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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Seven)

John steered his horse, with a pack mule strung behind, into Isabel's yard. As the tall weeds cleared his view, he saw the cabin and Isabel. She stood on the porch with a small cup of white paint, brushing snowflake patterns on her windowpanes. Her back was to him, and his gaze roamed the length of her as she worked.

Rich black hair coiled in a bun at her nape. He relived the sensation of sifting through the silky strands with his fingers… touching her satiny skin… kissing her… holding her… making love to her.

They'd returned to town that afternoon with holly berries in the baskets on his horse–but not nearly as many as they could have collected if they hadn't spent the night in each other's arms. The hours on Ventura beach were the best in his memory. He'd wanted to tell her so, but he'd held back. Admitting the truth had never been easy for him.

She'd given herself to him freely and he could only hope she had no regrets. He didn't. Nor did he expect her to fall into a sexual relationship with him. That wouldn't be fair for either of them, and he surely didn't want Isabel to think that's all he cared about.

Although she'd once had house and hearth, she hadn't had it with a man who was right for her. John could be the one who showed her what marriage ought to be–if she let him.

But a single question continued to hammer in his mind, making him keep silent. Would she have him if he told her he loved her? Fearing she wouldn't caused him to be cautious.

When she heard his horse, Isabel turned and smiled. "Hello."

He gave her a smile back, stopped, and dismounted.

What he had tied on the pack mule was obvious, so he just came right out and said what had to be said about the fir tree that had taken him two hours to get and bring back. He felt a little self-conscious about it now, hoping the gift wasn't too presumptuous. "Isabel –" he shucked his Stetson and tucked it beneath his arm "–I noticed you didn't have a Christmas tree in your window. So I got you one."

"Oh…" She set the paintbrush aside and stepped down from the porch to look at her present. Walking to the mule, she lifted her hand and ran her fingers down the fir's blue-green needles. Her eyes shone with genuine gratitude when she turned toward him. "This is such a surprise. Thank you."

To his chagrin, his neck heated. Damn.

"You'll stay and help me decorate it?"

"Sure."

It didn't take John long to set the tree up in her front room–actually it was the great room. The cabin only had two: a large living area with a kitchen, and a bedroom off to the right. He could see the end of the plain poster bed with its quilt of colorful squares. He let himself wonder what it would be like to wake up in that bed with Isabel snuggled beside him. The front door had been left open and sunshine spilled through the doorway as he worked to secure the tree in a bucket of rocks. No problem getting the rocks. Her yard was full of them. He'd noticed she used them to decorate the pathway to her door and the edges of her flower beds.

Pouring water into the bucket and giving the tree a slight shake to make sure it wouldn't topple, he stood back. "It's all set. You can put the doodads on."

Isabel lifted a garland of angels and snowflakes cut from white paper out of a crate. She handled them with care, gingerly giving him one end to hold. "You stay there and I'll walk around the tree."

He felt a little foolish. He couldn't recall ever having trussed up a Christmas tree before and having it mean something special.

"Put your end right there," she guided.

Tucking the last angel into the highest limb, the garland was in place. He stood back and examined the cut paper. "Who made that? "

"I did," she declared proudly. "When I was fourteen. My mother suggested the project, and both Kate and I sat at the table and began cutting out strips of paper." She made a few adjustments in the garland. "What about you? Did you and your brother ever do any Christmas things?" John's brows rose in thought. "Nope. Tom and me, we're different. We don't stay in touch too good."

"I know. I should write my sister more. Maybe we ought to make a New Year's resolution."

"Maybe." Only he was into Tom for a hell of a lot of money–that's why he rarely wrote. He didn't want to have to own up to never being able to pay him back.

Feeling guilty and wanting to say something nice about his younger brother, John added, "Tom's got a sporting goods store in Harmony, Montana. Does a pretty good trade. Sells hunting stuff. Sporting gear– your big animal gewgaws. No golf clubs, though. Tom never did like the game."

"How is it that you know golf?"

"Well," he put his weight from one foot to the other, "I knew this cattle guy." John didn't mention that he'd rustled calves off him. That was during the prime of his troublemaker ways when he still lived in Texas. "He was a rich baron type, a tycoon. Played it out in the pasture. Showed me how." After he'd caught John red-handed and hadn't turned him in to the sheriff, he made him work off the price of the calves as a hand for a whole damn year. But it had given John a sense of morality he hadn't learned at home.

