Upon A Midnight Clear
Author:Linda Howard

White Out Linda Howard Chapter Eight
Hope had several of her dad's old, no-longer-used neck-ties dangling from the waistband of her sweatpants when she left the bedroom. The rifle was in her hands.

Clinton was sitting silently, exactly as she had last seen him, not that he had much choice. He opened his good eye when he heard her, the single orb widening as he saw the rifle. He gave a faint, satisfied smile and nodded at her.

Price was standing at the sink, wringing out a dishcloth. He had most of the mess cleaned up, though she was woefully short of furniture now and there were still a few surfaces dusted with flour. He looked up, and whatever he had been about to say died on his lips when she raised the rifle. "Keep your right hand where I can see it," she said calmly. "Use your left hand to get the pistol out of your waistband. Put it on the cabinet and slide it toward me."

He didn't move. His blue eyes turned hard and glacial. "What in hell do you think you're doing?"

"Taking over," she replied. "Do what I said."

He didn't even glance at the rifle. His mouth set in a grim line, he started toward her.

"I found the bullets," Hope said quickly, before he got close enough to grab the rifle. "In a coat pocket," she added, just so he would know she really had found them.

He stopped. The fury that darkened his face would have terrified her if she hadn't had the rifle.

"The pistol," she prompted.

Slowly, keeping his right hand resting on the sink, he reached behind his back and drew out the pistol. Placing it on the cabinet, he shoved it toward her.

"Don't forget mine," Clinton said from behind her, the words slightly slurred; his damaged mouth and jaw were swelling and turning dark.

"The other one too," Hope said, not flinching from the sulfurous look Price gave her. Silently he obeyed.

"Now step back." He did. She picked up her pistol and laid down the rifle, because the pistol was more convenient. "Okay, sit down in the chair and put your hands behind you."

"Don't do this, Hope," he said between clenched teeth. "He's a murderer. Don't listen to him. Why would you believe him, for God's sake? Look at him! He's wearing prison coveralls."

"Only because you stole my uniform," Clinton snarled.

"Sit down," Hope told Price again.

"Damn it, why won't you listen to me?" he said furiously.

"Because I heard on the radio about a bus wreck. Two deputies were killed, and five prisoners escaped." Hope didn't take her eyes off his face. She saw his pupils dilate, his jaw harden. "Because your uniform shirt is too small for you. Because you didn't have a wallet, and even though your uniform pants were torn and bloody, you weren't injured anywhere."

"Then what about the service revolver? If I took a deputy's clothes, why wouldn't I have also taken his weapon?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "Maybe you were knocked out during the wreck, and when you regained consciousness, the other prisoners had already escaped and taken the weapons with them. I don't know all the details. All I know is I have a lot of questions, and your answers don't add up. Why did you unload the rifle and hide the bullets?"

He didn't blink. "For safety reasons."

She didn't either. "Bull. Sit down."

He sat. He didn't like it, but her finger was on the trigger and her gaze didn't waver.

"Hands behind your back."

He put them behind his back. Steam was all but coming out of his ears. Staying out of his reach, in case he should whirl suddenly and try to knock the gun out of her hand, she pulled one of the neckties from her waistband and fashioned two loose loops with it. Moving in quickly then, she slipped the loops over his hands and jerked the ends tight. He was already moving, shifting his weight, but he froze in place as the fabric tightened around his wrists.

"Neat trick," he said emotionlessly. "What did you do?"

"Loops, like roping a calf. All I had to do was pull." She wrapped the loose ends between his wrists, tying off each of the loops, and then knotted the tie in place. "Okay, now your feet."

He sat without moving, letting her tie his feet to the chair legs. "Listen to me," he said urgently. "I really am a deputy sheriff. I haven't worked in this county very long and not many people know me."

"Yeah, sure," Clinton snarled. "You killed those two deputies, and you would probably have killed her before you left. Untie me, ma'am, my hands are numb."

"Don't! Listen to me, Hope. You've heard about this guy. He's from around here. That's how he knew you lived with your father. Clinton"--he jerked his head toward the other man--"kidnapped the daughter of a wealthy rancher from this area and asked for a million in ransom. They paid him the money, but he didn't keep his part of the bargain. The girl wasn't where he said he had left her. He was caught when he tried to spend the money, and he's never told where he hid the girl's body. It was all over the news. He was being transferred to a more secure jail, and we thought it was worth a try to put me in with him, maybe get him to talk about it. He can be convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence, but the parents want their child's body found. They've accepted that she's dead, but they want to give her a decent burial. She was seventeen, a pretty little girl he's got buried up in the mountains somewhere, or dumped in an abandoned mine."

"You know a lot of possibilities," Clinton charged, his tone savage. "Keep talking; tell me where you hid her body." Hope walked into the great room and added more wood to the fire. Then she paused by the telephone, lifting the receiver to check for a dial tone. Nothing.

"What are you doing?" Clinton demanded. "Untie me."

"No," Hope said.

"What?" He sounded as if he couldn't believe what he had heard.

"No. Until the phone service is restored and I can call the sheriff to straighten this out, I figure the best thing to do is keep both of you just the way you are."

There was a stunned moment of silence; then Price threw back his head on a shout of laughter. Clinton stared at her, mouth agape; then his face flushed dark red and he yelled, "You stupid rucking bitch!"

"That's my girl," Price chortled, still laughing. "God, I love you! I'll even forgive you for this, though the guys are going to ride my ass for years about letting a sweet little brown-eyed blonde get the drop on me."

Hope looked at those laughing blue eyes, shiny with tears of mirth, and she couldn't help smiling. "I probably love you too, but that doesn't mean I'm going to untie you."

