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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Eight)

Sensing that a new day had actually managed to dawn somehow through the intensity of the storm's fury, Quinn stretched her arms over her head and looked around. It hadn't been a dream after all. She was really here. And that meant that Cale was here, too. What a strange twist, she thought as she slid the blankets off and went to the window. As suspected, the storm still raged outside. Funny, though, that it seemed to confine itself to the mountain. Her mother had said they had had but an inch or so of snow, not even enough to keep Trevor from picking up her sisters at the airport.

Grabbing her clothes out of the bag, she tiptoed to the bathroom and washed her face and dressed in the same brown wool tweed pants and heavy oatmeal- colored sweater she'd worn the day before. Standing in the hallway, she listened for sounds from either of the two bedrooms. Hearing none, she went into the kitchen and poked in the cupboards.

Val had most certainly stocked up. There were several bags of flour and sugar, lots of herbal teas, and several packages of pudding mix, cans of soup and jars of spaghetti sauce, and boxes of pasta. In the refrigerator she found milk, several boxes of butter and eggs, some apples, oranges, and raisins. The freezer held packages of frozen food, and she poked through them. Remembering the boys' complaint about Cale's spaghetti, she lifted out a bag of mixed vegetables and a package of rock-hard beef. Guessing that Cale might welcome a little help as much as the boys would welcome the variety, perhaps she would suggest a simple stew for that night.

In a basket near the back door, she found small pieces of wood for the stove, and soon she had a pot of coffee on. By the time the two small tousled faces had appeared in the doorway, she had already planned the breakfast she would make. It was the least she could do, she reasoned. Cale clearly did not enjoy cooking, and she did. Besides, she was up and he was not, the boys were there and hungry.

"Pancakes?" she asked, and they nodded enthusiastically. "Go get dressed, and by the time you get back, there should be a few ready for you."

"Yea!" they shouted as they ran from the room and down the hall.

Within minutes, their father had emerged, and following his nose to the kitchen, he, too, soon stood in the doorway.

"I hope you don't mind, but I come from a long line of take-charge types," she told him. "Besides, I was awake and I just thought…"

"Thank you. I appreciate the help. You probably noticed that I'm not exactly James Beard." He smiled, and her knees turned to jelly. "What can I do?"

Just stand there and let me look at you for a while. A few days might be enough. She swatted at the thought and handed him a cup of coffee, saying, "Nothing. It's all done. Look what I found in the cupboard. Chokecherry sauce. Val must have bought it at the Larkspur Fall Festival in October."

"I cant remember the last time I had this on pancakes." Cale lifted the jar to give his hands something to do and pretended to read the homemade label. The scent of lilac was gone, he noted regretfully, and had been replaced with the musky smell of his own soap. It was just as well, he told himself. That soft flowery scent had brought back too many memories of too many nights he was better off not thinking about right now. Time enough to look back, when the snow stopped and she would leave him to go back to the ranch.

He watched her break eggs into the batter. She looked beautiful. He wished he could tell her so. Instead, he cleared his throat and said, "Pancakes are a big step up for us this week. 'You'll have to give me lessons."

"Be glad to." She turned her back to shield herself from his eyes. The urge to reach out and touch him had been so strong, so real, that it spooked her. If there had been a place to run to, she might have fled, but the storm whistled and sang outside the small cabin, and so she merely squared her shoulders and stirred the pancake batter.

"Yea! We're having pancakes!" Eric of the cowlick sang as he ran into the room.

"Yippee!" Evan dashed in, hot on his brother's heels, and slid in his stocking feet into the solid wall that was his father. Looking up, he asked earnestly, "Does this mean we don't have to eat cold cereal or sloppy eggs today?"

"What are you, a budding food critic? Sit." Cale pointed toward the little wooden table, and the two boys hopped over and seated themselves expectantly.

