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Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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Laurel Hipped her long brown braid
back over her shoulder and began to straighten a rack of herbal recipe books.
"If it wasn't the tour, it'd be something else," she said pragmatically.
"A crisis in the tearoom, maybe, or a case of the flu. Nobody ever gets
through the holidays without at least a couple of disasters." She grinned.
"Especially not you, China."

Khat, the elegant Siamese who lives in
the shop, sauntered in and leaped up on the counter for his morning stroking.
I shoved the cash drawer into the register and checked to see that the tape was
working. The register is a genuine antique—I bought it when Drews Dry Goods
went out of business after seventy years at the same location on the square—and
it loves to eat the paper tape. But it functions when the electricity goes out
(which is more than you can say for computerized registers), and the old bell's
satisfied jingle makes customers smile.

"Let's not talk
about a crisis in the tearoom," I told Laurel firmly. "Let's not even
about it."

Thyme for Tea, which
Ruby Wilcox and I opened in late September, has outstripped even Ruby's wildly
optimistic financial projections. In late October, the annual Pecan Pageant
attracted flocks of tourists to Pecan Springs, and we were far busier than we'd
expected. The weekend after that, the Herb Fair brought in customers from as
far away as Dallas and El Paso, all of them wanting to sample our menu. And
then, to make a good situation even better, Mrs. Kendall appeared out of
nowhere and offered her services as a part-time chef—a superb chef, as we
learned to our great delight—which has given us a little breathing room. But
Thyme for Tea is not even three months old, and it's too soon to congratulate
ourselves. I didn't want to think about a crisis there, or anywhere else, for
that matter. I was ready to settle in for a happy and restful Christmas season,
the first that McQuaid and I would spend together as a married couple.

If you're new to
Pecan Springs and are feeling a little lost, let me help you get your bearings.
My name is China Bayles, and I own Thyme and Seasons, which is located in a
century-old stone building at 304 Crockett Street, just east of Guadalupe and a
couple of blocks from the courthouse square. In the same building, adjoining
Thyme and Seasons, is the Crystal Cave, a New Age shop owned by Ruby Wilcox,
my tenant and best friend, where you can buy crystals, weird music, tarot
cards, and books about Wicca or astrology or healthful living. In the space
behind both shops, where I used to live, we've located our new joint venture,
Thyme for Tea. At the back of the large lot is a remodeled stone stable where
Ruby and I hold classes (I teach herb cookery and crafts, Ruby teaches meditation
and astrology and other mystical stuff)- Both buildings are surrounded by a
maze of small gardens, which you really must visit the next time you're here.
I'm especially proud of my apothecary and culinary gardens, as well as the
butterfly garden, the moon garden, and the Shakespeare garden, green and pretty
even in winter. People can buy herbs and potpourri and New Age music at
Wal-Mart or the Big Thrif-T on Nueces Street, but they come here because of the
gardens and the herb classes and workshops, and because Ruby and Laurel and I
are passionate about what we do. And also because Wal-Mart does not have a

Like most small business owners, I
spend enough hours in the shop and the gardens to qualify as a full-time resident,
but I no longer live on the premises. About eighteen months ago, I moved in
with Mike McQuaid and his thirteen-year-old son, Brian, and at the end of
September, a couple of weeks before Ruby and I opened Thyme for Tea, McQuaid
and I were married. We live a couple of miles west of town in the big white
Victorian house on Lime Kiln Road—the one with the Christmas Tour of Homes sign
out in front and the elderly bassett hound sleeping under the front step. (The
bassett, who is a grumpy old dog, is the reason my Siamese, Khat, elected to
live at the shop.) Around the first of January, if all the paperwork goes as
it's supposed to, McQuaid and I will no longer be renting this marvelous
house—it will be
a thought that both comforts and unnerves me at
the same time.

