A Wife by Christmas

Book Cover: A Wife by Christmas

Guthrie, Oklahoma, 1906 ~ History teacher Ellie Henderson, has been a thorn in High School Principal Max Colbert’s side ever since he took over three months ago. When she’s not flying by his office, late for her class, with books and papers jumbled in her arms, she’s attending Suffragettes meetings against his orders.

Because of her family connections, Max can’t fire her, but he can certainly find someone to marry her, and keep her busy in the kitchen–and far away from his school. Max soon finds that what seemed like a good idea can turn into disaster when Miss Ellie Henderson is involved. The woman is a master at getting into trouble.

With the Christmas season in full swing, he has many opportunities to introduce her to prospective husbands. However, he gets the uncomfortable feeling that no one is worthy of the minx…

Excerpt:

November, 1906
Guthrie, Oklahoma

Max Colbert glared at the woman perched on the edge of the chair across from him. History teacher Ellie Henderson had been a thorn in his side the size of the Oklahoma sky ever since he’d been appointed principal of Logan County High School three months ago.

She sat there, humming. Humming! His gut twisted and he clenched his jaw. Drat the woman for being so unconcerned while he fumed. He needed to draw on his years of experience in dealing with teachers to get his emotions under control. He took a deep breath and leaned forward. “Miss Henderson, your unapproved activities have gone too far. I am going to have to fire you.”

Ellie’s right eyebrow rose, meeting him glare for glare. “No. You can’t.”

“Yes, I can, and I am.” Blood rushed to his face.

She stood and placed both palms on his desk, and leaned in. “I will tell my Uncle Jesse.”

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Max pushed his chair back and got to his feet. He moved close enough to see the light dusting of freckles across her nose. “It won’t make any difference.”

“It will if you plan to be Territorial Superintendent of Schools.” They were now almost nose-to-nose.

Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. “I will get that job on my own merit.”

Not without Senator Jesse Cochran’s endorsement.” Her hazel eyes narrowed.

His jaw tightened, his mouth working as if to say something. Then, like a rag doll, he collapsed into his seat and leaned back, eyes closed. “Miss Henderson, you are a pebble in my shoe.”

“And you, Mr. Colbert, are a horse’s behind.”

He opened one eye. She again sat primly on the edge of her seat, adjusting her skirts, the two red dots on her cheeks the only indication of her anger.

“You may leave now,” he said through gritted teeth.

Ellie bowed her head slightly. “As you wish.” She stood, smoothed back the hair always loose from her bun. With head held high, she sailed from the room, closing the door softly. Her skirt stuck in the door. She re-opened it, yanked the skirt, and banged the door shut.

Max winced at the sound. His left eye twitched.

 

On the other side of the dark wood and glass office door, Ellie stomped her foot. Things were so peaceful until this year when Mr. Max Colbert took over as principal of Logan County High School. After Mr. Robinson had retired, the School Board had seen fit to fill the spot of principal with the arrogant and difficult Mr. Colbert.

Mr. Robinson had not been at all troubled by Ellie’s after school and weekend activities. If anything, the old gentleman approved of her pursuits, told her on more than one occasion she reminded him of his feisty daughter, Lizzy, who lived with her husband in Dallas. In the next breath, he’d always added, “thank God.”

Things changed at the school after Mr. Colbert’s arrival. All outside undertakings had to be approved in advance. The teachers were constantly subjected to meetings where he sermonized on the proper behavior of educators, and reinforced the dignity of the teaching profession. He’d affixed a list of approved and unapproved activities to the wall outside his office door. The unapproved column stretched twice the length of the approved.

Ellie glanced at the paper now, heat rising to her face. Just about every activity of interest to her was on the “unapproved” list. Now Mr. Colbert had told her to stop the Thursday after school meetings with some of her students who were putting together Christmas gift baskets for the poor.

