Mistletoe Man (China Bayles Series #9)

Mistletoe Man (China Bayles Series #9)

4.4 10
by Susan Wittig Albert
     
 

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In this “intelligently plotted and deliciously descriptive tale” (Publishers Weekly), national bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert tells the story of a woman’s search for justice—and of her struggle to reconcile the demands of her business with the desires of her heart…

Former big-city lawyer China Bayles worked hard to make… See more details below

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Overview

In this “intelligently plotted and deliciously descriptive tale” (Publishers Weekly), national bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert tells the story of a woman’s search for justice—and of her struggle to reconcile the demands of her business with the desires of her heart…

Former big-city lawyer China Bayles worked hard to make her Texas herb shop, Thyme and Seasons, a success. Now business is booming at her charming new tea room, Thyme for Tea—but China is too distracted to revel in her latest entrepreneurial triumph. When she’s not trying to spend more time with her new husband and stepson, she’s worrying about her best friend, Ruby, who just hasn’t been herself lately. To further complicate matters, China has to round up a supply of mistletoe, the season’s most popular herb. It seems an easy enough task—until her chief supplier turns up dead…

Editorial Reviews

Toby Bromberg
There’s a down-home, neighborly feel to Mistletoe Mam that makes this an extremely pleasant read. Readers are going to find themselves as intrigued by the subplot about Ruby as they are with the mystery, and as a bonus, Ms. Albert gives us some fascinating facts about the history and use of mistletoe.
Romantic Times
Library Journal
The latest China Bayles (Chile Death) series addition finds the newly married herb- and teashop owner pressed for time. As if her businesses and family demands weren't enough, she becomes involved in solving the murder of her mistletoe supplier. A fine series. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Internet Book Watch
Four months have passed since the wedding that almost was not, but China Bayles and Mike McQuaid are settled into marital bliss. China is slowly overcoming her fears of marriage and commitment while still running her herb shop, Thyme and Seasons. She is also working on a new business venture with her partner Ruby Wilcox. They think that Thyme for Tea, an authentic tea shop in the heart of Texas is a sure winner. Meanwhile, Mike continues to heal from injuries suffered a year ago and is writing the definitive history of the Texas Rangers (law enforcement not baseball). For no apparent reason, Ruby turns ice cold towards China while two lizards belonging to Mike's son disappears down the drainpipe. Finally, someone runs over China's mistletoe supplier with the evidence pointing towards the family in a land dispute with the victim. China likes the alleged perpetrators, flower growers who provide her with Christmas wreaths. She drags Ruby with her and begins sleuthing, not yet aware that their initial findings make things worse for the flower growing family. One of the most endearing and personable amateur sleuths is China Bayles, a person that readers feel they know and like. In every novel in the series, best-selling author Susan Wittig Albert makes China and her support cast feels like neighbors. Mistletoe Man is a complete package that deals with new marriages, estranged friendships, and the maturity that one person cannot save the world but can make it a bit better for everyone. The personnel side enhances a fantastic mystery filled with curves that leave the reader guessing until the end, a trademark of Ms. Albert.
—Internet Book Watch
From the Publisher
“China proves herself intelligent, independent, persistent, and compassionate…This is a funny, human story that will give Albert’s admirers a ringing jingle bell romp.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Colorful… With her use of herbal lore in every chapter, the author is a brilliant teacher as well as an entertaining detective writer.”—The Dallas Morning News

“Ms. Albert artfully uses Texas language patterns to bring the down-home town of Pecan Springs alive with eccentrics in abundance in this colorful Christmas story.”—The Dallas Morning News

“Breezy…The characters are an appealing bunch…Albert also provides lots of interesting lore about mistletoe…This is a nice book to curl up with on a blustery day, perhaps with a cup of Christmas tea.”—Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781440673382
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/01/2001
Series:
China Bayles Series , #9
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
101,667
File size:
0 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


There are three species of mistletoe, one European, the other two American. All three are parasites that invade a host tree and feed off its nutrients. European mistletoe (Viscum album) the legendary "Golden Bough," was believed to cure epilepsy and ulcers, encourage fertility, banish evil spirits, promote peace, and serve as an antidote to poisons. American mistletoes (Phoradendron sp.), which are widely collected as Christmas decorations, have been used to treat cholera, hysteria, heart problems, and nervous conditions. Western dwarf mistletoes (Arceuthobium sp.) are deadly tree pests whose infestations threaten whole forests. Their leaves have no decorative or medicinal value.

China Bayles
"Mistletoe Magic"
Home and Garden page, Pecan Springs Enterprise


I said goodbye to Rowena Riddle and put the phone down with a bang.

"Uh-oh," Laurel Wiley said. "Doesn't sound good."

"It isn't," I said grimly. "The Christmas Tour of Homes is only a week from tomorrow, and I haven't even started to clean house, much less decorate. Now Rowena wants to know what sort of herbal goodies I'll be serving to the guests, so she can put it into the program." I made a face. "She wants to know what my theme is, too."

It was still a few minutes before nine, and the pale winter sun was just beginning to slant through the window. But Saturday's a big day at Thyme and Seasons, especially during the holiday season. Laurel turned the closed sign to open and straightened the Christmas wreath on the front door. She has been my full-time shop assistant since lastspring, when I had to take time off to deal with a major crisis in my personal life. Part Cherokee, Laurel has a wide streak of earthy common sense.

"Seems like a reasonable request to me," she said. "What are you serving?"

I retrieved the cash drawer from under the dust rags. "Hey, give me a break! The Thanksgiving turkey is hardly cold on the platter. We're still eating leftover stuffing." I shook my head disgustedly. "Whatever made me agree to have the house included in that stupid tour, anyway? Everybody else has a theme, or a color scheme, or they're decorating ten dozen angel cookies. I haven't done the laundry since Halloween, much less decked the halls. It'll be a disaster!"

Laurel flipped 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 think 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 Wil-cox, 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 comehere 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 Khat.

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 ours, 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 overthe 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.

I'd 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, artemisia, 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 ristras, 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. Aunt Velda 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.

"Good 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.

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 secret."

"If she and Hark are up to something, she hasn't told me," I said. Hark Hibler is the editor of the Pecan Springs Enterprise. He 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 it."

"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."

"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 anything."

The first thing you notice when you step into Ruby's shop is the scent. She burns a different incense everyday, 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 everyday— 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...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."

Ruby jerkedaway as if my fingers were hot.

I 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 my issue, 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 annoyed 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?"

"Excuse 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 businesslike. "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.

"Ruby," I said, "what's wrong?"

"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 degree?"

"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 noticed."

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

"Forget Laurel," I said. "Directly or indirectly, this thing has to do with us. I 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, China, back off!" 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.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“China proves herself intelligent, independent, persistent, and compassionate…This is a funny, human story that will give Albert’s admirers a ringing jingle bell romp.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Colorful… With her use of herbal lore in every chapter, the author is a brilliant teacher as well as an entertaining detective writer.”—The Dallas Morning News

“Ms. Albert artfully uses Texas language patterns to bring the down-home town of Pecan Springs alive with eccentrics in abundance in this colorful Christmas story.”—The Dallas Morning News

“Breezy…The characters are an appealing bunch…Albert also provides lots of interesting lore about mistletoe…This is a nice book to curl up with on a blustery day, perhaps with a cup of Christmas tea.”—Chicago Tribune

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