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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Five)

There was no reason for Isabel to tell John about her marriage… other than she had to know if he'd look down on her for it, if he'd find her unappealing. She'd been fast denying the feelings for him that had been blooming inside her since he'd almost kissed her at Rigby Glen. She'd wanted him to. She wanted him to now.

But he had to know who she was.

A lot of men were put off by divorced women. Not that she'd told a lot of men. In fact, John was only the second person she had told, Duster being the first, in that long night spent at the Blossom's kitchen table.

"Where's your husband?" John eventually asked.

It was a logical question. "I don't know. Down in San Diego, last I heard. He could be anywhere."

"You're still married to him?"

"No. I divorced him on the grounds of abandonment." She nervously plucked at the fringe on the colorful blanket "I had every right to… but that doesn't change the fact that I'm a divorcee."

She waited for his disdain to show–his cool reception, the silent distance he would put between them. Rather than reacting the way she expected, he asked another question. "How'd you meet him?"

Isabel looked at her lap, then out the tent's opening to watch the rain fall in little beads that bounced off the meadow. "I was an operator for the City of Angels Telephone Company. He would call the same numbers daily and I happened to get him most of the time. After a week, he began asking for me to connect him. I fell in love with his voice before we ever met." That last part she probably shouldn't have said, but it was true.

"The marriage wasn't any good from the start. Those calls he made were to bookkeepers–and I don't mean the legal kind. He wasn't reliable… only I was too blind to see it at the time. We barely lasted a year. Then after he was gone for two, I filed for the divorce." Meeting John's eyes, she shrugged. "And that's all."

Again, the disapproval never came, no condeming eyes. Maybe she'd been hoping to scare him off, unable to face the facts: She was more than a little attracted to him. She enjoyed his strength and take- charge air. It was nice having a man do things for her, like when he'd watered her trees. She'd never had that before. Her husband had been quite self-centered. Money, the lack of it, had been the root of their problems. She'd always wondered if they would have stayed married if they hadn't been so broke. "Well… ?" She could stand the quiet no longer. "Aren't you going to tell me I'm a ruined woman?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I've been married before myself." His eyes darkened with distant memories. "So many times, I've lost track."

She hadn't been prepared for such a confession. Her pulse betrayed her and skipped several beats as she fought dismay. One marriage was bad enough–but numerous?

"Bartenders have married me to dozens of women, but come morning, I was single again." He ran a hand through his damp hair and gave her a slight grin that sent her heartbeat leaping. "None of my so-called marriages were legal. If a keep had been a bona fide minister, though, I would have been." Then his features went serious; the set of his mouth fell in a line and his brows leveled. "Mistakes happen, Isabel. It's not for me to judge."

"Then you don't care?"

"I care that you were left by your husband, and I wonder if you'll ever get over the hurt. Aside from that, your status doesn't mean squat to me. You're still Isabel. The woman I…" His words trailed off as if he'd meant to say more. She'd hoped to hear more. But it wasn't to be. The tent's roof sprang a leak and a steady drip tattooed the floor.

John scrambled to his feet. "Hand me that slicker out of my pack," he said as he went outside. She quickly found the coat and gave it to him. With a few flicks of his wrists, he stretched the garment over the tent's top and came back inside.

Water dripped from the ends of his hair. He hadn't worn his hat–not that it would have mattered. His face didn't appear so hard and chiseled in the afternoon's cloudy light. He almost looked… boyish to her. She gave him a smile. He returned one of his own that made her feel disarmed and… pretty.

"We should get a fire going. I'll go see if I can find some wood dry enough to light."

"And I'll stick the coffeepot out in the rain for some water."

"Naw. You'll be holding your arm out to Christmas to get enough for a pot. Give me that and I'll fill it from the creek. I suspect it's chased us up here. I've seen a flash flood carry automobile-sized boulders then wash them downstream until they snag on an outcrop of granite."

"Really? Are we camped high enough?"

"We'll soon find out." Then he went off and Isabel set out the lunch she'd brought. When she'd done all she could to make the shelter comfortable, she listened for every sound that could be from John. All she heard was the occasional nicker from the horses and the spatter of rain against the side of the tent.

