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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Seven)

"Would you like some music?" Cale stood in the middle of the living room, his hands on his hips, wondering just what to do next. Quinn was emerging from the kitchen, where she had offered to clean up from dinner while Cale put his sons to bed.

"Sure." She nodded.

"What's your pleasure?"

"What are my choices?"

"Whatever we can get on this old radio." He slowly turned the dial, distracted by her nearness. "Not much of a variety tonight, I'm afraid."

"That's fine, right there. Christmas music would be nice."

Cale adjusted the dial to eliminate the static, taking his time while he tried to figure out what to do with her.

In his dreams, he had known exactly what to do. Now that she was really here, he had changed into a bumbling adolescent in the space of a few hours.

"I was listening to this on tape while I was driving up the mountain today," she told him as "I'll Be Home for Christmas" began to play.

"I've always liked it," Cale said awkwardly.

"Me, too." She nodded.

"Ah, why don't you sit down"–Cale folded up the blankets on the sofa to give her room–"and I'll…" He looked around wildly for something to occupy himself with. "I'll… put more wood on the fire."

Quinn sat on the sofa, pulling her feet up under her and easing back into the cushions. Cale lifted a few logs from the stack and placed them on the fire, using the bellows to build up the flames. Quinn exhaled, a long silent stream of air. Her face was beginning to hurt from having forced a carefree smile for the past several hours. Her chest and stomach hurt from having been so close to him after so long. She watched him, his back to her, and though she tried to will her eyes away from him, she could not It had been too long a drought, and now that she could, she drank in every bit of him. The way his dark hair curled over the back of his collar. The way his hands grasped the logs as if they were twigs, the way the bottom of his jeans rounded when he leaned back on his haunches to stack the logs…

She rose abruptly and went to the window to look out. Maybe a miracle had occurred while they were eating dinner and the snow had stopped.

Fat chance.

"I'm afraid it's only gotten worse, Quinn," he said from behind her.

"I guess I should call home." She turned slightly and found him closer than she had anticipated.

"That's probably a good idea," he agreed, telling himself to back away so that the scent from her hair would not be able to reach his nostrils, but his legs seemed unable to obey the command to move.

"I left a message on the answering machine earlier, but I think my mother will worry until she actually speaks to me," she said. The urge to reach her hand up and touch his face was so powerful that she had to force her hands behind her back.

She was the first to move, the first to step away. Averting her eyes, she stepped around him and reached for her bag. Refusing to look at him again while she searched for the phone, she turned her back while she dialed the number and spoke softly and paced nervously while she explained the situation to her mother.

"My mother said to tell you hello and to thank you for giving me shelter from the storm," Quinn said as she dropped the cell phone back into the bag.

Cale nodded. "It's my pleasure."

If you only knew, Quinn….

"So," Quinn said, forcing herself to sound perky. "What book are you reading?" She walked to the chair and lifted the hardback he had left there the night before and inspected the cover. It was a thriller, written by a favorite author of Quinn's. "Oh. I heard this was great."

"It's pretty good," he told her, looking for something to do with himself. "But I liked his last one better."

"I loved that book," she agreed. "Had you figured out that Janelle was the murderer before the last scene?"

"No." He shook his head. "I thought it was Desmond."

"So did I." Quinn laughed. "He sure had me fooled."

"Me, too." Cale nodded.

That common ground having been exhausted, silence began to surround them.

"I'm sorry about the boys. I mean, tying you up and stuffing the sock in your mouth," he said awkwardly, at a loss for words now that she was really here.

"I'm sure they thought they had bagged a felon, that they had done something really good." She couldn't help but smile. "They certainly seemed proud of themselves."

"You may be giving them too much credit," he said with a wry smile.

"They're just little boys, Cale."

"Quinn, my sons are spoiled, undisciplined little hooligans," he told her bluntly. "And while I find it all too easy to blame their mother, I can't deny that I've had as much of a hand in their turning out to be hellions as she did."

Quinn leaned back, watching his face.

"I spent very little time at home, Quinn. I played ball during the season, then spent the off-season rehabilitating whatever injuries I had accumulated over the previous few months. Then it would be time for spring training, then the season would start all over again. I spent no more time with them than their mother did. I hardly knew them at all, so it really isn't fair for me to place all the blame on her."

"And you're trying to make up for it now."

"I'm all they have, Quinn." He ran nervous fingers through his dark brown hair. "She left them months ago and has never looked back. She has not asked to see them, hasn't even called."

