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By diann hunt
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Diann Hunt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf I 'd worn my ruby slippers today, I'd click those babies together three times and chant, "There's no place like home." Unfortunately, it won't work for me. Number one, my name isn't Dorothy. Number two, I don't own a pair of ruby slippers, and, last but not least, my home is in Maine, not Kansas.
Okay, so I'm not in Maine either. I'm on my way to my sister's house, which happens to be in my hometown of Tappery, Michigan. A couple of miles from her house, I've stopped at Lighthouse Bakery to buy some cookies. My taste buds can no longer abide store-bought sweets, so bakeries are my constant friend.
Back in Maine I own a beautiful oceanfront property, have more money than I need, and I feel confident and in control. Yet when I come back to Tappery and see glimpses of my past-the love I never thought would end, the miscarriage, pain, affair, separation, divorce, and shame-my confidence shatters into a million pieces. Hence, the cookies.
Which brings me to my current dilemma of hiding behind a card-board cookie display while Gail Campbell, a.k.a. former high school class gossip queen, heads straight toward me.
Standing at five-eight and with honey-blonde hair that brushed my shoulders-and still does-the senior class votedme a Michelle Pfeiffer look-alike-an honor Gail always resented. No doubt she's already noticed my extra twenty pounds.
There's no place like home. There's no place-
"Well, Charlene Kaiser-it is Kaiser, isn't it?-what on earth are you doing in Tappery? Or have you finally come to your senses and moved back home?" She laughs at herself, but I don't join her. Well, not until she snorts anyway.
Dressed in a black leather miniskirt, tight-fitting blouse, and tall spiky heels, she prances toward me lugging a baby on her hip. Perfect round circles of red blush dot each of Gail's cheeks, and her eyelids glitter a bright blue, making me wonder if the bulbs blew on her makeup mirror.
Stepping casually out from behind the fake cookie and almost knocking it over, I flash a wide smile. "Actually, I came home to help with the syrup harvest and to help plan a family gathering."
She hesitates, no doubt hoping I'll tell her more, but I don't.
"Oh, so where do you live now?" she asks, while quickly assessing my hips.
"Are you married, working, both?" She acts all hyper here. "We've got to catch up, girl."
Oh, I'm sure you'd love whatever tidbit of gossip you can get.
"I sell commercial real estate," I say, taking note that her eyes widen enough to satisfy me.
"I don't understand how all that works. Must be hard to move commercial property. I imagine there are some pretty lean times," she says, looking hopeful.
"Actually, it's quite a lucrative job, if you do it well." I'm pretty sure I hear a harrumph while she studies me. The ball's in my court, and I'm practically rocking on my heels. "Oh, and I've taken my maiden name of Haverford back."
Gail's Barbie eyebrows spike into upside-down Vs. "Oh? Never remarried?" She leans in for my answer and holds her breath.
"Nope." Before I can stop myself, I look at the little girl on her hip and say, "A baby at your age?"
Her eyelids flutter, and she shifts the baby on her hip. "This is my granddaughter, Carrie Matilda." It's hard to miss the emphasis on the middle name. "You may recall my middle name is Matilda."
"How nice for you." A tiny pause. "She's, um, sweet." Poor kid can't help it if she has her grandma's beady eyes, and I'm not even going to mention the pointy nose. That would be rude.
"It's too bad you don't have any grandkids. They're the greatest." Her hand flies to her mouth in mock apology. "Oh, sorry."
She knocks the wind out of my lungs in one blow. We both know there will be no grandchildren, because I have no children. "No problem," I say with a carefree attitude, trying to conceal the searing pain she's caused me. The ball's now in her court.
"I still think it's just dreadful what Eddie did to you."
"That was a long time ago, Gail. It's over." The last thing I want to do is talk about my failed marriage with the town gossip.
"Still, he was such a stinker."
Not quite the name I had in mind for him, but whatever.
A frown pulls her brows together. She looks me over. "I almost didn't recognize you."
Yeah, I've put on twenty pounds since I was here last. Thanks for noticing.
"You look a little"-she glances at my thighs-"um, different somehow."
In a flash, I tuck the hand holding the bag of cookies behind my back. A knowing smirk tugs at the corners of her mouth. She's got the ball and is heading for a slam dunk.
"Don't we all," I say, as in, honey, there ain't enough cream in Wisconsin to fix those ruts in your face. A tiny twitch of my lip is all that's standing between my smile and a snarl.
Shame on me. My sister Janni would never think things like that-a fact which my mother loves to point out. It's true that Janni doesn't have to fake sweetness. It flows from her as naturally as sap from a maple tree. Still, ask her to throw out her instant coffee and creamer for a mocha latte, and she'll hurt you. Am I the only one who can see that?