While conceding her project to be a noble cause, he said begging contributions from local businesses and delivering baskets to poor neighborhoods did not represent a suitable activity for a lady. And since that lady happened to be one of his teachers, the program would come to a halt immediately. He suggested she turn the effort over to one of the churches. Suggested, ha! Mr. Colbert never suggested, he ordered.

She stormed down the hall to the room where her students waited. Sixteen bright young eyes looked up as she entered the room. “Sorry, everyone. We’ll have to postpone our meeting to next Thursday. Just do what you can at home this week to finish up the things you’re knitting or sewing for the baskets.” She nodded at the petite blonde girl with huge blue eyes in the second row. “Yes, Mary.”

She stood, fluffing her curls. “Miss Henderson, my papa said Mr. Colbert would stop our Christmas project.”

Anger coiled in her stomach and heat rose once again to her face. “No, Mary. I just spoke with Mr. Colbert, and we’ll be straightening it all out. Don’t worry.”

The girl sat and leaned over to the boy next to her. “My papa is never wrong.”

“All right boys and girls. You can go on home now, and I’ll see you here next week.”

After the children filed out, giggling and teasing, Ellie sat with her elbows bent on the desk, head propped on her fists. She glanced up as Rose Golden, the English teacher and her best friend since fifth grade, entered the room. They’d met the first day of school when Guthrie was originally established after the first Oklahoma Land Run in 1889.

“I heard Colbert is shutting down your Christmas project.” Rose smiled sympathetically and sat in the student desk in front of Ellie.

“Can you imagine his arrogance?” Ellie puffed out a breath of air. “He says it’s ‘unladylike’ to be asking businesses to contribute to the baskets. I wonder if he thinks it’s ‘ladylike’ to starve to death in the cold.”

“What will you do?”

“I’m not giving it up. I have a week until the next meeting with my students. They’ll continue to work on their various assignments at home. I’ll have to find a way to visit my businesses Saturday without the ogre knowing.” She tapped her finger against her chin. “Maybe a disguise.”

Rose threw back her head and laughed. “You’re not serious.”

“Indeed I am. Years ago, my Aunt Tori wore men’s clothes to do the Land Run. She didn’t want to be taken advantage of because she’s a woman.”

“But what good would a man’s disguise do for you?”

“A young man darting in and out of stores, with a growing satchel of items, won’t catch Colbert’s attention at all. However, a woman doing the same thing would definitely arouse his suspicions.”

Her eyes sparkling, Rose shook her head. “I can’t believe you would run about town dressed in men’s clothes, Ellie.”

She snorted. “Watch me.”

 

 

Max locked the school building and headed toward home. The walk helped clear his head after a long day. The early December air felt cool and crisp, most of the trees having shed their summer ensemble. Gusts of air blew small sticks and dried leaves around his feet. He pulled the collar of his coat closer and bent his head into the ever-present Oklahoma wind.

His thoughts, as was common of late, centered on Miss Henderson. A definite pain in the neck and the only teacher he butted heads with. He grimaced. Almost literally, today. If he’d had to pick any teacher who would be the least likely to give him trouble, it would have been her. As the niece of a prominent attorney and senator, he’d expected a quiet, well-behaved spinster. Instead he’d gotten a hellion. She involved herself in so many unacceptable activities, he couldn’t even keep track.

After a hurried walk, he arrived at a large blue with brown trim clapboard house displaying a red Davis Boardinghouse plaque swinging back and forth from the porch railing. In the center of Evergreen Street between Eleventh and Twelfth, it had been his home for three years. Max strode up the steps to the porch, past the wicker chairs Mrs. Davis would soon bring in for the winter. Not much use for them anymore since no one would be sitting on them in the evening like in the summertime.

He closed the door against the cold and nodded to the four men sitting in the front parlor waiting for supper to be announced. A quick glance at his watch indicated enough time to wash before Mrs. Davis put supper on the table. As he jogged up the stairs to his room, he raised his head and sniffed. Meatloaf. One of his favorites.

