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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Three)

Isabel drifted awake to the chitter of finches and a warm shaft of sunshine that spilled across her bed. Snug and drowsy, she didn't feel like getting up. Eyes still closed, she relived the dream that clung to the edges of her sleepy mind.

John Wolcott had been kissing her.

And she'd been kissing him back.

Rolling from her side, Isabel put her arm over her forehead. Dreams of such a passionate nature hadn't snuck up on her in longer than she could remember– and never as vivid a one as she'd had about John's mouth covering hers. It was as if he'd actually been kissing her. Her lips tingled even now. .

With a lift of her hand, she ran her fingertips over the seam of her mouth. A kiss as tender and light as the breeze… that's how it had started. Then it turned to an intensity that sent spirals of ecstacy through her.

Reckless abandon, that's what it had been.

How could she? Even in a dream?

He was a good-for-nothing, a serenader to full moons–not the kind of man she wanted.

Isabel became aware of a tinny sound that didn't belong outside her window. Her heartbeat faltered. Sitting up and flipping her braid behind her, she grabbed the tiny derringer she kept in a bedside drawer. The gun wasn't very powerful, but it was enough to persuade any intruder to think twice about trespassing or harming her.

Not bothering to slip into her wrapper, she crept onto the porch and walked to the side of the house, pistol raised. She paused when she saw John.

He was watering the last lemon tree with her metal bucket. All the other trees had sloppy wet pools at the bases of their trunks. He must have been at this for hours. Why hadn't she heard him before?

Her mind had been too occupied with thoughts of kissing him… that's why.

Lifting his head, John spied her. The sides of his mouth curved down. "I didn't think you'd stoop this low."

Nonplused, she murmured, "What…?"

"Shoot me and take the berries for your own."

"I'd never do that." Indignation laced her reply. Isabel gazed at the gun, then at John. She lowered the pistol to her side. "I heard a noise. I didn't know it was you out here."

"Somebody had to get these trees watered if we're going to get an early start over to Rigby Glen. Half the damn morning's been wasted."

Embarrassment clutched Isabel. She normally did rise early. It still was early, by the looks of the sun. Usually she'd have been up by this hour and already had half her trees watered. That John had gone out of his way to help her… it just… well, the gesture flustered her. She didn't know what to make of him.

She caught him eyeing her nightgown with a smoldering stare. To be precise, he was eyeing the thin muslin covering her legs as the rays of sunlight poured through it left the fabric as transparent as white poppy petals.

"I'll get ready," she said and turned toward the house, unable to rid herself of the longing that gnawed inside her. With a single gaze, John made her feel like she ought to be in his arms.

Inside the cabin, Isabel collected herself and rushed to dress and pack a meal for the day. A couple hours later, they sat beneath a pungent eucalyptus eating the tortillas with brown sugar, powered cocoa, and cinnamon rolled into tubes that she'd made, and handfuls of dried apricots.

They'd gathered a good share of berries, having dodged a group to the south by riding west several miles, then doubling back in the higher country and heading for the glen undetected.

John had surprised her with that piebald mare she'd wanted–saddled and waiting in the yard next to his mount. When she asked him how he'd managed to get the horse when he'd given her all the berries, he wouldn't tell her. For a few flickering seconds, she wondered if he'd held out on her… if he'd kept some berries for his own vices.

She knew that nearly all the businesses in town were now taking only berries as payment. And she knew that John liked his liquor… But she didn't press him for an answer. She had to trust him. They were partners now.

"Goin' to be a cooker today," John mentioned as he brought his leg up and rested his forearm on his knee.

His accent made her ask, "Where are you originally from?"

He turned toward her. They shared the small blanket she'd brought, John leaning his back against the eucalyptus trunk. "Texarkana, Texas."

"You sound like you're from Texas."

"Do I? I didn't think my drawl was that noticeable."

She shook her head while smiling softly.

"Where're you from?"

"Los Angeles," she replied.

Isabel faced forward and looked at the expanse of wide open country growing wild with lilac, spicebush, and California juniper. It was hard to believe that she'd actually lived in the city, been confined by brick buildings, the first motor cars, and street noises so loud she'd grown used to them.