Isabel produced paffs of cotton wool, and John changed the subject.

"What's that? "

"Pretend snow. Here, you can put some on." She laid a few tufts in his palm, their fingers connecting, which ignited in him the desire to take her into his arms and kiss her.

But he didn't readily move, too intent was he on watching her as she hummed a festive tune and placed cotton wool in strategic places on the branches.

In that instant, he could imagine spending the rest of his Christmases with Isabel–decorating the tree and house, sitting together and lighting the tree candles and enjoying the smell of pine as it filled the room. Morning would come and they'd wake up to wrapped gifts chosen with affection and love… perhaps have a child to toddle beside them…

John shook his head and drew in a breath. It was a hell of a tall dream, one that he'd be lucky to have.

"Now we'll need that," she said, breaking into his musings as she pointed to the box behind him.

He turned and reached into the crate and took out stars cut from flattened tin cans. They hung those, and afterward, she went to the counter and gave him a string of popcorn and dried apricots.

"I was going to put these on the porch, then I remembered the birds. So there went that idea. But now I have a tree. You can put this on."

He did, taking care to string it evenly so as not to mess up her tree. Finally they wired on small tin candleholders and placed the candles in them.

Standing back together, his arm slipped over her shoulder. "Well." She sighed with awe. "It's a lovely tree, don't you think?"

He only had eyes for the woman beside him. "I think you're lovely, Isabel."

Then he took her into both arms, held her close, and kissed her. Melting into his embrace, she spoke against his lips, "Tonight, when the contest is over, we'll light the candles together."

"Together." The word turned into another kiss that sealed the promise.

An old midnight moon gazed down at the crowd standing in front of Bellamy Nicklaus's gingerbread- styled house. The clock had struck twelve, but that seemed an eternity ago to Isabel. She stood next to John, periodically biting her lip and standing on tiptoe to see if she could catch a glimpse of Bellamy through his front window.

Everyone had turned in their berries and he'd taken all the bundles, baskets, and sacks inside to have "Mother" count and string them. How she could manage to do all that in a short time baffled Isabel.

The tree in the yard glittered with a multitude of lit candles. Flickering red flames reflected off the sparkling trimmings that had been hung. Thankfully the air was still to keep the candles burning.

"How much longer, do you think?" Isabel asked John for at least the dozenth time.

"I don't know, Isabel. Soon, I hope."

Through the press of people, she reached out and found his hand, gripping it within her own. And they waited some more.

Finally the door opened and Bellamy came out.

Isabel stared at him with renewed reverence. Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas. How many Christmases had she tried to stay up to get a peek at the elusive man in the red coat? Funny how at the age of twenty-eight, when she'd stopped believing, she could now see him.

For a short few heartbeats, Isabel closed her eyes tight and whispered in her head: I believe. I believe in you. I believe in Saint Nicholas….

Then she slowly opened her eyes to find Bellamy looking directly at her and giving her a… wink! She smiled, broadly. They'd done it! They'd won! She knew it!

Voices fell quiet as Bellamy came to the front of the porch steps, where Yule and Tide stood like soldiers on either side. Bellamy gave them each a smile, then said, "What was that fruit again?"

"Pineapple," Yule reminded.

"Ja, pineapple," Tide nodded. "Good fruit"

"Juicy; " Yule added.

"Sweet," Tide countered.

"You're making me want some," Bellamy said with a nod. "I think we ought to stop by Pago Pago on the way tonight and get us some."

"Ja, "Yule agreed.

"Ja," Tide seconded with a broad grin.

"Folks," Bellamy began, addressing the gathering, "I'm glad you came out to see who would be the winner of the contest."

Nods and glances to one another prevailed.

"I don't want to keep you in needless suspense, but Mother said it will take her just a minute more. I wanted to remind you about the spirit of the contest." He stepped through the crowd, and as it parted, Isabel noticed he'd changed out of house slippers and wore knee-high black boots polished to a brilliant gleam. He still wore knickers, though, and the funny hat with the pom-pom on the crown.

