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Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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there before, too. "What's he doing back
here?" "Starting a new business."

I frowned suspiciously. "What kind of
business?" I've only met Wade Wilcox once or twice, but I've got him pegged
as a troublemaker. Maybe he'd heard about Ruby's lottery win and thought he
could get some money out of her. Maybe he was trying to drag her into one of
his shady deals, like the old days, when he'd tangled her up in thousands of
dollars of debt. Maybe—

"How should I
know what kind of business Wade's in?" McQuaid asked. "He's not
exactly my kind of guy." He turned and limped into the bedroom.

I watched him as he went, my suspicions of Wade
Wilcox
submerged in
the sweet relief
and deep gratitude
I
al
ways feel when I see McQuaid walk without his
canes. Given the uncertainty of the doctors' prognosis, his steady recovery has
seemed almost miraculous, as if we are the special beneficiaries of some
unimaginable grace. But while I don't discount miracles, I doubt that the
doctors took McQuaid's willpower and determination into account when they said
that it wasn't likely he'd ever walk again. They didn't take into account the
fact that he had spent three grueling years working for the quarterback slot at
the University of Texas, or that the white scar that runs diagonally across
his forehead was left by a crack-crazy doper who slashed him with a knife
during an arrest. He'd heard the doctors' gloomy prognosis as a challenge, and
while there were setbacks—times when he was so despondent that he could only
sit and stare out the window—the challenge fired his determination. He's
regained his strength to the point where he can do almost everything he did
before, almost as well. Some things, I think, he does even better, but I may be
prejudiced.

 

He was stretched out in our brass bed,
the sheet pulled up to his chin. His T-shirt and jockey shorts were on the
floor beside the bed, as usual. I went to my dresser, got my hairbrush, and began
brushing my hair in front of the round antique mirror his parents gave us for a
wedding present. A hundred strokes will probably never do much for the wide
streak of gray at my temple, but it's a bedtime ritual I can't do without. Then
I found my night lotion—some creamy, light herbal stuff a friend made for
me—and began smoothing it onto my face. Then—

"Aren't
you coming to bed?" McQuaid asked.

I put the cap on the lotion. "What? Are we in
a hurry?" I opened the top drawer of the dresser, took out my orange Hook
'Em Horns nightshirt, and started to pull it over my head.

"You won't need
that," McQuaid said. He gave me a sly look and pointed over his head.
"See?" There was something thumbtacked to the ceiling. A little knot
of shriveled green leaves sporting one or two white berries, tied with a droopy
red ribbon.

I squinted. "It must be
mistletoe," I said. Of course, that was just a guess. It was clearly not
Texas mistletoe, or if it was, it wasn't fresh. But it's the thought that
counts, right?

"I saw it in the
grocery store when I bought the wine for dinner, all done up in a little
plastic box." McQuaid was clearly pleased with himself. "I figured
you'd like it." He threw back the blanket with a lecherous grin.
"Come on, China, climb in. I'm going to kiss you all over."

"Yum,"
I said, and dropped the nightshirt.

One thing quickly led
to another, and kissing wasn't the only thing we did. My husband's hands moved
over my body, and I found myself eager for his touch, his hard mouth, his urgent
hunger. My breath deepened with his energy, my heart quickened with his kiss.
Shifting slightly, we found the movements we needed to fit each other's rhythms
in a way that was deep and perfect and fulfilling, as if we had been practicing
this lovemaking all our lives.

A little later, McQuaid stirred.
"If I'd known marriage could be like this," he said sleepily,
"we'd have done it a long time ago. Remind me—why did we put it off?"

"One
of us was silly and stubborn," I said.

"Yeah, right." He nuzzled me. "We
won't name any names. 'Night, babe."

I shifted so that I
could see his face. His lashes were long and dark against his tanned cheek.
Gently, I traced the curve of his mouth, set in a face that was at once
familiar and yet strange. The face of my husband.

"Good
night." I looked up at the scrawny little clump of dried leaves, his gift
to me. "Thank you for thinking of the mistletoe," I added. "It's
sweet."

"I knew it would turn you on," he said,
and flung his arm across me.

The moon came out from under a cloud and bathed
the mistletoe in a silvery glow, making it look almost pretty. "In Sweden,
they used to hang mistletoe from the ceiling to protect against fires caused by
lightning," I said. "They had the idea that mistletoe was produced by
lightning, because it grows in trees and never touches the ground.
Ergo,
it
could serve as a lightning-conductor. If a bolt of lightning hit the house, it
would strike the mistletoe and the house itself would be protected." I
smiled, appreciating this odd bit of folk-logic and glad to be able to share
it. "Isn't that fascinating?"

I was answered by a gende snore. McQuaid was sound
asleep.

 

Chapter
Four

 

In the Victorian language of flowers, mistletoe
symbolized
"I
overcome
everything";
"I
surmount
difficulties";
"I
rise
above all."

Kathleen Gips
Flora's Dictionary

 

In Northern Italy, mistletoe is thought to grow
where a tree has been struck by lightning. It can be destroyed by neither fire
nor water, and it communicates its indestructibility to the oak on which it
grows.

Italian folklore

 

 

 

 

When McQuaid and I were married, I
decided to stop opening the shop on Sunday afternoons, to give myself a little
more free time. Since we're not open on Mondays either, I now have two full
days to get more or less caught up on the necessities of life: sleeping,
shopping, and the laundry. On this particular Sunday, I also had to begin
decorating for the Christmas Tour, an event which was looming like a black
cloud over the weekend ahead.