"You lived alone?"

"No. With my sister and her husband."

She thought about the two years prior to her arrival in Limonero.

She'd been living in a tiny apartment with Kate and Andrew while working as a maid at the Hotel Ramona. As much as she loved her sister, Isabel found the close quarters disquieting, especially when tensions rose between the couple.

Having gone through a bad marriage herself, Isabel hadn't wanted to add to Kate and Andrew's troubles by being in the way. So she'd packed her belongings, wished her sister well, and left on the first northbound train with the promise that she'd write. She did stay in touch, and was glad to hear the couple was working out their differences.

"Do you have family back in Texas?" she asked, folding her napkin and John's and putting them back in her picnic hamper.

"Nope. My dad and his new wife live in Mexico. My mother's dead. I've got a brother–Tom, who lives in Montana. I haven't seen him in ages." His expression grew distant, as if talking about his brother wasn't something he was used to. "You see your sister much?"

"No."

"Sometimes families just drift apart, I expect."

Quietly, she nodded.

They shared something, and it somewhat unsettled Isabel. Both of them had family; both of them were on their own. Both of them seemed to be… loners. She didn't like the word. She hated even using it on herself. But it was the truth. She didn't get close to people. The only person she could call a friend was Duster, and even so, she didn't see him as often as she used to. Except for that night in the Blossom, she hadn't sat with him for a long spell and had a conversation.

"You sure have had a slew of jobs since coming to town," John commented, pulling Isabel from her thoughts.

The dry inflection in his tone put a pebble in her shoe. It sounded as if he wondered what was wrong with her that she couldn't hold the same position for more than a few months.

"Yes, I have." She stared at him, daring him to make a smart remark.

He held his hands up in mock surrender. "Don't bite my head off. I was just making an observation. Hell, the same could be said about me."

"You're right. It sure could."

She'd seen him working at the feed and seed, the livery, repairing the engines Calco used on the rigs, and warming the bench in front of the Republic while eating peanuts and drinking beer. The latter was his favorite occupation.

Since he'd admitted to employment shortcomings, she was willing to let the subject go–until he added, "But at least I've worn my clothes in my jobs."

Pinning him with a glare, she choked, "What did you just say?"

"Think you heard me, Isabel." With that, he went to his feet. She shot up next to him.

"You have no call to be saying such a thing to me."

"Wasn't me who worked at the Blossom." His eyes locked with hers. If she could have calmed her jagged pulse for a moment and looked at him rationally, she would have seen the jealousy in his gaze. "And we know what kind of place that is."

"I suspect all of Limonero knows exactly what kind of place the Blossom is. And don't you try and tell me you've never been there. Jacaranda told me all about you."

John adjusted his Stetson–that habit of his; there was never anything wrong with the angle. He just rearranged the brim when he got mad and always set the crown exactly the way it had been before he messed with it. "She did? What in the deuce did she have to say?"

Isabel wasn't about to tell him that Jacaranda said she should have been paying him instead of the other way around. Jacaranda had claimed John was the best — "Somebody's coming," John hissed between his teeth.

Snapping her chin up, Isabel searched the dull horizon. A dust cloud rose in a thin plume: one rider.

"Get on your horse."

Isabel protested. "But we haven't picked all the berries. Why let somebody else have the rest?"

He brought his face close to hers, his nose and forehead inches from her own. The smoldering fire of his blue eyes grounded her to the spot. She could smell the sweetness of cinnamon and cocoa on his breath. "It's not the berries on the bushes I'm worried about. It's the ones we already picked. Some people would do anything to win this contest, even if it means thievery at gunpoint. I don't know about you, but I don't feel like getting killed today."

They loaded the horses with their gear, and rather than ride out, John told Isabel to take the reins and follow his lead. Where they'd stopped for breakfast had been flanked by an outcropping of sandstone directly behind them. He knew of a narrow canyon inside that had been carved out by water some hundreds of years ago. The stream that meandered through it now was low, but crystal clear. He had a good mind to go swimming as soon as whoever the rider was had either passed this way and left, or got his fill of berries.