"The key to eternal happiness is clear to some of us. Not so clear to others," he said, walking with his hands clasped behind his back and looking into the faces around him. "How to find prosperity is a question that different people will give different answers for–when there is really only a single answer that will do."

Winding his way toward the mercantile owner, Bellamy stared directly into his eyes. "Reaping rewards doesn't mean cheating another. I saw the chaos that the contest created: berries being used as commodities; brother pitted against brother, friend opposing friend." He continued on, stopping at Saul, the bartender for the California Republic. "Drinkers going drinkless because berries couldn't buy liquor. Now that one I'm not so inclined to frown on."

He moved on, coming toward Isabel and John. She pulled in her breath and squeezed John's hand. With a pause, Bellamy lit up his face with a smile for them. Even in the dimness, his eyes twinkled and his cheeks looked rosy. "There are some who believe," he said, holding Isabel's gaze with his own. "And then there are some who don't believe," he continued, this time pointedly staring at John.

Isabel felt his fingers go tense in her grasp. "Believing is a mysterious thing. We only believe in what we think is capable of happening. Not what we want to happen. Why is that?" He absently scratched his full white beard and strolled forward. "And believing in ourselves is the last thing we do when we don't have the spirit of the season."

Once back on the steps, he turned around. The door behind him opened and Mrs. Nicklaus came outside, whispered in Bellamy's ear, then went back into the house.

"Well, folks," Bellamy announced with glee. "It's official."

A murmur rose in the crowd. Then came a shuffling of feet. Hatted heads fit close together. People leaned forward in anticipation.

Bellamy chuckled, that rolling laugh that made his tummy shake. "The prize goes to Isabel Burche and John Wolcott."

Isabel let out her breath and laughed–a short and choppy sound mixed with relief. She quickly turned to John, who looked down at her with an easy smile. "We did it," she whispered.

"Yeah, we did."

She desperately wanted to fling herself into his arms and kiss him soundly on the mouth. But she refrained. Later–when they lit the tree candles– she'd tell him she loved him, and everything was going to be wonderful!

Amid the groans of disappointment, Bellamy went on, "To the winners, as I promised in my flyer, the prize is unlike anything you've ever known."

Money! Lots of money! Isabel exclaimed inside her head.

Mrs. Nicklaus came outside once more. High in her arm, she carried a domed wire birdcage. Inside two birds anxiously flitted. Their coloring was creamy gray and green, and once they landed on their perch, their heads touched.

"Mother and I have had these birds since they left their broods. One's a male and the other's a female. They're lovebirds." He beamed at them, giving Isabel another wink.

This time Isabel's optimism took a plunge. Lovebirds? Where was the prize money?

"They can't be separated. Without the other, one will wither. But as a couple they're strong and healthy. Full of spirit."

Taking the cage from his wife, he came toward Isabel and John. "It's my pleasure to present you with the lovebirds as your prize for the contest."

A few snickers resounded, then some moans of aggravation. Several people began to walk away.

Isabel didn't want to take the cage, but since John wasn't holding out his hand, she was obligated. Lifting the cage high enough to peek inside, she gazed at their winnings. The tiny birds flapped their wings and circled one another, then went back to the perch to nuzzle beaks.

It was humiliating at best to win a pair of birds when she had her heart set on currency. No doubt John was thinking the same thing. He hadn't said a word.

Bellamy put a hand on each of their shoulders, bringing them closer together. "I entrust you with my little friends. Keep them happy and you'll be happy for all your days. Merry Christmas."

Then he threw his head back and laughed, "Ho, ho, ho!"

Isabel didn't know whether to cry or sock him in the jolly old stomach.

Lovebirds! They'd been tricked. John was right. Bellamy wasn't Santa Claus. He was a demented old man who'd gotten his holidays mixed up. This was no Christmas prize. This was the trick in a Halloween trick or treat!

The crowd dispersed as Bellamy walked back up the steps to his house, his wife following and then the two bruisers, who waved to the crowd. Many waved them off with a grumble.

Isabel and John were the only ones left on the street. She lowered her arm and her shoulders sank.

"You were right," she dismally croaked. "Bellamy is a crackpot."

