Read Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09 Online

Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09 (3 page)

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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I glanced at my
watch. "Oops. Ruby's waiting for me." We were supposed to go over the
tearoom books together this morning and come up with a projection for the next
couple of months' expenditures and income.

Laurel gave me an inquiring look.
"What's been going on with Ruby the last couple of days? She seems, well
different. Distracted."

I shrugged. "You
know Ruby. She's always distracted by one thing or another. Remember when she
started doing past-life regression? She walked around in a trance for weeks. I
never knew whether she had decided to live in this century, or was just here on
a visit."

"I know, but this is
different," Laurel said. "She isn't sick, is she?"

"Are you
kidding?" I shook my head. "Ruby takes every vitamin and antioxidant
known to humankind, plus she's got a positive attitude that won't quit. Her
immune system must be totally germ-proof."

"Well, then, maybe she and Hark are
planning something," Laurel replied. "She's acting like she has a

"If she and Hark are up to something, she
hasn't told me," I said. Hark Hibler is the editor of the Pecan Springs
and Ruby have been seeing one another off and on for five or six months, and I
had been wondering if their relationship might be getting serious. But the
paper keeps Hark pretty busy, and Ruby has been working overtime to get the
new tearoom into operation.

"Then I must be
imagining things," Laurel said. "If anything momentous was happening
in Ruby's life—an engagement to Hark, for instance—you'd be the first to hear

"I don't know
about that," I said, more soberly. "Ruby's been, well, distant
lately, but I don't think it has anything to do with her private life." I
shook my head. "Let me give you a piece of advice, Laurel. Don't go into
business with your best friend—not if you value the friendship, that is. It's
pretty hard to be easy and casual with somebody when both of you are nervous
about the bottom line."

"I agree that
Ruby hasn't been herself for the past week or so," Laurel said
thoughtfully, "but I don't know that it has anything to do with your
partnership. Both of you seem to be handling the business end of things pretty
well, especially now that Mrs. K's in the kitchen. Maybe it's McQuaid."

I gave her a blank look.

"Yeah. When Ben
and I got married, my best friend decided that there wasn't room for two
significant others in my life and excused herself. I had a hard time convincing
her that I could love both of them."

Laurel might have a
point. Ruby had been in my life for a year or two before McQuaid came along and
she'd never seemed jealous of the time I spent with him. In fact, she started
encouraging me to make a commitment long before I was ready to think about it
for myself. But it was certainly possible that she felt left out, now that I'd
actually taken her advice and gotten married. I had to admit that we didn't get
together as we used to, and when we did manage to steal an afternoon or an
evening for ourselves, we usually spent it talking business—not exactly the
best way to nurture a friendship.

Laurel was watching
my face. "Why don't you just come right out and ask her what's wrong? It
certainly can't hurt, and maybe she'll tell you what's on her mind."

Another one of
Laurel's sound, practical ideas. "Thanks," I said. I headed for the
door that connects my shop to the Crystal Cave. "Yell if you need me for



The first thing you notice when you step into
Ruby's shop is the scent. She burns a different incense every day, and the
fragrances mix and mingle in an indescribable aroma that clings to the books
and other items even after you've taken them home, a lingering reminder of your
visit to the Crystal Cave. She also plays a different kind of music every
day—Native American one day, whale songs another. Today it was Celtic, and the
haunting melancholy of harp and flute filled the scented air.

Ruby doesn't open
until ten, and early morning is a good time to catch her doing her
housekeeping: restocking bookshelves, straightening merchandise, dusting the
crystals and wind chimes, bringing her account books up to date. Today, I found
her at the back of the shop, near the curtained dressing-room alcove where she
hangs the hand-painted tops, gauze skirts, scarves, and crazy hats that her
customers love. She was dressed in one of her usual eye-catching outfits—a
slim, shapely ankle-length black silk skirt and a loose, cowl-necked velveteen
top, painted with galaxies of glittering stars—and was standing in front of the
full-length mirror, admiring her reflection. Since Ruby is six feet tall in her
sandals, there's a lot of reflection to admire, especially when she puts on
high heels and frizzes her orangey-red hair, adding several more inches to her
already Ruby-esque stature.

I stood and watched,
unobserved, while she turned in front of the mirror, running her hands over her
breasts and down her hips, smoothing the velvety fabric against her body. As I
watched, she did it again, and then again, the gesture of a woman who takes a
healthy pleasure in the shape and feel of her body. But there was nothing
sensuous or sexy or even graceful about the way Ruby was touching herself. Her
movements were jerky and nervous, and in the mirror her face wore an odd, lost
look, vulnerable and apprehensive. It was unnerving to see Ruby when she wasn't
charging around like a dynamo, fueled by her usual self-confidence and
whiz-bang kinetic energy.

"Hi," I
said tentatively.

Ruby gave a startled yelp and whirled
around. "China!
I didn't
see you." Her voice was scratchy and she blinked rapidly.

"You were busy seeing
yourself," I said. "That's a very nice outfit." I stepped closer
and stroked her velveteen sleeve. 'Touchable, too."

jerked away as if my fingers were hot.

dropped my hand. "Sorry."

The bright red in her cheeks contrasted oddly with
her gingery freckles. "I thought I could have a little privacy," she
muttered testily. "I didn't expect somebody to just walk in on me."

Privacy? That was
not hers. And I had never thought I was just an ordinary "somebody"
in her life.

