Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Five)

"Damn her!" Cole muttered as he pulled the barbed wire even tighter.

"Hey!" Joe yelled. "You almost caught my hand in that." He started to say more, but then a bolt of lightning flashed nearby, the horses let out screams of fear and tried to get away, then Cole yelled something that Joe was sure he didn't want to hear. All in all, Joe decided it was better to keep his mouth shut, which was what all the men who worked or lived in Legend had decided of late.

Ever since Mrs. Kate had come to live in the Jordan house, Cole's temper had been like that of a wildcat caught in a trap. Couldn't nobody talk to him or even look at him for fear of having his head bit off.

The only way the people of Legend could stand Cole's temper was because they knew what was going on, since everybody who worked near the Jordan house made sure they told everything they saw. And they saw plenty!

Mrs. Kate had indeed tamed that brat Zachary. Everyone was amazed at what she had been able to do with him. Who would have thought that the boy was smart? Clever, yes, but not book-learnin' smart. But he was.

After Mrs. Kate showed that hellion Zachary that if he was going to eat anything besides Manuel's swill, he had to apply himself to the books just as her perfect, prissy son did, Zachary settled down to become a real scholar. Of course it greatly helped matters that one day the two boys went behind the barn and young Jeremy knocked the stuffing out of Zachary. Everyone on the place had gone running to watch that fight. Everybody except Mrs. Kate, that is. Of course she must have known that it was going on, what with all the hollerin' and swearin' that she was sure to have heard in the house, but maybe she decided not to try to stop what was bound to happen.

Manuel said that when the boys came to breakfast she didn't say a word about their bloody faces and bruised, sore bodies. In fact, she made them both sit on hard benches without a break for three hours. And when both boys were nearly falling asleep from fatigue, she said their problem was that they needed some exercise, so she took them outside and made them run halfway up a mountain then back down. By the nightfall both boys were united by a common enemy: Mrs. Kate.

So now, three months later, the boys, if not exactly friends, certainly were together a great deal, both of them challenging each other to be the best at whatever they tried.

No, the problem was not the boys. The problem was Cole. For all that weeks had gone by, Mrs. Kate had not relented in her complete and absolute disregard for Cole Jordan. Manuel reported that for all the notice that Mrs. Kate took of Cole, he might as well not exist.

At dinner she and the boys sat at one end of the table and ate what she cooked, while Cole sat at the other end and ate the greasiest mess Manuel could manage to come up with. And considering Manuel's expertise in that area, Joe hated to think what that was like.

With Zachary's help, Mrs. Kate had hired a couple of women who had retired from "other" work in Legend to do the cleaning, washing, and ironing. Except they didn't clean or iron or wash for Cole. His room was left a pigsty and she left the care of his clothes to Manuel, who made sure they stayed dirty and rumpled.

The result of all this was that Cole Jordan's temper was enough to send bears running for cover. Half the hands had quit and moved to Texas. "Or hell," they'd said. "Hell couldn't be worse than this place."

Now, when the sky opened up and cold rain poured down on them, Cole didn't seem to notice, so Joe kept on holding the fence posts for him while he strung the wire. But when the sleet started and icy pellets hit the two of them, Joe didn't bother to tell Cole he was going back to the bunk-house. After all, it was already ten o'clock at night, they were working by moonlight (which wasn't there anymore), and they'd both been up since four a.m. And if that weren't enough, it was Christmas Eve.

After another half hour, Joe just turned away, got on his frightened horse, and started riding away. Even over the storm he could hear Cole behind him shouting that he was fired and that a man couldn't find anybody today who knew how to work.

"Damn them all to hell," Cole muttered under his breath as he pulled on the wire again, but it slipped from his gloved hand and landed… He had no idea where the wire went, and it was much too dark to see. Reluctantly, he stuck the hook in his back pocket and mounted his horse. When the animal was skittish, Cole pulled back on the reins until it knew who was master.

The sleet was so bad that it took nearly an hour to find his way back to the house, and when he rode into the barn he was shivering. Shaking one of the men awake, he told him to rub his horse down, then Cole staggered to the house.