To her amazement, John didn't readily second her conclusion. After a long moment, he quietly took the cage from her and began walking. She went alongside him.

The wind kicked up out of nowhere. Warm gusts of the Santa Anas brought an unnatural shower of… snow?

Those scurrying down Main Street paused to see what was what.

Small white petals thickened the holiday sky and sprinkled down with the most delightful fragrance.

A gentleman off to Isabel's side shook his head. "Sun-Blessed," was all he said before running off to his home.

Of course. Lemon blossom petals from the Sun- Blessed groves. But how did there get to be so many of them? This had never happened before. It was a flurry of flowers that looked like real snow. The delicate smell of them filled the air with a magnificent perfume beyond description.

John glanced over his shoulder at Bellamy's house. Isabel followed his gaze. The residence had grown dark. The breezes must have blown the candles out on the tree.

"I'll walk you home," he said in a low voice.

He had distanced himself from her, she could tell. They hadn't won what they had thought and now he was angry. This was it, the end. They'd go their separate ways. It would be as if they had never known one another.

She should have known. Money had ruined her first marriage. Money had just ruined her chances for a second one.

But what about the birds… ?

Who would keep them? She didn't think she could. They'd always remind her of John. It would be too painful.

The road became covered with a snowfall of white blossoms. They clung to Isabel's shirtwaist and sleeves, they lay in her hair. She blinked several from her lashes.

Once at her cabin, John stopped at the base of the steps. She could barely face him. She'd been so sure everything would be perfect tonight. "I'm sorry we didn't win like you wanted to, Isabel."

Tears filled her eyes. "That's all right. You said all along we were being fooled by a silly old man. I didn't listen to you. I should have."

John set the cage on the porch and put his arms around her from behind. He cradled her close and kissed the side of her neck. How easy it would be to lean into him and to let herself feel better. But kisses and embraces weren't the answer to anything.

"I was the one wrong about the contest," John said, tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear. "It was real."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because if it hadn't been for hhn, I wouldn't have known you, Isabel. For that, I'll forever be grateful. He said in his notice that the winner would be forever grateful. Well, I am." Then he moved away from her and she heard the shaky intake of his breath. Turning toward him, she brushed the tears from her eyes.

He stood with blossoms dusting his shoulders and hat, softness sifting on a man who'd shown her softness… kindness… love.

"You keep the birds, Isabel. They'd like your place a hell of a lot better than they'd like mine. You've got"–his voice clogged, and he cleared his throat –"got hope around here. They'll like that. Take care of them." Then with a lowering of his head and a shove of his hands into his pockets, he said, "Take care of yourself."

Tears slipped down her cheek as John followed the lane into the night.

When he was gone, she lowered herself onto the steps and buried her face in her hands. Hot tears spilled through her fingers.

Even with every emotion inside her in turmoil, a single thought surfaced and saddened her most.

They hadn't lit the candles on their Christmas tree.

A kerosene lantern burned on the bureau of John's room, giving off a mellow light. He lay stretched out on his bed, fully clothed and staring at the ceiling. In his hand, the golf ball he'd pocketed when he'd found water for Isabel. With a flick of his wrist, he pitched the ball upward. It soared back down and he caught it. He threw it again. Caught it again. He'd repeated this process some hundred times since returning home from Isabel's house.

He couldn't get her out of his mind. Her despair over the contest playing out like that had been blatant. She'd wanted the money more than he did. Hell, he'd wanted the cash, too–maybe more than her. But he would have gladly given it all up. Lovebirds.

Who did Nicklaus think he was kidding? Lovebirds were a pair. A couple that couldn't be parted. Nicklaus knew from the start of his damn contest that he was giving away a prize with complications. And he'd known they'd win and they'd have the birds to contend with.

Why?

Did the great Saint Nicholas know them better than they knew themselves? It was the only conclusion John could come to grips with.

Money would have bought him a lot of things he could use. Only it wouldn't have bought him Isabel's love. That, he'd have to earn.

He tossed the ball and it fell into his palm with a smack.

He should have told her how he felt, should have damned the consequences and just been honest for a change. He could live with rejection. He couldn't live without knowing if Isabel loved him in return, and he'd walked away from something.