Clinton recovered himself enough to say, "He's playing you for a fool, ma'am."

" 'Ma'am'?" she repeated. "That isn't what you called me a second ago."

"I'm sorry. I lost my temper." He inhaled raggedly. "It galls me to see you falling for that sweet shit he deals out to every woman."

"I'm sure it does."

"What do I have to do to convince you he's lying?"

"You can't do anything, so you might as well save your breath," she said politely.

Half an hour later Clinton said, "I have to use the bathroom."

"Go in your pants," Hope replied. She hadn't thought about that complication, but she wasn't going to change her mind and untie either one of them. She gave Price an apologetic look, and he winked at her.

"I'm okay for right now. If the phone service isn't restored by nightfall, though, I'll probably be begging you for a fruit jar."

She would bring him one too, she thought. She wouldn't mind performing that service for him at all. She glanced at Clinton. No way; she wouldn't touch his with a pair of tongs.

She checked the phone every half hour, watching as the afternoon sun sank behind the mountains. Clinton squirmed, and she had no doubt he was in misery. Price had to be uncomfortable too, but he didn't let it show. He grinned at her every time he caught her eye, though with his bruised face the grin looked more like a grimace.

Just at twilight, when she lifted the receiver, she heard a dial tone. "Bingo!" she said triumphantly, picking up the phone book to look up the number of the sheriff's department.

Price rattled off the number for her, and though she had been almost certain he was telling the truth, in that moment she knew for certain. Light broke across her face, and she gave him a radiant smile as she punched in the number.

"Sheriff's department," a brisk male voice said.

"Hello, this is Hope Bradshaw, at the Crescent Lake Resort. I have two men here. One is Price Tanner and the other's name is Clinton. They both claim to be deputies and that the other is a murderer. Can you tell me which is which?"

"Holy shit!" the voice bellowed. "Damn! Shit, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that. You say you have both Tanner and Clinton?"

"Yes, I do. Which one is your deputy?"

"Tanner is. How do you have them? I mean--"

"I'm holding a gun on them," she said. "What does Tanner look like? What color are his eyes?"

The deputy on the line sounded nonplussed. "His eyes? Ah... the subject is approximately six-two, two hundred pounds, dark hair, blue eyes."

"Thank you," Hope said, thankful that law officers were trained to give succinct descriptions. "Would you like to speak with Deputy Tanner?"

"Yes, ma'am, I would!"

Picking up the phone, she carried it as far as she could, but the cord wasn't long enough to reach. "Just a moment," she said, laying down the receiver.

She dashed to the kitchen and got her paring knife. Running back to Price, she knelt and sawed through the fabric binding his wrists, then turned her attention to his ankles while he rubbed feeling back into his hands. "You need a cordless phone," he said. "Or one with a longer cord."

"I'll take care of that the next time I go shopping," she said as she freed his ankles. The kitchen phone was closer, though that cord wasn't long enough to reach either. He hobbled over to it, his muscles stiff from sitting so long in a strained position.

"This is Tanner. Yeah, everything's under control. I'll give a complete briefing when you get here. Are the roads passable yet? Okay." He hung up and hobbled toward her. "The road is still blocked, but they're going to grab a snowplow. They should be here in a couple of hours."

He hobbled past. Hope blinked. "Price?"

"Can't stop to talk," he said, speeding up his hobbling, heading straight toward the bathroom.

Hope couldn't smother her laugh. Clinton glared at her as she walked past him to hang up the phone in the great room. She still had the paring knife in her hand. She paused and looked at him consideringly, and something must have shown in her face because he blanched.

"Don't," he said as she started toward him, and then he began to yell.

"You cut him," Price said, his tone disbelieving. "You really cut him."

"He had to know I meant business," Hope said. "It was just a teeny cut, nothing to make such a fuss about. Actually, it was an accident; I didn't intend to get that close, but he jumped."

That wasn't all Clinton had done; he had also lost control of his bladder. And then he had begun talking, babbling as fast as he could, yelling for Price, saying anything to keep her from cutting him again. Price had called the sheriff's department and relayed the information, which they hoped was accurate. It was after midnight. They lay in bed, their arms around each other. She held an ice pack to his cheek; he held another one on her back.

"I meant it, you know," Price said, kissing her forehead, "about loving you. I know everything happened too fast, but... I know what I feel. From the minute I opened my eyes and saw your face, I wanted you." He paused. "So... r

"So?" she repeated.

"So, you 'probably' love me too, huh?"

"Probably." She nestled more comfortably against him. "Definitely."

"Say it!" he ordered under his breath, his arms tightening around her.

"I love you. But we really should take our time, get to know each other--"

He gave a low laugh. "Take our time? It's a little late for that, isn't it?"

She had no answer, because too much had happened in too short a time. She felt as if the past day had been weeks long. Thrown together as they had been under extreme circumstances, she had seen him in a multitude of situations, and she knew her first dazed, deliriously joyous impression of him had been accurate. She felt as if she had known him immediately, primitive instinct recognizing him as her mate.

"Marry me, Hope. As soon as possible. The chances we've taken, we've probably hit the baby jackpot." His voice was lazy, seductive.

She lifted her head from his shoulder, staring at him through the darkness. She saw the gleam of his teeth as he smiled, and once again she felt that jolt of awareness, of recognition. "All right," she whispered. "You don't mind?"

"Mind?" He took her hand and carried it to his crotch. He was hard as a rock. "I'm raring to go, honey," he whispered, and his voice was trembling a little, as it had earlier when they discussed the possibility. "All you have to do is say the word, and I'll devote myself to the project."

"Word," she said, joyfully giving herself up to the inevitable.