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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Six)

A gray curtain of fog had covered the landscape early in the morning. But by mid-afternoon, the sun had broken through in enough places to warm Isabel's shoulders as she rode her horse. Clouds in wispy forms streaked through the sky as if a painter had put his brushstrokes here and there. They were on their way to Moontide Ridge, a high precipice that overlooked a stretch of Ventura beach–a simple day's ride, no spending the night

John rode ahead of her, leading the way. Every now and then she gave his broad back and narrow hips a slow perusal, admiring the taut display of muscles. She should have been boiling mad at him still. After all, he'd said she was nutty. And he'd denied Bellamy Nicklaus was Santa Claus.

Isabel was more sure now than she ever had been. Saint Nicholas. Bellamy Nicklaus. The same last name with a spelling variation. Why hadn't she caught on right from the start? It was so obvious. Had anyone else guessed besides her?

When she and John had stopped for a lunch of beans wrapped in tortillas along with dried figs, she'd tried to get him to see things through her eyes. But he'd have none of her reasoning.

A nonbeliever, that's what John Wolcott was.

She wished she could still call him a slouch. But after he'd found water on her place and offered to dig the well, she couldn't make a slanderous reference to his character. John did have a human side. That was the problem.

Even though he didn't believe her, she still found him thoroughly irresistible. Darn it all anyway.

John led the way to Santa Paula Creek, the very one that had been so full a day ago that their crossing had had to wait until morning. The night had slowly ticked away. She'd lain awake for most of it, listening to John breathing, sleeping. How could he sleep when she was angry at him? Didn't he want to talk about why they were mad at each other? Apparently not. Why was it men could roll over and get a good night's rest when a woman stewed over the argument and thought up all the things she should have said but hadn't been fast enough to think of at the time of the fight?

She would have given him what for in the morning if he'd made one Bellamy Nicklaus insult. But he hadn't. In fact, he'd acted as if nothing was wrong so she'd decided not to talk to him.

Simple.

Until he said he'd find water for her.

Then she couldn't ignore him anymore.

And when he'd touched her nose with the tip of his finger… she'd wanted to say she forgave him–even though she didn't, not all the way, at least… somewhat. Oh, she hated staying mad! But he was making her.

The creek ran in a placid flow here, close to the mountain that separated the inland from the shore. She wouldn't have thought the torrent could have dried up so quickly, but it had. The only evidence of the downpour were the broad sandbars and deeply rooted willows along the banks; they were limp and coated with grit. The banks had wavy ripples in the sand that marked the receding flow.

John dismounted and single-handed his reins. "Well walk the horses across. After a flood, the river bottom's not too stable."

She gave him a slow nod, then scanned the water. The shallow trickle didn't look ominous to her. But she heeded his advice and hopped down from her horse to take the reins in her gloved hand.

He let her go ahead of him..

The rocky gravel gave way to silt that stuck to her boots, making a suction sound when she lifted her foot. On the opposite side was a shoulder of hills, and over them, the ridge that led to the coast. It was on the coastal side of Moontide Ridge where berry bushes grew in abundance. This far northwest from town, the chances of their still being lush with fruit was strong.

"You know, I've been thinking about Bellamy," she said in what she hoped came across as an offhand manner. Choosing her steps carefully, she went on when John didn't prompt her to divulge what exactly she'd been thinking about Bellamy. "He said he was in Pago Pago last year for Christmas. I looked up Pago Pago in the mercantile atlas. Do you know where it is?" "Cross on the rocks," John directed, not answering her question.

She frowned and took a short leap onto a rock as the mare behind her sloshed through the water. "Pago Pago is on the southern coast of Tutuila Island, in Samoa." She paid little attention to her next step, trying to get him interested in the relevance of what she had to say. "You know where Samoa is?"

"On the rocks!" he barked at her. "Don't walk on the sandbars."

Isabel pitched him a glare over her shoulder. "I asked if you knew where Samoa was."

