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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Five)

Quinn's deep sleep and vague dreams were interrupted by a foreign tugging somewhere in the area of her feet She tried first to kick it away, then to turn over, but somehow, she could not, and her groggy mind struggled to move against something that seemed to hold her. A panic crept over her, and through the dense fog of sleep, she heard voices, deep and gravelly whispers in the near-darkened room. Forcing her eyes to open, she saw two small figures –dwarfs or demons, very possibly both–watching her, their arms folded across their chests in a gesture of gleeful satisfaction. She tried to sit up, but could not.

She had to be dreaming.

Attempting to speak, Quinn found that something thick and soft filled her mouth, which was now desert dry. She started to gag, her throat constricting against the presence of the alien thing that stuck to the sides and the roof of her mouth. She began to choke, and the two dwarflike creatures jumped back in surprise.

"What are you two doing?" a male voice asked from somewhere in the dark.

A tall figure stepped out of the shadows and leaned over the back of the sofa to peer down at her.

"Look what we caught!" one of the gravel-voiced demon-dwarfs answered with obvious pride.

Cale's breath caught in his throat, and for a long minute, he thought he must be dreaming. His heart pounding in his chest, he leaned closer, not trusting his eyes. Even in the dim light, he knew her.

Miracle of miracles. It was her. Here. In his cabin.

Quinn.

Twelve and a half years late.

"Well, then," he said, forcing a nonchalance he did not feel. "Look who stopped by to say 'hey.'"

She glared up at him, her auburn hair spread around her head like a soft fog.

Yep. Those were her eyes, all right. Big and green and throwing off sparks when she was angry. Just like now.

"Mmphfmprhm." She seemed to be speaking directly to him. Through her teeth.

Frowning, Cale leaned forward to take a closer look. Something white protruded from her mouth.

"What in the… ?" He tugged at the white thing until her mouth released it, then held up the small white sock and asked with studied patience and practiced composure, "Whose is this?"

Eric pointed at Evan. Evan pointed at Eric.

"His," they both said.

"How did it get into her mouth?" Cale asked sternly.

"He did it," they both replied. "Well, I guess it could have been worse." Cale held the sock up to examine it. "At least it's clean."

"That makes me feel so much better," Quinn told him dryly. "There aren't five more of them, are there?" She eyed the two boys warily, certain that they, too, were part of this ridiculous dream. And it was, of course, a dream, wasn't it?

How could it be otherwise?

"What?" Cale asked. He sounded real enough. Looked real enough…

"Weren't there seven dwarfs?" she heard herself ask.

Cale's laughter was unexpected.

Good grief. It wasn't a dream. It was him. She'd know that laugh anywhere.

Mortified, Quinn straightened herself up and, going for dignity–as much as one could muster when the man who'd dumped you twelve years ago had just removed a tinty sock from your mouth–cleared her throat and leveled her chin.

"Well then, if you would just untie me and get me a glass of water so that I can rinse the cotton out of my mouth, I think I'd like to mosey on back to the ranch about now." Quinn sought to sound as nonchalant as possible, searching for just the right note, trying to ignore the fact that her heart was attempting to pound its way out of her chest in heavy, erratic thumps.

Pulling back the afghan to reveal rope looped tightly around her wrists and ankles, Cale scowled, then turned to his sons. "Would one of you like to explain this? And it had better be good, fellas. This one had better be real good."

Eric pointed to Quinn and said darkly, "She's an invader."

"He means an intruder."Evan nodded.

"Boys, this is no way to treat company."

"She's not company. She's a girl."

"Yeah." Eric nodded. "A stranger girl."

"Well, this girl just happens to be an old friend of mine, so she's not a stranger at all." Cale unloosened the rope with fingers that were close to shaking at the sudden nearness of this woman who had appeared in his dreams so many times he knew every line of her face, every curve of her body.

He cleared his throat and helped her up, as if was the most natural thing in the world to have the woman of his dreams show up, bound and gagged, on the sofa in a remote cabin in the Montana hills in a blinding blizzard.

