into reality.”

  She needed to calm down, needed to do something with her hands. Killing two birds with one stone, she picked up her wine and sipped. “Is that a threat?”

  “Althea.” There was a world of patience in his voice. That amused him. He couldn’t recall ever having been patient about anything before. “We both know what just went on here can’t be turned into a threat. It was nice.” He flicked a finger down her hair. “If we’d been alone somewhere, it would have turned out a lot nicer.” The intent flickered in his eyes too quickly for her to avoid the result. His hand fisted in her hair, held her still. “I want you, Althea, and I want you bad. You can make out of that whatever you choose.”

  She felt a skip of something sprint down her spine. It wasn’t fear. She’d been a cop long enough to recognize fear in all its forms. And she’d lived her life her own way long enough to remain cautious. “It seems to me that you want a great many things. You want Liz back, you want the men responsible for keeping her from her parents caught and punished. You want to do those things your way, with my cooperation. And”—she sipped her wine again, her eyes cool and level—“you want to go to bed with me.”

  She was amazing, Colt reflected. She had to be feeling some portion of the need and the desperation he was experiencing. Yet she might have been discussing a change in the weather. “That about sums it up. Why don’t you tell me what you want?”

  She was afraid she knew exactly what she wanted, and it was standing almost close enough to taste. “The difference between you and me, Nightshade, is that I know you don’t always get what you want. Now I’m going to pack it in. I’ve had a long day. You can check with me tomorrow. We’ll have the sketches from Meena. Something might turn up when we run them.”

  “All right.” He’d let her go—for now, he thought. The trouble with a woman like Althea, he mused, was that a man would always be tempted to seduce her, and he would always crave her coming to him freely.

  “Thea?”

  She paused at the kitchen door, looked back. “Yes?”

  “What are we going to do about this?”

  She felt a sigh building—not one of weariness, one of longing—and choked it off. “I don’t know,” she said, as truthfully as she could. “I wish I did.”

  * * *

  By nine thirty the following morning, Colt was cooling his heels in Althea’s office. There wasn’t much room in her cubbyhole to cool anything. Out of sheer boredom, he flipped through some of the papers on her desk. Reports, he noted, in that peculiar language cops used, a language that was both concise and florid. Vehicles proceeded in a southwesterly direction, alleged perpetrators created disturbances, arresting officers apprehended suspects after responding to 312s and 515s.

  She wrote a damn good report, if you were into such bureaucratic hogwash. Which, he decided, she obviously was. Rules-and-Regulations Grayson, he thought, and closed the file. Maybe his biggest problem was that he’d seen that there was a lot more to her than the straight-arrow cop.

  He’d seen her hold a gun, steady as a rock, while her eyes were alive with fear and determination. He’d felt her respond like glory to an impulsive and urgent embrace. He’d watched her cuddle a child, soften with compassion and freeze like a hailstone.

  He’d seen too much, and he knew he hadn’t seen nearly enough.

  Liz was his priority, had to be. Yet Althea remained lodged inside him, like a bullet in the flesh. Hot, painful, and impossible to ignore.

  It made him angry. It made him itchy. And when she swept into the room, it made him snarl.

  “I’ve been waiting for the best part of a damn hour. I haven’t got time for this.”

  “That’s a shame.” She dropped another file onto her desk, noting immediately that her papers had been disturbed. “Could be you’re watching too much TV, Nightshade. That’s the only place a cop gets to work on one case at a time.”

  “I’m not a cop.”

  “That’s more than obvious. And next time you have to wait for me, keep your nose out of my papers.”

  “Listen, Lieutenant—” He broke off, swearing, when her phone rang.

  “Grayson.” She slipped into her chair as she spoke, her hand already reaching for a pencil. “Yeah. Yeah, I got it. That was quick work, Sergeant. I appreciate it. I’ll be sure to do that if I get over your way. Thanks again.” She broke the connection and immediately began to dial again. “Kansas City located Jade’s mother,” she told Colt. “She’d moved from the Kansas side to Missouri.”

  “Is Jade with her?”

  “That’s what I’m going to try to find out.” As she completed the call, Althea checked her watch. “She waits tables at night. Odds are I’ll catch her at home at this hour.”

  Before Colt could speak again, Althea shot up a hand for silence.

  “Hello, I’d like to speak with Janice Willowby.” A sleepy and obviously irritated voice informed her that Janice didn’t live there. “Is this Mrs. Willowby? Mrs. Willowby, this is Lieutenant Grayson, Denver Police— No, ma’am, she hasn’t done anything. She isn’t in any trouble. We believe she might be of some help to us on a case. Have you heard from your daughter in the last few weeks?” She listened patiently as the woman denied having been in contact with Janice and irritably demanded information. “Mrs. Willowby, Janice isn’t a fugitive from justice, or under any sort of suspicion. However, we are anxious to contact her.” Her eyes hardened, quickly, coldly. “Excuse me? Since I’m not asking you to turn your daughter in, I don’t see a reward as being applicable. If—”

  Colt thrust a hand over the receiver. “Five thousand,” he stated. “If she gets us Jade, and Jade leads us to Liz.” He saw the spitting denial in her eyes, but held firm. “It’s not up to you. The reward’s private.”

