“Can I ask a favor of you?”
“No.” The man sitting behind the desk didn’t look up from what he was writing. Josephine Douglas put her hands on her hips and frowned at him.
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask you,” she said. Simon Creed sighed heavily and looked up at her. “I want you to help me get a Christmas tree.” Without even acknowledging her request, he looked back down at his letter and continued to write. “Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
“Do I look like the kind of man who has Christmas spirit?” Josephine had to give him that. In the midst of the garlands and candles that decorated the office of the Blackthorn Detective Agency, Creed was dressed in black from head to toe. A black hat hung on the rack in the corner that also held an equally black coat.
“It wouldn’t kill you to smile once in a while,” Josephine said, knowing she was fighting a losing battle. “Or to help me get a Christmas tree.”
“Christmas tree?” A voice from behind her made Josephine turn around and a smile, a real one, spread across her face. “It looks good, don’t you think?” Shane McHenry nodded his head toward the main room where a simple, elegant tree stood in the front window.
“We didn’t need a tree and neither do you,” Creed said. “How are you even planning to get it into your house?”
“That was why I asked you,” Josephine said. “I can’t lift something like that.”
“I’ll do it,” McHenry said, finally making Creed look up again. He was beaming from beneath his smart bowler hat and Josephine shared a look with Creed that did not go unnoticed by McHenry. “What, you don’t think I’m up to the job?”
“It’s not that,” Josephine said kindly. “It’s just…” It was exactly what she had been thinking and she knew she and Creed were in agreement for once. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble at all,” McHenry said. “Where do you want to go get one?”
“I don’t know,” Josephine admitted. “Where did Captain Smith get our tree?”
“Went out in the woods and chopped it himself, I reckon,” Creed said. “And I know for a fact that neither of you are up for that particular task.” He looked at McHenry, whose pride had clearly been wounded by the entire exchange.
“Let’s go find you a Christmas tree,” he said to Josephine. “I’ll rent us a cart to take it to your house.” With a defiant look at Creed, he opened his office door and motioned for Josephine to walk in front of him. “Ladies first, of course.”
“Thank you,” Josephine said. She stepped out into the main room of the building and looked around. Unlike Creed, their boss Captain Smith was quite festive. He had garlands with bright red holly berries draped in the window of the agency and a Christmas tree with dozens of white candles flickering merrily among ropes of glass beads that circled the tree and gave the impression that the entire tree was glowing.
“I guess we should go into the woods,” McHenry said. “Is your coat warm enough?”
“It’ll be just fine,” she said. It was no business of his to know that she was wearing flannel undergarments beneath her clothes. She took her coat off the rack by the door and put it on, then tugged her leather gloves over her hands. Her hat matched her deep green dress perfectly and looked equally good with her black coat. Once she was properly attired, McHenry opened the front door for her. A blast of icy air came in through it and she shivered. “My goodness, I didn’t expect it to have gotten so cold.”
“It’s only going to get colder,” McHenry said. “We should hurry and go find your tree before it gets dark.” Josephine nodded and went out into the cold.
Thankfully, her coat and gloves kept her warm as they walked over to the livery and rented a cart to take with them into the woods. McHenry helped her up into the cart and took the reins, then looked over at her.
“Are you sure you want to go out there? I could go find you one and bring it to your house.”
“I’m sure,” she said firmly. McHenry was always kind to her but this seemed like something more. Now that she thought about it, he had a habit of sitting much closer to her than any of the other men but not so close as to be impolite. “You’re already far too kind to bring me out here.”
“It’s nothing at all,” McHenry said with a smile.
They rode out into the late afternoon with the sun creeping steadily toward the roof of the Wells Fargo building and Josephine shivered. This was the first winter where she’d actually felt the cold. Normally she was very tolerant of winter weather, just as Creed was strangely tolerant of the heat, so she wasn’t sure what made this year different. She was lost in thought so she didn’t hear McHenry speak until he had already fallen silent again.
“I’m sorry,” Josephine said. “What was it you were saying?”
“I was just asking about what made you want a Christmas tree.”
“Oh. Well to be honest, I saw a card with a lady and her daughter decorating one. She looked so elegant and lovely that I just knew I had to have one as well.” Josephine smiled. “It was always my hope to be a fashionable lady when I was a girl. It was only recently that I decided being a bit unladylike was more fun.”
“What are you talking about?” McHenry laughed. “You’re quite ladylike, Miss Douglas.”
“Don’t be silly, Mr. McHenry.” A cold wind blew over them and she allowed herself to move just a little closer to his warmth. “My mother would be appalled that I rarely wear a corset, to say nothing of what she might do if she knew I carried a gun.”
“All right,” McHenry allowed. “Maybe you’re not a typical lady, but you’re a far more interesting one to my mind.” His words made Josephine’s heart flutter a bit and she found herself blushing. The warmth was a welcome feeling to her cheeks but she was certain it would be noticeable.