"What do I care? I'll never go there."

With a toss of her chin, she faced forward. "Well, you could go there if you were Santa Claus. Pago Pago is in the Pacific Ocean somewhere, this same ocean we have here. And they have pineapples. That's fruit."

"Your left foot, Isabel. Watch it."

Frowning, she stomped her left foot purposefully into the sandbar. "All I was trying to say is Pago Pago is far away. And for Bellamy to have been there he had to travel on a boat–I think… but I doubt it. You know, the books say Santa Claus can fly–"

The last words whooshed out of her as her right leg sunk straight down into an ooze of sand and she fell forward. Her hold on the horse released, and then both her hands were in front of her trying to push herself back to her feet. But she became caught in the quicksand.

Isabel was too stunned to do anything but sputter and gasp for air. The sand started to pull her under quicker than she could think.

Vaguely aware of John's voice and the light splash of creek water as he leapt from one rock to the other to reach the other side, she called out to him.

"Isabel, don't fight it! Stay still!"

She tried to find him on the shore, but she'd lost her hat and the sunlight was in her eyes. "John?!" She had to get out. Wiggling her feet and legs did no good.

"Don't move! You'll dig yourself in faster!"

"Help me!" But her cry sounded lost to her as she lowered nearly to her chin. Everything was happening so fast Somewhere in her mind, she found the strength to do as John asked. She went still.

Then hands caught her beneath her arms. John's face loomed over hers and he never looked more handsome or heroic. Even if he couldn't save her… he'd tried, and she… loved him for his effort.

"Hold on to me!" She wasn't a weak woman, but her strength was all but sapped. She did the best she could, her limp arms draping over his shoulders.

"You have to hold tight, Isabel! I can't pull myself out if I've got to hold you, too."

She barely nodded, seeing for the first time that he'd fastened a rope around his middle that reached the other side of the creek and was anchored to the limb of an oak.

In what seemed like forever, John made the slow journey with her out of the sand and onto the banks, where he went to his knees to help her get her bearings. She could hardly move other than to tighten her grasp around his neck and cling to him as if she'd never let him go.

"You saved me," she murmured against his ear. "You could have left me and had everything for yourself… but you saved me."

"Isabel." Her name grated from his throat in a pained whisper. "I would never have left you. Isabel… I couldn't. I… care too much. Everything wouldn't be anything to me… without you."

To her embarrassment, she began crying–softly, gently, against his strong shoulder.

They were wet and muddy and had nearly been pulled into the sand. But she couldn't think about that. The words swirling in her head weren't only the ones of gratitude and affection. There was a silent declaration she was too afraid to speak.

I love you, John.

John Wolcott had fallen in love for the first time in his life.

He loved Isabel.

Standing at the railing of the Pierpont Inn and gazing out at the ocean, John got used to the idea. Not that he needed to–he'd been in love with her for days, but he hadn't recognized how strongly until he'd nearly lost her.

What would she say if he told her?

It seemed too soon, too sudden. But sometimes a man just knew. She was the woman for him, the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Hell, he'd been waiting for her all his life. And because of a contest… he'd found her.

Waves crashed beneath the deck, lapping against the pilings and creating a serenade that was to John's hieing. The waning sun bronzed the white of his shirt. He'd bought himself and Isabel new clothes. His shirt had embroidery on the cuffs with full, billowing sleeves and an open neck where lacings lay undone. Hie pants were snow white as well, making him feel somewhat uncomfortable–too pristine. But it was the best he could do. The boardwalk vendor's price was right, not to mention that he was the only one around selling clothes.

Isabel was in one of the rooms cleaning up and changing. He'd paid for an hour's use with a bath and an attendant to help Isabel if she needed it. They'd had to come to the hotel on one horse. That mare he'd rented for her had taken off when she'd let go of the reins. No doubt the piebald was back to Limonero by now–with its panniers empty of berries. At least they hadn't picked any yet for somebody else to make off with when they caught the horse.

