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Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

 

Mr. Popularity

Chapter Ten

Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn
Tryin' to find a woman who's never, never, never been born
Standin' on a hill in my mountain of dreams
Telling myself it's not are hard, hard, hard as it seems

Going To California by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, 1970

'I understand you work with fish.'

Elizabeth and Cerise were alone in the warehouse-sized living space off of Delarango's kitchen. Elizabeth had accepted his invitation to indulge in desserts and, while her host attended to one that was in the oven, he'd left them in the tantalizing company of cinnamon and orange drifting in from the kitchen.

The woman who'd fed thousands of fish to her charges replied, 'I guess you could say that.'

'That must be very interesting,' Cerise said, sounding entirely uninterested. 'My favorite fish is mahi-mahi. They're deee-licious.'

'Mahi-mahi is a dolphin fish.'

'A dolphin? Oh, that's impossible. I'm sure eating dolphin is illegal!'

'Dolphins and dolphin fish are two different species.'

'Of course they are! Dolphins don't have those long swords like those mahi-mahi.' As she spoke, she rearranged the order of a row of books across one of Delarango's shelves.

'Swordfish have swords.'

'And dolphins don't!' Cerise said with determination. 'Do you work with crabs?'

'Sometimes.'

'Well, if you ever make it to Savannah, I know the best place in all the world to get crab cakes.'

'You know, I don't generally equate the species I'm working with in terms of my dinner.'

Delarango was walking through the kitchen, about to round the corner and join them when their conversation red-lighted him. So did his aunt who, hidden by a cabinet, was leaning against the wall that divided the two rooms.

'What do you think you're doing?' he asked softly. Tia Contessa shushed him and Delarango stood silently reprimanded.

At that moment, Cerise was adjusting the knick knacks on Delarango's shelf and changed the subject as subtly as she re-positioned a battered silver bowl. 'So, you livin' all alone over there?'

'Yes.'

'I see.' She began a third degree that was as sweet as honeysuckle hanging in the humid air back home, 'No husband?

'No.'

'No boyfriend?'

'No.'

'Ever been married?'

'No.'

'That's odd.'

'Why is that odd?'

'Never having had a husband or a boyfriend - at your age?'

'I didn't say that.'

'Oh now, don't you go defending yourself, there's no need for that. Your life is your business.'

With a slight edge in her voice, Elizabeth concurred, 'I'm very well aware of that.'

The word catfight popped into Delarango's head. He was already in Elizabeth's corner as Cerise forged onwards, 'So, no ex-husband lurking in your past?'

'I just said that and before you say that's odd again, what about Rick? He's not married.'

'Oh, but I know Rick's been married before. Men like him don't stay single.'

His aunt gazed accusingly at him, 'Why didn't you tell me?'

'Don't be silly,' he whispered, 'Do you think I'd be able to keep something like that from you?'

'No, no es posible.' She conceded and then referred to his dessert in the oven. 'Go check your Capirotada. It smells like it's done.'

'I just checked it.'

'Someone should check it again,' she declared. Delarango knew it wasn't ready. He shot a pointed look at Carlos the cook, who stayed rooted in place chopping vegetables. They all heard Cerise as she continued to hypothesize about Delarango.

'He's probably just "in between". I suspect he married young, realized his mistake, and got out of it quick before it cost him too much. It's time for him to marry again and he's experienced enough now to know the kind of woman he needs to make it a successful venture.' The subject of Cerise's fantasies found his fictitious past and future plans fascinating. One eye took a look around the corner. He saw Cerise sizing up Elizabeth like they were two cops after the last bear claw. From below, he saw his aunt's dark hair creep forward, trying to take a peek. He gently nudged her back.

'What kind would that be?' Elizabeth asked.

'Rick's got a full plate; whoever he brings on board will have to transition in and out of all the circles he travels in. The arts, finance, business, and of course charity. Versatility is paramount. She'll have to look the part and act the part, especially when it comes to schmoozin'.

'Wow, that's a big order to fill. Let me guess, you're an expert at schmoozing?'

Cerise's puffy lips pursed together and she drawled, 'Among other things.'

Something at the end of the bookshelf, sitting next to the borrowed journals of Aunt Gertie, caught Elizabeth's attention and while she kept up her end of the conversation, she went for a closer look. She picked up a worn leather-covered book and it fell open to a yellowed page. Handwritten in flowing Spanish, the ink was faded and blotched.

14 de abril, 1878

El mar se alza desde el tazón
Rocas y una muerte dentada
Alrededor mio las enredaderas
Y el padre de las tres doncellas
Guardan el secreto que fluye en mi tierra
De oro mi tierra

As she scanned the page she told Cerise, 'Well, happy hunting.'

Delarango laughed to himself, not seeing what Elizabeth was looking at.

'You misunderstand me. The opportunity has been offered, it's merely a question of me actin' on it.' That diverted Elizabeth's attention from the old leather book.

'Really?' The inflection of her voice changed, subtly lacing her question with more than mere curiosity. Whether it was suspicion, envy, or possibly disappointment, Delarango didn't know. She put the leather book back where she'd found it and zeroed in on Cerise's declaration, 'You two appear to have a strictly professional relationship.'

'Well sugar, you just arrived on the scene. Some things aren't paraded around. They just are.'

'What?' Delarango mouthed in disbelief just as his arm was slapped. He saw the damning stare his aunt was giving him.

'How could you let yourself?' she hissed.

Delarango attempted to defend his sanity, 'It's not like that.'

'You need to meet a nice girl. From the church. Not that Frankenstein woman.'

He ignored Tia Contessa as Cerise continued to expound, 'I try to never get personally involved with my clients. It's bad business.'

'Do you have many single male clients?'

'What's your point?'

Elizabeth bluntly stated it, 'Well if they're married male clients they're not -'

'Eligible? What rule book have you been reading? Being married is a technicality easily rectified if need be. I've had experience with that a couple a times.'

'You've broken up marriages?'

Cerise clarified, 'I was referring to my marriages - or divorces - whichever way you look at them.'

'How many times have you been married?'

'That depends on how technical you want to get. Really, it was only two because the middle one was annulled so it doesn't count. So that makes twice. Twice married, twice divorced.'

That didn't surprise Delarango but apparently it horrified his aunt. With a dramatic air, she fanned herself, '¡Dios mío!'

'Quiet!'

'¡Esa mujer no es católica!' She made the sign of the cross. 'Godless heathen!'

'Quiet!' he told her again.

'Your Capirotada is burning.' she whispered for the second time.

'Don't touch it!' he instructed Carlos over his shoulder.

'What temperature do you have it on? I think it's too high.'

'Carlos! Don't move!'

As the mild-mannered cook chopped more furiously, they heard Elizabeth say, 'After two or three marriages you must have had enough of it.'

'Why heavens no! Marriage is the most sacred, important institution in America and its survival is key to our way of life. Getting married is upholding the values that made this country great. Everyone should do it.'

'As many times as they want?'

'Of course! I was never more fulfilled than when I was married. I want to do it as often as possible.'

'How long were you married?'

'Let's see, once for about two years and the other time was almost three, and then the time that I wasn't really married - that was for ten weeks and five days.'

'So, you've broken your rule for Rick, the one about not getting involved with your clients?'

'No, and I don't need to. The House is officially finished just as soon as Bud's done touchin' up the paint on the wall downstairs. Tonight, we can finally relax and - '

Cerise didn't get to finish the number one entry on her wish list. Brian wandered in, acting as if he had no idea of the lively exchange taking place between the women and making a big to-do over discovering Elizabeth in The House. After a chivalrous introduction, he drafted himself as her escort, whisking her away for a tour. Delarango had planned on doing just that as soon as his Capirotoda was out of the oven but he'd been beaten out by his cousin who, he suspected, had motives other than acquainting Elizabeth with his domestic arrangements. The last thing he wanted was Brian sticking his nose into his personal business with Elizabeth - with Elizabeth!