"That's so difficult to understand, why a woman would leave her children___"

"It's probably a lot easier when you never wanted them in the first place," he said, his eyes turning grim. "And when you don't care much for their father, I guess it's even easier."

How could any woman not love you, the thought rang in her head, so loudly she startled, certain he must have heard.

"I'm so sorry," she said softly, wondering what the confession might have cost him.

"Marrying Jo Beth was a mistake. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. The boys were the only good thing that came out of the relationship."

"They must miss her."

"Actually, I dont think they do," he said, adding, without apology, "any more than I do." "That's very sad for them."

"I can't argue that, but that's how it is." He tried to lean back in his chair, tried to act real casual, telling himself that she was just any old friend from high school that he happened to run into. His pounding heart and frazzled nerves told him otherwise. "But I am determined to make up for all the time I didn't spend with them. If that's possible. Sometimes it's a little difficult to keep them busy. More than a little, actually. They've had years of electronic baby-sitters. I'm trying to wean them from the television, as you've probably noticed."

"I guess taking them to the wilds of Montana must have sounded like a good idea."

"It did when Val suggested it. Now I'm not so sure. It gets harder every day to find something new for them to do. But what about you, Quinn? Any spouse or children waiting for you back at the High Meadow?"

"No," she said, not bothering to elaborate. Why bother telling him that she had never fallen in love with anyone else? Oh, there'd been a few close calls, but nothing that had set her heart and blood on fire the way he had, but why go into that?

"You write children's books and live… where?"

"Right now I'm renting an apartment in Missoula. I'm substituting at the university this semester through the end of January."

"And then…?"

"I'm not sure." She shrugged. "I might stay in Missoula, I might come back to the ranch. I might go someplace else. I haven't decided yet." This isn't really so difficult after all, Quinn told herself. If I just look at that spot on the wall behind him, right there above his head, instead of at his face, I'll be fine.

"I guess that's an advantage of doing the type of work you do. You can live just about anywhere."

"Anywhere there's postal service and electricity for my PC." She nodded. "How 'bout you? What are your plans?"

"You mean beyond accepting the fact that my ball- playing days are over?" His eyes darkened and the crevices near the corners of his mouth seemed to deepen.

"It must be very difficult for you to have to start over."

He stood up and paced just a little, like someone who had been confined to a very small space for far too long. "Everyone says, you can coach. You can get a job with radio, or TV. You can be a broadcaster."

''It's not just about a job." She stated what to her was obvious.

"No. It's not just about a job. Baseball is so much a part of what I am, that I don't know who I am without it." He paused, then added, his voice barely above a whisper, "Maybe I'm afraid to find out who I am now. Maybe I'll find out that I'm really no one at all."

His solemn candor stunned her and took her breath away.

Before she could reply, he turned his back and said, "I guess it's a good time to turn in. You must be tired from walking through the storm."

She could only nod, suddenly grateful to know that within a few more minutes, she would be alone, away from his haunted eyes and the sorrow that seemed to overtake him, away from her sudden urge to put her arms around him and comfort him, to reassure him.

"You can have my room. I'll sleep out here."

"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather sleep out here. I don't want to put you out of your bed," she said, knowing there was no way she would be able to sleep in a bed where he had lain. No, thank you. Sleeping in Papa Bear's bed might have worked for Goldilocks, but Quinn Hollister would stick to the sofa.

"I really don't mind…" "I'd really rather," she said firmly.

"I'll get some blankets." He nodded as if he understood and went off down the hall, returning a few minutes later with a pile of blankets and a pillow, which he dropped on the sofa.

"I thought maybe you might be more comfortable sleeping in these." He handed her a dark gray thermal shirt and a pair of light gray sweatpants. "Val left a few nightgowns, but I doubt they'd be warm enough."

"These are fine. Thank you. Where can I change?"

"The bathroom is the first door on the left." He pointed toward the hallway.

She hesitated before asking, "Is there a shower?"

"Yes."

"Do you mind if I use it?" She felt sweaty from the exertion of her walk.

"Not at all. I'll get you some towels."

Quinn nodded her thanks and followed him the short walk to the bathroom. He removed several fluffy towels from a small closet and handed them to her. "Soap's in there." He pointed through the open door as he reached behind her to turn on the tight.