As always, the back door was bolted closed, and the sight of the Christmas wreath on the door just angered him more. "Damn her!" he yelled just as thunder cracked and drowned his words. Her and her obsession with locking him out of his own house! In one of her rare moments of addressing actual words to him, she'd handed him a key and said that he could use it. But now his hands were too cold to find a key in his pants pocket.

After fumbling for a few moments he said, "Oh, the hell with it," then raised his foot and kicked the door in. "Fat lot of good a lock does," he muttered, then stumbled toward the big cast-iron stove along the far wall. But of course the stove was cold; the coals had been banked for the night. With hands that were like pieces of wood, he tried to pick up the iron lifting handle and insert it into the plate so he could throw some kindling on the coals and get a fire going. But his hands weren't responsive, and he dropped the plate so it went clattering onto the stone floor. The crash of the iron plate knocked about half a dozes homemade Christmas decorations down with it.

"Take another step and I'll shoot you," came a woman's voice from the shadow of the doorway.

"Go ahead," Cole growled. "Might as well kill me since you're trying to starve me anyway."

"Oh, it's you," Kathryn said flatly. "I thought you were–"

"I was who?" he said angrily as she lit a lantern and golden light flooded the room. But she didn't waste any time looking at him; her interest was in the door. "Look what you've done! "You've broken it Now the lock won't work." Bending, she picked up the wreath that had fallen when the door crashed back.

"Lock?" He half yelled at her. "Can you tell me why the hell you need a lock when there are armed guards around the place night and day? And where the hell did you get a gun?"

After Kathryn put the wreath on the end of the table, she pushed the shattered door closed against the wind, then braced it shut with a kitchen chair. "I don't have a gun. It was a bluff." When she had the door relatively well shut, she turned toward him. "Well then, good night," she said stiffly and started toward the doorway.

But when she glanced at him, she paused, her eyes widening as she stared at him. He was thoroughly wet, and ice had formed on some of his clothing and in his hair. He was holding his gloved hands close to his chest, as though they were lifeless things somehow attached to the end of his arms. With a glance at the pot handle and the stove lid on the floor, it didn't take much to figure out what he had been trying to do.

With a grimace, she said, "If you get sick and die, I'll be out of a job so I guess I'll have to help you." If Cole hadn't been so cold he would have laughed. As it was all he could do was curl one corner of his mouth up in amusement. "That would be very sensible of you," he said, then stepped away from the stove as she quickly moved to stand in front of it and build up the fire.

Standing to one side, he stood there looking at her for a few moments. Her thick dark hair was in one fat braid down her back; she was wearing an old robe that looked as though it had been made from a blanket, and the front was gaping open so he could see the front buttons on her flannel nightgown. Cole was sure he'd never seen a more beautiful or desirable woman in his life.

But then he'd felt that from the first moment he'd seen her. When he'd turned that first day and seen the woman who had called out and warned him that Bartlett was about to shoot him, Cole had been shocked at the beauty of her. No, not just her beauty. There were lots of pretty girls in Legend. But what Cole saw in her eyes that day was the kindness of her, the sweetness–and the strength. At that moment if someone had told him that he'd die if he kissed her, he still would have done it.

"Are you just going to stand there?" she snapped.

But all Cole did was stand there and stare at her. For these last weeks he had been able to stay angry enough to keep away from her. And he'd used trips to Denver and working from early to late to keep himself out of the house. Anything to keep from seeing the coldness in her eyes. He couldn't bear seeing that day after day.

And he couldn't bear to hear the laughter of her and the two boys as they decorated the house for Christmas, a Christmas that didn't seem to include him.

"Sit down," she said, then half shoved him into a chair and began to pry the gloves off his frozen hands. "If one of the boys stayed out until he was this cold I'd turn him over my knee," she said, sounding like the teacher she was.

"Feel free to do the same to me," he said softly to the top of her head as she bent over his hands.

"Stop it!" she said, looking into his eyes, which were almost level with hers. "And if you make any attempts at… at…"

"At what?" he asked softly.