He hurried to the oven to remove the dessert. Tia Contessa was right behind him. 'You've kept it in too long. It's burned. I can smell it.'

Right about now, Rick Delarango was thinking about how perfect the afternoon might be if The House were free of his guests. Immediately he felt guilty for wanting to transport his loved ones to far flung places. At the same time he rejoiced that, by this time tomorrow, thousands of continental miles would separate him from Cerise. On a brighter note, Elizabeth Bennet would still be next door.

Elizabeth Bennet. Mere months ago, he had wanted only to maintain the impenetrable barrier that kept them apart. That wall had rivaled the one in Berlin and, like its counterpart, a groundswell of emotional force had brought it tumbling down. Amidst the crumbled ruins, he marveled at how things could change. And, just like the occupants behind the Berlin Wall, Delarango greeted his liberation with a wary welcome, uncertain about the direction his future should go.

The afternoon shadows stretched across the patio, creeping ever closer to those who sat around the table. Tia Contessa examined the Capirotada on the plate before her. 'You're lucky you listened to me. If you'd taken it out when you wanted, it would have been underdone.'

Delarango only smiled pleasantly at his aunt.

'What'd she say?' Delarango knew that question was coming; he'd played translator since Cerise arrived.

'She was complimenting me on my cooking skills,' he politely answered.

He was about to set a portion of the Mexican bread pudding in front of Cerise. She declined, coyly advising as she ran her fingers over the top of his hand that held the plate, 'Rick-honey, you're taking such good care of me this weekend and I appreciate all the personal attention. But no more desserts! I'm very strict about what I eat and you know that, you naughty man.'

His gut instinct to jerk his hand away was impossible without flinging Capirotada into someone's lap. Delarango briefly endured her touch while retreating, 'This is research though.'

'I have to be very careful about my appearance. You wouldn't want me to go getting all bloated now, would you Rick, honey?' She watched Delarango who watched Elizabeth who watched Cerise. Tia Contessa watched them all.

He chose not to answer her question, fearing it would only encourage her to continue babbling. Instead, he turned to Elizabeth and sat a steaming portion of pudding in front of her. 'You're still taste testing for me, aren't you?'

'Of course.'

Delarango took a miniature pitcher of cold, heavy cream off of the tray Carlos held and sat it before her. 'Just a little cream over the top.'

'Here, let me do that for you,' Brian offered. He poured a trickle over her serving and beamed at Delarango.

'What's this called again?'

Delarango jumped in before Brian had a chance. 'Capirotada.'

The word rolled off his tongue with a smooth Spanish inflection. The late sun spun rich, warm hues that, when they touched his skin made it glow golden. For a brief moment, when all the elements were working in accord, Delarango represented the image of the ideal Latin man. His look, his gallantry, his raw desirability. The picture wasn't lost on the women sitting at the table.

'I'd watch that if I was you.' Some unsolicited advice was directed at Elizabeth, 'I know you're not worried about those pounds but that's not just dairy; that's liquid suicide.'

Eyes shifted around the table. It was like somebody missed their cue on a live news broadcast and no one was quite sure who should fill the dead air. Elizabeth did the honors. She relieved Brian of the pitcher, leveled her gaze at Cerise and deliberately poured more cream over her bread pudding. Delarango was sure the Capirotada wasn't the only thing close to being saturated in cream. In an attempt to diffuse the tension, he offered an anecdote, 'This recipe was given to my mother by a family friend. She was the first woman Mexican ambassador.'

'The Delarangos are so well-connected,' the interior designer observed. 'Was she the ambassador to the United States?'

'No, the Netherlands. Or maybe it was Norway.'

'Era Nicaragua,' his aunt corrected.

'What'd she say?'

Elizabeth answered, 'She said it was Nicaragua.'

Cerise dropped another show-stopper, 'I didn't know you could be the ambassador of just a city.'

'No digas ni una palabra.' Delarango warned his aunt not to say a word. She acted as if she had no such plan, innocently taking a bite of her pudding while admiring the sunset.

'I didn't know your aunt understood English.' Addressing Elizabeth, Cerise accused, 'And, I didn't know you spoke Spanish.'

'Some things aren't paraded around,' Elizabeth smugly replied.

'Touché!' Tia Contessa said under her breath.

'What did she - '

Brian interjected, 'My aunt's pleased that Elizabeth understands Spanish.'

'¿Habla español?' Tia Contessa asked.

'Si,' Elizabeth answered. '¿Habla inglés?'

'No.'

'How well do you speak Spanish?' Brian asked.

'Yo estudio en escuela para dos años. Yo hablo español muy caliente.' Delarango's eyes sparkled at her answer. 'What?'

'You tell her Brian.'

'What?' she pressed.

Brian delivered the news, 'Your grammar needs some cleaning up but you were doing okay until you said you speak Spanish very hot!'

Delarango noticed the slightest blush dusted her cheeks. 'Well, it's been a while.'

'If you don't regularly speak a second language, you can't be expected to retain it.' She looked gratefully to him.

The tactless one in the group added, 'Well, now you've got something to do all alone over at your place. You can study your Spanish!'

Ignoring Cerise again, Delarango suggested, 'Try the bread pudding.'

Elizabeth took her first taste. 'Oh wow, this really nice. The flavors go so well together, the cinnamon and orange, and is there cheese in it?'

Tuning out everyone else, Delarango nodded.

'I think this is my favorite. I could eat this every day.'

'I'm glad you like it.'

Cerise shattered the moment. She lassoed Delarango when he thought he wasn't even in range. Deliberately displaying a panoramic vista of her expensive breasts - a final installment and they'd be paid-in-full - she told him, 'Rick-honey, the light's fading. We've got to go through The House and have one final inspection. We've got better things to do than to be working tonight.'

~ * ~

'Where have you been?' His aunt was better at subversive tracking than a spy satellite aimed at Earth. He and Brian had joked about sub-contracting her out to the CIA to make a little extra money on the side. She knew exactly where he'd been, how long he'd been there and probably the number of steps it took to get from The House to Elizabeth's place. A pair of disapproving eyes watched him cross the room.

'Next door.'

'Come. Sit.' She waited expectantly. Experience advised Delarango to just do it and get it over with.

As he claimed a spot not far from her, he said, 'I was talking to Elizabeth. Earlier this week she filmed a presentation that was a bid for funding a project. I wanted to know how it went.'

'She's a hard worker, no?'

'Yes, very hard. She's very dedicated to her job.'

'Es bueno. She's a very smart woman, no?'

'Yep, she's a marine biologist, I think.'

'Es bueno. She is a Catholic? ¿Si?'

'Ah, no, she's not Catholic.' Stony silence followed, conveying a message that could not be misinterpreted. Tia Contessa closed the book on Elizabeth Bennet.

'No es bueno pero no es importante tampoco. She's just your neighbor.' She steered the course of their discussion in the direction she wanted it to go, 'Now, I can't believe I haven't shown you these before.'

In his aunt's lap was the bulky photo album that she pulled out each time she saw Delarango. At every viewing, she mentioned new photos to show him, although they all looked suspiciously the same. She had the page opened to a picture of her friend and her two daughters. They were three peas in a pod with identical builds, features and dress sense.

'She's a good girl,' his aunt was saying about one of the daughters, 'She goes to Mass twice a week and helps the Padre with the Church accounts. You should have seen her confirmation dress, hand embroidered with Italian lace! It's still talked about to this day.'

'That's the best sales pitch you can come up with? A confirmation dress from 1990?'

'It was a beautiful dress.'

'Not much goes on in your church, does it?'

'She has good family values,' Tia Contessa reconfirmed before referring to her sister, 'She volunteers in the soup kitchen run by The Sisters with the Healing Hands.'

He glanced at the photo again, 'All that time in the kitchen isn't doing her waistline any good. Maybe she should jog to and from helping the needy.'

'Don't speak that way! God will get you.' Delarango hunched down and looked warily towards heaven. 'You make fun now, just wait. God will punish you for mocking Him.'