It seemed as if he'd been gone hours before she spotted his familiar form coming toward her with an armful of timber and the coffeepot somehow anchored to his gun belt. He dropped the load at the tent's opening, gave her the pot, then crawled inside.

She handed him the blanket. He barely draped it over his shoulders. His arms were thick with muscles, the sleeves of his shirt torn out. He had a penchant for this particular style, which she'd thought slovenly… until now–when her eyes could see every bulge and swell of bicep as he ruffled the moisture from his hair with the blanket.

Isabel marveled, watching him dry off. She liked the play of splayed fingers as they wove through dark brown hair to tame the waves. She studied the planes of his face: the angle of his chin in comparison to his forehead, his straight nose. It had been a long time since she'd felt the stirrings of desire, the want of a man in a physical sense. She felt that now… and the pull that had grabbed hold of her with a fierce grip scared her. She wasn't a loose woman by any means. But if John Wolcott had come into the Blossom right this minute and she'd still been one of the girls, she would have gone through with the hour he'd paid for.

He caught her staring and she forced away a blush. "I'll get the coffee ready."

His gaze lingered on her, as if he knew what she'd been thinking. Then he moved into action and assembled the wood beneath the canvas canopy at the tent's front. The flames from a small fire soon burned and they set the pot to simmer.

The space was confining. Their knees bumped because they both sat in the same manner. Her dress felt clammy against her hot skin. She wasn't cold, far from it. Even so, she couldn't dispel the shiver that ran down her arms when he reached over to poke the fire and coax it higher.

"Cold?" he asked once more.

She shook her head. "You?"

"No. But my boots are full of water. Mind if I take them off?"

"It's all right with me." She suspected he rarely asked if anyone minded anything he did.

First one then the other boot shucked free and she looked at his stockings. He had a hole in one of them at the toe. She kept a smile at bay.

"Yeah, well," he muttered self-consciously and tugged the end of his sock over his toes so she couldn't see the hole. "I was meaning to get to that. But a spool of thread is fifteen berries and I was tapped out."

"You don't have to explain."

"I sure as hell do. You think I'm a pig."

"I never said that."

"Tramp. Pig. Same thing."

This time she couldn't fend off the blush. "I'm sorry… I didn't know you then."

"Now you do?"

"Kind of."

"Well, Isabel Burche," he said leaning back on his elbow and extending his feet to the fire. "What do you kind of know about me?"

Taking in a breath, knitting her fingers together in her lap, and biting her lip she said, "You're lonely."

"Is that so?"

"I think you are."

"And why's that?"

"Because." She lowered her lashes, then lifted them to see his face expectant and waiting for her reply. "Because… I'm lonely, too, and I know how you feel."

He didn't move. Nothing in his eyes revealed how he felt. Then in a voice that was as deep as midnight velvet, he asked, "Do you ever want to get married again?"

She grew flustered. "I… I haven't ruled it out. But…"

"But what?"

"But I haven't found anyone I'd care to marry." Hastily she added, "What about you? Do you want to get married–for real? Legal, that is?"

"Never thought much about it."

Crestfallen, she swallowed the lump in her throat.

"Until recently," he went on. "I've thought some about it."

"Have you?"

"Yes. I figure after we win this contest, I'll have some money. Some kind of stability."

She nodded knowingly. "Me too."

The turn in the conversation was safer. No sense in talking marriage when neither of them was talking with the other in mind. Well… she'd been thinking of him. But he'd said nothing specific about her.

Isabel leaned back on her elbow, too, so that she faced him while propping her head in the palm of her hand. "What are you going to do with your share of the money?"

"Oil. That's where the future is."

"You think?"

"I know. Calco Oil's made a bundle. Only I don't expect to make as much as them. They've got the pipeline. I'll have to pay thirty cents a barrel to ship mine up to Santa Barbara on the train." A strand of hair fell over his brow and she had the strongest urge to tuck it back for him. But her hand remained still. "Start-up costs will be big, but I'll use oil to fire the boiler rather than coal. That'll save me some." His fingers caught the lock and smoothed it back. "What about you? What are you going to do?"