John had thought of booking the room for the night and staying in Ventura. But he hadn't wanted Isabel to feel trapped with him–he'd sensed she'd felt that way in the tent. He wasn't easily goaded into an argument. He didn't like them; he'd watched his parents have too many.

Tonight would be different, though. They weren't mad at each other. In fact, he felt as if they were closer now than they'd ever been. They could travel at night. He'd bought a set of blankets and a small lantern. Picking berries in near-dark wasn't a picnic. It could be done, though, if necessary. He was willing if that's what Isabel wanted.

Turning and resting his elbows on the railing, John looked through the magenta bougainvillea-covered arch that led to the hotel's rooms, to catch a glimpse of Isabel. He stood in the courtyard, where a single table and two chairs had been set up at his request. All around, palm tree fronds whispered in the breeze. Bird-of-paradise surrounded a softly trickling fountain. A gull cried overhead. Hibiscus flowers were in bloom in every color.

A slip of white caught his eye, and he turned.

Isabel walked toward him wearing her black hair in a high twist with many braids forming a loose effect at the top of her head. Pink flowers had been pinned in various places, adding a sweet softness he longed to breathe in. The three-tiered skirt and white blouse he'd picked out for her hadn't looked nearly as good on the vendor's table as they did on her.

The skirt had a wispy fullness to it and came only to her ankles. On her feet she wore Mexican sandals. The colorful embroidery on her blouse made a marbled splash at her bare throat and the crook of her arms. The ivory skin on the column and slope of her neck seemed almost golden in the sunset. A lacy shawl of fine white wool draped about her shoulders.

She was a vision…

John left the railing and went to her to take her hands. She let him. "Isabel, I don't know what to say. 'Beautiful' isn't enough."

Shyly, she looked down, then at him. "Lupe told me this skirt isn't too short, and the blouse is worn off the shoulders, but I feel… undressed," she confessed; then she added, "All over. If it wasn't for the shawl, I wouldn't have come out."

"Shawl or no"–he brought his fingers beneath her chin and lightly brushed his lips over hers, as if it were natural to do so–"you're exquisite."

Her cheeks pinkened. "Look at you… all dressed up."

"Yeah." He shrugged, uncertain she really liked how he looked and wanting to impress her.

"You look handsome."

He gave her a half smile, pleased. "Well, we're all gussied up so I reckon we should do something about it."

"What?" Her voice was breathless; her eyes shone as soft as purple irises.

"Enjoy the sunset."

"I'd like that." She made a move toward the railing and he stopped her.

"No, Isabel. This way." Her hand still clasped in his, he guided her to the table with its flickering amber globe and red oil lantern. "We'll have dinner, then we can do whatever you like." He held a chair out for her.

With indecision, she paused. Her tone was low when she said, "But we don't have any berries to pay for this…"

"They don't take berries here. Only money. And I had some. Enough for the room and clothes. And the dinner."

He thought back to Monday when his paycheck had been wearing a dent in his wallet, waiting for him to drink it away. He'd left the bar early and hadn't spent a cent since the contest began. A damn good thing. He wanted to give Isabel a night she'd never forget.

"If you're sure," she murmured, then let him help her sit.

Rounding the table, he sat across from her. "I'm sure."

The last vestiges of the sun were slipping into the ocean and the air felt soft. For a December evening, only a slight chill surrounded them.

Everything had to be perfect for Isabel. He didn't want to mess it up. He'd never wooed a woman and really meant it before.

She glanced at him, the fiery sunset shimmering off her hair. He remembered something.

"S'cuse me," he said in a rush as he yanked his hat off and plopped it beneath the table. "I forgot I had it on."

Her laughter sounded as silky at the palm fronds. "You're forgiven."

He could tell she was making light of him. But he didn't care.

A waiter came to the table with a tray carrying a pitcher and two glasses. He bowed and set the table.