If you think that all
these changes have come easily, think again. Independence, autonomy, and
privacy have always been at the very top of my list of personal issues (right
up there with being my own boss and loving what I do for a living), so it was
pretty tough to give up my nifty one-person apartment and become McQuaid's
roommate and Brian's surrogate mom—even though I loved both of them enough to
give it my best shot. It wasn't a whole lot easier to agree to Ruby's
proposition that she should invest the income from her big lottery win in the
tearoom. We've been friends for a long time and I knew I could trust her. I was
grateful for her generosity, too—without it, the tearoom wouldn't have been
possible. But I didn't want to be financially dependent on Ruby or responsible
for her financial investment, and I couldn't help feeling that taking a
partner would compromise my autonomy, not to mention my privacy. You don't keep
secrets from your business partner—not if you want the business to survive. It
was a while before I could bring myself to agree, and I'm still second-guessing
my decision.

Toughest of all was
the decision to marry McQuaid. I agonized over it, afraid that marriage would
erode a relationship I had come to value. Worse, I feared that the daily,
inevitable compromises of married life would gnaw away at my last shreds of
autonomy and send me hurtling down a slippery slope to total personal and
financial subjugation. (This may sound a bit over the top, but that's how I was
feeling about it.) However, events—not the least of which was McQuaid's getting
shot last February, when he was working undercover for the Texas
Rangers—persuaded me that marriage was the right thing and now was the right
time. The shooting left McQuaid with a lingering paralysis and, for longer than
I like to remember, a fierce and anguished despair. His recovery has been a
painful struggle to regain his physical strength and mobility as well as his
old optimism. Right now, he's on sabbatical leave from Central Texas State
University, where he teaches in the Criminal Justice Department, and the time
off has helped him cope with the lingering effects of the shooting. Our
marriage has helped too. Now that we've made the commitment, we're both
beginning to heal, he from the physical disabilities that nearly crippled him,
me from my crippling fears of intimacy. He'll probably get well before I do. I
might get the hang of it after a couple more centuries of practice.

Laurel broke into my
thoughts. "Why not ask Mrs. K?" she said. She poured lemon oil on a
dust cloth and began to polish the wooden counter. Khat purred and arched
against her arm, asking her to rub his ears.

lost track of the conversation. "Ask Mrs. K what?"

"To make goodies
for your Christmas tour guests. She could bake those terrific fruit cake
cookies she just added to the menu, or the lemon thyme bars that everybody
likes. She could use the kitchen here, and leave you free to concentrate on
the laundry and the Christmas decorations." Laurel grinned. "And
whatever other disasters crop up."

"Great idea," I said. "If she'll do
it." Mrs. Kendall was a law unto herself. She might not be willing to
accept an extra job. But it certainly wouldn't hurt to ask.

Not getting the
attention he wanted from Laurel, Khat turned to me. I picked him up, scratched
his ears, and began to survey the shop, which (unlike my house) was beautifully
decorated for Christmas, with wooden bowls of clove-studded pomanders and
potpourri, a tiny Christmas tree decorated with gingerbread cookies and
popcorn-and-cranberry chains, and fresh green branches of rosemary everywhere.

But I wasn't admiring
the Christmassy effect, I was checking to see what required special attention.
Thyme and Seasons is small, which makes it easy to see at a glance what items
we need to restock or reorder. Wooden shelves hold books, essential oils, and
jars of bulk herbs, as well as the herb products I buy from local crafters:
jellies, vinegars, seasoning blends, potpourris, soaps, and cosmetics. Baskets
of dried strawflowers, poppy pods, statice, arte-misia, and baby's breath fill
the corners, along with pots and buckets of Christmas herbs: rosemary, ivy,
holly, lavender, thyme, mistletoe. The stone walls and cypress-beamed ceiling
are hung with garlic braids, red-pepper ris-tras, wreaths, and—

I frowned as a large
bare space caught my eye. One entire wall—and the ceiling as well—should have
been hung with holiday wreaths, our best-selling Christmas item.

"Hey, Laurel, we're sold out of wreaths
again," I said. Just a day or so ago, when I'd checked, there'd been
plenty. We buy from several local crafters, but the most popular holiday
wreaths, garlands, and swags come from two sisters, Donna and Terry Fletcher,
who use herbs and flowers gathered from the fields of their flower farm and
dried in their barn.