"Well, first thing, I'm going to have a well dug on my place so I don't have to keep going to the creek for water. Then I might add more trees because watering them won't be so difficult. And I'll fix my house up. I want to paint the porch white and put on a new roof. Of course, I'll be canning my lemon syrup and sauce. I may even open a little stand in my front yard–you know, like that widow woman over on Willow Street who sells eggs."

John regarded her with eyes that told her everything about how he felt. He understood her dreams, because he had the same ambitions. She was wrong about him. He wasn't a loafer. He just hadn't had the right opportunity come along to help him out. This contest was a godsend for both of them. And if they didn't win, she'd be almost hopeless again. He felt the same way. She could see it

Her thoughts stalled when he leaned toward her as if he meant to cover her mouth with his. Firm lips were mere inches from hers. His breath mingled with the light sigh she made. Warmth from his hard body surrounded her even though they didn't touch. A fraction separated them and she waited… her eyelids fluttering closed.

Then he kissed her. His mouth moved over hers with a gentleness she hadn't expected. Warmth pooled in the bottom of her stomach and radiated outward with every beat of her heart. His kiss was a leisurely exploration that set her aflame in his arms–arms that had wrapped around her waist and pulled her close. She laid her own over his shoulders and skimmed the compact feel of muscle.

He must have sensed her total surrender, because his touch grew firmer. His lips pressed against hers in a possessive seal, coaxing a response from her that she had never experienced before. Could he know how shaken he made her feel? How desirable?

She leaned closer into him, and he molded his rock- solid body to hers. His hand reached into her hair, sifting and touching, caressing. She swept her own fingers at the nape of his neck, feeling the play of tendons as he slanted his head over hers.

Isabel trembled. Wanting John shattered her reasoning, her senses. Every thought she had focused on one thing: John Wolcott… and what he did to her, how he made her feel… special.

She could have lain back and given herself to him. She would have… if…

The coffeepot sputtered as water boiled over. Water that could put out the precious fire. John pulled back and Isabel felt cold for the first time.

His movements were jerky and restless, as if he was pent-up and frustrated. She could relate to that. But she hadn't been the one to move away. If it had been her, she would have damned the fire and let it go out. Who cared about coffee anyway?

Straightening and willing her jagged emotions to disappear, Isabel collected the cornbread and jar of stewed apples she'd packed.

"I suppose you're hungry." In spite of her best effort, she couldn't keep the tartness from her tone. Apparently, she wasn't as appealing as a hot cup of coffee.

"I could go for a bite." His voice sounded taut and edgy.

They ate in complete silence, Isabel wishing she'd never let herself think of John as more than a partner. Why had she let herself pretend there could be more between them? Pretend he liked her?

"Rain looks like it'll last for a while," John said at length. "We're stuck here until it lets up."

"I don't mind traveling in the rain." Her words were clipped.

"Neither do I. But that creek isn't a creek anymore. It's three times as wide as Main Street. To get back, we can't cross it for hours."

That sobered her out of her testy mood. "Really?"

"Yeah."

"But we're high enough… right?"

"We are."

Their eyes came together, and Isabel felt sorry she'd been so snappish. If she hadn't been longing for him, she could have been more civil. But her pride had been wounded. And, yet, her heart still wanted to reach out to him.

"Isabel…"

John's voice wrapped around her in a shimmering warmth, and his fingertip lifted to the seam of her mouth to lightly touch her. "You don't want to get tangled up with me. I'm no good."

"There's good in you," she whispered.

"Good for nothing. I can't hold a job for too long."

"Me either."

He cracked a slight smile.

She gave him one in return. "People like us do better working for ourselves."

"I reckon. But that takes money. We may not win."

"We have to win," she admonished. "We just have to."

She thought that if they didn't… what they had–or what was springing to life between them–would be gone, dead and buried. They'd have no reason to be with one another. But if they won… they'd have to divide the money. Then she'd want to see what land he bought, and watch how he drilled for the oil. In turn, she'd invite him to come over and see her porch painted up, show off her new lemon trees.

The contest was holding them together. If they walked away losers when it ended, both would go on with their lives… with nothing.

With no one.

Isabel didn't want to accept that.

