Read Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09 Online

Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09 (9 page)

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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"Luncheon!"
Ruby exclaimed. "What a perfectiy delightful idea." She looked at
me. "Isn't it, China?"

"Well,
sure," I said. I waved my hand carelessly. "Be our guest. Show us
your stuff."

"My
...
stuff?" The woman frowned.

"China means
that we would love to sample your dishes," Ruby explained.

"Well, then,
I'll just have a look around." Mrs. Kendall turned and went into the
kitchen, and we could hear the sound of doors opening and pots rattling. In a
few moments, she was back. "It seems that you have most of the necessary
equipment. I'll pop round to the market and pick up a few things. And if you
have a moment, you might just step out to that lovely little garden and pick a
few fresh herbs—basil and dill, please, and a bit of lemon thyme and parsley
would be splendid." A watch was pinned to her sweater and she took it off
for a look, exactly as Mary Poppins might have done. I almost expected her to
click her heels and twirl an umbrella. "You may expect luncheon in
...
shall we say, ninety minutes." She
turned and marched out the door.

"A spoonful of
sugar makes the medicine go down," I said.

Ruby
rolled her eyes. "Pinch me. I think I'm dreaming."

I grinned. "If
she can't cook, maybe Sheila could use her on the police force."

"She certainly
has a managerial personality," Ruby agreed. "She'd take a bit of
getting used to. But we need somebody experienced in the kitchen. If she can
cook, she'd be the answer to our prayers. An angel from heaven, so to
speak."

"Rather,"
I said dryly.

Exactly an hour and a half later, Ruby and I were
sitting at a table in our tearoom, our lunches arranged attractively before us.
I tucked into a savory sausage roll, creamy tomato soup with basil, and a
dilled-cucumber salad. Ruby had soup and a garden salad, plus a shepherd's pie,
made with ground beef, onions, and vegetables and topped with garlic mashed
potatoes. We hardly spoke except to trade remarks like "Delicious"
and "Superb" and (once, surreptitiously)
"Supercaufragilisticexpialidocious." When we were finished, Mrs.
Kendall, wearing a neat green apron over her tweed skirt, brought in a plate of
cheese and fruit and three cups of Earl Grey tea. She sat down and spread two
sheets of paper, neatly lettered, on the table in front of us.

"For luncheon," she said, "I
propose that we begin by offering Shepherd's Pie, served with soup and salad
and crusty bread. We might also offer a sausage roll, also with soup and salad
and bread. After a few weeks, I recommend the addition of a Quiche of the Day,
smoked salmon on a roll, and a Ploughman's Lunch. Your kitchen is a bit small
and
will limit the menu, but these dishes are quite within its capabilities."

"A Ploughman's Lunch?" Ruby asked.
"What's that?"

Over the tops of her gold-rimmed glasses, Mrs.
Kendall gave Ruby a pitying look. "A Ploughman's Lunch traditionally
consists of a hot roll, three slices of a good Stilton, mustard, a pickle, a
pickled onion, and a salad."

"I don't know about the pickled onion,"
Ruby muttered, but I could tell she was blown away by the woman's skill and
experience. I was too.

"And what about afternoon tea?" I asked,
trying not to show how impressed I was.

Mrs. Kendall referred to the other sheet of paper.
"At tea," she said, "one can be quite creative without risking a
great many resources. You're already serving the staples— tea sandwiches,
scones and jam, cakes, and so forth. I propose to reorganize these same items
around several traditional teatime themes. For instance, one might offer a
Savory Tea—sandwiches and cheeses—or a Sweet Tea, which is miniature pastries
with a fruit garnish. Both very simple but elegant. And for the youngsters, one
might include a Mad Hatter's Tea." She folded her hands. "Alice, you
know."

"It's very British," I said to Ruby,
sotto voce.
"I don't know how it'll go over here in Pecan
Springs."

"But it's unique and different," Ruby
said, also in a low tone. "I think our customers will love it. And they
don't all come from Pecan Springs, of course." This was true. Tourism is
the Hill Country's biggest business, attracting people from all over the world.

"If you would like to talk it over
privately," Mrs. Kendall said tactfully, "I should of course be glad
to—"

"No, no," Ruby replied. "We love
your ideas. And your
food." She gave me a meaningful look. "Don't we, China?"

We hired her on the
spot, of course. She had the required green card, so there was no problem with
her papers. As an employee, however, Mrs. Kendall was a challenge, because she
preferred to give orders rather than take them. What's more, she took only the
suggestions she wanted to take, when she felt like it. But we had to admit that
for all her highhanded ways, she was an eminently fair and reasonable person
who did the right thing, at least as she saw it.

And as a cook, she was indisputably without peer.
She produced one tasty dish after another with aplomb, and she never looked
ruffled or harried. In fact, her manner was so aristocratic and imperious that
Ruby and I took to calling her the Duchess—behind her back, of course. To her
face, the only familiarity we were allowed was "Mrs. K." We knew from
her employment application that her first name was Victoria, that she was
forty-seven, and that she had been in the United States for four months. But
that and her address (a small apartment a few blocks away) were the only facts
we could ascertain about her personal life. Ruby had once joked that maybe she
de-materialized when she left the kitchen and materialized again the minute she
put on her neat green apron.

But who cared what
the Duchess did in her off-hours? She was exactly what we needed. We couldn't
imagine what we had done before she showed up. We couldn't imagine what we'd do
without her. Now, feeling grateful to her for agreeing to help me meet my
obligations to the Christmas Tour, I asked about her holiday plans.

"I have no
plans," she said. "I have no family left, you see, and no one with
whom to celebrate. I'm entirely alone in the world." She sighed heavily.
"My husband is gone.