The woods loomed large behind the nicer part of town and it was there that they drove, chatting about this and that. While they were on cases it was unusual for them to have much time to discuss anything other than the task at hand, so it was nice to talk to him about things as silly as how they preferred their eggs.
When they got to the woods they caught a lucky break. A grove of evergreens lay at the foot of a hill, easily seen against the bare trees and dry leaves that covered the ground. McHenry got down first and helped Josephine, who fought the urge to tell him she didn’t need help down. If she was honest, she was glad he helped her down but she had spent so long making a point of independent she could be that it was a hard habit to break.
“We aren’t going to be able to get the cart over there,” he said as Josephine led the way to the trees. “How are we supposed to get the tree to it?”
“We’ll each take half,” she said, as if it was going to be the easiest thing in the world. “It can’t be that difficult.” No sooner had she spoken than the toe of Josephine’s boot caught a hidden root and she stumbled forward into the leaves. McHenry stepped in to catch her before she hit the ground and Josephine laughed. “It’s too bad there isn’t snow,” she said. “Falling into it might be quite fun.”
“It’s getting dark,” McHenry said. “Now that we know where they are we can come back tomorrow when it’s lighter.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” Josephine said, straightening up. “I just have to watch my step.” She held up her skirt a little as she walked, stepping more carefully. Behind her she could hear McHenry’s hesitant footsteps and she looked from tree to tree, finally stopping in front of one she liked. Her companion came up beside her and inspected the tree.
“Is this the one you like?”
“This one is lovely,” Josephine said, looking up at the tree. “Just the right size and everything.”
“Great,” McHenry said. “Now all we need is to—” A look of horror came over his face and Josephine looked at him curiously.
“Whatever’s wrong, Mr. McHenry?”
“An axe,” he groaned. “We didn’t bring an axe.” For some reason Josephine found this almost as funny as her nearly falling over a root. Perhaps my first instinct was right, she thought. I should have tried harder to convince Mr. Creed. No doubt he would have remembered an axe.
“We’ll just have to come back out tomorrow,” she said. “I’m fairly certain no one else is going to come out here and steal it from us.” At least she hoped no one would. She liked the tree and was already thinking of it as her own.
Walking back up the hill in the near-dark was more of a chore than she had expected and Josephine decided that perhaps the task of getting a pine tree up the hill was more than she and McHenry could manage. He helped her up onto the seat and she glanced over at him when he took his place beside her. As kind as McHenry was, he was a slight young man, much more suited to a job as a banker or shopkeeper.
The ride back to town was just as pleasant as the one out to the woods and it was almost as shame to see the livery come into view. Josephine was certain it wasn’t her imagination that the cart slowed a bit, but she didn’t mind. She wanted to spend more time with McHenry, even if it was just a few minutes.
“It’s awfully dark out,” he said after they’d returned the cart. “I could ride with you out to your house if you like.”
“Thank you,” Josephine said. “That’s very kind but I have a few things I need to take care of in town before I go home. I shall see you tomorrow to go back for my tree, though. I do apologize for your having to rent the cart two days in a row.”
“It’s more my fault than yours,” McHenry replied with a sheepish smile. “I’m the one who forgot the axe.” He walked with Josephine to the street, then cleared his throat. “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Josephine said. “We can meet at the Agency again and go from there.” A teasing smile tugged at her lips. “I’ll be certain to bring an axe from my woodpile.” McHenry blushed and she somehow kept herself from laughing, certain that he would be even more embarrassed if she did. “Have a good night, Mr. McHenry.”
She waited until he was gone to walk down to hurry to the general store and stepped up to the counter just as the man behind it was coming around to close up. An idea had come to her and she didn’t want to wait until the next day.
“I do apologize for coming so late,” she said. “But I only need a few things.”
“It’s no trouble at all, ma’am. What can I get for you?”
“A box of small candles,” she said. “The sort you put on a Christmas tree.” She looked at the shelves and smiled. “I see you have a selection of ornaments. I would like some of the wooden spindles, some of the glass balls and a large spool of thread as well.”
“Decorating a tree, are we?” Returning her smile, the clerk took down her requests and set them on the counter. “Most people have started before now.”
“Yes, well, I just decided on getting one. They’re very nice,” Josephine said. “I look forward to the lovely smell of pine in my house.”
“Sounds like it’ll be right nice. Should I put these on your account?”
“Please,” she said, taking the wrapped package he passed across the counter. “I’ll come in to pay it on the first.”
“I’m not worried, ma’am. You’ve always been a good customer.” He smiled kindly at her and she nodded.
“Thank you kindly,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again shortly.” She noticed that he followed her to the door to lock it and hurried down the walk as fast as the other shoppers would allow. There was one more stop she wanted to make before she went home.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Creed.” Josephine smiled at Creed from his doorway and he looked up at her for a moment, surprised.