"Boys, you obviously do not know who this woman is," Cale told them, forcing his eyes onto them and away from her. From those green eyes that still, he had noticed, held that spark of gold.

They shook their heads and asked in unison, "Who?"

"This is the daughter of Hap Hollister," he announced gravely.

"Hap Hollister!" one gasped.

"The greatest Little League coach in the world!" the other exclaimed.

"The very one."

Quinn looked down at the two small faces that were staring up at her, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. She wondered what Cale had told them about her father.

"My sons." Cale turned to her. "Eric and Evan. Boys, say hello to Quinn Hollister. Then apologize."

"Hello. Sorry." Eric stared at his feet, from which dark socks trailed.

"Like you mean it." Cale's eyes narrowed.

"We're sorry. We thought you were a robber."

"Well, I guess I can understand why you might have thought that, finding a stranger sleeping on your sofa. But didn't you hear me when I came in? I called…"

"We were out cold," Cale said over his shoulder as he disappeared through a doorway momentarily. "Napping. I took the boys for a long walk this morning, and I guess it knocked us all out."

"You took your sons out to play in a blizzard?" she asked. "Isn't that a form of child abuse?"

"It was before the blizzard hit. Ever spend three days in a remote cabin with no TV and two four-year- olds who have had electronic baby-sitters all their young lives?" He returned and handed her a glass of water.

"Can't say that I have." She accepted the glass and drank greedily, hoping the water would wash away the lint that had attached to the roof of her mouth.

"Walking in the snow is the only thing that keeps them moving and tires them out enough that they're not bouncing off the walls." He smiled, and Quinn felt something in her chest begin to tighten.

He still had a killer smile. It was impossible not to notice.

"But what," he was saying, "are you doing up here in the midst of a blizzard?"

"I went up to put the wreath on Elizabeth's cabin. Every year, one of us…"

"I remember," he said softly, recalling a time when he had accompanied her to do that very task. Had she forgotten? Ignoring the reference to another Christmas, when they had not been strangers, she said, "While I was inside, the storm came up, and I got stuck coming back down the mountain. My brother told me that Val was coming back for Christmas, so I thought I'd see if she was here. The door was open, so I came in and built up the fire and wrapped up in the blankets. I was very cold."

"You're lucky you made it. Quinn, what ever possessed you to get out of the car in a storm like this? How could you have seen the cabin from the road in all this snow?" His eyebrows arched upward just slightly, the right higher than the left, in a gesture she suddenly remembered all too well.

"My car is right there, at the end of the lane. It's not that far. And I have a very good sense of direction." Her chin lifted just a bit. No point in telling him about Elizabeth…

His eyes caught hers and she turned away from his gaze, which she was not ready to meet. Here was the man who had broken her heart and changed her life. The very least she deserved was to feel hard, cold anger.

All she felt at that moment was awkward and unprepared to share the confines of a cabin with him.

All she wanted was to get away, to retreat from those hazel eyes that changed with the light, and that were now turning a soft blue.

Not ready, she told herself. I'm not ready for this.

She forced her eyes from his face–dammit, the very least he could have done was to have gone bald and paunchy–forced herself to look around for her boots. There. By the door. Right where she left them. "I have to go."

Cale walked to the window and drew aside a dark green and white checked curtain. "Quinn, you wouldn't make it ten feet from the door in this storm."

"I have to get home." She felt awkward and nervous, wanting to flee.

"Not for a while, I'm afraid."

Walking to the front door, Quinn peered out onto a totally white world. Cale was right. She wouldn't make it past the porch without losing her direction. She stared into the dense whiteness, searching for a shadow. Perhaps Elizabeth would come back, and lead her away from here. But there were no shadows to be found, no dark figures waiting to guide her from the cabin and back to her car. With a sigh she turned back to the room, the words she had been about to speak forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Cale was tending the dying fire, building it up to send warmth and light into the room. The dark blue sweatshirt stretched across his broad back and shoulders as he lifted one log after another and stacked them evenly. Even as a teenager his arms had always been strong and hard, overdeveloped from baseball. She wondered how much more so now, after twelve seasons of playing in the majors. He looked wonderful. Everything about him looked wonderful.