Guiding his horse around the twists and turns of the soft rock incline, John reached the top and tied off the reins, motioning Isabel to do likewise. Once their animals were secured, he crouched low and went to the ground. Crawling up to the edge of the cliff, he peered down at the scene below just as Isabel scooted next to him.

The flashy gray roan tipped him off as to who the rider was reining in and dismounting.

"It's Newt," John stated dully.

"Who?"

He flashed her a sideways stare. "Guess you didn't go by names."

Nudging toward him, she said, "I don't like what you're hinting at."

"I'm not hinting at anything." John kept his gaze fixed on Newt, who was in a hurry to pluck berries and throw them in a burlap sack. "Newt told me all about it."

"All about what?"

"You and him at the Blossom."

"There wasn't anything between me and him at the Blossom."

"Not what he told me." The censure in her voice had slapped him as sure as if she'd used her hand. "Well there wasn't and he's a damn liar!" With that, she cuffed him for real and they both went sliding backward down the ledge.

He put a hand over her mouth to muffle her scream and she latched on to him with both hands on his shoulders. John lost his hat, swore, and yelled at Isabel to shut up. She kept on with her cries. He cupped his fingers tighter over her mouth; she bit him. He swore once more.

Looking about for a strong foothold to stop their decsent, he wedged his boot into a flannel bush. They came to a sliding halt. Pebbles showered their heads and dust clogged the air.

John didn't remove his hand from her mouth and arm, fearful he'd reach for her throat if he did. She'd come after him as if she was some kind of crazy woman. To think, he'd watered her stupid lemon trees to help her out.

Hell, he'd thought she was sound–her reasoning about the lemon syrup and alL But he guessed he was wrong. She was still nutty and her hull had just cracked.

Violet eyes glowered at him; dusty lashes blinked in rapid succession. She was spitting mad. He couldn't release her yet. "Now listen." He brought his nose smack up to hers. "If I let you go, you'd better not be screaming because these canyons carry noise–if Newt didn't hear us already. I've known him for a while, but I can't vouch for a man's character when money's at stake. No telling what he might do if he finds us up here. He travels with a Colt, and I don't want to be on the barrel end of it."

John gripped her arm tighter. "I'm going to take my hand off your mouth. If you open your lips to do more than whisper, you're going to be sorry."

Slowly, he pulled his hand away.

Isabel's nostrils flared. In a low voice, she ground out, "I was never one of the girls in the true sense."

Her words sluiced over him like warm rain after a drought, bringing solace and… relief. Why, he didn't Want to confront. It shouldn't have mattered to him.

With brows furrowed, she asked, "What's this Newt look like?"

"Lanky. Sandy hair. Small gap between his front teeth. Chews tobacco."

To his surprise, she laughed. She rolled onto her back and softly laughed.

He kept his hand on her arm, only now he stretched across her waist… just below the swells of her breasts.

"Oh, him. I know who he is."

That niggling feeling rose in John again, green and ugly. She knew who Newt was.

She quieted her laughter and turned to him. "I locked Newt in the closet."

"What for?"

The mirth in her eyes faded. "Because I couldn't go through with it, that's why. I thought I could."

John eased onto his side, but kept his arm draped over Isabel. She made no move to fling him off her. "Why'd you go there in the first place?"

"I was down on my luck and the Blossom seemed a sure way to improve it. All I was thinking about was the money." Her lashes swept down. "And that I wasn't giving anything up, so I had nothing to lose."

The implication came across clear. She wasn't a virgin.

"I wasn't cut out to be a floozie. I had to wear this scrap of silk Fern told me to put on. The skirt was lemon yellow and the bodice had white lace all over the top and straps–like blossoms. And it had lemon- scented sachets sewn into the hem____"

John listened, but didn't really hear her. He was picturing Isabel in a yellow dress and smelling like lemon blossoms. Maybe with her inky black hair all curled and piled high on her head. If he'd been in the Blossom that night, he would have paid Fern whatever she wanted for a chance to be with Isabel…

"… Fern gave all the girls names the night I started. Said it was a costume party in honor of my… well–" A blush brought a stain of color to her cheeks. "My first time. She called me Miss Lemon Blossom. It was downright humiliating."