'I'm not mocking Him, I'm mocking you.' His humor didn't sit well with his aunt. Delarango tried to smooth things over, 'I'm sure they're nice. I appreciate your intentions and I know you have my happiness in mind.'

This placated her and she showed him another set of friends posed in front of the massive carved doors of Our Lady of Undying Life. All single women who taught Sunday school, they were more of the same. Delarango couldn't help it, he had to ask, 'Aren't there any single women at your parish who stay in shape and have a life outside the Church?'

'You're too picky.'

'No I'm not. I'm discerning. It's an excellent quality.'

'You don't even know these women. You have to meet them first, spend time with them, see how they really are.'

'No, I definitely don't have to do that.'

'They're good girls, the kind you should be meeting for your future. When you take me home, we'll go to Church and you'll see them in person.' When his aunt saw that Delarango wasn't looking at her pictures she slammed the book shut.

He knew what was coming. 'Go ahead, say it.'

'You're never going to get married.' It was her recurring theme for the last ten years.

'Who says I need to get married?'

'I do! You need a family and children. Don't you want children?'

'I'd very much like children, some day.'

'You can only have children if you're married,' she lectured then looked at him in distress, 'You don't have any children, do you?'

'Of course not. Do you think I'd be able to keep something like that from you?'

'No, no es posible.' She relaxed and picked up where she'd left off, 'You need a good woman who will take care of you and your family. But you have to change your attitude.'

'Why? Because I haven't met the right woman yet?'

'How do you know you haven't? She could have already come and gone. You don't let yourself get close enough to find out. You keep una distancia emocional.'

'Now, why would I do that?'

She ticked off some possibilities, 'You're afraid of making a mistake, or you're selfish, or you - Mr. Perfectionist - don't think you can live up to the expectations you set for yourself as a husband and a father.'

'This is ridiculous.' Delarango felt uncomfortable and stood up. He'd head down to his studio before dinner and try to get some work done. The upheaval in The House had rerouted his creative flow.

His aunt stopped him as she voiced the mostly likely possibility for his emotional reluctance, 'Perhaps you've set your standards so high that no woman could ever fulfill them. And when one especially takes your fancy, you have your excuses in place to walk away.' As he towered over Tia Contessa's slight figure, deeply ensconced in the sofa, a stronger will than his wrestled to be the one to shape his destiny. 'Caution in business is wise. But in love, you can't think so much. You have to follow your emotions and let them take you where it will.'

'With a Catholic girl?'

'¡Por supuesto, sólo con una católica!'

The same day that Brian left, Delarango had a marathon conference call with management of his processing plant in Ontario. A crisis had unfolded. It was serious enough that he was considering driving south to sort out the mess. He barely hung up for the day when he heard his phone. The name of an unexpected caller on the display surprised him.

'Hi, it's Elizabeth,' she said as soon as he picked up. As he raced through possible reasons for her call, he heard an apology. 'I'm sorry. If I'm catching you at a bad time just say so.'

Delarango picked up his aunt's brag book of photos, left accidentally-on-purpose opened to pictures of Maria, Maria Theresa and Theresa Maria, more nice women from the Church that his aunt deemed acceptable for his matrimonial consideration. She never stopped trying. He set it aside. 'No, I've been on the phone all day but just finished, hopefully. What's up?'

'Oh gosh, never mind. I'm not going to bug you if you're just now getting a break.'

'That's all right, really, what is it?'

'It's the truck. I had to have it towed this morning.' She related its demise, a serious development with long term implications that would be hard on her bank account. Elizabeth reached an agreement with the repair shop whereby the truck would get free board until the parts were found and she could pay for it all in installments. She then unveiled the real reason for her call. 'I don't have any way to get home.'

Delarango's fatigue from his workday vanished and he told her, 'If you're calling for a ride, I'm happy to come and get you, but you've got a bigger problem. What are you going to do for transportation?'

'Around lunchtime I accepted that I was going to have to buy a car.'

'Too bad I don't have one of my other cars up here. You could use it,' he mused.

'I've been looking online all afternoon.' She named some dealers selling better quality cars in San Ramona. 'They all have some form of hybrid in stock.'

Her explanation, informed and environmentally sound, lacked enthusiasm. 'You're saying all the right things but you're not selling me. You don't sound like you want to buy any of them.'

'You're right, I don't. I don't want to buy a car. But I have to. And, I refuse to buy what I want: a nice, big half ton. I'm not about to pad the pockets of oils companies any more than I have to.' She slowed down and admitted, 'The real problem is I don't know anything about cars- buying them, selling them, fixing them - '

'Maintaining them.'

'You're right, you're absolutely right. See?' She confessed, 'They intimidate me.'

'Cars?'

'Car salesmen. I feel like they can spot me a mile away, like there's neon flashing across my forehead: sucker, sucker, sucker!'

Delarango heard himself offer his services. 'I can go with you.'

'I only called you for a ride home. I wasn't trying to talk you into go with me to buy a car. Jane said to rent something until next week and she'll come down and help me.'

'What do you want to do?'

'I'd like to go look at some cars tonight.'

~ * ~

Delarango pulled into a convenient space in the empty parking lot of the Oceanus Rescue and Rehabilitation Institute. All the employees and volunteers except Elizabeth appeared to have headed home. Lights burned low in the windows of the buildings clustered on the grounds. Not knowing which he should approach, he eventually found a small sign in a garden bed and followed a path to Administration. The door was unlocked and he stepped into an entry with offices left and right. It appeared that no one was there. Delarango called down the hall for Elizabeth. He got no answer but was startled by a reply from behind.

'Hi!'

A stack of mail was sitting on the end of a counter. At the sound of her voice, he abruptly turned and hit it with his elbow, sending envelopes of various sizes and shapes cascading to the floor. 'Wow, I didn't mean to come in as a wrecking crew.'

'Gretel's been off this week. Things have kind of piled up.'

They bent down and gathered the mail, making a haphazard stack back on the counter. She smiled until her eyes shifted to the mail.

'What's this?" In one swift motion, she ripped the end of a padded envelope open and dumped the contents out. She picked up a single sheet and her face darkened as she read. Delarango saw the return address. The sender was a media company, he suspected the one that had produced Elizabeth's presentation. She passed the letter to him and picked up a DVD that had fallen from the envelope. She looked like she wanted to fling it like a Frisbee; instead, she loaded it into a PC at a desk across from them.

Delarango read the letter. It reminded ORRI that an outstanding balance - the full price for the company's services - needed to be paid before the finished DVD would be provided. It was a third a final request for restitution.

'So, what's this they've sent you?' He came and stood behind her just as the DVD began playing on the media player. The production company's owner had a quirky business style; he'd filmed a request for payment to tease ORRI into paying their bill. When his short plea was finished and the screen went black, Delarango ventured, 'You told me the Germans had seen your presentation and were impressed.'

She spun around, 'That's right, because Mark told me the Germans had seen my presentation and were impressed.'

'And they'd approved your funding.'

'Mark told me they'd approved it.'

'I thought the funds' release was imminent.'

'So did I.' The color had drained from her face. She didn't look well.

'Sit down,' he told her. She eased into the desk's chair and propped her head in her hands. 'How long have you worked here?'

Elizabeth said into the desk, 'This was my first job after graduate school. I've been here three years.'

'How well do you know this man?'

'Mark is the founder of the Institute. He built this place and made it what it is today. He's a great guy.'

Delarango wasn't sure whose benefit her last sentence was meant for: him or her. It lacked the same conviction Delarango recalled when Elizabeth had praised her boss before. Tonight she sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

'What do you know about him outside of your working environment?'

'Well, I don't know.' All she could come up with was that he wasn't married and had a house north of San Francisco.

'That's it?'

'I know about work. He has a lot of connections in this field.'

'In what way? With universities, scientific communities, other institutes?'

'Yes. He's recruited from my campus for years. That's how I got my job.'