Tomorrow morning, first light, he'd tell her. Get it all out in the open and let it be whatever it would be, future or no future. But for once, John Wolcott wasn't going to run from a commitment. He wanted to be a husband and a father, and if Isabel felt the same way, he'd marry her by sundown Christmas day.

On that thought, he forgot to catch the ball and it thwacked him on the brow. With the wincing impact, he had the oddest feeling that Nicklaus had slugged him for taking so long to see the light.

Isabel didn't sleep much at all that night. The birds rustled around in their cage for most of it And this morning just before the sky turned golden, they began to chirp and coo at one another. They were so much in love, she could actually feel it overtaking the room.

Barefooted, she padded out of bed in the gray dawn. Finding the white shawl that John had bought for her, she went outside and sat in her rocking chair to greet the day–bleak as it would be for her.

She'd been so hopeful she'd win the money and her life would be everything she wanted, she could have the things she needed. But money didn't give her John. She'd been a fool to let him go. She was in love with him. Why hadn't she told him so? It hurt to think how much she longed to be in his arms…

Wrapping the shawl tighter about her, she brought the ends to her cheek and rubbed the softness next to her skin.

She'd been selfish last night and she didn't like herself for it today. Telling John how she felt about him was worth the risk of his not returning her affections. At least she'd know.

The ripple of a chance stirred within Isabel. Yes… she'd tell him. Right away.

Several minutes later, Isabel dashed down the steps to the lane, but stopped shy to gaze at her lemon grove. Her mouth softly fell open.

Cardinal red ribbons were tied in bows around the branches of every single tree—just the color of ribbon she'd wanted as a child. Who had done such a thing? John? He hadn't known about the ribbons.

But somebody else had…

About to turn and leave for John's bungalow, Isabel's pulse skipped when she saw him coming toward her up the drive. He carried a bucket and several of the clubs Bellamy used.

She didn't want to seem too anxious… too eager.

"Merry Christmas," she said softly, remembering what day it was. :

"Same to you, Isabel," he returned, his tone pleasant yet guarded

The lump on his forehead, just above his eyebrow, distressed her. She feared he'd gotten into a fight. "What happened to your forehead?" John's grimaced. "I hit myself shaving."

"What… ?" That made no sense.

"Never mind."

Isabel let the matter drop. She raised her arm toward the grove. "Did you do that?"

John took in the ribbons, then shook his head. "Nope."

Then he lifted his arm with the bucket of golf balls. "What about this? Did you leave these on my doorstep?"

"No."

"Well… damn. Who did?"

Both were quiet a long moment. Then together "I think I know–" They broke off and laughed, nervously.

"Isabel." The way he said her name had her shivering with wanting. "I need to talk to you."

She raised her eyes to his. "Me, too." Before she lost her courage, she went on, "It's about the birds. I don't think it's fair for just me to have them. And I don't think it's fair for only you. We won them together… so I think we should stay… that is…" He looked at her so intently she could barely breathe, much less think. All the things she planned on saying tripped over her tongue and she grew flustered and near speechless. "Oh… help me," she said more to Bellamy than to herself. It came out naturally… as if he knew she needed him.

John took a step toward her. "You mean, keep the lovebirds together because we're together?"

Slowly, she nodded. "Yes… that's what I want."

To her surprise, John dropped the iron sticks and bucket with a thud and took her into his arms. He lifted her off the ground and gave her several twirls in the dawn light that fanned across the yard in rays of honey and brass.

"I love you, Isabel Burche," John confessed.

Through her laughter she returned the avowal. "I love you, John Wolcott."

Setting her back on her feet, John gave her a hard kiss on the mouth; then he cupped her cheeks within his strong hands.

"I should have told you last night how I felt."

"I should have, too. I'm sorry about the way I acted. I don't care about the money. Only you."

"Me, too."

He kissed her once more, this time with a lingering caress over her lips. "So what if we don't have Nicklaus's stale money? Who cares? I've got my job at Calco." "And I've got my lemon sauce and syrup to sell. We'll make do."

"Damn right"

Through a light rain of kisses, he asked, "Isabel, will you marry me?"

"Yes," she said back through feathery kisses of her own. "I'll marry you."

Then he picked her up once more and swung her around in his strong arms to her delighted laughter.