Watching her lips as she spoke, John grew mesmerized.

"I had to sit in the parlor and socialize. Then that friend of yours–Newt–he and Fern started talking, and the next thing I'm being told to go up to my room and he's following. Once inside, he starts getting all hands with me right away. I told him I kept a pretty wrapper in the closet and asked him to get it for me. Once he was in the door's opening, I shoved him inside and locked him in the closet."

In spite of the serious set of Isabel's brow, John couldn't help smiling. Newt must have blown a gasket.

"I can't imagine why he'd go around telling people that he and I were… well, you know. That no-good bluffer. I ought to shoot him with my derringer." "What did you expect him to say? Can't have a man go upstairs with a wh–" He cleared his throat. "A floozie, and then tell the local bartender he got locked in a closet. Wounds a man's pride. He had to say you were a real mer–" John cut his words short.

Isabel looked into his face. "I suppose he said a lot of indecent things about me."

John lied, "Not much," then slowly added, "No more than the deputy and foreman from Sun- Blessed."

Fire lit her eyes to amethysts. "They couldn't have boasted about getting any different treatment than Newt did. I handcuffed the deputy to the bed and left the foreman on the balcony. I let them all go after their hour was up."

Shrugging, she went on, "I thought they'd want their money back, but when Fern didn't stir up a fuss… I assumed they were too embarrassed to ask for a refund."

Her line of rationalization sounded convincing– convincing from a woman's point of view. But from a man's, that was another story. A man would never let on he'd been gypped out of his frolicking by a woman smarter than him. And John had to admit, Isabel was a smart woman.

"Then Duster came in," she said, brushing the talc off her white blouse now soiled with reddish dirt. "He didn't want a thing from me other than conversation. We stayed in the kitchen the rest of the night and drank coffee until sunup. After Fern closed the doors, I told her I quit and I walked out." Musing replaced the soft curve on her mouth. "It was the first time I wasn't fired from a job. No, wait… I take that back. I quit the Ramona Hotel. I guess it was the first time I wasn't fired from a job in Limonero."

She stated the fact without any grudge in her tone. Compassion overcame John's usual live-and-let-live manner. He wanted to console her.

John reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. The gesture felt natural, and he marveled in the glossy softness of the wisp. When she didn't swat at his hand, he let the sense of pleasure he'd been holding at bay work through him.

For a wavering few heartbeats, they shared an intense physical interest in the other. They were focused only on each other's face, and John wanted to bring his mouth over hers but didn't want to move and lose the moment.

Then Isabel half-smiled and sat up. "I don't know why I told you all this."

As if a hot Santa Ana wind had come down on him, John's thoughts of kissing Isabel Burche evaporated. He pushed himself to sitting, knocking the twigs and sand from his pants legs.

John couldn't rid the tightness in his voice when he said, "I expect you'd have told somebody sometime."

"But I told you."

"Yep."

She heaved a great sigh. "I never have enough to do what I want. I thought working at the Blossom could give it to me."

"Money, you mean."

"Yes… money."

"I never have any extra either."

"That's why we have to win this contest."

For a haphazard couple of seconds, John had allowed himself to think Isabel was glad they were partners. But he wasn't so sure. Hell, she would probably have been better off if they weren't– because his mind wasn't clear at the moment. He was thinking of her more as a desirable woman and less of a fifty-fifty partner.

"Well, we aren't going to win it sitting on our duffs."

John got to his feet and held a hand down for Isabel. She grasped it, and he berated himself for reveling in her touch. Gruffly, he knocked the stems of flannel bush from her shoulder and hair, forcing himself not to feel.

"Best we make sure Newt's gone. Then well ride up farther and finish out the day."

She nodded.

A little later, they were on their horses. She rode in front of him. John got to watch the gentle motion of Isabel's shoulders; see the way the sun shone on her black braid; appreciate the outline of her backside in the split skirt she wore.

The view was worth all the stalls he'd be mucking out for the next couple of months in order to work off the loan of her piebald mare.

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