'What else?'

'Rick, ORRI has an excellent reputation.'

'It's not the Institute's reputation I'm questioning.'

She looked up, 'Mark Wieggoché is ORRI.'

'All I know is, this guy's playing you. You've got false promises and a letter to prove that. But why? There has to be a reason why he's going to such extremes to lie to you.'

'Lying to me? That's a really serious accusation. This is probably a huge misunderstanding.'

'You deserve an explanation. You're going to have to talk to him - tomorrow.' If it were possible, her face looked even more distraught, 'What's the matter?'

'I haven't seen Mark for probably a month, maybe six weeks. Nobody has. We've been in contact, by email mostly, while he's traveling to research an expansion for an aquarium. It's going to be big.'

'Where is he going to get the money for that if he can't get the money to fund your project?'

Elizabeth didn't have an answer for him.

The slippery arm of Mark Wieggoché had reached out from his rock and thrown a damper on their evening. More importantly, the imminent threat of curtailing Elizabeth's long term goals became very real.

Delarango watched her closely. When she thought he'd treated her unfairly, she reacted with demented fury. Now before her was a genuine case of betrayal and deception. He was waiting for her righteous indignation to surface. Her vocal expression of being wronged to sing out. Her volcanic reaction of good old down home anger to explode.

Instead, he got a subdued woman who, as they left, made sure the voice message for the Institute was turned on and the administration office door was locked tight behind them.

~ * ~

The mood had changed and they decided to postpone car shopping until the next day but Delarango insisted on getting Elizabeth some dinner before they went home. They stopped at a cliff side diner that had stood dutifully guarding a majestic view for the better part of a century. She was distracted and downcast, and they stayed only long enough for a quick one-course meal before heading back to his car.

Beyond the diner's lighted windows soared shadowy pines and an empty two-lane road that ribboned down the coast. The natural beauty of the surrounding land was masked by the night but this only enhanced Delarango's appreciation for it.

'Have you been here before?' she asked him.

'No.' The wind rustled the tree tops and whistled through the branches.

'Come have a quick look.' She indicated to a break in the underbrush along the perimeter of the parking lot. They headed for a path that cut through the chaparral. The only light that fell across it came from the moon. Unobstructed views of a venerable sea greeted them and they walked until they came to a bench positioned to take it in. They read each others' minds and sat down.

Delarango felt like he should say something. He propped elbows on long legs and clasping his hands together. 'Do you want to talk about it?'

She stared out over the water and shook her head. Okay, he tried and was prepared to honor her wishes and not bring the business up again. That was until he heard The Sniff. Just one to start, loud enough to carry over the distant sound of the ocean breakers. Her hand reached into her purse and came out with a tissue. She dabbed her eyes. She sniffed again.

'He lied to me.'

Delarango was sure she'd just indicated she didn't want to talk.

'I feel so used.' Her voice reminded him of a wounded dove, shocked that some orange-vested hunter had blasted it out of the sky.

As he dug around for something supportive to say, he heard a hitch in her breath followed by a faint feminine sob.

With a wobbly voice, she confided, 'Whenever something's bothering me, I go outside and take my troubles to nature. It always heals me. It's the b-best th-th-therapy.' She managed to get it out before launching into a fit of mostly silent tears.

This was uncharted territory for Delarango. He'd been highly successful at avoiding situations like this. He felt a little awkward.

'It al-al-always w-w-w-works.' She choked on her tears and cried louder.

Nature's healing powers had deserted her this time. He did the only thing he could think of that might comfort her: he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and patted her arm. He wasn't sure he ought to have done it and was about to take it back when she relaxed and rested against him and he was left holding a crying, hiccupping woman.

He continued to pat, she continued to hic until a group of teenagers beat a path towards their bench. Elizabeth gave a final sniff, Delarango reclaimed his arm and they stood to go. With a backdrop of loud adolescent chatter, Elizabeth looked up at him. There were new pools of tears forming in her eyes.

'Thank you.'

Delarango suspected her gratitude was about more than her dinner. He was just happy she's stopped crying and wanted to think his superior patting skills had something to do with it. 'Hey, it's no problem.'

'No, I really needed someone tonight and you were here for me. I'm glad.'

Later, when he'd dropped Elizabeth off, when his aunt had stopped madly tapping to the beat of her music, and when The House was at rest from the long day, Delarango stood in his studio. Staring around him. A shelf filled with reference books, a counter top littered with a vast assortment of tools. Flipping a paint brush. Twin skylights, oversized sliding doors, a paint-splattered cement floor. Circling the room. He had everything except one thing: the spark to ignite his inspiration. He stopped, staring again, this time at the obvious: he was artistically blocked.

~ * ~

Elizabeth glanced at Delarango and then at the fast approaching salesman who wore a grin so wide it could span the Grand Canyon. 'I think he senses an easy mark.'

'For all he knows you do this every year. Remember, you're in charge, not him.'

'I don't even know what to say.'

'You don't usually have a problem voicing your opinion.' He added, 'And, you do know what to say, you've been researching.'

When the salesman was a couple of yards from them, Elizabeth took control. 'I need to buy a car and take it home tonight. I'm looking at this model right here. If you won't negotiate from the sticker price, tell me now so I can go over to the Honda dealer.'

'Well, hello to you little lady!' Delarango winced at the salesman's poor choice for an opening. 'I can get you into that silver one for a heck of a lot less.'

'Huh-uh. I want this blue one.'

'What does your husband think?' He was unknowingly throwing fuel on the fire that was Elizabeth Bennet.

'I'm not-' Delarango was about to define their relationship.

'He's not involved with this. Like I said, this is the car I want.'

'This one here is top of the line. Heck of a lot of extras. It's got pretty much everything,' he said, peering at a window sticker he'd probably memorized.

'I don't have a trade-in and I'm pre-approved for financing. I know how much your dealership paid for this car and what your profit margin is.'

'But, she's top of the line. There's not much room to negotiate. Now, that silver one -'

'You know, the more I think about it, the more that Civic hybrid is growing on me. Come on Rick,' she grabbed his arm, 'let's go have another look at it.'

'Hang on, hang on. I didn't say I can't negotiate. Have you driven one of these? They're one heck of a nice ride. Here, have a seat,' He held the door open as Elizabeth got in. 'Let me get the keys and you can take it for a test drive.'

He started towards the office and turned to add, 'I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere, especially the Honda dealership.'

A short while later, they sat at a desk in a brightly lit showroom, surrounded by expansive glass and polished cars, waiting for the paperwork to materialize from an unknown back room. 'Heck of a performance, Ms. Bennet. Very impressive.'

'Thank you.' Elizabeth had been visually caressing a firecracker red twin-cab since they sat down. She turned to Delarango and gave him a long look. He rubbed his stubble.

'You haven't signed yet. Changing your mind isn't a crime.' Her preference for big trucks, expensive gas-guzzlers that took command of the road, was evident all through their shopping escapade.

'Nope. They're giving me a good deal.'

'Correction: you negotiated a good deal.' The salesman came out and in a matter of minutes all the loose ends were tied up and Elizabeth was handed the keys to her new hybrid.

As she walked out the door, the salesman gave Delarango some advice for the henpecked, 'Hey buddy, don't let her brow-beat you. Stand up for yourself!'

'Thanks, I'll try to remember that.'

~ * ~

Elizabeth watched as Delarango pulled her new car into the carport. She'd insisted he drive it home, rationalizing that she'd be driving it every day and he should have a chance to try it out. It was a ride, all shiny efficiency; it practically drove itself home. It was everything the old truck wasn't. For all its newness, he could see she wasn't completely satisfied with it parked in her truck's spot. Her face betrayed her. He got out and shut the door. 'You don't look happy.'

'No, I'm good.'

'It isn't like you won't have the truck back.'

'That's right. It's just that I'm not used to driving a compact car. I like the feel of the truck.'

'You could have negotiated on that red one.'