Laurel nodded.
"The Fletchers were supposed to bring in two dozen twenty-four-inch
grapevine wreaths and a dozen swags yesterday, but Donna called to say they'd
be late with the order." Laurel tied on her Thyme and Seasons apron and
reached for the broom. "Things have been pretty hectic at the farm,
apparently. Something's wrong with their van, and their dog got his leg caught
in a trap."


"Oh no, not Max!" I
exclaimed. Max is classic Border collie, intelligent, confident, and totally in
charge of everything. "He's not—"

Laurel shook her head. "He'll be
okay. The leg was pretty badly mangled, but Donna said the vet managed to save
it. Apparently Aunt Velda is taking it worse than Max." She chuckled.
"She's convinced that the Little Green Men set the trap in order to
capture him. She thinks they want her back, too."

This is one of those
things that shouldn't be funny, but it is.
was abducted by aliens two years ago, and she hasn't been the same since they
sent her home on furlough. I don't know how Donna and Terry find the patience
to deal with her various weirdnesses, but their aunt is their only living
relative and they refuse to pack her off to a nursing home until it is absolutely
necessary. It may be a while before that happens. Aunt Velda is pushing
seventy-five, but she's as strong as she was at sixty and twice as stubborn. In
spite of having been abducted by aliens and given the grand tour of the
galaxy, there isn't much wrong with her.

"Why don't you
give the farm a call and tell them I'll pick up the order," I suggested.
Khat squirmed and I put him on the floor, where he stalked off in search of his
catnip mouse. "I'm taking Brian to spend the night with his grandparents,
near Seguin. It's not much out of my way." I glanced around. "We've
sold almost all of the mistletoe, too, I see."

At Christmas,
mistletoe is our best-selling herb, hands down. I buy it wholesale from a local
supplier and Laurel and I package it in plastic bags tied with festive holiday
ribbons. During the holiday season, we process hundreds of mail and telephone
and E-mail orders for the plant, which grows in basketball-sized clumps on the
hackberry and pecan trees in the wooded hills to the west of Pecan Springs.
Once you've seen those fresh yellow-green leaves and translucent berries,
glowing like huge pearls, you can understand why our mistletoe is so
popular—especially when you compare it to the cello-wrapped, dried-out bundles
of twigs and scrawny berries you find at the grocery store. Texas Hill Country
mistletoe has a special charm, too. When you've been kissed under a sprig of
it, you know you've been kissed.

"The mistletoe
man was supposed to bring in three bags last week," Laurel said, "but
he didn't show up." She wrinkled her nose. "Not a surprise, I guess.
He's not very dependable."

Finding reliable suppliers is a challenge in any
business, but especially when it comes to herbs. The weather is always a
problem, of course. The growers who supply me with live plants and dried herbs
have to cope with drought, flooding rains, and blazing sun. But some
herbs—mistletoe, for instance—aren't cultivated, they're gathered from the
wild. My mistletoe supplier is a guy named Carl Swenson, who brings in two or
three garbage bags full of the stuff every week, starting in early November and
continuing through the end of the holiday season. During this six-week period,
we sell enough mistletoe to decorate every door from here to Dallas.

"Maybe we ought
to give Swenson a call," I said.

idea," Laurel replied, "except that we don't have his phone number.
For all I know, he doesn't have a phone."

That wouldn't be a
surprise. Swenson is a sour-faced man with a straggly beard and an Army
private's burr haircut. He doesn't have a regular job and turns a blind eye to
friendly gestures. I couldn't imagine that he had enough buddies, or even
acquaintances, to warrant subscribing to Five Cent Sundays. I didn't know much
about him except that he lived alone about twenty miles outside of town, and
that he only came to Pecan Springs to get supplies. The Hill Country attracts
people like that—people who value their privacy, elect a simple life, and try
to make it without a regular job. Of course, it's not easy to live off the
land, and I know only a few people who actually manage it. The Fletcher
sisters, for instance, who earn a modest living from their flower farm. And
Swenson, who makes some money selling mistletoe and a little more selling
goats. They won't get rich, and maybe they're not even happy. But they're doing
what they choose, and that's got to be worth something.

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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