Mistletoe Man

China Bayles Mystery

Susan Wittig Albert - Author

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ISBN 9781440673382 | 320 pages | 01 Oct 2001 | Berkley | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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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 justiceand 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 Teabut 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 taskuntil her chief supplier turns up dead…

From Chapter One:

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! II 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 jerked away 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.

--From Mistletoe Man by Susan Wittig Albert, Copyright (c) October 2001, Berkley Pub Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., used by permission.

“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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