by Charlene RaddonUtah 1889
Wellsby Boarding House and Restaurant
Rooms with meals - $3
With breakfast only - $2
Breakfast or lunch only - $.50
Supper only - $.75
No spitting or cursing allowed
Christmas Supper - $1.25
Christmas Eve and what Amanda Wellsby wanted most was to retire to her own rooms, put up her feet and sip hot chocolate while she enjoyed the flickering candles on her Christmas tree and listened to sleet pepper the window. But supper was over and the residents had gathered about the piano to sing carols while waiting for dessert to be served. Burdened with a tray of dirty dishes from the dining table, Amanda nudged open the kitchen door——and froze.
A man stood in the shadows just inside the back entrance. His wet Mackintosh and wide-brimmed Stetson dribbled mud and ice on her clean floor. The scent of night wind, snow, and danger drifted to her on a whiff of cold, swirling air. A gun belt encircled his hips.
Amanda’s breath caught. Her pulse began to thrum.
He stepped closer. Light glinted off a tin star on his vest.
Sheriff Everett Bodine.
She relaxed, but seeing his rugged, familiar face, midnight hair, thick mustache and brooding sapphire blue eyes did nothing to slow her galloping pulse. As usual, when flustered, she stiffened her spine and sought refuge in the edicts of propriety. “Boarders are expected to use the front door, Sheriff.”
His brow rose as he surveyed her. “Even if it means tracking mud on your carpet?”
Before she could answer, her gaze fell on the pale lump he held in one hand.
“Why, that looks like . . .” Whirling, she stared in dismay at an empty cake platter on the counter. “You ate my Chocolate Dream Cake? The whole thing? You know my patrons come here for Christmas Eve supper mostly for my dessert. How could you do something so thoughtless?”
Anger flashed across his handsome face as he threw the cake into the garbage pail, grabbed up a towel and wiped his hands. “I didn’t take your blasted cake, Amanda. Why is it, every time we’re alone together, you get all prickly over one thing or another?”
“Don’t curse at me,” she spat. “I would have given you a piece of cake, had you only asked. I’ve half a notion to tell the others who’s to blame for their having to go without dessert tonight. You won’t be so popular with all those silly, gushing old biddies out there then.”
Horrified by her display of petty jealousy she clamped her lips tight and began emptying the tray, clumsily chipping a saucer in the process. “Oh, now see what you’ve made me do, Sheriff?”
She flinched when he took her by the arm and spun her toward him.
“I did not take your cake,” he said. “I found that one piece on the porch and picked it up so it wouldn’t attract mice. After all the years we’ve known each other, can’t we forego formalities like Miss Amanda and Sheriff Bodine?
Her arm burned with the heat of his touch and her knees puddled. Desperately, she thrust out her chin and took on her most stringent tone. “Well, someone took it.”
Everett dropped her arm and stepped back. “Fine. Believe what you want.”
Amanda listened to his boots pound up the stairs to his room. What had she done? Everett’s honesty and kindness was what had captured her heart. Would such a man lie about a silly cake?
In two weeks she would turn twenty-five. The town spinster. She had lied to herself earlier; what she wanted most for Christmas was a man to love her, share her life, and give her a child. A little girl to dress in the frilly clothes she’d dreamed of sewing.
But that would never happen. A fall from a horse years before had rendered her incapable of bearing children. Her heart constricted at the memory.
Shaking her head she brushed moisture from her eyes. Nothing to be done about that now. She had to whip up a new dessert for her patrons, and quickly.
But if Everett didn’t take the cake, who did?
Amanda was placing a tray of shortbread cookies in the oven when Everett came back downstairs and stomped out the back door without a word. An hour later, with the guests gone home or to their rooms, the dishes washed, the house set to rights, and the few leftover cookies stored away in the pie safe, she turned down the lamp, ready to turn in.
The door opened and Everett entered the kitchen. “Am I too late?” he asked.
“Too late for what?”
“Dessert.” He held up a cardboard box from Thompson’s Bakery. “I brought something for you to serve in place of the cake.”
“Thank you, Everett.” She took the box and put it on the table. “I. . . Well, perhaps I was hasty and unfair to accuse you, and this might compound my sin, but will you help me catch the real thief. To show my gratitude——and my repentance for having misjudged you——I’ll . . .” Her mind whirred as she sought some boon that would placate him while leaving her pride intact.
“You’ll what, Miss Wellsby?” He resembled a hawk sighting prey as he stalked toward her.
“Anything,” she breathed, her pulse accelerating. “Make your favorite dessert for you and you alone. Polish your boots for a month. Apologize publicly on the courthouse steps. Just name it,. . .Everett. I am capable of forgiveness, you know. Even of. . .love.”
Her trailed away on the last word. How brazen he would think her. But instead, his eyes warmed. Her heart stuttered.
“I’ll take you up on that,” he said. “Just remember when I name my price, this was your idea. And don’t even think of reneging.”
She had to swallow before she could speak. “I won’t.”
“Fine then.” Swinging a chair around, he straddled it, his arms folded along the back. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Amanda spent two hours that afternoon making the dish she was most famous for: a rich, moist, fudgy flourless cake made with chunks of semisweet chocolate, six eggs——half of them whipped into a meringue——butter, sugar and Creme de Cacao liqueur. Once it had cooled, she topped it with mounds of sweetened whipped cream and stored it in the ice box.
