Home > A Texas Christmas Carol(5)

A Texas Christmas Carol(5)
Author: Karen Witemeyer

It wasn’t much to hang a hat on, but it was a start. Her first step around the walls of Jericho.

 

Evan pounded down the dirt road, urging Fred to a near-reckless pace. Wind ripped through his hair and stung his cheeks, but nothing dispelled Felicity’s face from his mind.

“You may not remember . . .”

As if forgetting were possible.

He’d done his best to bury that particular memory beneath an unending supply of business details, showering shovelful after shovelful upon it like fresh earth on a casket. But with four words, Felicity Wiggins had resurrected it as surely as the Lord’s three words had brought forth Lazarus.

It had been spring, not winter, but he’d been riding much as he was now when he heard her scream. He’d pulled up Fred and scanned the area, trying to determine from which direction the shout had originated. And then he’d spotted her, a hundred yards ahead, crashing through the underbrush on the back of a runaway horse.

He’d broken his rule that day about getting involved in the lives of others. Despite owning a considerably rusty conscience, he couldn’t remain inactive when a woman was in danger of breaking her neck. So he’d given chase and snatched her off her horse. All quite straightforward.

Until she’d kissed his cheek and flung her arms about his neck. She’d been trembling from her near disaster, but her unrestrained affection had stunned him so badly that he’d forgotten to put her on the ground straight away and ended up holding her across his lap for an entire half-minute before coming to his senses. A half-minute that still haunted him in his weaker moments. The feel of a woman in his arms. A warm, vibrant, beautiful woman. One far too good for the likes of him.

Evan had never entertained plans of shackling himself to a woman. Wives were expensive, and worse, they expected to spend their husband’s money as if it were their own. Not to mention the fact that a man was responsible for the happiness of his wife. Evan couldn’t make himself happy. Secure, yes. Successful, certainly. But happy? He didn’t trust happiness. Not since Mirabella.

He’d been a clerk at the time. Barely twenty-two. So focused on advancing his career that he ignored the talk around him about the beautiful hotel guest staying with her father in room 206. Until she eschewed the company of all the young men pandering for her attention and asked him to the hotel’s Christmas charity ball. He couldn’t believe his fortune. The most sought-after belle wanted to be on his arm. She and her wealthy father were sponsoring the event, a charity to support an orphanage back east somewhere. Her soft brown eyes filled with tears whenever she spoke of the dear children in such desperate need. And she spoke of them often during the week the two of them were together. Everyone at the ball would be making substantial contributions, and Evan knew Mirabella would expect him to do the same. It would reflect poorly on her if the young man she chose as her escort appeared a miser. Other employees at the hotel had spoken of him so highly, telling her of his plans to own his own inn someday. How he’d been economizing and saving for years. Her father would certainly want to invest in a man who gave so selflessly to the unfortunate even when he himself had little to spare.

Evan had donated one hundred dollars that night. Half of his savings. Only to have Mirabella and her father disappear the next morning without a trace.

He’d been duped. Tricked by a pretty smile, soft eyes, and his own desire to believe a beautiful woman might see value in him. That reckless act of stupidity had set him back more than two years financially. He’d learned his lesson well.

Or thought he had.

Yet here he was, letting Felicity Wiggins draw him into another charity scheme.

All right, so Felicity wasn’t Mirabella. She wasn’t some fly-by-night hustler sweeping in to take advantage of idiotic men too stupid to hold on to their wallets. She’d lived in this community for years. Her family was well-respected. And she wasn’t even asking for money any longer. She wanted his time. His partnership. As if anyone would partner with him of their own free will without the promise of a paycheck as compensation.

Why hadn’t he just stuck to his guns and refused her request outright?

Because he had absolutely no willpower where Felicity was concerned. Which meant he’d probably end up putting in an appearance at dinner despite the disaster such a prospect posed.

Why hadn’t the chit married some local fellow by now? She was five and twenty after all, and not a horror to look at. Surely someone would have offered for her. Yet recent events had revealed a stubborn streak behind her innocent smile. Felicity Wiggins would not be led somewhere she didn’t wish to go. Which, unfortunately, left her distractingly single and a plague upon his mind.

Desperate for distraction, Evan turned Fred off the road and took him cross-country, hungry for the challenge of variable terrain. Small jumps over rain-washed gullies and zigzags through brush and trees cleared his mind of all but the obstacles directly in his path. The freedom of it exhilarated him.

Until an unforeseen obstacle nearly separated him from his horse.

After slowing his pace to weave through a small copse of red oak, Evan prepared to canter across the field beyond. Just as he tightened his knees, however, a man materialized out of nowhere, like a ghost, waving his hat directly in the path of Evan’s horse.

Fred reared. Evan leaned forward in the saddle, slackening the reins and adjusting his balance.

“Whoa.” Evan shifted his weight to encourage Fred back to the ground and immediately directed him to step forward to settle his nerves. They circled the thin, stooped man, who acted as if nothing were amiss as he fit his hat back to his balding head.

Evan’s temper flared. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t just pop out of the brush like that and scare my horse. He could have thrown me.”

“Didn’t,” the man said, completely unfazed by Evan’s ire. “Come on.” He gestured with a bony hand for Evan to follow him. “Got a man down. Need yer help.”

Evan scowled but traipsed behind, stroking Fred’s neck as they walked. The horse was still a bit fidgety. Their guide turned out to be more spry than he looked, covering the ground at a good clip. After a few minutes of tromping north, Evan spotted the trouble.

A man stood knee-deep in a mud hole—stuck. Another fellow sat cross-legged at the edge of the bog, jabbering at his compatriot as if keeping his friend entertained during his confinement was a sacred duty.

Evan’s guide let out a shrill whistle that made Fred toss his head, but it gained the attention of the others. The stuck fellow tried to turn but only managed a glance over his shoulder. His friend, on the other hand, jumped up and waddled over to Evan with a stiff, bowlegged stride.

“Tom! Ya found someone. Hallelujah!” The man’s voice boomed as if trying to cover five times the distance that actually stood between them. “I thought Ol’ Prez was a goner fer sure.” His weathered face sported a thick white mustache and more lines than Evan’s account ledgers, but his eyes held a definite twinkle. “Good. Ya found us a youngster.” He turned to yell back to Prez. “This ’un will get ya out of that muck in two shakes of a cow’s tail. Just see if he don’t.”

Evan dismounted, not quite sure how he was expected to extract the man called Prez from his muddy predicament. He’d tended many a filthy cowpoke in his day, drawing baths, delivering food, and even tending their horses, but bellboys didn’t have much experience pulling folks out of mud holes. Neither did clerks or inn owners, meaning Evan was quite out of his depth. All he knew for sure was that he was not stepping foot in that muck. Plenty of people considered him a stick in the mud already. He had no intention of making that perception a literal reality.

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