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Cover of Night
Author: Linda Howard

Chapter 1

The guest who was staying in room 3, of Nightingale's Bed and Breakfast, which Gate Nightingale privately thought of as the He-Man room because it was almost unrelievedly masculine, stopped in the doorway of the dining room, then almost immediately stepped back out of sight. Most of the patrons who were enjoying Gate's morning offerings didn't even notice the man's brief appearance; those who did probably didn't think anything about his abrupt departure. People here in Trail Stop, Idaho, tended to mind their own business, and if one of her guests wasn't in the mood for company while he ate, that was fine with them.

Gate herself noticed him only because she was bringing in a platter of sliced ham from the kitchen at the same time, and the kitchen door was directly opposite the open hall doorway. She made a mental note to go upstairs the first chance she got and see if he - his name was Layton, Jeffrey Layton - wanted her to bring up a breakfast tray. Some guests didn't like eating with strangers, plain and simple. Taking a tray up wasn't anything unusual.

Nightingale's B and B had been open for almost three years. The Bed part of the business was often slow, but Breakfast was booming. Opening her dining room to the public for breakfast had been a happy accident. Instead of having one large dining table where everyone would sit together - assuming all five of her guest rooms were occupied at the same time, which had never happened - she had placed five small tables, each seating four, in the dining room so that her guests could eat in relative privacy if they wanted. Folks in the little community had quickly realized that Nightingale's offered some fine eating, and before she knew it, people were asking if it was okay if they stopped by tor coffee in the mornings, and maybe for one of her blueberry muffins as well.

As a newcomer she wanted to fit in, so because she had the extra seats, she said yes, even though mentally she had groaned at the thought of the added expense. Then, when they tried to pay her, she had no idea what to charge, because the cost of breakfast was included in the room rental; so she'd been forced to handprint a menu with prices and post it on the porch by the side door, which most of the locals used instead of walking around to the front of the big old house. Within a month she'd squeezed a sixth table into the dining room, bringing her total seating capacity to twenty-four. Sometimes even that wasn't enough, especially if she had guests in residence. It wasn't unusual to see men leaning against a wall while they drank their coffee and munched on muffins, if all the seats were taken.

Today, however, was Scone Day. Once a week she baked scones instead of muffins. At first the community folk, mostly from ranch and lumberjack stock, had looked askance at the "fancy biscuits," but the scones had quickly become a favorite. She had tried different flavors, but the vanilla was a runaway favorite because it went well with whatever jam the customer preferred.

Gate set the platter of fried ham down in the middle of a table, exactly halfway between Conrad Moon and his son so that neither could accuse her of playing favorites. She had made that mistake once, putting a platter closer to Conrad, and ever since then the two had kept up a running commentary about whom she liked best. Gordon, the younger Moon, would be joking, but Cate had an uneasy feeling that Conrad was looking for a third wife and thought she'd fill the position just fine. She thought otherwise, and made certain she never gave him any accidental encouragement with the ham placement.

"Looks good," Gordon drawled, as he did every day, stretching out his fork to capture a slice.

"Better'n good," Conrad added, unable to let Gordon top him in the compliment department.

Thank you," she said as she hurried away, not giving Conrad a chance to add anything else. He was a nice man, but he was about her father's age, and she wouldn't have picked him even if she weren't too busy to even think about starting to date.

As she passed by the Bunn double coffeemaker, she automatically checked the level of the coffee in the pots, and paused to start a fresh batch. The dining room was still full, and people were lingering longer this morning. Joshua Creed, a hunting guide, was there with one of his clients; folks always hung around when Mr. Creed was there, just to talk to him. He had an aura of leadership, of authority, that people naturally responded to. She'd heard he was retired from the military, and she could believe it; he radiated command, from his sharp, narrow gaze to the square set of his jaw and shoulders. He didn't come in very often, but when he did, he was usually the center of respectful attention.

The client, a handsome dark-haired man she judged to be in his late thirties, was just the sort of outsider she liked the least. He was obviously well off, if he could afford Joshua Creed, and though he was dressed in jeans and boots like most of the people in the room, he made certain, in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways, that everyone knew he was Someone Important despite his show of camaraderie. For one thing, he'd rolled up his shirtsleeves and kept flashing the thin, diamond-set watch on his left wrist. He was also just a shade too loud, a shade too hearty, and he kept mentioning his experiences on a game hunt in Africa. He even gave everyone a geography lesson, explaining where Nairobi was. Cate managed to refrain from rolling her eyes at his assumption that local was synonymous with ignorant. Weird, maybe, but not ignorant. He also made a point of explaining that he hunted wild animals mostly to photograph them, and though on an emotional level Gate approved of that, her common sense whispered that he was just saying it to give himself an out in case he didn't kill anything. If he was any kind of photographer, she'd be surprised.

As she hurried on to the kitchen, she wondered just when she'd started looking at newcomers as "outsiders."

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