Cale forced his hands steady as he held the plate upon which Quinn layered pancakes. Forced himself to pretend that it had not been her leg that had touched his under the table. Forced himself not to grin like a total and complete idiot when she blinded him with a smile from across the room. Forced his hands to remain at his side rather than follow their natural course to her hips when she turned her back to rinse dishes at the sink when breakfast was over. Forced his lips not to seek the back of her neck…

"Daddy, we have nothing to do." Eric's little freckled face frowned hard, to emphasize the extent of grumpiness.

Cale paused. He was damned near out of options.

"Can't we rent just one movie?" Evan asked earnestly.

"No VCR, guys," Cale reminded them of the obvious fact that their four-year-old brains refused to accept, "and no TV."

"Why didn't Aunt Val buy a TV?" Eric lamented.

"Montana's a dumb place," Evan told his father. "It's cold and it snows all the time and there's nothing to do. It's dumb."

"I beg your pardon"–Quinn sat down on the edge of the wing chair–"but if I could put my two cents in…"

"Take your best shot," Cale invited.

"Montana is far from being a dumb place. As a matter of fact, they call it the 'Treasure State' because of all the great stuff that you can find here."

"Like what?" Eric's eyes narrowed.

"Like sapphires and copper…"

"What are sapphires?" Eric asked.

"Pretty blue stones that people set into jewelry. And of course, there are gold mines and silver mines…"

"Real gold mines?"

"Yes. And there are lots of great things to see in Montana. Get your dad to take you to one of the ghost towns one day when the weather clears up." "Ghost towns?" Eric looked up at his father, his eyes widening. "Real ghost towns?"

"Oh, yes," Cale told them. "Several not far from here."

"They're making it up, Eric," Evan told his brother.

"No, we are not. Why, not two miles from here, at the bottom of the other side of the mountain, is Settler's Head."

"Settler's Head?" the boys asked in unison.

Quinn nodded. "If you want to hear the story, you have to sit down."

They sat, and listened as Quinn and their father traded tales of this ghost town or that.

Maybe Montana wouldn't be so bad, they concluded, if the snow ever stopped and they could get to see all those neat places with the neat names like Anguish and Celebration, Indian Toes and Crow Skull.

Talking about it kept them entertained until twelve- thirty, when they had a lunch of tuna sandwiches and canned soup.

"Now what can we do?" the boys asked.

Quinn looked across the room to Cale to see if he looked like he had any suggestions. The panic settling in his eyes told her he was fresh out of ideas. "Hmmm. I have an idea. Cale, do you mind if I poke in your kitchen?"

"Be my guest," he said gratefully.

She went through the cupboards, taking down everything she thought she might be able to use. Just as the boys began to wrestle across the living room floor, Quinn appeared in the doorway and asked, "Would anyone like to make Christmas cookies?"

Three male McKenzies froze where they stood.

"You mean, real ones?" Eric asked.

"Yes. We have everything we need out here. Who wants to help?"

It was tight quarters, the space in the kitchen being limited, but before long, the cabin was filled with the smell of cinnamon and vanilla and citrus. Cale scraped oranges for the rind to go into a special orange cookie that Quinn's grandmother used to make. The boys took turns stirring batter and cutting little shapes out of sugar cookie dough with a butter knife. By the time the afternoon had ended, they had stacks of cookie stars and baseballs, footballs colored brown with cocoa and little half-moons. The boys were delighted with their efforts.

And all the while, the snow continued to swirl and the wind continued to blow. "Really?" Quinn frowned, looking out the window while she talked with her sister Sunny, who had arrived at the ranch the day before. "It's not snowing at all down there? Sunny, it's total whiteout up here. You can't see beyond the window___No"–Quinn lowered her voice–"I am not making it up. And nothing is happening between Cale and me… we're sharing space, that's all. Exactly. Shelter from the storm. Of course not… we're old friends. Yes, that's all, Sunny. Of course, I'm sure," she fairly hissed at her sister, who, despite Quinn's assurance, didn't sound at all convinced.