John lowered his hand and gazed pensively out at the meadow. Isabel put the lunch away and watched the rain with him. He cradled her close with his arm, and she leaned her head onto his shoulder. After a while, he lay back and took her with him. She snuggled beside him, feeling as if she'd been made to fit perfectly in the contours of his body. Her palm rested on his chest, and beneath her fingertips, she could feel the thrum of his heartbeat.

Neither said anything, both heavily into thoughts, she supposed.

She stared at the tent's roof, her mind wandering to Bellamy Nicklaus. She knew him… she was sure… the way he'd looked at her. He'd read through her and seen her past Christmases as if he'd been there. And she'd seen him, too. Maybe not in the physical sense… but seen him just the same. In a book? In a carte de visite? A colored holiday card? There was something so familiar about him. So warm and cheery. So…

Isabel bolted upright, her hair falling in her eyes. Brushing it away, she gazed straight at John and declared, "I know who Bellamy Nicklaus is!"

Skepticism rode his brows as he waited for her revelation.

"He's Santa Claus."

A dubious frown marred John's mouth. "Is that so?"

"He is! I'm telling you. It's been so long since I believed, I've forgotten about Santa Claus. But that's who Bellamy is."

"Yeah, well, I never believed in Santa Claus, so he's still Nicklaus to me."

"Oh, but you have to believe in him. I think the whole spirit of this contest revolves around believing. Those of us who truly do, will win. I know it."

He lifted himself onto his elbow. "What about the reindeer and elves? The Olds automobile shoots the first one down, and those two bruisers he had with him blows the elf theory straight to hell."

"I don't know. I can't explain that." Deadly serious, she insisted, "But he is Santa."

John stared at her long and hard. "Isabel, I pegged you wrong. I used to think you were crazy." He drew in a breath and ruefully shook his head. "Now I know you are."

John could tell Isabel was still mad at him for not buying into her Santa Claus idea.

And for calling her crazy.

The latter had slipped out, sort of. Maybe he'd really meant it so she could see she was being illogical. She obviously didn't think so. She'd been giving him the silent treatment ever since. And after a night spent in the tent, a ride back to Limonero, and half a day at her place, the quiet was getting on his nerves. He'd have taken his words back if he thought she'd yell at him. But Isabel wasn't the yelling type. Her anger came in concise movements and a peevish mask.

She sat in the shade on the porch of her house, counting berries and putting them into burlap bags, lying off the tops of each with string, she stacked them against the house. Never once did she look up at him. He'd told her he'd help her count. After all, they'd designated today to do the counting. They had just over forty-eight hours left to collect berries and he wanted to know how they stood.

He still didn't know. Every time he asked her what the tally was, she raised her hand at him and waved him off–as if he were causing her to break the rhythm of counting in her head.

So be it.

Since he had nothing else to do, John had examined the ground in front of and behind the small lemon grove.

Isabel wanted a well.

John knew how to douse for water.

She hadn't asked him to find the well spot–she didn't know he could. Maybe it was the desire to make up to her for his remarks that made him leave and pick out a willow branch and come back. He doubted she even knew he'd been gone. Her head was still down in concentration, fingers nimble–that itty- bitty derringer by her side as if she were guarding a bank vault.

"Four hundred ninety-seven. Four hundred ninety- eight. Four hundred ninety-nine." She snuck a quick peek at him when he came up to the porch and leaned against the post.

Then, plop, the last berry went into the bag. "Five hundred."

A bowl loaded with berries sat in her lap. She went to reach for another bag and he drawled, "Where is it you want your well?"

An arch of her brow clearly said she thought he had ulterior motives. "Why?"

"Why?" he countered back, somewhat insulted. "Because I'm asking, that's why." Pushing the brim of his hat up, he motioned to her. "Get up and show me and I'll tell you if that's where you want it."

"What do you know about wells?"

"Enough to tell you whether or not the spot you've picked out will lead you to water."

She bit her lip, set the bowl aside, and stood. At least he'd won a little ground with her. "Well, I do have a spot I thought would be perfect."

He must have been temporarily forgiven, for she took the steps to the yard and walked to its weedy side. After picking up the stick he'd fashioned into a fork, he followed her.