 

 

The wavering flames from gas lamps around the room reflected the abundant amount of food on the long dining room table. Boardinghouse owner Helen Davis presided over her supper table like a mother hen. Five men boarded with her, all of them hard-working and respectable. Max smiled at the way she watched them pass the platter and bowls of salad, meat, vegetables, and hot rolls, and filled their plates. She’d commented more than once that she ran the best boardinghouse in Guthrie. She never skimped on food, changed the sheets once a week, and reminded them of the long waiting list for each of their rooms.

Plates piled high, they dug in. Conversation was always light at the supper table. The men shoveled food in while Mrs. Davis regaled them with stories about her day. No one commented, maybe a nod or a grunt every once in a while, which was normal. Max figured one of the reasons she liked boarding men was because she didn’t have to compete with chatty women.

About halfway through the meal, Andrew Piedmont placed his fork alongside his knife and cleared his throat. His mustache quivered up and down. “I have an announcement to make.”

Five pairs of eyes watched him expectantly.

“I’m getting married.” A bright red flush rose from the top of his stiff collar to his hairline.

Mrs. Davis clutched her throat. “Oh, how wonderful, Mr. Piedmont.” Tears shimmered at the edge of her eyelids.

The four men nodded in his direction and continued to eat.

“Isn’t that grand?” Mrs. Davis looked around the table, smiling.

Max snorted. Married. The man must be crazy to want to tie himself to a woman. That would bring him a lifetime of misery. Nagging, complaining, wanting things, all sorts of trouble. Not him. At thirty years of age, he already had clear-cut goals, and he intended to meet them without the encumbrance of a wife. Every time he felt the itch, he’d visit a very discreet widow in Oklahoma City, spend the night, and come home the next day after a hearty breakfast and minus a bit of money. No complications or problems. Everything nice and tidy. Just the way he intended his life would be.

“Who is the lucky lady?” Mrs. Davis blotted her eyes with the corner of her apron.

“Miss Maribel Brown.” The blush resurfaced.

“Oh, the librarian. I’m so happy for you. And when is the joyful event?”

The woman was determined to drag all the details out of poor Piedmont. The man appeared to be choking on his meatloaf. Max shook his head in sympathy.

“Two weeks from Saturday.” Piedmont seemed close to a stroke, having spoken more words tonight than Max had heard him speak in the past year.

“Oh my goodness.” Mrs. Davis’s hand fluttered to her throat once again. “While I’m thrilled with your news, now I’ll have to find a new boarder for your room. I must consult my list right after supper.”

The rest of the meal proceeded with Mrs. Davis quizzing Piedmont until the man finally wiped the sweat from his forehead and excused himself, leaving half his apple pie.

Max retired to the front parlor and read the day’s newspaper. Since Mrs. Davis didn’t allow smoking in her home, he also spent some time on the porch with his pipe. Shortly after nine o’clock, he said good night to the other boarders and headed upstairs to his room.

He looked around as he entered. A tidy room, just the way he liked it. His specially made, comfortable bed sat in the middle of the room, a large red-and-white patchwork quilt draped over it. The small maple desk from his childhood home took up one corner, with a milk glass lamp sitting on it. A stack of papers, neatly piled in the center of his desk, stood alongside two sharpened pencils, next to a pen sticking out of an inkwell.

Max removed his jacket, tie, and collar, brushed the jacket and placed the tie and collar on the tall dresser. As he removed each item of clothing, he inspected, brushed, and hung it up or deposited it in the basket for Mrs. Davis to launder. He shrugged into his nightshirt and, after placing his shoes neatly under the bed, flipped the quilt back and climbed in. He read his book, and after an hour, placed it precisely on the edge of the night table, extinguished the light, and settled his head on the fluffy pillow.

And immediately thought of Ellie Henderson. The woman was the curse of his life. Most likely a punishment for some misdeed in his youth. She always had chalk on her fingers, and stray curls forever fell out of her bun. The desk in her classroom was piled haphazardly with stacks of papers, half-eaten apples, and God knew what else. How she found anything at all in that mess remained a mystery to him.