Kathryn tossed his cold gloves on top of the wood box, then moved away from him. "Seduction, that's what."

As the kitchen began to fill with warmth, feeling was returning to Cole's body. "Seduction?! How can you accuse me of such a thing? Ifyou've lived with me–lived with me!–for weeks, and I've never so much as touched you. I've seen you bent over your desk and reaching for apples and asleep in your bed, and I've never so much as laid a finger on you. So how can you accuse me of trying to seduce you?"

In spite of herself, Kathryn had to turn away so he wouldn't see her smile. Cole Jordan was a difficult man to hate. Just seeing the way he loved his son was enough to melt a woman's heart. And then there was what he was doing, anonymously, for the people of Legend. How many men paid for retired "ladies of the evening" to be taken care of?

Kathryn didn't bother to answer Cole as she raked the coals then added kindling and began to build up the fire in the stove. Turning toward the pantry, she said, "I'll see what Manuel has left for you to eat."

But before she could take a step the door blew open, and she ran for it, but Cole beat her to it. Leaning over her, he shoved the door closed, then told her to pull the loose board off the kindling box and to fetch hammer and nails. Kathryn scurried to obey him, then held the board up as he nailed it in place across the door.

When he'd finished she turned to walk away, but her body was pinned between the door and him, and it didn't look as though he was about to move. "What is it you want?" he asked softly.

Kathryn tried to look around him, but that was nearly impossible considering how big he was. "Please let me by," she said, trying to still the trembling in her voice.

"No, you can't go. Not until you talk to me. Not until you tell me why you've turned against me."

That made her look up at him! "Turned against you? "You tried to deny me a job that was rightfully mine. You called me a liar and worse in front of the whole town. You humiliated me in front of…"

She broke off because he was wrapping her braid around one hand, while his other hand trailed down her shoulder.

"Why is it that even though you have a child I get the feeling that you know nothing about men?"

"I know everything about men," she said, trying to tighten her lips into a line. "I know that they are liars and cannot be trusted, that they take everything from a woman and leave her nothing. I know they… they…" His hands were on her neck now, and she turned her head away. "Please don't do that," she whispered. "Please."

Abruptly, he dropped his hands, but he didn't step away from her. "You're free," he said. "Free to go wherever you want." Kathryn started to step away, but then she turned and looked up at his face. The room was dark except for the soft glow from the lantern; she could feel the heat rising from the stove. And the Christmas decorations she and the boys had hung about the room gave it a festive, happy look. Outside a bolt of lightning flashed, making her jump, and when she did, she came in contact with Cole's big body, his clothing still wet and cold, but she could feel the heat from his body as though he were a raging fire.

Her mistake was in looking up at his face as another flash of lightning illuminated it, and all she could think of was that first day and his lips on hers. Without conscious thought, Kathryn's arms went around his neck, and she kissed him with all the pent- up desire that had built in her over the weeks. No, the desire that had built up over years was in her lips.

For a second, Cole pulled back from her, then looked at her in puzzlement because she kissed like a child, with her lips tightly closed. With great pleasure he showed her how to open her mouth under his, and when the tip of his tongue touched hers, she seemed to melt into his arms.

"Kathryn," he whispered as he buried his face in her neck. "I have dreamed of you every night and every day. I've thought of nothing else except you since that first day. I can't fight you anymore. We must–"

With a great push, she got away from him. "No," she said, moving away, her breast heaving. "Don't say any more. You mustn't say any more. There cannot be anything between us."

Cole was smiling at her and slowly moving closer. "I know that there have been some unusual things between us, and maybe I shouldn't have thought you were trying to trick me into hiring you, but I really did think you'd tried to play me for a fool. And can you blame me for being angry? There I'd found who I thought was the one woman for me, only to find out that she was a conniving little actress, so I–"

"Don't come any closer," Kathryn said under her breath.