He saw a little frown in the corner of her mouth. 'It wouldn't have been the same as my old one. I wouldn't have liked that.'

'Or maybe you would have liked it better.'

She looked momentarily stunned by the audacity of his suggestion. 'If I was going to make a change, I figured it might as well be a big one. And this is much more practical.'

'Give it some time. I bet you'll be really happy with it.'

'I know you're right. I'm just not good with change. But, you know all about that.' Lost to her inner thoughts for a moment, she gave him a goofy smile. She'd begun twirling her hair round and round her index finger. 'Well, I'd better go.'

'Let me know how you're first day's drive to work is.'

'Sure. Thanks again for all your help.' She still looked like her mind had wandered off as she turned towards her door. Delarango took one last look at her car and leaned over to inspect a spot that might be a scratch. Elizabeth went a few steps, turned back, and rushed up to him. 'Thank you again. I can't tell you how much I appreciated having you there - last night and tonight.'

Just as he was straightening up, her hand circled his wrist and she stretched out towards him. He turned to face her and, in the instant it took for her eyes to close, Delarango's world came to a grinding halt. In that millisecond he knew what was coming, and was in the process of conducting a philosophical debate about the pros and cons of such an excursion, when her kiss brushed his lips.

Their warmth sent a heady sensation flowing through him. She hesitated long enough for Delarango to taste what a real kiss from Elizabeth Bennet might be like and then she withdrew, before anything more could happen. But her kiss still vibrated though him. He risked a look at her. With her mouth half-open and her eyes half-closed, Elizabeth gave the impression she was up for more if he was. Her lips were practically begging him to keep going.

Indecisiveness was not an issue for Elizabeth. She closed the small gap that separated them and began again. There was nothing light and breezy about the second kiss. They rapidly descended into an earthy exchange that had Delarango revisiting feelings he'd forgotten he missed until a moment like this brought them all back. With her pressed against him doing what she was doing, he reacted, pulling her closer and into an exchange much more intimate than was wise for his current state of mind. He continued unfettered and free, without any thoughts other than the sheer gratification he got from this unexpected turn of events.

And then, his better judgment kicked in. He broke out in a sweat. Seized by the lingering doubts and uncertainties he couldn't let go of, his stomach sank. Delarango knew he wasn't ready to go where they were headed. So, he gathered his wits, slowly disengaged their lips and let her go. As he collected his thoughts, he verbally stumbled, 'I, um, Elizabeth, you -'

'Did I shock you?" she asked playfully. She looked so good with her cheeks flushed and her eyes brightened.

'Do I look shocked?' he asked back as he raked his hand through his hair. God help him, she was still up against him. It wouldn't do. Delarango took a step back as he attempted to compose himself.

She took him in and asked, 'You're not the spontaneous type, are you?'

'I can be, when I'm prepared.'

'Maybe it wasn't a very good idea.' She said it like she expected him to contradict her.

'You surprised me, that's all.'

'That's why they call it being spontaneous. Did you like it?'

'I did,' His answer hung there, in serious need of further clarification.

'But...?'

He lied, 'I've thought of us as friends.'

'Well, how are you thinking now?'

It was hard for Delarango to concentrate. She got his blood racing so fast he could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Thump, thump-thump, thump.

'I think I need a drink.'

'I think I need that translated.'

'It's just that the timing might not be quiet right for this.' Her face dropped as she came to the wrong conclusion. He offered to explain although he had no idea what he was going to say that would justify the way he'd just kissed her.

She started backing away towards the sanctuary of her house. 'Oh no, you don't have to explain.'

'Yes I do.'

'No, you don't. You don't have to say a word. I'm sorry. You're involved with someone else and we're just friends.'

'Elizabeth, stop for a second.'

She kept backing up. 'I don't know why I kissed you. My circuits were crossed. It must have been misplaced gratitude. It didn't mean anything. Pretend like it didn't happen. I've already forgotten about it. Kiss? What kiss? See?'

She reached her step and tripped over it. Delarango was about to go to her aid when she caught her balance on the door handle.

'I actually do it all the time. Kissing men, that is. I'm known around these parts for it. Ask anyone. People always say, there goes that oddball Elizabeth Bennet, the one who kisses all the men. But, there are so many men and so little time that I only kiss them once, so don't worry, you've had your turn. I won't kiss you again.'

'Elizabeth, wait.'

'No no. I'm going inside now. Going in. Now. Bye.' She managed to turn the knob from behind and slipped inside without letting Hook out. Delarango was stranded in the dark with his lips buzzing, his mind in turmoil and still holding the keys to her new car.

Elizabeth Bennet. She left him dazed and confused.

Chapter Eleven

Maybe you wanna give me kisses sweet
But only for one night and no repeat
And maybe you'll go away and never call
And a taste of honey is worse than none at all

I Second That Emotion by Smokey Robinson and Al Cleveland, 1967

Like a drag racer with a tank full of nitro, the brief personal exchange Delarango shared with Elizabeth green-lighted his creative energy and - 3-2-1 - he'd accelerated out of the start gate. All through the night his mind and body worked in fine-tuned precision. It was a triumph, and against the backdrop of a deafening roar the checkered flag waved Rick Delarango victorious.

With his demons conquered, Delarango sat on the cement floor of his studio eying his handiwork. The sun streamed in through the sliding doors and warmed his bare feet. Still wearing his clothes from the night before, he absentmindedly poked his finger through a tear that, somewhere around midnight, he'd made in his shirt. Toes wiggled and a smile crinkled a shadowy face as he gave critical appraisal to what stood before him. His rediscovered inspiration - lost for too long - urged him to continue, so he pushed himself up and never questioned why, after parched weeks of nothingness, he'd suddenly discovered a bubbling well of inspiration. Lost again in the delicious process of creation, time passed unnoticed until he was unceremoniously interrupted.

'What in the world are you doing?' Tia Contessa pushed the door open and hobbled in. 'Do you have any idea what time it is? Have you been to bed?'

His intense focus was broken. As he searched for answers to questions he'd only halfway heard, she continued.

'Did you forget you were supposed to take me to the hair dressers' this morning? Never mind, it's too late now. I've rescheduled. But Carlos has a list of things we were going to pick up while we were out. He said you wanted fish for dinner tonight. We're out of rice, and there are no tomatoes or onions. And, I think we should get another bottle of that nice red wine.' She winced as she sat on a stool. Once settled, she took in a mountain range of used machine parts stretched across the room, open boxes spilling out more, dirty towels strewn about and, in the center of the room, Delarango's gleaming work-in-progress. 'What is that supposed to be?'

The flame puffed out as Delarango switched off the portable welder. He removed his protective glasses and turned a haggard face to his aunt, '¿Qué hora es?'

Her answer was to swing her cane in the direction of the clock. The digital face announced it was just past noon. She repeated her question. 'What is that?'

He ignored her again and wiped more grease on his pants. Reluctant to stop when he was making such progress, sooner or later a break would be impossible to avoid. At least he wasn't in any danger of losing his concept: step by step, he'd already mapped out where he was going and why. But, he did want to clean up, he needed to eat, and now that he had stopped, he'd crested the euphoria of his mental breakthrough and began to descend into fatigue. Delarango prioritized. 'Carlos still has eggs, doesn't he?'

'Sí.'

He walked over to the internal phone, rang the kitchen and ordered breakfast. Tia Contessa scrutinized him and when he hung up pronounced, 'You look terrible.'

Her remark took him back to when he'd walked into The House the night before.

*~*

'You look terrible Francisco! What's wrong?' Relying heavily on her cane, she beat a slow path to his side. 'You look like you do when you eat too much menudo.'

'Nothing's wrong.' He touched his lips, as if they might give away what just happened in Elizabeth's carport, before he slipped his hands into his pant pockets and tried to appear casual, 'Everything's fine.'

She waved him down to her level and felt his forehead. After enough time elapsed, she dropped her hand. 'Take some of those gel capsules.'