Epilogue

Two weeks had passed since John made Isabel his wife.

Dressed in the clothes they'd worn in Ventura, their private ceremony had taken place in front of her lemon trees all decked out with ribbons. The reverend hadn't been too keen on preforming the nuptials outdoors, but he made an exception on account of the fact that it was Christmas day–though it was more likely due to Isabel's promise to deliver him a case of her syrup at no charge.

Sunday sprung forth bright and cloudless, the air dry but not dusty. John looked forward to the one day a week that he could spend entirely with Isabel. Workdays were long on Ferndale No. 8, and from there he headed to the livery to muck the stalls and pay for that piebald mare. Sundays he dug the well. He didn't mind the exhausting labor because he was working toward something.

Making a home for Isabel.

John had changed–for the better. He'd even sent Tom five dollars with a letter and a promise to pay him back every last cent he'd borrowed.

Although he'd given up liquor, John hadn't given up his dream to drill for his own oil. So this morning, he'd had Duster come out and assess the place to give him his opinion on the possibilities.

Duster had walked the property and sadly shaken his head. Too many rocks. Not enough grasses, he'd said. The skeptic now sat in the porch rocker drinking a glass of Isabel's lemonade. Beside him, the birdcage hung with the lovebirds softly singing.

John called for his wife, who walked through the grove with a basket picking lemons. It seemed as if the trees had been producing bushels of lemons overnight. Isabel hadn't taken the ribbons off. She claimed she'd keep them on those trees forever as a symbol of their love.

"Hmm?" Isabel said as she set her basket down and came toward him. – John had selected the niblick club and a Perfect Flight golf ball–the very one that had dropped out of the sky at the well spot.

"Darlin', I'm going to line you up, and I want you to hit this ball as hard as you can."

She shaded her eyes with her hand. "How come?"

"Because wherever this ball lands is where I'm going to find oil"

"No petroleum on this property," Duster declared with a slow rock and a sip of lemonade.

"Well see," John called to him. Then he handed the club to Isabel and set the ball on a tiny mound of dirt he'd made. "All right, darlin', you give it your best shot."

"But I don't know how to hit it."

"I'll show you." He cuddled her in front of him and made her lean back into his hips. "There you go. Sway a little. Loosen up."

She did so, pressing her shapely behind into him. He had to fight off the urge to forget about hitting the ball, tell Duster to go repark himself at the Republic, and take Isabel into the house and lie over her on the bed.

"Well, if that isn't the backward way to do things," Duster hollered, breaking John out of his thoughts. "Just you watch," John replied without looking up.

"Really, John, I think we'd have better luck if you hit the ball."

"Darlin', you are my luck. Now you're going to do fine."

He put his hands over hers to fit around the club's handle. Then he helped her shift her weight and get into the right position. "Just swing your hips, Isabel, and lay into it."

"All right."

He straightened and backed away from her, giving her room to move. She didn't. She got out of position and turned to face him. "You know who gave you these clubs and balls, don't you?"

They'd been through this before. He'd never come out and admitted that he thought Bellamy Nicklaus had left him the golf gear and put the ribbons on her trees. Deep down, he knew the crafty buzzard had done it. How, he didn't know.

Because on Christmas day, that house on Ninth and Mill had been deserted as if nobody had ever lived there at all. The only thing remaining was the tree in the yard, all decked out with holly berries.

"Yes, I reckon I do, Isabel," he finally said.

"I just thought we ought to clear that up before I go hitting the ball. If we don't believe, this won't work." The silk poppies on her hat waved with the bob of her head as she turned around once more. "So, are you going to admit Bellamy Nicklaus is a legend?"

He drew up behind her and corrected her stance. Whispering into her ear, he said, "I believe that somewhere in time, the name Nicklaus will be a legend linked with golf. How's that?"

After a moment's silence, she nodded. "It's a start."

"Good." Backing away again, he gave Duster an encouraging nod.

Duster merely snorted.

"Go ahead, darlin', whack the hell out of it."

On that, Isabel sliced the club through the air and the ball sailed high in the sky. She came to stand beside John and he pulled her close with his arm.

Together, they watched the golf ball sail toward the ground, each knowing that whatever the outcome, they were already rich.

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