She wondered where his wife was. Still napping, no doubt, in one of those rooms at the end of the hallway.

Without warning, he turned and smiled at her, totally disarming her with that same warm smile she had lived for once upon a time. Touched in ways that terrified her to recall, Quinn backed up involuntarily as if to place as much distance between them as possible. So many times throughout the years she had dreamed of this moment when she would see him again, had so carefully planned what she would say. And though she might want to grab him by the throat and demand an explanation, of course, she would not. She'd never give him the satisfaction of knowing how deep the pain had gone, how long it had lingered. Oh, no. She'd be mature. Witty. Sophisticated.

But now, so unexpectedly face-to-face, she could not recall even one word of the clever monologue she'd carefully rehearsed so many times over the years. A crash from the back of the cabin made her jump.

"Excuse me," Cale said with a grim expression as he headed down the hallway.

He was back in two minutes with one small boy under each arm. He deposited one at each end of the sofa and said sternly, "And you will sit there until I say you can get up."

Two small freckled faces levied silent curses in Cale's direction.

"So." Cale turned to Quinn and folded his arms. "I bet you'd like something warm to drink. Can I get you some tea? Coffee? Cocoa?"

"Well, a cup of tea would be great. My mouth is still a little dry," Quinn said, uneasily awaiting the appearance of the boys' mother at any moment. She couldn't possibly sleep through the racket her sons had made. Quinn kept one eye on the doorway, waiting for Cale's wife to appear. What did she look like? What was she like? Quinn was at once dying to know and sick with the thought of meeting the woman who had, after all, taken her place in Cale's life.

He walked through the doorway behind her into the small kitchen. She heard a cupboard door open, then close.

"Regular or herbal?" he asked. "What kind of herbal?"

"Umm, let's see." Cale looked up to see her in the doorway, and he held up several boxes of teas. "Val has some mint, some chamomile, and something called 'Roast-aroma.'"

Suddenly clumsy, he dropped all three boxes on the floor. Quinn bent to pick them up at the same time he did.

Trying to ignore the fact that she was close enough that he could smell some delicate, enticing scent– lilac, maybe?–he stacked the boxes of tea, which his sister had brought at Hitler's General Store back in November, onto the counter, and stepped back, away from her.

"Mint is fine. Thank you." She tried to be casual, and thought she wasn't doing too badly, right then.

He filled the blue enamel pot with water and set it atop the stove. "I don't know why Val didn't replace this old wood stove," he muttered.

"Probably so that when you lose electricity up here, you can still eat."

"Well, it's a pain in the butt." He reached into a large black bucket by the back door and pulled out a few pieces of wood. Opening a door in the front of the stove, he stuffed in the wood, which had been cut to fit perfectly. Cut to fit by my brother, she could have told him.

"When's dinner?" Eric poked his head around the door-jamb.

"What did I say about staying on the sofa till I said you could get up?"

"We're hungry." Evan appeared behind him.

"Okay. I'll start dinner."

"What?" They eyed him suspiciously.

"Spaghetti."

"You made spaghetti last night. It was hard."

"We want pizza."

"Sorry, boys. No pizza up here. But I will try to time the spaghetti better tonight. I promise. Now, back on the sofa. You're still doing penance for having tied up Quinn and stuffed a sock in her mouth."

Dejected and grumbling, the two little boys shuffled sullenly back into the living room.

"We're bored."

"We want TV."

Cale grimaced and shrugged his shoulders. "It's hard to keep them amused sometimes. They're used to video games and cartoons."

I'm sure your wife will have some ideas to keep them busy," Quinn leaned against the doorway.

"Oh, she has some ideas, all right," Cale laughed grimly. "All of which conveniently leave her out of the picture."

Quinn looked at him blankly, not comprehending.

"My wife left me. We're divorced." He said it simply, with the same amount of emotion as when he had told his sons what was on the dinner menu.

"I see," she said, not at all seeing how any woman could leave a man like Cale.

There was a crash from the living room.

Then again, Quinn silently acknowledged, there may have been other considerations.

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