“What are you doing here?”
“I should ask you the same thing,” Josephine said. “Aren’t you supposed to be at home?” She had come to the Agency early knowing full well that he would be in his office, even though they were technically closed for the holidays. There were, of course, some cases that couldn’t wait until the new year but they were billed accordingly and for the most part it was very quiet. That wouldn’t stop Creed from coming in, though. Josephine sometimes wondered if he ever went home.
“Something I can help you with? Or did you just come in to antagonize me?”
“Here,” Josephine said, setting a book gently on Creed’s desk. “Merry Christmas.”
“It’s a book,” she said slowly, knowing how much it would irritate him. “They’re fascinating things, full of words and sometimes a drawing.” When Creed narrowed his eyes at her, Josephine knew she had his attention and tapped the book’s cover lightly. “I know you like to read.”
“What kind of book is it?” Creed pulled it across to himself and picked it up. “A Christmas Carol.” He raised an eyebrow at Josephine. “I suppose this is your idea of being clever?”
“No, it’s my idea of being kind,” she said. “You should try it sometime, it’s quite nice.”
“I’m not a nice person,” he said, setting the book aside. “Go home, Douglas. Relax and enjoy your Christmas tree.”
“All right, then.” Josephine moved away from his desk and was halfway out the door before she heard Creed’s rough, gravelly voice behind her.
“Thank you,” he said, as she’d known he would. Creed could seem gruff and serious but he was nearly always polite in the end. “I’ll be sure and read it when I have some free time.” Josephine turned back to him with a smile and he gave her a dubious look. “Why do I get the feeling I’ve just gotten myself into something?”
“Miss Douglas?” McHenry came into the office and smiled at her. “I thought I heard your voice in here. I’ve got the cart hired and brought at axe from my house, so we should be all set.”
“Wonderful,” Josephine said. “I was just about to invite Mr. Creed to come along and help us.” Both men stared at her and she gave them her most winning smile. “You don’t really think a lady such as myself would be able to get a pine tree up a hill without two gentlemen to help her, do you?” McHenry gave Creed what Josephine thought may have been the only look of disdain he was capable of.
“I can handle it,” McHenry said, somewhat petulantly. With a deep sigh, Creed stood up and reached for his coat.
“Might as well get this over with,” he said, putting on his hat. “I’m not riding in any cart, though. I’ll follow you out there.” He led the way out the door with Josephine and McHenry in tow, and it only took one look at the youngest of the three to know she’d offended him.
“Don’t look so upset,” she said with a smile as Creed locked the door of the Agency. “We’ll get this done much faster with two men, and you’ll be able to get on with your evening.” McHenry looked like he was about to say something but stopped when Creed turned around and glared at them.
“Let’s get going before I change my mind.”
The trip out to the grove of trees went much more quickly in the afternoon and the weather was nicer as well. It was still cold but there was none of the icy bite to the wind that there had been the night before.
This time Josephine stayed with the cart while the two men went down to get the tree. She could see from where she was standing that there was a brief discussion about who was going to actually cut down the tree, and that McHenry wasn’t pleased with the way it turned out. Josephine couldn’t help thinking that it was probably better that Creed was the one to cut it down, since she had a few concerns about whether or not McHenry chopped his own firewood. They carried it up the hill and loaded it into the cart with much more ease than they might have if it had just been Josephine and McHenry and once it was tied down with rope that Creed had brought along, he got back on his horse.
“You two can get it into your house yourselves,” he said. “I’ve got work to do.”
“Thank you for your help, Mr. Creed,” Josephine said. He gave her a tip of his hat that she could only assume was meant to be sarcastic, then rode off and left her with McHenry. “Well, then,” she said with a smile. “Things just got quite a bit more pleasant. Shall we go out to my house? My maid will have come by now and there’ll be a fire going.”
“That would be nice,” McHenry said. “Do you have everything you need for the tree?”
“I bought all the decorations last night,” she said, nodding. “Bethany and I spent the evening stringing holly berries as well. I think it will look quite lovely once it’s finished.” McHenry snapped the reins and set the horse in motion. “You don’t have to stay for that, of course. It was wonderful of you to help me with it as much as you already have.”
“I don’t mind a bit.” There was a smile on his face that he hadn’t had when Creed was around and Josephine suddenly found herself wishing they’d done the job themselves after all. She’d only been thinking of getting it done sooner, not of how it might make McHenry feel, and she wished she could find the right words to apologize.
He seemed much more cheerful on the ride out to her house and they started talking about the case they had recently finished along the way. At first when Captain Smith had assigned them to be partners she had been a little uncertain. After all, he was five years younger than her and even newer to being a detective than she was. It hadn’t taken long for them to find they complimented each other well and before she knew it he was on his way to becoming an excellent detective. She had no doubt that with a few more years under his belt he would give Simon Creed a run for his money.
