Home > A Texas Christmas Carol(9)

A Texas Christmas Carol(9)
Author: Karen Witemeyer

Shaken by his reaction, Evan sought out George Wiggins as a buffer, but the fellow had abandoned him to help herd his grandchildren into the dining room.

Trapped by the hearth fire behind him and Felicity in front, Evan stood his ground, his back going rigid.

She maneuvered to his side, probably more to get out of the way of the toddler herd than to ease his discomfort, but having her at his side instead of staring directly at him eased him nonetheless. It was the position of a comrade, a partner.

“Thank you for coming,” she murmured softly.

He nodded, not quite knowing what to say. She might have blackmailed him into putting in an appearance with her Humbug threats, but they both knew he could have refused with little to no repercussions. Which placed a level of significance on his presence he wasn’t ready to analyze.

Dinner should have been an awkward travesty, with him being an outsider and not given to social niceties, yet it was amazingly . . . not. He did his best to stifle his more acerbic qualities, mainly by holding his tongue whenever possible and giving succinct answers when required. While such action on his part might have decreased the chance for unpleasantness for everyone else at the table, it did nothing to increase his personal enjoyment. No, all of the credit for his not having a horrid time lay squarely at Felicity’s feet.

She sat to his left and served as his interpreter. Whenever conversation veered to a story steeped in family nuance or recollection, she’d lean his way and provide a short, quiet explanation so that he would be able to follow the conversation and appreciate the humor of each anecdote. She included him.

Inclusion was not a feeling to which Evan was accustomed. As a boy, meals had been a formal affair, children being instructed to be seen and not heard. Then, after the market crashed, he’d been excluded from society entirely. The private school he’d attended sent him away. His friends snubbed him. Excluding himself before others forced rejection upon him became his modus operandi. Work, his sole focus. No friends meant nothing to regret leaving behind as he climbed his way up from bellboy to clerk to manager to owner. But now that he had nowhere left to climb, his solitary habits left his success feeling hollow and unsatisfying.

Felicity, on the other hand, thrived on personal interaction. One moment she leaned to her left to help cut the meat on her nephew’s plate. The next, she jumped into a conversation between her sisters to add a teasing remark that made them laugh. A heartbeat later, she smoothly shifted attention to her brother-in-law across the table, asking him a question about winter squash to bring the reticent man into the conversation. Family was her lifeblood.

Prez’s words from that morning plunged into the forefront of Evan’s mind. “Family and friends are what make life worthwhile.”

Money and success might make life secure, but did they make it worthwhile? Evan had always thought so. He’d worked long and hard to earn comfort, respect, and protection against an uncertain future, all the things he’d craved since boyhood. Yet the cheerful rapport and underlying kinship evident around the Wiggins family table made him question if he’d striven for the wrong prize.




THE FOLLOWING DAY, Evan sat in his office, prioritizing his business details based on urgency and financial implications. He glanced at the clock sitting on the corner of his desk. It ticked precious minutes away far too quickly. Felicity Wiggins and her insistence on his physical presence during her charity endeavors was putting a decisive dent in his productivity.

After dinner last night, she’d told him to expect her at two o’clock, shaving three or four hours off the end of his workday. While some ladies might be counted upon to arrive fashionably late, he knew better than to hope for such a reprieve. She was not the type of woman to let a worm crawl off her hook. Though why she wanted him on the hook in the first place was a mystery. His presence was bound to be more repellant than enticing to area townsfolk, but none of his logic-based squirming last night had succeeded in convincing her to carry on without him. Now he had ten minutes to finish his business for the day before she knocked on his door. He’d given Mrs. Bell instructions to put her in his front sitting room, but if Felicity Wiggins possessed enough gumption to ambush him through office windows and stable stalls, she wasn’t likely to stay where he put her for long.

“Robert!” Evan gathered the weekly invoices strewn across his desk and formed a tidy pile, rapping the bottom edge against the desktop.

“One moment, sir,” his secretary called from within the small, closet-like room Evan had built off his study to allow a telegraph to be installed. “Let me finish sending this wire.”

“Hurry up. I have an appointment in ten minutes, and I need to give you my instructions for the remainder of the day.”

“Yes, sir.”

The tapping continued, steady and sure, much like the man operating the machine. Robert Olson had been with Evan since before he took up residence in Kimble County. He was the perfect assistant. Followed orders to the letter, had a thick skin, and possessed a gift for diplomacy that turned Evan’s demanding dictations into courteous yet uncompromising correspondence. Robert’s even keel proved vastly irritating, however, when Evan was pressed for time.

Restless, Evan pushed up from his chair and started pacing the room. His right knee gave a slight twinge as he planted his foot to pivot in front of his bookcase. He grimaced, more in frustration than actual pain, as he retreated to his desk to collect his silver-topped walking stick. He’d considered leaving it behind during his outing with Miss Wiggins, but that bit of vanity would have to be abandoned.

As well it should. Foolishness. All of it. Evan’s grip tightened on the cane. Did he actually think he could make himself appear more manly by walking unaided? Bah! As if he had any business trying to impress his companion. Felicity had an agenda, just like anyone else. She intended to drag him around town and parade poor unfortunate souls in front of him in the hope of eliciting sympathy and therefore a larger donation for her dratted Christmas baskets. That was all this was. Not some kind of courtship ritual.

“Sir?” Robert’s voice cut into Evan’s thoughts. “Are you ready to proceed?”

“Of course,” he blustered, ordering his attention back to the business at hand. “We need to place the orders for the kitchens. I’ve compiled a list based on the inventories reported yesterday.” He handed the stack of papers to his secretary, an itemized page for each of his twelve inns. “The Bastrop location needs a set of new china as well as foodstuffs. Dinner plates only. Seems the girl they hired to wash the dishes is the clumsy sort, leaving nearly all their dinnerware chipped and cracked after a month on the job. She should be fired as far as I’m concerned, but Ramsey said he’d try her out on maid duty first. See how she gets along with a mop and dustcloth. I’m not sure who’s washing the dishes, but I suppose that’s Ramsey’s problem.”

“Yes, sir.” Robert perused the sheets. A frown creased his brow. “I don’t see our usual beef order here.” He glanced up and met Evan’s gaze, a question in his eyes.

“The price went up three cents a pound. I’m canceling our order. The new price would put us over-budget.”

“Why not simply charge the customer more for beef?”

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