'I don't have a fever.'

'Tu cabeza está caliente.'

No surprise there. It wasn't just his head that was hot and it was going to take a helluva long time to cool off from the antics that had just played out next door. Gel capsules would be no help at all. 'I don't need to take anything.'

'Really?' She narrowed her eyes and began to dig around in his personal business, 'I thought you were going to buy a car.'

'That's right. We did. And, we got a really good deal.' He smiled and nodded. Delarango tried too hard to appear nonchalant. Suspicion lit a path for his aunt to follow.

Tia Contessa expertly zeroed in, 'You shouldn't get involved with her.'

'I already told you, I'm not dating Elizabeth.'

'No? Don't you mean, I'm not dating Elizabeth yet?'

'Who was it that sat me down right over there and lectured me on following my feelings about women?'

She turned away. 'No recuerdo.'

'Of course you remember.'

She turned back. 'So, what you're saying is, you want to date her but you're not dating her. That means you're not following your feelings and you're still in your self-destructive/self-denial cycle.'

'Have you been watching Dr. Phil again?'

'Answer me!'

'You didn't ask me a question!'

Tia Contessa limped to the closest dining chair, gingerly sat down, and continued to map out her conclusions. 'I watched you with her.'

Delarango's face fell. For a second he thought she meant tonight. Regaining his composure, he adopted the neutral expression he hoped would mask the tilt of his kilter. He needn't have bothered; when his aunt was on the scent she could put a bloodhound to shame. 'I heard the way you spoke to her.'

No point in telling her it was none of her business. 'I saw the way you looked at her.'

Not worth his breath to deny it. 'The way you feel couldn't be more obvious. Everyone can see it. Even that inestable decorator of yours recognized a challenge for your affection.'

It was nice to know his personal feelings were on display for everyone to assess. How had that happened? He'd always been so good at masking what he wished to keep private. It was a quality that served him well in business. But business associates weren't family or women navigating a road map to his affections. And, if Brian and his aunt and Cerise all spotted his proclivity for Elizabeth, then what had kept Elizabeth from detecting it as well?

Nothing. She'd received his signals loud and clear. And answered them. He blew on his lips. They were still tingling from her response. His aunt interrupted his thoughts, 'You'd better take some of those capsules.'

'I told you I don't have a fever.'

'No, but as hard as you're thinking, you're going to give yourself un dolor de cabeza gigantesco.' Leaning on her cane, she stood up. 'I'm going to bed.'

'Let me help you upstairs.'

Tia Contessa waved him away. 'Help someone who needs it,' she replied, referring to her nephew who was adrift in a sea of unresolved emotions. From down the hallway, she'd called some parting words, 'None of this would have happened if you'd stayed in Los Angeles.'

*~*

As Delarango finished his huevos con chorizo, he thought about how, despite the odds, the residents of Calle de Oro had established a mutual admiration society. But, when one of its members attempted to forge closer relations, the twosome came under threat of disbanding.

Is it my fault? He surprised himself by even asking the question.

His initial reservations about Elizabeth were long gone. He witnessed the direct results of how she'd braved her anger management problem. The journey she'd taken to arrive at where she was today was the main reason they'd been brought closer. He knew her well now. And yet here he was, unable to commit, to move forward and develop what existed between them into more than friendship. He admitted his attraction to her but didn't welcome it.

Why was that?

While he cast a critical eye over his work-in-progress, he wondered if his aunt was right. Maybe he was a saboteur deliberately imploding relationships. Delarango had always thought of his approach more along the lines of selective breeding - without making babies - where he was simply weeding out those women with some sort of character defect that would threaten the strength of a serious relationship. Maybe, in his zeal to insure he didn't make a mistake, he'd overdone it and inadvertently thrown away chances for happiness. That dusty file cabinet, filled with the dossiers of women from his past, was ready to roll its drawers open for inspection but he didn't want to look back.

'I can't change the past.' Then, he let slip, 'But, I can make whatever I want of the future.'

He was balanced on the cusp of choice and had to face the events of last night. He needed time to think. The best way he did that was when he was inspired, working and creating. While his conscious focused on what was taking shape before him, his subconscious thoughts would flow freely. But, Delarango knew the dam had burst and he was wading hip-deep in his feelings for Elizabeth. His emotions were plotting a backstage coup. They might seize the moment and overthrow his analytical approach. Delarango felt vulnerable and needed to shore up his defenses until he was ready to act. He listened to his instinct whisper in his ear, 'Keep things under control. Know exactly where you're going.'

He vowed that's just what he'd do: honestly analyze his inner psyche. Delarango needed to evaluate how he would proceed with Elizabeth - logically and sensibly. He needed to work through it step by step - methodically and carefully.

The connection between his newly restored creative genius and the source that inspired its return still escaped him, as did just exactly what it meant to have Elizabeth be the influence of such a significant aspect of his life.

Elizabeth Bennet and the night - that inescapable night and what had happened. The mingling of their warmth with her folded in his arms; the sensual lightness that came from throwing off his self-imposed restraint; the ebb and flow of the feelings she stirred in him and the physical rush that swelled as they shared the moment. Something else about being with her on that noteworthy night rustled around in head - a piquant anticipation of what might lay beyond their kiss.

His cool-headed approach to their budding relationship was doomed.

*~*

Delarango supported his aunt's weight and helped her into a chair at the dining table. Taking a seat opposite, he addressed her with a parental tone. 'You've done too much too soon and now you're paying the price.'

She scoffed, '¡Tonterías!'

'Don't tell me its nonsense when I can see you're in pain, barely able to move around. Have you spoken to your doctor?'

'Sí.'

'And?'

¿Qué saben?

'Okay, if you're slandering your doctor, she's told you something you don't want to hear. What is it?' Like a petulant child, she made a face. 'What did she say?'

'I must not walk unless it is absolutely necessary.'

'I knew it. When were you going to tell me?'

Her words were punctuated with her hand, slapping the table, 'Just as soon as you tell me what's really going on with the young woman next door.'

'Sure, no problem, right after we talk about your dancing.' She sat up straighter and offered nothing about her recent flamenco sessions. 'Did you make an appointment?'

'Sí.'

Here we go again. 'When is it?'

'El martes.'

'Next Tuesday? I'll need to check my calendar.'

'No es necesario, Brian está llegando.'

'Brian's coming? Were you going to tell me? Wait, don't answer. Let's not start that all over again.'

Delarango fussed over his aunt, making sure she stayed off her feet and had everything she needed. And, although in her current condition they appeared to pose no immediate threat to her health, he also managed to sneak her dancing shoes out of her room. Brian called him just as he sat a glass of the red wine that Tia Contessa preferred on her bedside table. The cousins covered all matters regarding their aunt before Delarango shifted the conversation to another matter.

*~*

The sky was an iced sheet of vibrant blue trimmed in white cloud dollops. A breeze, heavy with the smell of the sea, came and went and ruffled Delarango's hair, the hem of his shirt, and the curtains. He stood on the balcony of one of his black boxes, testing the door to his aunt's room. She said it was sticking, but he couldn't find any evidence of this. With the sun on his shoulders, he closed the door. Open - close - open - nothing. He was about to inspect the hinges when he got the feeling something besides the sun was trained upon his back. He turned around and saw Elizabeth watching him from her deck.

His stomach pitched.

Delarango imagined there was some sort of power she held over him that had willed him to turn around. He looked at Elizabeth, a provoquant sorceress leaning against her picnic table. Sand-colored shorts offset a pair of tanned legs. Strands of hair brushed across her cheeks. Seeing her for the first time since, well since, and his resolve to take it slow and think it through threatened to hitch a ride on the ocean breeze. She summoned him from across the way. 'Where have you been this week?'

'Working. I hit a vein of inspiration that sort of overwhelmed me.'

'Uh huh. Four days of inspiration?'

'That's right.'

'I see.' She paused to let Hook out of the gate and picked the conversation back up, 'Too busy to return my car keys in person?'

