Home > A Texas Christmas Carol(3)

A Texas Christmas Carol(3)
Author: Karen Witemeyer

Evan set thoughts of his former partner aside as he took his heavy coat off the hook by the back door and slid his arms inside. Morning rides in December were a brisk prospect, but he rarely skipped. Pounding the countryside on the back of a well-bred horse was one of the few things that brought him pleasure. With his walking pace hindered by injury, riding at full speed exhilarated him like nothing else. Made him feel alive. Young.

Leaving his cane behind, Evan crossed the yard to the stable, burrowing deeper into his coat as the wind blew down from the north. When he entered the barn, shivers continued to dance over his skin, but this warmer variety was brought on not by the wind but by the fetching interloper making cooing noises to his horse.

At the sound of the door banging shut, Felicity Wiggins startled and turned to face him. “Oh! Good morning, Mr. Beazer.”

Something similar to satisfaction sang through him at the sight of her. Had he actually been looking forward to her next visit? Bah! His satisfaction was due to being proved correct about her stubborn character, not because he’d hoped to see her today. She was a menace. Interested solely in his money.

Still, he had to admire her dogged determination to succeed in her mission. Apparently they had something in common, after all.

“Miss Wiggins,” he said, disapproval rife in his tone, “step away from my horse.”

She, of course, did no such thing. In fact, she turned back to the stall and rubbed the animal’s ears precisely where he most enjoyed it. “He’s a beauty.” Lightly cupping the beast’s cheeks, she placed a kiss on his nose. Both Evan and his mount were shocked into momentary immobility. “What’s his name?”

His quarter horse had been bred for speed and strength, not gentility. He was high-strung, ill-tempered, and opinionated, just like his master. Yet he was nuzzling Felicity like some kind of lovesick swain.

“Fred,” Evan ground out. “His name is Fred.”

“Fred?” She chuckled, the sound like winter sleet pinging off a wind chime. “Oh, he’s far too noble to be called Fred. Alfredo, perhaps, or Frederick. He’s worthy of at least three syllables, don’t you think?”

Fred lifted his head and aimed an accusing eye at Evan, as if disgusted his master had settled on such an ordinary name when finer ones were available.

“His name’s Fred,” Evan groused, grabbing a bridle off the tack wall and marching forward. He shook a finger at his horse. “I won’t have you putting on airs just because some attractive lady starts paying you compliments. She has no idea what a knave you are.”

Fred snorted at Evan, then turned back to Miss Wiggins, nudging her with his nose in a shameless bid for attention.

For once, the woman in question seemed uneasy. A blush rose to her cheeks, and she dodged away from his gaze, focusing on the horse. “Frederick’s not a knave. Are you?” The horse shook his head while letting out another snort, which elicited a tinkling laugh from the fair maiden. “You’re such a darling,” she cooed.

What kind of pitiful man found himself jealous of a horse? His kind, apparently. Evan’s frown carved a deeper line into his jaw.

He strode forward and inserted himself between woman and horse. “Kindly step aside, madam. I have a ride to take, and I won’t let you and your agenda interfere.”

“I wouldn’t dream of interfering.” She spread her skirt wide as if curtsying as she bowed out of the way. “Humbug and I will just wait for you to return.”

Evan glanced over his shoulder while fitting the bit into Fred’s mouth. “Humbug?”

Her eyes danced. Definitely a bad sign. “Mm-hmm.”

A sharp bark echoed from one of the empty stalls. A moment later, a brown-and-white beagle trotted into sight. The hound spied him and immediately padded over to investigate, sniffing Evan’s boots and legs with annoying thoroughness.

Miss Wiggins crouched down next to Evan’s boots, making him feel like some kind of self-important prig. Why wouldn’t she just let him be and quit upsetting his routine?

She patted the dog’s side. “Good boy, Humbug. This is Mr. Beeee-zerrrrr.”

Why was she drawing his name out like that? Was her dog dull-witted?

Evan braced his weight on his right leg and tried to steer the overly curious hound away from him with a nudge of his left. “I hardly think you have room to criticize my horse’s moniker when you’ve named your dog Humbug. Not exactly the most flattering of appellations.”

She rose, and despite his need to concentrate on his horse, Evan couldn’t seem to keep his gaze from following her ascension. The mischievous smile playing about her lips boded ill.

“Papa does love a bit of irony,” she said. “He gave me Humbug three Christmases ago and thought it a lark to name the energetic, cheerful pup after such a grumpy expression. Then, of course, there’s the humming.”

“Humming?” The question slipped out before Evan recalled that he was trying to discourage interaction with her, not draw it out.

“Oh, yes. He has this cute humming snore when he sleeps and a guttural rumbling that underlies his barks and howls.”

She looked far too enchanting nattering on about the dog as if he were a member of her family. Evan jerked his face away and opened the stall door, determined to escape her and her obnoxious mutt, who was still circling and sniffing. He’d be lucky not to trip over the blasted thing.

“Did you know,” she said casually as she leaned her hip against the stall wall, “ that beagles are excellent hunters? Once they catch a scent, they never forget it. Now that he’s met you, from this day forward, Humbug and I will be able to find you no matter where you try to hide.”

So that was her game.

“And if you don’t have time to talk now, Hum and I will just wait for you. Won’t we, Hummy? A-wooo-wooo-wooo.”

The dog immediately joined her song, baying along with marked enthusiasm. A guttural hum rumbled beneath the howl, just as she’d claimed.

“Hush!” Evan demanded, aiming his command at the dog, though he should have aimed it at the woman, for the animal only followed where she led.

Neither paid him any mind, of course, so the cacophony swelled. Even Fred seemed disillusioned with the object of his recent infatuation. He stomped his front hoof and shook his head, clearly agitated. If this went on much longer, man and horse would both be so out of sorts that neither would be fit for a ride.

“Fine!” Evan raised his voice to carry above the ungodly racket. “You win. Just make him stop.”

Triumph flashed in Miss Wiggins’s emerald eyes, but it quickly faded beneath an expression so radiant, Evan’s chest ached with hollowness in comparison. What must it be like to feel such unfettered joy? He couldn’t recall ever experiencing such a marvel.

He shoved his left hand into his coat pocket and wrapped his fingers around the key he kept there. The key to his past, worn smooth from years of handling. A reminder of where he’d come from. A promise never to return. Touching it usually centered him, brought what was important into focus. Unfortunately, Miss Wiggins kept bobbing into view and distracting him.

His fist tightened around the key. A ride. He’d come here for a ride.

The abominable howling concerto finally concluded, and Miss Wiggins bent to rub her dog’s neck and praise him for his fine singing. Then she straightened and pointed to something outside the barn door. “Where’s the rabbit?”

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