  Althea sucked in her disgust. “Mrs. Willowby, there is a private party authorizing the sum of five thousand for information on Janice, on the co
ndition that this then results in the satisfactory close of the investigation. Yes, I’m quite sure you can have it in cash. Oh, yes, I’m sure you will see what you can do. You can reach me twenty-four hours a day, at this number.” She repeated it twice. “Collect, of course. That’s Lieutenant Althea Grayson, Denver. I hope you do.”

  After hanging up the phone, she sat simmering. “It’s no wonder girls like Jade take off and end up on the streets. She didn’t give a damn about her daughter, just wanted to be sure no backlash was going to come her way. If Jade had been in any trouble, she’d have been willing to trade her for cash in the blink of an eye.”

  “Not everybody has the maternal instincts of Donna Reed.”

  “You’re telling me.” Because emotions would interfere with the job at hand, Althea shelved them. “Meena’s been working with the police artist, and she’s come up with some pretty good likenesses. One of them matches one of the stars from the production we watched yesterday.”

  “Which one?”

  “The guy in the red leather G-string. We’re running a make through Vice to start. It’ll take time.”

  “I don’t have time.”

  She set aside the pencil, folded her hands. She wouldn’t lose her temper, she promised herself. Not again. “Do you have a better way?”

  “No.” He turned away, then swung back. “Any prints on the car used to hit Billings?”

  “Clean.”

  “The penthouse?”

  “No prints. Some hair fibers. They won’t help us catch them, but they’ll be good for tying it up in court. The lab’s working on the tape, and the note. We could get lucky.”

  “How about missing persons? A Jane Doe at the morgue? Jade said she thought one of the girls was killed.”

  “Nothing’s turned up. If they did kill someone, and she’d been in the life for a while, a missing-persons report’s unlikely. I’ve checked all the unidentified and suspicious deaths over the last three months. Nobody fits the profile.”

  “Any luck in the homeless shelters, runaway hostels, halfway houses?”

  “Not yet.” She hesitated, then decided it was best that they talk it through. “There’s something I’ve been kicking around.”

  “Go ahead, kick it my way.”

  “We’ve got a couple of baby faces on the force. Good cops. We can put them undercover, out on the street. See if they get a movie offer.”

  Colt rolled it around in his head. That, too, would take time, he mused. But at least it was a chance. “It’s a tricky spot. Do you have anyone good enough to handle it?”

  “I said I did. I’d do it myself—”

  “No.” His abrupt denial was like the lash of a whip.

  Althea inclined her head and continued without a flinch. “I said, I’d do it myself, but I can’t pass for a teenager. Apparently our producer prefers kids. I’ll set it in motion.”

  “Okay. Can you get me a dupe of the tape?”

  She smiled. “Evenings too dull for you?”

  “Very funny. Can you?”

  She thought it through. It wasn’t strictly procedure, but it couldn’t do any harm. “I’ll check with the lab. Meanwhile, I’m going to roust the bartender at Clancy’s. I’m betting he’s the one who tipped off the bunch on Second Avenue. We might sweat something out of him.”

  “I’ll go with you.”

  She shook her head. “I’m taking Sweeney.” She smiled, fully, easily. “A big Irish cop, a bar called Clancy’s. It just seems to fit.”

  “He’s a lousy poker player.”

  “Yeah, but a darlin’ man,” she said, surprising him by slipping into a perfect Irish brogue.

  “How about I go along anyway?”

  “How about you wait for me to call you?” She rose, pulled a navy blazer from the back of her chair. She wore pleated slacks of the same color and texture and a paler blue blouse in a silky material. Her shoulder harness and weapon looked so natural on her, they might have been fashion accessories.

  “You will call me.”

  “I said I would.”

  Because it seemed right, he laid his hands on her shoulders, and briefly rested his brow on hers. “Marleen called me this morning. I don’t like to think I was giving her false hope, but I told her we were getting closer. I had to tell her that.”

  “Whatever eases her mind is the right thing to say.” She couldn’t help it. She pressed a hand briefly to his cheek in comfort, then let it drop. “Hang tough, Nightshade. We’ve gathered a lot of information in a short amount of time.”

  “Yeah.” He lifted his head and slid his hands down her arms until he could link fingers with her. “I’ll let you go find your intimidating Irishman. But
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