Elizabeth referred to his modus deliverandi. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Delarango had pulled himself away from his work just long enough to leave the keys on the hood of her new car. He knew she'd found them when he heard her leave that morning. He suspected the key exchange wasn't where she was really going when pointing out his slight lapse of manners. After all, most people would agree that a passionate clutch like that which they had shared required both private evaluation and a discussion between the parties involved. She threw down the gauntlet. 'We need to talk. I'm coming over.'

Dialogue was imminent and there was only one thing she'd want to talk about. Delarango wasn't going to go there today but he wasn't about to let the perceived advantage of control tip in her favor. He cleared his throat, 'I want to talk to you, too.'

She'd already disappeared without even asking if it was a good time to visit. He hurried in, flew down the stairs and went barreling through the kitchen, nearly running over Carlos and his aunt. He left a flurry of Spanish swirling behind him as he made for the front door.

'It's Elizabeth,' she announced over the speaker.

'Hi there,' he said as he pulled the door open. She kicked off her slip-ons and swept past him. Before he could close the door, Hook tore inside The House. He offered an invitation to their retreating forms, 'Come on in.'

When Hook heard his voice, he pivoted awkwardly and came barreling back in Delarango's direction. As Delarango greeted the dog, he saw Elizabeth watching him from the living area. Her fingers tapped on the shelf, next to the old journals. Delarango and Hook leisurely closed the distance while she started to pace and, when they arrived, launched a pointed barrage at him. 'I've got issues with you. I deserve an explanation. You didn't kiss me like someone who didn't want to go where he voluntarily went. When you said the timing wasn't -'

'Wait.' He raised his hands and tempered his voice to add, 'Just for a moment, please. I'll be right back.'

As he spoke he walked to the dividing wall and poked his head round the corner. He came face to face with his aunt. Ensconced in her eavesdropping spot, Tia Contessa stared back at him without a trace of guilt. With Hook right behind him, he stepped into the kitchen and gave her barely audible instructions, 'Go to your room. And get off your feet.'

She looked at him; she looked at the alien life form - Hook. Delarango watched her run through an array of responses - rumination, calculation, resignation - and then comply without a war of words she must have known she'd lose. Leaning more heavily on her cane, she turned towards the far doorway.

'Carlos, please help my aunt upstairs.' Delarango waited as the pair shuffled off. Thunk-shoop - plunk! Thunk-shoop - plunk!

He steeled himself with a deep breath and asked Hook, 'How did I get myself into this?'

They returned to Elizabeth and she picked up where she'd left off, 'Like I was saying, you didn't kiss me like someone who's in a relationship. You kissed me like, like a...a...'

'Man?'

She corrected him, 'An unattached man.'

'And, what about yourself? How do you explain your actions?'

'What do you mean?'

'You're the one who started it.'

'Well, someone had to start something!'

'I respect that you took the initiative.'

Rising annoyance was apparent in her voice, 'Wait a sec, I'm not going to let you turn this back onto me. We're here to talk about you and your actions.'

'Are we?'

'Yes, Delarango. Why did you act that way?'

His deep voice vibrated, 'Elizabeth, I was reacting to you.'

'Don't joke,'

Delarango looked at her point blank and delivered a deliberate message, 'I'm not. I know exactly how I kissed you. There. Now, I've spoken about my actions. Case closed.'

'That doesn't settle anything. I already know how you kissed me. I also remember I asked if you liked it.'

'And I remember how I answered.'

'I don't think you do.'

'Of course I do. I told you that I did.'

'I'm glad you haven't forgotten.'

'I'm not going to forget.'

'Well, neither am I.'

They stared unwaveringly at each other. As their words hung in the space that separated them, they reclaimed a slice of the intimacy they'd shared that night. Her face held the same allure and Delarango's insides started to turn to butter. He recognized that, if he were a weaker man, this had the potential to stray right back to where they were in the carport. He forced himself to shake off the moment by focusing on the built-in wet bar, 'Okay then, that settles it. We both have great recall skills. Now, how about a drink? I have fresh tangerine juice, green iced tea, and sangria. If you're in the mood, I can make you a killer Bloody Mary.'

'I didn't come here for a drink,' she told him.

'Have some sangria.' He poured a glass and set it on the counter.

She ignored it. 'Your slippery Delarango, but you're not getting away. Why haven't you tried to talk to me?'

Why indeed. If Delarango wasn't ready to have such a discussion with himself, he certainly wasn't ready to have it with Elizabeth. But, Elizabeth didn't deserve to be ignored. He'd failed himself on that front. 'I apologize. Sincerely. It wasn't right to leave things like that. I should have come over.'

'I just want to know why everything ended like it did. Or has it ended?'

He wondered out loud, 'Why do women have to talk everything to death?'

The remark was halfway out of Delarango's mouth when he wished he could reel it right back in. A quick check confirmed he'd riled her up anew. He took a step back; she was breathing fire and he didn't want to get burned.

'Because on a regular basis men blow it! Case in point, my carport. That one is a man thing. The man - that's you Delarango - ended things with a cryptic remark. So, that man has some explaining to do. And I've been waiting for four days.' She confirmed by waving four fingers in his direction. 'Go ahead! '

With the fleeting thought that women could take things so differently than men, Delarango stalled. He needed some help trying to smooth things over. He ducked his head and rummaged through the bar's cabinet. A firm believer in the natural qualities of food sources, he pulled out a bag of organic popcorn. Easy to digest, popcorn was chocked with serotocin, the pleasure neurotransmitter. It would quickly release a calming effect over her.

'Popcorn?' He skipped a bowl and tipped the bag in her direction.

'No,' she almost snarled.

He jiggled the bag. 'Try some.'

She decided to bargain. 'If I try some, will you answer my questions?'

'Sure.' Elizabeth walked over and took a handful. Delarango looked expectantly at her until she ate every last kernel. He smiled and stuck the bag out again. With a second helping, she walked across to his shelf and stopped next to the stack of journals. The same old leather one was on the top.

'Okay, for starters I don't believe you're in a relationship with your interior designer so don't try and use that as an excuse for your behavior.'

'I never said that or implied it.'

'Yes you did!'

'No, you came to that conclusion all on your own.'

'Well, what was I supposed to think? Your decorator made sure I knew she'd bought up all the tickets to Delarangoland, which seemed sort of far-fetched to me.'

'You should have listened to your instincts.'

'So, you're not involved with her?'

'Absolutely not. I never have been.'

'Then, you're in pretty deep Delarango. Unless you're secretly a priest.' Hook watched her wave a hand full of popcorn around and chased down a piece that sailed under a table. 'Are you a priest in the process of renouncing your sacred vows and is that what you meant when you said the timing wasn't right?'

Delarango didn't know if he was supposed to answer that question. While he was trying to decide, she tossed the last pieces of popcorn into her mouth. 'We both know that's ridiculous, don't we? So, spill it! What did you mean about the timing not being right? You had to defrost your freezer? Polish a scuffed pair of wingtips? Feed your cat? What?!'

He reminded her, 'I don't have a cat.'

She slammed her palm down on his family's journal. 'I know that!'

So much for the calming effects of organic popcorn. If it were possible, he felt certain she'd have him skewered and slow roasted for a nice holiday bar-be-que - right after she got a good marinade recipe off of him. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. A neutral sort of limbo was supposed to develop between them. Elizabeth would step back and patiently wait while he sorted himself out. But she wasn't cooperating. 'Elizabeth, please come and have your sangria.'

Looking at him sideways, she asked, 'What's going on with you?'

Delarango didn't like being pressured. He never had the heat turned up on him; he was always the one at the controls. The harder she pushed for answers, the more he was going to push back. His answers would come in his own good time once his inner psyche worked it all through. 'I don't want to talk about it right now.'

'Not ten minutes ago you said you wanted to talk to me!'