My parents died when my sister Amanda
and I were very young, and Amanda herself died ten years ago. I still miss her
quite dreadfully." Another long sigh. "I brought her up, you know,
after Mother and Father died."

I could hear the sadness in her voice, and
something else, as well. The Duchess, usually so crisp and precise, was
uncharacteristically rambling, her words slightly slurred. Had she been nipping
at the sherry, at two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon?

"I'm
sorry," I said, not knowing exactly what to say.

She hiccupped so delicately that I almost didn't
hear it, and I pictured her taking another sip of sherry. "My sister was
so beautiful, and such a loving and generous person." Mrs. Kendall's voice
became bitter. "Her death was an unspeakable tragedy."

"I'm so sorry," I said again, with more feeling.
I had a sudden vision of the Duchess sitting all alone in a drab, cheerless
apartment, with nothing to do but sip sherry and mourn her sister's death a
full decade ago. It was pathetic.

I heard a sudden sharp intake of breath, as if
Mrs. Kendall was trying to get hold of herself. "I apologize for having
imposed my sadness and anger on you, Ms. Bayles." Her voice took on some
of its customary briskness, and I could almost see her squaring her shoulders
and putting on a stiff upper lip. "I'm afraid I must ring off now. I have
an important engagement this afternoon."

We said goodbye and I put down the
phone with the feeling that Mrs. Kendall's afternoon engagement was with the
bottle at her elbow. It must be terrible to lose a sister and even worse to
live with feelings of grief and desperate longing for the rest of your life.

•    
•     •

I tried calling Ruby again, but there
was still no answer. So I spent Sunday afternoon doing the Christmas decorating
in my usual haphazard, uninspired way, hanging wreaths and swags, arranging
candles in trays covered with rosemary branches sprayed with fake snow, putting
up a small artificial tree on the hutch in the dining room. I stood back to
survey my handiwork, feeling that it all seemed— well, rather ordinary and
unremarkable, hardly something you'd go out of your way to look at. I could
imagine the Christmas Tourists shaking their heads and muttering critically to
one another, and Rowena Riddle, frowning in disappointment. I sighed. Where
was Ruby when I needed her? Where was Martha Stewart?

Finally, in an act of desperation, I dragged in a
pot of prickly pear cactus from the patio and looped it with miniature white
lights. Then, on a whim, I put my cowboy boots—the ones I wear when McQuaid and
I go dancing at the Broken Spoke—beside the fireplace and filled them with
rosemary branches and some bright red chile peppers. When I stepped back to
admire the boots and the cactus, I realized I'd accidentally discovered my
theme. I took the pine-bough garland off the mantel and substituted a
red-pepper
ristra
and a garlic braid from the kitchen, hung with a
few ornaments. Voila! A Texas Country Christmas. A few miniature Texas flags, a
ceramic armadillo wearing a Santa hat, Brian's toy gun and lariat looped around
a grapevine wreath and hung with holly, and the picture would be complete. To
go with the theme, I'd persuade Mrs. Kendall to try her hand at some Texas
party foods—tiny tacos, red and green salsa, Fiesta pie, and tortilla snacks.

When McQuaid and
Brian got home, we put up the tree we'd picked out the week before and
decorated it with the hodgepodge of ornaments we've independently collected over
the years, half of which are broken and none of which match. When you marry a
man, you marry his Christmas ornaments as well.

And his dog. In the middle of the tree-trimming
festivities, Howard Cosell, McQuaid's grumpy old basset, stumped in, sniffed
happily all around the cactus pot, then lifted his leg. Of course, Howard has
probably used that pot as a fire hydrant several times a day for as long as
we've lived here, and nobody has ever said a cross word to him about it. But
the cactus was under new management and Howard would have to do his doggy
business elsewhere until the Tourists had come and gone. Explaining this to
him wasn't easy, for while Howard responds with tail-wagging and eye-rolling
enthusiasm to complicated sentences such as "Would you like to go for a
ride in the truck?" and "It must be almost time for Howard's
dinner," his vocabulary does not include the word
no.

But Howard Cosell's
affinity for the cactus pot was a minor glitch in an otherwise merry
Christmas-tree-decorating party, our first as a family. McQuaid and Brian and I
ate popcorn and drank mulled cider as we worked, and told stories of
Christmases past. When we were finished, Brian was given the honor of switching
on the tree lights in the darkened room. "Awesome," he said when the
tree was lit, and McQuaid and I, our arms around each other, had to agree.
Everything was perfect—the cowboy boots, the lariat wreath, Howard's cactus,
the Christmas tree. Even the ceramic armadillo looked right at home.

"Good job, Mrs.
McQuaid," my husband said, and kissed me. To the rest of the world I am
still and always China Bayles, but McQuaid can call me Mrs. McQuaid whenever he
likes and I won't complain.

Just because my house
was decorated didn't mean it was clean, however—especially after
we
'd
dragged out the boxes of ornaments, tracked popcorn and tinsel across the
carpet, and sprayed messy drifts of artificial snow on the windows. At eight on
Monday morning, Brian went to school and McQuaid disappeared into his study to
work on the book he's writing, a history of the Texas Rangers. At least that's
what he's supposed to be doing with his sabbatical semester, although he's
only produced about thirty pages of it. It's shaping up to be a controversial
book, McQuaid tells me, and a great deal more difficult to write than he had
originally thought. The only other important history of the Rangers is Walter
Prescott Webb's 1935 book,
The
Texas Rangers,
which J. Frank
Dobie called "The beginning, middle,
and end
of
the subject." Except that Webb's vision of his subject was colored by his
admiration for these guys in white hats. He was a Ranger fan. He made them
look good even when they were bad, even when their exploits included the
murders of unarmed men and assaults against innocent citizens. If McQuaid
actually finishes this revisionist history, he might be in for some serious
flak from his law enforcement buddies.

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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