"Sweetheart, I plan to get a lot closer than this," he said as he reached out for her, then only smiled when she moved to the other side of the kitchen. "Look, honey, I'll court you if that's what you want. I'll buy you flowers and candy and–"

"No!" Kathryn said fiercely. "You can't. We can't. You don't know–" Suddenly her head felt as though it were going to explode. In Philadelphia she had dreamed of falling in love with a man and having a complete family, but now she knew what it felt like to love a man, for only love could make her feel this awful. And with the knowledge of love, she knew something else: She knew that she could not endanger Cole and Zachary. She and Jeremy were already in danger, and it must not extend further.

"What in the world makes you think I'd ever be interested in a cowboy like you?" she said, with a toss of her head that she hoped looked convincing. "Look at yourself. You smell like horses, and I doubt if you've ever read a book in your life and–"

She didn't say any more as Cole pulled her into his arms and kissed her until she could hardly breathe. When he moved his mouth away, she was limp in his arms, her eyes closed.

"I don't know why I ever thought you could have been a good actress," he said softly as he began to kiss her neck. When she didn't respond, Cole swept her up into his arms and carried her up the stairs to his room, where he gently laid her on his bed.

"But I… We…"

"Shhh," he said, kissing her as he quickly stripped off his cold, wet clothes, then climbed into bed beside her. When a flash of lightning illuminated the room and he saw Kathryn's expression as she saw his nude body, he smiled. "You'd think you'd never seen a naked man before."

"I haven't," she said without thinking, as he started unbuttoning her dress and kissing the skin that was exposed, inch by slow inch.

He chuckled at her words. "And was Jeremy's father some phantom lover, a man you never saw?" he asked as his hands moved over her breasts.

Kathryn didn't answer, but closed her eyes as she felt the new sensations of this man's touch.

Then abruptly, Cole stopped touching her and leaned over her, staring down into her eyes. "How did you get pregnant with Jeremy?" he asked forcefully.

Turning her head away, Kathryn wouldn't look at him, then she drew her dress together and started to get off the bed, but Cole stopped her.

"The bastard," he said under his breath, and those words told that he knew how Kathryn had been made pregnant. After a moment, Cole slowly began to kiss her neck again. But when she didn't respond, he took her face in his hands and looked at her. "You may not think so, but I'm an honorable man. I keep my word. Kathryn," he said with his eyes piercing into hers, "I love you. I think I fell in love with you that first day when you saved my life. I knew I had never kissed anyone who made me feel as you did, and that's why, later, when I thought you were just one of the girls from town, I was in a rage."

He was caressing her cheek and neck, and Kathryn's eyes closed. "Later," he said, soft and low, "I decided that I didn't want to be in love. I didn't want this feeling of rage one minute and… and…"

"Blithering idiocy the next?" she asked.

"Exactly," he said, smiling.

All the while he was talking to her, he was touching her, his hands gentle and tender, moving along her waist, along the edges of her breasts.

Then suddenly, he rolled away, to the far side of the bed so he seemed to be miles from her. "I can't do this," he said as he put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. "I thought you were a widow or at least that you were familiar with a man. But you're almost a virgin."

For the last hour or so she had been swept off her feet and unable to think. Yesterday she had told herself that she despised him. When they passed in the hall, she had looked past him. So how had they come to be in his bed together, he naked with only a sheet covering him? How had she come to have her dress unfastened so that her breasts above her corset were exposed? But most importantly, what had happened to make him move away?

She rolled toward him, pressing her body against his, then put her hand on his bare chest. She'd never touched a man's bare body before. When O'Connor had done to her… what he had done, he had not bothered to remove his clothing.

"I can't very well be a virgin if I've given birth to a child, can I?" she said as she planted a kiss on his shoulder.

Cole didn't move. "But still, you're not experienced in these matters, so we'd better wait. Until after the wedding, that is."

Kathryn paused in kissing his arm, but only for a moment. Right now she didn't seem able to remember anything about safety. How could she and Jeremy not be safe if they were protected by a man like Cole Jordan? And a wedding might be very nice.