Talk was one thing; talking about the real issue was quite something else. Thinking fast, he brought up something he was genuinely concerned about, 'I did. What's happened with your boss and the grant money?'

She fell silent. Absentmindedly picking up the old journal, eventually she said, 'I don't want to talk about it right now.'

'Why don't you want to tell me what's going on?'

'I just don't want to talk about it.'

It was a juxtaposition of two strong willed people that led them to an impasse. Taking a moment to regroup, she focused on the old journal as it fell open to the same page it had the day she sparred with Cerise.

Neither of them knew it, but Elizabeth had been asking the wrong question. The one about why Delarango put on the brakes in the carport wasn't going to take them to the turning point in their relationship. It was an unassuming question about the journal that would be the real catalyst.

'What is this?'

He looked at the journal she cradled. Its worn pages revealed more about Delarango than she would ever expect to. If he answered this question, and the ones that would inevitably follow, Elizabeth would discover the truth about why Delarango had come to Bennet Ranch.

She broke into his thoughts, 'You want to just leave things as they are between us?'

It seemed pointless to keep her in the dark any longer. He looked at her holding his family's history in her hands and said simply, 'No.'

'What is this?' she repeated.

'It's a family journal.'

Her voice lightened, 'Like Mama Gertie's? Who wrote it?' 'A relative of mine, great-great, great-great.'

'Grandfather?' Her crooked eyebrow rose in curiosity, 'Why do you have it here with mine?'

'I was hoping there would be something in your family journals that might help me solve a mystery about my family's history.'

'Really? What?' She scuttled her anger and sank onto the edge of his expansive sofa. Delarango had her full attention.

'The journal traces back my family's arrival from Spain. There were tres hermanos - three brothers - whose parents came to California when Spain still controlled it. They settled in the south, around what's now San Diego, where the brothers were born. When the three brothers grew up, they went separate ways. One brother made it up as far as Monterey, the former capital of both Spanish and Mexican California. That is his journal.'

'Is it your family's history that influenced you to move here?'

'Something like that.'

'Did the brother, your very great grandfather, live in Monterey? It was the center of power and social life in the 19th century.'

'No, he didn't live in Monterey.'

'Wouldn't that be great if you could track down where he did live?'

'I think I might have.'

'Really? Where?'

Before he answered, Delarango inched the sangria closer to her. 'From what's documented in the journal, it seems he bought land here.'

'Where?'

'Here.'

'Here where?'

'Right here.'

Not understanding, she asked again, 'Right here where?'

'He owned what I think is Bennet Ranch, and beyond.'

Momentarily speechless, she recovered enough to request, 'Say that again?'

'I think this land was once owned by my family.'

She stood up and pointed to the plush rug beneath her. 'Here!? How could you know that just from what's written in some old journal?'

Change. It was Elizabeth's Achilles' heel and the reason why, once Delarango knew this, he'd deliberately kept certain things to himself. She still saw him as an outsider in a place that belonged to her family - tangibly, and to her - emotionally. This development turned the tables and he suspected Elizabeth wasn't ready to play musical chairs.

'I'm not certain - '

She interrupted, 'Well, neither am I. You haven't said anything to convince me.'

Delarango finished his point, 'He owned part of a land grant from the Mexican government that had been divided and sold off privately, about 8,000 acres. I know it was in this immediate vicinity from names that correspond and certain obvious physical descriptions. But, I can't find the exact location where he settled, where he lived.'

'How could you possibly, in an area of 8,000 acres?'

'There's enough information to place it somewhere within a few miles of here I would think.'

She gestured with the journal, 'Is it described in here?'

'Yes, there's a very poetic passage about it.'

Elizabeth passed him the journal on her way to the wet bar, 'Read it to me, Delarango.' She claimed her sangria and began to sip.

He took the journal but didn't need to read the passage; Delarango knew it by heart. He began in Spanish, shot her an apologetic look, and switched to English.

'The sea rises up from the bowl, Steep cliffs and a jagged death. All around me are the vines, And the father of the three maidens Guards the secret that flows though my land. My land of gold.'

Elizabeth made quick work of her first sangria and poured another. Stuck on his original declaration, she asked, 'So, what you're saying is, you think your family owned this land before mine did?'

'I believe so.'

'Are you going to read the passage?' As he recited for the second time, he watched Elizabeth close her eyes, apparently concentrating on the centuries-old description. She rubbed her forehead and looked at him skeptically, 'Is that why you go wandering in circles around the hillside? To try and find the place one of your ancestors wrote about?'

He nodded.

'Going round and round and getting nowhere.' Her voice was momentarily tinged with sympathy. 'And you were hoping Aunt Gertie's journals might describe something to help you.'

She took in the ocean and said nothing more while she finished her second drink. When Elizabeth faced him again, she announced with unyielding conviction, 'I hate to disappoint you Delarango, but you've paid my mother a small fortune to chase nothing but a dream. Those places could be anywhere along the coast. You can never prove it's describing Bennet Ranch no matter what your little book says.'

With that, she took her reluctant dog and went home.

*~*

Summer nights are meant to be remembered. They retain a timeless quality that fits snugly within the recesses of the mind, to reminisce over on wet, gray days when summer is far away. Tonight could have been one of those nights. Nature cooperated with the perfect setting. A starry scene above, silence in the warm air. The tips of the golden grasses shining in the luster of the moonlight. The tranquility of Bennet Ranch seemed to spread to the farthest reaches imaginable and at the same time draw close to Delarango. But, he had lost his way and shared the ambience with an unlit fire pit. Cold silvery ashes kept him company. He sat for quite some time, eyes moving from star to star like he was connecting the dots of an unsolved puzzle, when they ventured to Elizabeth's deck. He saw a reclining figure move. After debating whether or not to say anything, he finally broke the stillness of the night.

'Hey.'

She didn't get up. He didn't know if she even looked in his direction. 'Hey.'

Delarango took a few steps her way. 'What are you doing?'

After a long while, she said, 'Thinking.'

'Right.' That seemed to be going around. He'd done nothing but grind his mental gears about Elizabeth since she'd left. 'Do you want to talk?'

'That's pretty funny coming from you.'

She shoots - she scores. And she said nothing more. He thought that was the end of their short exchange and sat back down when she continued. 'I was thinking about going for a hike tomorrow. Do you want to come? You can bring your book.'

'Don't do me any favors, Elizabeth. I can manage just fine on my own.'

'Admit it Delarango, you haven't been doing just fine on your own and, except for the dearly departed, there's no one better than me to help you. Besides, this is about both of us. I know how I feel about this place. It's deep and, right now, emotionally raw. But, I have to accept that you could feel the same way I do, for the same reasons. And if you have a legitimate claim to this land through your family - and that's a big "if" Delarango - but if you do, you have a right to learn all you can about it.'

It seemed she had been thinking and reconciled with her sensibilities. She'd offered a magnanimous gesture to restore harmony. He liked that. 'This isn't about wrestling the land away from your family.'

'Of course not, I know that.'

'It also has nothing to do with dismantling the foundation of your feelings. I respect them.'

'I know.'

'One reason I chose not to mention this before was the chance it would upset you. I didn't want that to happen.'

'I didn't know that. Thanks,' she added.

Delarango decided to quit while he was ahead and, after he agreed to meet her the next day, he said goodnight. Before turning in, he opened the French doors in his room and took in the night one last time. The moon had moved, and darkness covered both his yard and his neighbor's deck. He listened for the shore break far below but instead heard something quite unexpected.

'I don't understand you Delarango. I think you meant what you said, about liking it when you kissed me. In fact, I think you liked it a lot more than you're willing to admit, even to yourself. Just don't get any clever ideas and think you can come back when you want and I'll swoon and say, "Take me". I have no intention to ever again go where we went, ever again - never ever!' Elizabeth Bennet. He believed that she believed what she said about never ever. But, as he stood watching the spot in the dark where he believed she was, he remembered the finer points of their protracted kiss and chose not to believe her at all.

to be continued...


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