While her boarders enjoyed their supper, she slipped into the darkened hallway outside the kitchen. Feeling her way in the blackness, she barely managed to cut off a startled yelp as she collided with something big, warm, and alive.
“Everett?” she squeaked.
“You planning to meet some other man here?” Laughter rumbled in his chest as he positioned her with her back to his chest so they could both see into the kitchen through the crack in the door. The room beyond was brightly lit, the ice box containing her dessert plainly visible.
Within Everett’s embrace, she felt warm and safe. His scent——leather, soap, and cool spring air——surrounded her. She didn’t realize she was rubbing her head against him, until his lips grazed her temple. “Amanda,” he whispered and turned her toward him. Heart pounding, she lifted her face to his. Her lips parted in anticipation.
From the kitchen came the creak of the back door opening.
Everett’s head snapped up. Amanda spun back to the doorway. Through the crack they saw a small figure creep inside.
Amanda drew in her breath. “It’s a child.”
Everett shushed her.
The raggedly dressed six-year-old boy filled his mouth with raisins from a crock, loaded his pockets with biscuits left from supper, then crept to the ice box. A smile curved on his small, dirty face as he reached inside.
“Aha!” Amanda burst into the room before the urchin could touch her precious cake.
Empty-handed, the boy bolted for the door.
“Oh no, you don’t.” Everett caught him. In their tussle, the boy’s cap fell off. Hanks of long, grimy hair fell onto thin shoulders that quivered beneath a thin, tattered coat.
“It’s a girl,” Amanda cried.
“So it is.” Going down on one knee, Everett gave the child a gentle shaking. “Who are you, girl? Why have you been stealing Miss Wellsby’s food?”
Apprehensive blue eyes darted between the sheriff and Amanda. “I-I didn’t mean no harm. I was hungry is all. And she’s the best cook in town.”
“Who are your folks, dear?” Amanda asked softly.
“I ain’t got none.”
“That’ll be easy enough to prove,” Everett said, “so you may as well tell us the truth.”
She hung her head. “My name’s Nettie. I was telling the truth about not having any folks . . . sort of.”
“Sort of?” Everett prodded.
Tear-moistened eyes turned to Amanda. “Please don’t make me go back. I couldn’t stand it if you was to send me back to him.”
Amanda’s heart twisted. Gently, Everett patted the girl’s shoulder. “No one’s going to hurt you, Nettie,” he promised. “You ran away, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” A tear slid down Nettie’s dirty cheek. “But he won’t care. Not really. He only kept me around to do the chores.”
“Rupert. He’s who we been living with, Ma and me. But she runned off. He was always hitting on her, so I don’t blame her none, ’cepting she left me behind.”
“Did Rupert hit you, too?” Everett asked.
Moisture glistened in the little girl’s eyes as she nodded.
“Oh, Everett,” Amanda murmured, her hand over her mouth. “What’s Rupert’s last name, Nettie?” Everett wiped a tear from the girl’s cheek. “I promise he’ll never hurt you again.”
Amanda’s throat tightened. She had never known a man so gentle, so kind.
“You gonna make me go home to him?” Nettie asked.
Everett thought for a moment. “No. He’s not blood kin, so he has no legal claim on you. Do you have any other family?”
“Just Ma. She has folks somewhere, but I never met any of ‘em”.
“Well, you can stay here with me until Sheriff Bodine finds you a permanent home,” Amanda said, her heart already yearning to make the girl her own. “You can sleep in my mother’s room. But first, you’re going to have a nice bath.”
Digging in her heels, Nettie wailed, “I don’t need no bath. Can’t I just have something to eat, lady?”
“My name is Amanda, and yes, you can eat. After you bathe.”
As Amanda towed the girl from the room, she saw Everett grin.
It took three washings to get Nettie’s hair clean, and a nail file to dig the dirt out from under her fingernails. Dressed in one of Amanda’s dead father’s old shirts, the little girl followed Amanda back into the kitchen where they found the supper dishes scraped and stacked by the wash pan. A platter of leftovers waited on the kitchen table, covered with a tea towel. From the parlor came the impatient mutters of boarders awaiting dessert.
Amanda sent Everett a grateful smile. He winked back.
“I’m sorry ‘bout stealing your cake and the cookies.” Nettie crawled onto a chair at the table. “They was awful good though.”
“Thank you, Nettie.” Amanda kissed the girl’s forehead as she made a plate of food for her.
“I watch you at lot,” the girl added shyly. “You’re the prettiest and nicest lady I ever knowed.”
Everett grinned. “You know what, Nettie, I agree.”
Nettie tilted her head and glanced hopefully at each of them. “Can I live here forever? Please?”
“Oh.” Amanda’s heart squeezed and she looked at Everett, not knowing what to say.
“I don’t know,” he said, scratching thoughtfully at his beard. “Miss Wellsby’s single, Nettie. Don’t you think you need a father, too?”
Bouncing in her chair, the girl gave a resounding, “Yes.
Everett turned to Amanda. “Amanda, I believe you owe me a boon. What do you say, will you marry me and let me help you raise Nettie?”
“Yes, Everett, I will.”
For the first time in her life, Amanda’s Christmas wish had come true.
Charlene Raddon began her fiction career in the third grade when she got up and told her class that a little sister she didn't have died of a black widow bite. Charlene's latest story is Tender Touch.