She ran her hand across his wide chest, then, daringly, she moved it downward, below the sheet that was draped over him. "What do a few days matter?" she said as she moved upward and began to kiss the soft place just below his ear. It was when she felt his pulse that she knew he was lying. He was as excited as a man could be, and one glance downward confirmed that knowledge. Maybe she wasn't a good actor, but he obviously was.

"You're right," she said as she moved away from him. "We should wait. We should get to know each other. We hated each other yesterday, and today we love each other. Who's to say that we won't hate again tomorrow? And if we've done this, we won't be able to go back. Yes, indeed, we should wait."

But as Kathryn rolled to the edge of the bed, Cole caught her arm.

"You put one foot on that floor and you're dead," he said in the voice of a man who was serious. Very serious.

With a giggle, Kathryn turned back to him, and the next moment he was on top of her, and her clothes came off in one fluid motion. "You are never, never going to get away from me again, Mrs. Kathryn Jordan," he said as his lips descended on hers. "Never."

"I don't think I want to," she whispered, but didn't say any more because he began to make love to her, and she didn't think after that.

In the morning, when Cole awoke with a smile on his lips, Kathryn was not in the bed beside him. Thinking she'd gone for necessary purposes, he put his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling. So many years ago, when he was just a boy, that woman he'd seen only once, a beautiful woman with black hair to her waist, had told him to marry someone who could cook. And that was what he was going to do. But in the next instant his happiness was shattered by the door bursting open, and a wild-eyed Zachary was there. "They're gone," he said.

For a moment Cole couldn't comprehend what his son was saying. "Who's gone? More hands? I'll hire –"

"No! Mrs. Kate and Jeremy are gone!"

In a flash Cole was out of the bed and pulling on his trousers, and moments later he was running down the hall toward Kathryn's bedroom. Her bed had not been slept in but Jeremy's had. Turning, Cole looked at his son and the boy handed him a note that Zachary had obviously already opened and read.

Dearest Cole, he read. There are things in my life that I can tell no one. I cannot expose you to what Jeremy and I must face every day of our lives. Forgive me, but I love you and Zachary too much to put your lives at risk. Good-bye, my loves.

Cole looked at his son. "Get my horse ready. She can't have gone far."

"You'll bring her back?" Zachary said, and for the first time that Cole could remember, the boy looked as young as he actually was.

"While there is breath in me I will look for her," Cole said, then grabbed his son in a quick, fierce hug as he was running for the door. But in the hall, he paused, for there on the floor was a piece of paper. Before Cole picked it up he sensed that it was important, and his intuition told him that Jeremy had secretly left the paper behind.

Bending, Cole picked it up, and what he saw made his breath catch in his throat. It was a wanted poster with a drawing of Kathryn and a younger Jeremy. The poster said Caitlin McGregor was wanted for thievery and attempted murder, with ten thousand dollars being offered for information leading to her apprehension.

When Cole read that the woman was known to be dangerous and should be treated as such, he crumbled the paper in his hand.

But not before his son had seen it. As Cole looked up, he saw the Christmas tree in the living room, gaily wrapped gifts under the tree. The idea of putting up a tree was something that Kathryn had brought with her from England and Cole had surreptitiously watched as the three of them had decorated it.

Now, the tree and the gifts were a reminder that he had a son and he owed something to him. Cole looked into Zachary's eyes. 'Today is Christmas," was all he could manage to say, but his son understood that his father was torn between duty and action.

"Won't be much of a Christmas without that sissy boy to show off to," Zachary said, and Cole could see that the boy was hovering between tears and abject terror. "And won't be no real dinner if Manuel has to cook it." The tears were winning.

Zachary's head came up. "She didn't kill anybody, did she? They ain't gonna hang her, are they?"

"Not while I have breath in me," Cole said, then bent and hugged his son fiercely. "How about we hold off on Christmas until we can share it with them?"

Immediately, Zachary's head came up as he pulled away from his father. "Maybe if you bring them back it will help make up for the low-life snakey way you've treated her since she's been here."

Cole opened his mouth to chastise his son, but closed it again. "Let's hope so. Don't cause any trouble while I'm gone," he said, then ran out the door.