Our rambling old five-bedroom Victorian has a wide
veranda, a large fireplace, and a dignified staircase. I could keep people
from going up to the second floor by putting a red rope across the stairway. I
could put the large Christmas tree in the corner by the living-room fireplace,
where we had it last year, and a tabletop tree in the dining room, along with a
bowl of glass ornaments and holiday cookies and a three-tiered silver epagier
piled with fruit and pine cones. I could put potted poinsettias on the floor,
swags on the banister, a couple of rosemary topiaries in the hallway, and
wreaths in all the windows. Of course! Wreaths and swags—and I had plenty of
those, still in boxes in the back of the truck. I could hang them here until
after the tour, then take them to the shop to sell. Now, if I just had somebody
to help with all this. Not McQuaid, though. His idea of a Christmas decoration
is a poster-board picture of Santa tacked on the front door. Anyway, McQuaid
had gone to pick up Brian and visit with his folks.

And then I thought of
Ruby. Since she apparently wasn't planning a big Christmas at her house, she
would probably be willing to help with mine, and a little holiday cheer might
raise her spirits. It was nearly two in the afternoon. I'd call and invite her
over, and while we were working, we could have some good old-fashioned,
soul-baring girl talk.

I went to the phone and punched in
Ruby's number. There was no answer—and no answering machine, either, which struck
me as strange. Ruby loves to be in touch. Her answering machine is always on.
While I was at the phone, I called Mrs. Kendall, thinking that I'd better pin
her down about helping with the food for the Tour. She answered on the second
ring. In reply to my question, she said, reassuringly, "Of course I'll
help. Tell me what you'd like to serve and I'll bring it over on Sunday
morning."

"That's
wonderful," I said enthusiastically. "Thank you. You've saved my
life."

Mrs. Kendall had become such a fixture
in our lives that it was hard to believe that neither Ruby nor I had ever met
her before that October morning, almost two months ago, when she appeared
unannounced in the tearoom. She introduced herself and said that she'd heard
we might be seeking help in the kitchen.

"You'll find me a rather good
cook, if I do say so myself," she remarked confidently. She spoke in one
of those clipped, precise British accents that always sound so cultured in
contrast to our sloppy, folksy Texas drawls. She looked to be in her late
forties, with brown hair twisted into a loose knot at the back of her head,
piercing blue eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses, a beige sweater set and brown
tweed skirt, sensible brown shoes. I could see her hiking long distances over
the open moors or putting a corgie through its paces at a dog show. She was a
bit dowdy and rather heavy of movement, but commanding all the same. The sort
of woman who inspires confidence.

Ruby and I exchanged startled glances.
The tearoom had gotten off to a strong start because Ruby's friend Janet, an
experienced cook, had helped us out in the kitchen. Two weeks after the
opening, however, Janet had to go to Dallas to help settle her mother's estate.
She'd only been gone a few days when we saw that, where the kitchen was concerned,
we had definitely bitten off more than we could chew. Not that our menus were
terribly complicated. We were open only for afternoon tea, which is pretty
simple— scones, an assortment of sandwiches, a few cakes, some jam, and tea, of
course. Lots of teas, herbal, black, green, flavored, you name it. Ruby and I
knew we couldn't turn much of a profit with the limited hours and we were
afraid that our customers would soon get tired of the restricted fare. But we
rationalized the decision by reminding ourselves that we were just getting
started. There was time to add a lunch menu when we had a bit more experience
under our belts, when we gained a little more confidence in what we were doing.
When we found a good cook to replace Janet.

"Exactly
how good are you, Ms. Kendall?" Ruby asked.

"One doesn't wish to boast, of course,"
the woman said modestly, "but until quite recently, I worked in a splendid
tearoom in Sussex called The Royal George. A lovely little place, right in the
village High Street, owned by two very dear women. I did enjoy working for
them. They were so very kind and attentive. Should you see fit to employ me,
I'm sure you would find my work quite satisfactory." She paused and then
added, "Although, as I said, one doesn't like to boast."

"Oh,
quite," Ruby said hastily. "Quite, indeed. Rather."

Mrs. Kendall made a judicious survey of our newly
renovated, newly decorated tearoom, with its stone walls, green wainscoting,
chintz chair cushions and place mats, the baskets of ivy and philodendron hung
from old cypress ceiling beams. Through the open doorway, she could see the
sparkling, fully equipped kitchen installed at the behest of the Texas
Department of Public Health. But from her look, it was clear that she was
comparing Thyme for Tea with The Royal George and finding it wanting on several
important counts. She sighed.

"Well," she said
matter-of-factly, "one has to begin somewhere, doesn't one? I've no doubt
that we could work up a menu quite similar to the one we had at The Royal
George, which enjoyed a brisk luncheon trade."

I frowned. "I'm
not sure a British menu would go over very well here. After all, this is
Texas."

"Just
because one lives in Texas," Mrs. Kendall said loftily, "one is not required
to behave like a barbarian. I'm sure that even Texans must enjoy a bit of
civilized dining now and then, given the opportunity."

Stung, I opened my
mouth to retort, but Ruby interrupted. "Why don't we ask Mrs. Kendall, to
make some suggestions about the menu," she said tactfully. "We can
study them and decide whether we think they'd work." Her reproving look
told me to stop behaving like a barbarian.

"Whatever you want," I said, shrugging.
I glanced at the woman. "You've got references, I suppose."

'To be sure," Mrs. Kendall replied
graciously. "But I expect you'd rather sample my culinary skills than read
my recommendations. I should be delighted to prepare luncheon for you. At no
charge, of course."

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