"Maybe I'd
better back up and start again," I said, stung. "This time I'll
knock." I took two steps backward, thinking that maybe we should go back
even further, to the point before we became partners. If Ruby was going to be
an* noyed by a little thing like my coming into the shop unannounced—

"No, that's okay," Ruby said. She took a
deep breath and pasted on an artificial smile. "So what did you want to
ask me about, China?"

me," I said. "I thought we had planned to get together this morning
and talk about money. You know— the green stuff that pays the bills and keeps
the tearoom going. We were going to make some projections."

Ruby's phony smile
slipped, and I saw the lost, vulnerable look again. "Oh, right.
Money." She straightened her shoulders, repaired her smile, and became
suddenly business-like. "Well, then, come on. Let's get to it."

People may think Ruby is a flake, but one of the
things I've learned since we became partners is that she has a hidden talent
for organization. I followed her to her mini-office, which is tucked compactly
behind a bookcase. She sat down at the small table she uses for a desk, and I
perched on a stool, watching her. She took out the ledger and the checkbook and
put them on the desk, and I saw to my surprise that her hands were trembling.

I said, "what's wrong?"

She hesitated, then looked up at me, widening her eyes and offering that
counterfeit smile. "Why does something have to be wrong? Can't a person
take a good look at herself in the mirror without somebody giving her the third

"The third
degree?" I gave a short laugh. "Is that what you think this is?"
I worked as a criminal defense attorney before I moved to Pecan Springs, and I
was pretty good at interrogating reluctant witnesses: The more disinclined they
were to tell me what they knew, the more determined I was to get them to cough
up their secrets—one way or another. Faced with the challenge of Ruby's denial,
I could feel some of the old instincts kick in. Anyway, Laurel had encouraged
me to find out what her problem was.

"Come on,
Ruby," I coaxed. "I'm your partner, remember. And your friend.
Something is gnawing at your insides and making you very upset. You know what
you always tell me—if you don't let it out, it'll just grow bigger and bigger
until it consumes you."

A look of something
like fear crossed her face and she sucked in a deep breath as if I'd hit her.
For a minute I thought she was going to fall apart; then she stiffened.
"You have no right to cross-examine me," she snapped. "I'm not
under oath. I don't have to bare my soul to you."

"I just hate to
see you so disturbed about something you're not willing to share," I said
truthfully. Ruby may be volatile, but she doesn't usually stew about things, or
bury them deep inside her. When something's bothering her, she talks about it.
And talks and talks and talks. I have never known her to keep a
secret—especially her own—for more than about thirty seconds.

Ruby's mouth tightened and her green eyes blazed.
She banged her fist on her desk. "So now this is all my fault!"

"Of course
not," I said, trying to defuse her anger. "It's nobody's fault. It's
just—" I stopped. I didn't like the way this conversation was going. It
might be better to walk away and come back to it later. But if we didn't
confront the problem now, the eventual eruption might be even worse.

"It has
something to do with us, doesn't it?" I said quietly. "You're upset
with me because I don't spend enough time with you now that McQuaid and I are
married. And you wish we hadn't gone into business together."

She hesitated, biting
her lip. I leaned forward, hoping that she was deciding to be honest with me.
Instead, she crossed her arms over her chest and said, "If it had anything
to do with our partnership, I'd let you know, wouldn't I?"

"That's a
non-denial denial," I said. I was no longer coaxing or cajoling, I was
commanding. "Be straight, Ruby. Tell me what's going on."

She rubbed her arms
as though she were trying to get her circulation going. "You don't have to
be confrontational. That's no way for a friend to act."

"I'm not being confrontational.
But there's no use trying to deny it or sweep it under the rug. Something is on
your mind, and it's affecting the way you act. Why, even Laurel has

"Laurel?" Her voice rose. "What
business does
have poking around in my affairs?"

Laurel," I said. "Directly or indirectly, this thing has to do with
need to know what's going on."

Ruby uncrossed her
arms and took a deep breath, drawing herself up with great dignity. "Do
you really want to know what's going on?" She didn't give me time to
answer. "What's going on is that you're pissed off. You're mad at me
because for once, I won't let you intrude into my private life." She
balled her hand into a fist and thumped the ledger. "I'm telling you,
back qffl"
And with that, she burst into hot, angry tears.

Instinctively, I reached forward to
put my arms around her, but she turned away, shaking her head hard, rejecting
me. The back of her neck where the hair curled looked fragile and vulnerable,
and I longed to comfort her. But all I could do was sit there, stunned by the
violence of her weeping, by her fierce dismissal. It was hard not to be angry
with her for behaving so irrationally.

After a moment,
though, I began to calm down. Although I had no idea what Ruby's problem was,
I could certainly understand her insistence on keeping it to herself. After
all, personal privacy has always been important to me, and I have my own ways
of fending off assaults on my personal space, of defending myself when circumstances
seem to close in around me and threaten my security, even my identity. Right
now, I could only respect Ruby's way of dealing with whatever was bothering
her. The best thing I could do was leave.

Still, if I had known
what was eating away at Ruby—if I could have reached past her anger and her
fear to the dark and secret thing that was hidden deep within her—I would have
folded her in my arms and held her until there were no more tears. And then I
would have held her even harder, and never let her go. Never, ever. For the
thought of life without Ruby is
well, unthinkable.

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
3.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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