"How is Sunny?" Cale looked faintly amused.

"She's fine. She has a darling little girl named Lilly whom she adopted about two years ago," Quinn told him, wondering if he'd been eavesdropping. "When she divorced her husband, she let him buy out her share of their business–a move we all questioned at the time, but she was adamant. Right now, she's looking for something else to do. Eventually, I imagine she'll probably start another business."

"And your other sisters?" Cale sat in the high-back chair, and Quinn took a seat on the sofa, pushing the pile of blankets aside to make a space.

The cabin was oddly quiet, the boys having gone to bed without fuss after Cale told them a rousing, though slightly embellished, story about how the ghost town of Settler's Head really got its name.

"Liza has her own radio talk show in Seattle–I guess Val told you that–and CeCe is hawking jewelry on television." She grinned.

"She's what?"

"CeCe is a sales host on a shopping channel."

"You're kidding." He laughed.

"No, I am not. And if you see her, you will be wise to wipe off that smirk. She takes her job very seriously, and loves every blessed minute of it. She's having a better time than she ever did reporting the news in Abilene."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that she's happy. I always liked CeCe. She was sort of like everyone's big sister. I remember when she used to catch for Sky and me when Trevor wasn't around."

"I remember. You would never let me play."

"Not while you were little, anyway," he said, ancient memories flooding back, of Quinn throwing wobbly pitches to Cale, which he would hit into the woods. Of the two of them, chasing after the ball and taking their time in finding it…

So long ago. She blushed, as if she'd lifted the memory from his mind.

Sensing her discomfort, he changed the subject abruptly. "You were great with the boys today."

"They really are a lot of fun, Cale. I enjoyed them."

And you. I loved being with you again. Loved watching your face and making you laugh, loved seeing you covered with flour, and watching your sons taking turns patting you on the back to make little white handprints on the back of your sweater. It's breaking my heart all over again, but I wouldn't trade a minute of this time with you. I'll carry these days with me forever…

"I've spent more time doing things with them this week than I ever did before," Cale was saying, "and I have to admit, it has been fun."

"I think the secret may be just to keep them busy with something they like to do."

"I'm just starting to learn what they like to do." His face sank into a frown. "I hate admitting that, that my sons are four years old already and I hardly know them at all."

"Some fathers never get to know their children," she told him.

"Daddy, I can't sleep." A very small voice emerged from the dark hall.

"What's the matter, little buddy?" Cale's face softened as Evan appeared tentatively, his face flushed, his fisted hands rubbing his eyes.

"I had a bad dream."

"Oops." Cale walked to his son and picked him up, resting the little head on his shoulder. "Maybe ghost stories at bedtime weren't such a good idea, after all."

"Will you stay with me?" Evan yawned into his father's neck.

Cale looked at Quinn and she nodded. "I'm kind of tired anyway," she told him. "I'll just get ready for bed and turn in."

"Well…" He hesitated for just a second, then nodded slowly, saying, "I guess I'll see you in the morning."

"Sure. Good night, Cale." She stood and patted the little boy gently on the back. "Good night, Evan."

" 'Night, Quinn," was the sleepy reply.

Cale's footfall echoed softly on the old pine floor as he carried his son back to his bed. Quinn piled logs onto the fire, and changed into the clothes she had worn to bed the night before. Not stylish, certainly not sexy, she noted, but they were warm. And warm was no small thing in the midst of the storm that continued to rage outside the cabin. She hoped that it would stop tomorrow. She just didn't know how much longer she could stand being here with him. She had held on so tightly to the pain he had inflicted on her that, for years, it had been all she had left of him.

Now, being here with him, seeing his face, hearing his laughter again, hearing him say her name, had eroded the wall she had built to keep him out, to make certain that he–that no one–ever came close to her heart again. But it was no use, she knew.

If anything, she thought as she sighed and punched her pillow, the past two days had taught her something she had suspected for years.

If love is deep enough, true enough, it never dies. No matter what.

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