"For the se�orita," he said as he poured sangria for Isabel.

Then to John he said, "Se�or."

John nodded, watching the sliced oranges spill into his glass along with the red wine.

Isabel didn't take a sip until John grasped his glass. Gazing into its depths, he could have sworn he saw a golf ball. Knitting his brows together, he gave the wine a swirl. What he thought had been a ball turned out to be an orange slice. But he would have made a bet there was a golf ball in his drink.

A warmth filled him… a kind of peace. Even though it was unsettling, he didn't feel as if he needed the liquor. He'd gone without and had craved a stiff drink for days. Now that he had one… he didn't have the need.

He lifted his eyes to Isabel's. "You go ahead. I quit drinking."

Curiosity caught the corners of her mouth. "You did?"

"Yeah, only I didn't know it until now."

"Then I won't have any."

He reached out and laid a hand on her wrist. "No. Have some of the sangria if you want it."

"It's all right"

She set her glass aside as four men playing instruments strolled toward them from the hotel. Reaching the table, they gave John a nod, then began singing.

Isabel smiled as she watched them.

John stood and held out his hand. "Care to dance, Isabel?"

"Oh… but I don't know how to dance to this. They're singing in Spanish."

"You don't need to know what they're saying. Just move with me in my arms and you'll do fine."

She went with him and they embraced, dancing to the music in a slow waltz. Isabel rested her cheek against the side of his neck. She was softer than anything he'd ever held and smelled like floral bathing salts. John savored the moment and let it embed into his memory for eternity.

"What are they saying?" Isabel asked, her breath warm next to his ear.

The band's lilting song with its accordion and guitar was a romantic ballad.

"Amor… quieres que te acompa�e?"

John translated. "Love… may I walk with you?"

"Amor… eres tan bonita."

"Love… you are so beautiful."

"Suspiro por ti."

"I yearn for you."

"Sue�o con tus besos."

"I dream of your kisses."

"Ven a mis brazos."

"Come to my arms."

"Amor… deseo de mi corazon."

"Love… my heart's desire."

"Angel de mi amor."

"My angel love."

His cheek came next to hers as the ballad continued without words. The song said everything he felt in his heart Could Isabel tell when he'd spoken the words… he'd been saying them to her?

Their dance ended just as several waiters brought a meal to the table–a feast was more like it. John escorted Isabel back and they explored the plates of seafood and salads with slices of avocado. All the while, they traded glances… smiles… no words other than the ones spoken from their eyes.

The third course was halibut with carrots. Then a bowl of baby lima beans in a peppery broth of milk and butter and fried potato slices. For desert, they had a choice from the tray of Mexican pastries. Isabel chose strawberries and cream. John picked the flan. They traded bites, leaning across the table with spoons lifted to the other's mouth.

When the meal was over, they drank cafe con leche and listened to the music as the moon rose.

John hated to bring op the contest, but he did because Isabel was so certain they had to win. "Isabel… we can collect berries and then ride back to town. We could be there by morning. I bought a lantern and blankets. They're on the beach with the rest of my gear. I'll get my horse, if you want."

She exhaled a long sigh of contentment. "I don't want to. Can't we stay here a little while longer?"

"Sure___sure."

Her lashes lowered, and she whispered, "Ask me to walk with you. Like the song."

John's heart thundered. "Amor… quieres que te acompa�e?"

"Yes," she returned, gazing into his face. "I'll walk with you."

He rose from his chair and tucked her shawl about her shoulders. Before she stood, she reached down and grabbed his hat and put it on her own head. John put his arm through hers and they walked down the boardwalk and onto the soft sand.

The musicians stayed behind, but their melodic notes followed. Soon, the sandy beach sunk beneath the couple's feet, and the mellow night enveloped them as they strolled… hand-in-hand.

The hotel's outdoor cookfire had turned the moon into an orange wedge that resembled half a face. Wispy thin clouds slowly drifted across its mouth, then the light streaks of gray were carried on the breeze toward the water.