Cale tried to concentrate on preparing a bed for Quinn on the sofa, piling the blankets and fluffing the pillow, and not on the fact that she was, at this moment, in his shower. That the water he could hear running on the other side of the wall was sliding down her back, across her shoulders…

He had added yet another log on the fire, and poked energetically at the embers, when he heard the bathroom door open, heard her soft footsteps behind him as she came into the room. Turning to her, his words stuck in his throat. He watched her as she placed her folded clothes into her bag, his stomach tightening, and he tried in vain to look away. Even with her long hair damp from the shower and wrapped in a towel, Quinn was, if possible, even more lovely than she had been as a girl. She had filled out just a little, rounding here and lengthening there, until she was, as he could plainly see, nearer to perfection than any woman had a right to be. He could not help but notice, too, that she filled out his old gray thermal shirt in ways it was never intended to be filled.

Feeling his eyes on her, Quinn practically leaped under the blankets and drew them up to her chin.

"Anything else I can get you?" he asked.

"Just your promise that I won't be bound and gagged when I wake up in the morning." She tried to make light of it.

"You've got it." Cale did his best to smile. "Well then," she said, rubbing the. wet strands of hair with the towel, "I guess I'll see you in the morning. And thank you."

"For what?"

"For taking me in."

"Right." He backed away from the sofa as if it were on fire. "Good night, Quinn."

"Good night, Cale."

Sweet dreams, she wanted to call after him, but did not. Instead, she lay in silence and listened to his footsteps echo on the wooden floor. Hearing his bedroom door close, Quinn sat up and took a deep breath, then got up quietly, creeping across the rag carpet to the fire, where she bent forward to let her hair dry the best it could. When she had finished, she draped the towel along the stone mantel, and tiptoed back to the sofa, grateful to be alone for the first time in hours. Alone to contemplate what the fates had delivered to her. Had anyone told her that she would spend the days before Christmas in a remote cabin with Cale McKenzie she'd have laughed in their face.

And yet here she sat, wearing his clothes and bundled in blankets a mere fifteen or twenty feet from where he slept, right down that hallway. And with him out of sight, it was easier for her to dwell on him, on how well he had filled out over the years. His face had changed so little, maybe a little less angular, but his eyes still had that glow and his smile still carried that same old warmth, that same sweet promise____

That promise he had never kept, she reminded herself. Tortured by the memory, she wished she had the nerve to ask why, but then again, surely he'd think her a fool to have harbored that all these years. Better, perhaps, to pretend that the episode never happened, than to open those old wounds.

Old wounds that never really healed, but that's mine to deal with. He doesn't need to know that….

Quinn sighed deeply and lay back down, pulling the covers around her to make a nest of sorts, knowing that there would be little sleep for her while the. man who had filled her dreams for so many years was really here, under the same roof. In the flesh. Just seeing Cale had touched her in places she hadn't even known were still alive and well.

She sighed again and turned over to stare at the fire, watching its dancing tongues lick the sides of the brick firebox and the shadows move slowly, sinuously across the room, like lovers dancing in the dark.

Arrrghhh.

Wrong image. She turned her back to the fire and punched the pillow, then began to count backward from one thousand. Anything to keep her mind off the beautiful man with the hazel eyes who slept just a short stroll down a darkened hallway.

Cale turned over for what must have been the four- hundredth time. Sleep, which was, for him, always hard to come by, was, on this night, a total impossibility. Not with her curled up on his sofa, just thirty-two steps away. He'd counted after he'd turned his back and walked to his room.

The reality of it stunned him and almost made him giddy. Quinn was there. His golden girl was there, under his roof. How different things could have been –should have been–if things had gone the way they had been intended. They would be cuddled together under this down quilt right now, sharing their warmth and sharing the night, instead of being separated by thirty-two steps.

Why, he had wanted to ask her. Why, his heart had wanted to know. But surely, after all this time, it should not matter. And would it not hurt more to find that he had had his heart bruised by the whim of a schoolgirl? Why embarrass himself now by demanding from the woman an explanation for the actions of the girl she had once been? He turned restlessly once again and closed his eyes, but all he could see was that face, eyes green like new grass, mouth ripe as mountain berries…

Cale groaned and turned over again, knowing that this was a night that was not likely to pass quickly.

Quinn had sensed him before she saw or heard him. Opening one eye into a mere slit, she watched as he bent down to lift a log and leaned over to place it on the diminished pile of smoldering wood. He added a second log, then a third. He brushed his hands on his dark sweatpants, then softly crossed the rag rug to straighten her blankets. Pausing just slightly, he reached down and touched the side of her face, touched her lips with his fingertips in a gesture of longing that took her breath away. Drawing his hand back abruptly, he turned and padded back down the hall.

Raising one hand to her face, Quinn traced the path his fingers had made on her skin, and with the other, she wiped the tears from her cheek.

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