More than once he’d caught her running—running—down the hall to her class, skirts flying behind her, delightful breasts bouncing. What? Where did that come from? Miss Henderson did not have breasts. Well, she did actually, but they were not his to notice. They were not his at all. He rolled over and punched his pillow.

Miss Henderson. What in heaven’s name was he to do about her? Although she’d sent her students home after he’d spoken with her today, he knew she would not stop the Christmas project. She never did anything he’d ordered her to do. In fact, she seemed to enjoy provoking him.

He smiled when he thought of her sticking her nose right into his face. A true beauty with those huge hazel eyes and turned up nose. Skin like fine china. He jerked when he realized how the lower part of his body reacted to his thoughts. Best not to travel down that road. Let some other man take her on. It would truly be a sad day for whatever man stood in front of a preacher with Miss Henderson.

Max sat up abruptly, his heart pounding with excitement. Marry! That’s how he could get rid of her. He flung the quilt off, jumped up, and paced. Because of her connection to the man who could give him the appointment he’d worked so hard for, he couldn’t fire her. Although he’d certainly tried.

But—if she was married, she’d give up her job. All married women did. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation as he paced, then stopped, his shoulders slumped. Who in his right mind would marry the woman? And with all her infernal activities with the Women’s Rights group and students, she rarely spent time around men.

He climbed back into bed and settled in. It had been a great idea, but not a practical one. Max sighed, crossed his arms over his middle, and closed his eyes. They popped back open again. Of course! He would find her a husband. Why, he considered it his duty as a citizen of Guthrie, and the principal of the high school, to see that some poor sucker became responsible for her. Some sorry soul who didn’t really know her very well, who would be duped by that beautiful face and appealing body.

His mind raced. He mentally ticked off the men in the boardinghouse, his friends at the Bachelor’s Club, the male teachers—no, that wouldn’t work. The other teachers already knew her. Avoided her like the plague. Then his barber, preacher, doctor, lawyer—the list was endless. Every unmarried man in Guthrie should be given the opportunity to consider taking Ellie Henderson to wife.

He hadn’t been this happy since he’d been given the Principal of the High School job. To think of his days being Miss Henderson-free. No blood pressure skittering up and down all day. No stomach churning every time she entered his office. No watching her race into the building, late for her class, hair falling down, arms wrapped around books with papers sticking out. No projects that involved unladylike, un-teacher like behavior.

Tomorrow, first thing, he would make a list and begin his campaign. He would need to get a copy of Miss Henderson’s appointment book. As much as he hated the idea, he’d have to sneak into her classroom, shuffle through the mess on her desk, hope nothing bit him, and copy her activities for the next few weeks. Then he would know where to show up and introduce her to his victims—er, his friends. Things were looking up.

Relaxed for the first time in months, he punched his pillow again, and drifted off to sleep in minutes.

 

COLLAPSE
Reviews:The Romance Reviews Top Pick wrote:

A WIFE BY CHRISTMAS is the reason why we read romance...the perfect story for any season.

Patty M., Amazon Review wrote:

...for this hilarious galore romance with opposites attract, I give Ms. Hutton my top score of 5 fingers up & 10 toes for this tale!

Barbara B., Aamzon Review wrote:

If you decide to buy A Wife by Christmas, you will not be disappointed in this delightful step back in time. A well written, romantic sequel to Ms. Hutton's first novel, A Run for Love, features Ellie Henderson, a turn of the century school teacher, who following in her Aunt Tori's footsteps, is every bit as tenacious, independent and feisty. Handsome principal, Max Colbert has his life, career and future planned. It does not include a headstrong Suffragette who constantly defies his authority and challenges him on all levels. But things do not always turn out as anticipated. Especially when you combine undeniable attraction, an array of comical mishaps, endearing moments and the magic of Christmas.