All too soon they were back at her house and Josephine could see Bethany through the window of her house. She turned to McHenry with a smile.
“I think we’ll put the tree in the front room,” she said. “We’ve got a holder for the tree by the window and there’s a blanket spread out to catch the needles.”
“You’ve thought of everything,” McHenry said, pulling the cart up to the front porch. “I think I’ll be able to get it in on my own, it’s not terribly heavy.” He climbed down from the cart and helped Josephine down. The front door opened and a young woman with ash-blonde hair looked out.
“Afternoon, Miss Douglas,” she said. “Y’all need any help bringin’ that inside?”
“Mr. McHenry has the situation in hand,” Josephine said, watching him untie Creed’s complex knots and wrestle the tree out of the cart. “It might be nice for you to make us some coffee, though. It’s getting rather chilly outside again.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Bethany went back into the house and Josephine went over to the cart, where McHenry had finally managed to get the tree onto the ground.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” She looked from the cart to the front room. “I can give you a bit of help getting it into the house if you like.”
“Not a problem,” McHenry said, putting his arms around the tree. “I just have to find the right way to hold it.” Josephine watched as he tried several different ways to pick it up, holding her tongue against the advice she wanted to give him. After trying several different ways, he managed to get it up the steps to her front door and into the front room with only a few broken branches.
“There,” he said as Bethany spread the blanket around the foot of the tree. “It looks quite nice, even without the ornaments.”
“I believe it will look twice as lovely once I’ve got it decorated,” Josephine said. “But I think I’ve had quite enough excitement for one day. Would you like to stay and have some coffee before you go back to town?”
“No thanks, I’d better be getting this cart back to the livery. There is one thing, though,” he said, reaching into the inner pocket of his coat. “I brought you a present,” McHenry said, holding out a small flat box with a ribbon around it. Josephine looked at it, slightly dismayed.
“Oh, but I didn’t get you anything,” she said.
“You don’t have to,” he replied. “I just thought you might like to have something to go under your new tree. Of course, you can’t open it until Christmas.”
“I shall look forward to it,” Josephine said, setting the box carefully on her table. “Let me walk out with you.” McHenry nodded and they left Bethany in the kitchen, tending to dinner.
While they were putting up the tree it had turned from afternoon to evening and Josephine looked out at the cart. She knew McHenry would want to get into town before it got dark but she found that she didn’t want him to go quite so soon. It seemed he didn’t want to go either, and he lingered on her porch for a long moment.
“Well,” he said finally. “I had a nice time today, Miss Douglas.”
“As did I. Thank you for all your help,” Josephine said. “I was glad to have you.”
“Do you think I might be able to come out again? Just to visit?” His voice was eager, just as she would have expected from someone his age, and she nodded.
“Of course,” she said. “But I hope you’ll stay for a while, perhaps have dinner with me. My maid is a very good cook.” There was a meow by her foot and Josephine looked down. “Oh, there you are,” she said, opening the door so the stray cat she fed could come inside. “It’s about time you came back, I believe I saw a mouse in the hall.”
“Well, good night,” McHenry said, tipping his bowler at her. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yes,” Josephine said. She took a step toward him, met him at the top of the steps and kissed him lightly on the cheek. It pleased her a little to see the look on his face and the way his cheeks reddened at the gesture, almost as much as it pleased her to get one last sniff of his cologne.
“Miss Douglas,” he said nervously, then stopped. Josephine was about to ask him what he was going to say when he reached over and took her hands. Then, tentatively, McHenry leaned close to her. Knowing exactly what he was going to do, Josephine smiled and moved in toward him as well. They kissed gently and he squeezed her hands, making her feel every bit as good as if he was holding her in his arms. A moment later it was over and he stepped away from her almost shyly. “I should be going.”
“If you must,” Josephine said, wishing that he would stay and kiss her again. “But I’ll be looking forward to your coming back out for a visit soon.” She smiled, hoping he would see just how much she wanted him to stay, but when he started down the steps she held back a sigh. “Good night, Mr. McHenry.”
“Good night,” he said with a smile in her direction. Josephine watched him until he and the cart were gone, then went inside with a smile. Bethany was feeding the cat and her Christmas ornaments were set out in neat piles on the dining table. It was all very cozy and tidy, and the warmth from McHenry’s lips stayed with her, making everything perfect.
Quite the Christmas present, she thought, looking at her tree. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him. Best to keep it quiet, though. I can just imagine what Mr. Creed would say.
It occurred to her then that she didn’t care what he or anyone else might have to say. The only thing that mattered was that she was happy. Whatever 1886 might bring, if it had Shane McHenry in it she could only imagine it would be good.
© Rebecca Lovell, 2014