Isabel and John sat on the blanket listening to the surf as it washed up the sand and went back down again. The rhythm was gentle and soothing, a sound Isabel enjoyed but seldom heard.

"Did you get to the beach much when you lived in Los Angeles?" John asked, as if reading her thoughts while tucking her closer within the crook of his arm.

"Not as often as I would have liked. I never seemed to have the extra time." She rested her head on his shoulder. 'Time is something I'm always chasing. Even now… we don't have much time left."

As she said it, she was referring to the contest, but in a way, the statement was more of a reflection on them–of how their relationship was drifting closer to being defined one way or another. After the contest, what would happen?

She didn't want to think about Christmas Day.

All that mattered was tonight and how wonderful John had made everything for her, the dinner, the dancing, and now the ocean and moon.

He'd made a cozy place for them in a secluded area where ice plant grew in the dunes that kept them hidden. A natural hedge of tree mallow acted as a wind break, its rosy lavender hollyhock flowers in bloom and fragrantly mingling on the sea air.

John's strength beside her comforted her. His arm felt right around her. This was the best time she'd ever had. She didn't want tonight to end. She wanted to take the moment farther… to have a memory above all else that she could treasure.

With her fingers meshed through John's, Isabel ran her thumb over his thick-skinned knuckle. It was the smallest of pleasures, one to be savored. With his free hand, he tilted her face to his.

"Isabel…" He breathed her name on the lightest of kisses.

Their lips brushed and danced, much as the two of them had to the music–a courtship of kissing. She needed this. She didn't know how badly until now.

Their fingers unlinked to give the hands freedom to explore.

Cupping his face in her hands, she kissed him with everything in her heart, all she felt, but couldn't say. He lifted her legs so that they rested over his knees and he could hold her close.

The kiss held a lifetime of romance, for in this one fragment of time, she was loved as she never had been. She understood his desire, for she felt the same. In intensity, they were equaled.

Isabel wanted to give herself to him; vows between them weren't necessary. In this, their own special place, nobody judged.

John trailed his fingers down her shoulder and over the curve of her breast, erupting sparks of desire through her. As he traced her taut nipple through the thin blouse that hung loosely around her, the kiss changed. It was dizzying, electrifying, deeper, with an intimacy she'd never dared before–all those passionate things she'd heard the girls in the Blossom talking about wanting–all those things she'd never experienced.

They lay back on the blanket without breaking the kiss, John on his side next to her. They lingered and pleased each other, until Isabel grew weak with need.

Then John lifted his head. Moonlight bathed him. "Isabel… do you—"

She brought her forefinger to his lips to silence him. "I do. Now, let's not talk anymore."

The surf crashed into the night, but Isabel barely heard it above the thunder of her heartbeat. Clothes were shed and naked skin kindled with caresses and kisses. Hands meshed. Mouths met. Touching became a sensory delight.

John aroused her senses to a fevered pitch that made her toes curl and had her wrapping her legs around his. Their legs intertwined, they joined and became one. She gasped in sweet agony. The pleasure was pure and explosive, new and different. It made her feel so very much alive… and cherished.

She clung to him as he made her his. He moved in strong and smooth strokes that sent her toward the edge, that made her lift to him and meet him. She gazed into his face, sweeping across his features: the tight control he exuded by the set of his mouth; the flare of his nostrils; the hooded slant of his eyes as he read into her soul.

He continued the rocking movements until she couldn't stop the shattering. Surrender came and riveted her, exploding and filling her with splendor. At that moment when everything inside her skittered and became charged, he met her with his own release and held her close, his mouth next to her ear… kissing… breathing.

Her own breathing labored and spent, Isabel embraced him.

The fire of completion spread to her heart. How easy it would be to say the words: I love you. But in the moment of passion… they might sound trite and expected. So she kept her silence and let her love for him fill the tears of joy that spilled out from the corners of her eyes.

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