Isabel had gone past the trees and toward the rear of the house in easy proximity to the back door. Stopping, she pointed. "Right here. This is where I want my well. It's close to my kitchen sink when I want water, and I would have to walk no more than ten paces to get to my trees. This is the perfect spot." Then in a voice he thought sounded placating, she asked, "Don't you think?"

"I can't say until I feel my way across it." He positioned the willow in his hands, palms up. The branches were limber enough to be responsive, yet stiff enough to resist all but a definite pull from the selected area. "Step aside and I'll see if you're right."

John had to relax and drift into a mental state that made him focus on only one thing: water. He chanted the word over and over in his head like his dad had taught him.

Dowsing wasn't something just anybody could do. Tom had tried, but he'd lacked the mental focus required. John could take himself inside a place where he felt only the energy coming off the ground, sending pulses to his hands, fingers, and palms. It was a strange thing, an electrically charged feeling he couldn't describe.

As he walked to where Isabel had stood, John watched the end of the rod and he closed off all noises and scenes around him. If there was water, the forked stick would react by a pulling motion, sometimes toward his body and sometimes away. He never knew. Either one meant he'd been successful.

Passing over the ground with its rocks and weeds, he felt no pulse. He tried coming in at a different angle. Again, no motion. Making two more attempts, he finally lowered the rod.

"'You don't have water right here."

Disappointment mapped a pattern on her brows, mouth, and the corners of her eyes. "I don't? But I really wanted a well in this spot."

"Well, hell, Isabel, you can put a well here if you want to, but all you're going to get out of your bucket is rocks."

"Rocks won't water my lemon trees," she all but snapped. So she was still too angry at him to be friends.

"No, they won't." John kept his tone even and strode in a different direction, looked at her trees and then the border of mustard weed that grew along the edges of her property. "You're going to have to settle for another spot."

"Like where?"

"Like where I tell you."

She folded her arms beneath her breasts, gnawing on the inside of her mouth in contemplation.

He set out once more and made several passes up and down the length of the grove and back to the house; to the front; by the back door, only on the other side; then beyond the lemon trees up the foothills. He was about to tell her she couldn't get water anywhere near her house on this gravel pit, when a golf ball arced out of the sky and dropped at his feet–right by a clump of bush poppies.

Turning with a jerk of his neck, John narrowed his eyes. Nothing stirred in the tall grasses. All he saw were the rooftops of the mill and Calco Caf�.

With a snort, John concluded Nicklaus was at it again. The way the ball's arc had a loop to it, it seemed that this time the old buzzard was using his lofting iron.

His attention shattered, John lowered the rod anyway for one last try. To his surprise, he got a reading–a strong one, enough to signal he'd hit pay dirt.

"I didn't need any help," he muttered. Now why in hell had he said that? As if Nicklaus could hear him. As if Nicklaus were somebody… important.

"Well?" Isabel walked up to him. "Did you get anything?"

"I got something, all right." He picked up the golf ball and shoved it into his Levi's pocket. "Almost hit in the head from a bogie by Santie Claus."

Her lips pursed. "Are you going to start that business again? You're going to ruin our chances."

Leaning his weight on one foot, John used the toe of his boot to mark a large X in the dirt. "Money or no money for a well, you've got water. Right here."

Tempered excitement lit her eyes. "Really? This isnt where I wanted it to be." Then as the gist of it hit her, her whole face seemed radiant, softer, her mouth more kissable. "But I have water."

He thought about taking her into his arms and kissing her again. That kiss they'd shared yesterday in the tent had affected him like no other. He wanted to get to know Isabel better. Be with her. Explore all there was about her.

Funny how thoughts of the Republic Saloon dimmed as each minute with her passed. And he no longer felt as restless as he used to, so unsteady.

But at the end of this contest, if they didn't win… they'd have no reason to be together anymore. Unless…

He propped the diving rod on his shoulder, then angled the brim of his hat against the sun. "I tell you what, whether or not we win this contest, I'll dig your well for you."

"You will?"

"Consider it a Christmas present."

Her protest came out in a rush. "But I don't have anything for you."

With a smile, he reached up and touched the tip of her nose with his fingertip and said, "You don't know the half of what you've already given me."

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