Little Carrie Matilda starts to squirm. Bless her. "Well, I guess I'd better get going. My family is waiting on bagels this morning. Good to have you back in town," Gail says as she edges away. "Hey, if you stop over at the gym, I'm there most every day. Just look me up." Another glance at my body. "I'd be glad to help in any way I can. Ta-ta."
My blood pressure shoots up fifteen notches. Oh, yeah? With that face you could feed and clothe a plastic surgeon's family for the next five years.
Mouth pursed, eyebrows furrowed, I clench the cookie bag in a death grip and shove through the front door.
My emotions begin to calm as I drive the familiar winding roads into the rural area of Tappery. Naked maples that now stand frigid, cold, and unyielding will soon release a sugary sap fit for a king and will blossom a thick mane of green.
Gazing over the countryside, I keep in mind that the Scottens are looking for prime property in this area that will support a discount store. They hope to set up chains across the country, so I told them I would look around. I'm almost positive I'll be able to come up with something, and thus secure my promotion to partnership at McDonald Realtors. Reaching over, I turn up the radio and sink back into my leather seat. Though I try not to let my ego get the better of me, it can't hurt to let the community see that I've done all right since my days in Tappery.
A one-lane, wooden bridge groans beneath the weight of my BMW, while the swollen river below bubbles and races over smooth boulders and eroded debris. It seems only yesterday I stood on this same bridge and experienced my first kiss with Eddie. My heart still gives a slight twist with the memory.
Isolated patches of snow remind me that spring has not fully arrived. Yet, obviously enough warmth has caused some snow to melt and fill the riverbeds.
Farmhouses, a weathered grist mill, red wooden barns, and rusty barbed-wire fences color the rolling hillsides. A smattering of cattle meander about. Small forests cluster in the distance. Here and there, monstrous new homes stretch across properties where abandoned farmhouses and log cabins used to stand. Though I have my privacy at my cottage in Maine, it's hard to imagine I once lived in this type of isolation, among cattle, horses, and open meadows. Give me the sounds of water lapping the shore over cattle mooing any day.
As I draw close to Mrs. Walker's homestead, I ease on the brakes and think back a moment to the memories of lazy Sunday afternoons on her wraparound porch-sipping iced lemonade, munching on maple cookies, and swatting flies while listening to the tales of her younger days. Since Mrs. Walker lived just down the road from us, Mom never minded when I went to visit the elderly woman. In fact, this was one of the few things I did of which my mother approved.
Wonder how much land comes with her property? If I remember right, she only had a couple of acres, but out here it's hard to tell where property lines begin and end. I doubt there's enough land here for the Scottens to build their store, though. Crumbled concrete dusts the foundation of her front steps, leaving jagged edges. The wooden porch swing, now faded with age, still hangs from rusty chains. A splintered birdhouse hangs from her front maple tree. From where I sit, it doesn't look like a viable property for any of my clients. How sad to see that the new owners don't keep the property up the way Mrs. Walker did.
As I drive down the gravel lane that leads to our homestead, I roll down my window. The sweet scent of early spring rides on the cold afternoon breeze, reminding me of maple syrup, tulips, and spring break. Memories of sailboat rides cracking through fresh water waves soon follow. A lifetime ago, this was my home.
I shove the shifter into park, grab the bag of groceries from the back-seat of my red Beemer, and step out of the car. Glancing around, I see that the farm hasn't changed much since Daniel and Janni moved in, though the chicken coop looks a little rough-as in, one stiff wind and it's history. They'll need to fix that if they ever decide to sell.
The floorboards creak beneath my heels when I step onto the sagging porch. Those extra twenty pounds are mocking me-I can feel it. Warped wood ripples here and there, making my steps unsteady. They need to fix that too.
The late February wind whips past me, and I pull my jacket closer to my neck. After several knocks on the door with no answer, I turn the knob and the door cracks open.
I poke my head through the opening. "Janni?"
"Sure, Carla, I'd be glad to make dinner for them. I'll have the meal to their house by seven."
Saint Janni lives on. Still doing for others while Mom would say I do for myself. One glance around the living room, I see things haven't changed. Same old furniture. One thing about Janni that makes me crazy is she never moves anything. If I moved one thing in this room, she'd notice.
After slipping off my shoes-a custom I started once I bought new carpet for my own house-I follow my sister's voice to the kitchen, feeling the thin, spotted carpet beneath my feet. It's hard to figure out whether my sister and brother-in-law are poor, frugal, or just plain set in their ways. Passing a stand, I reach out and turn a Precious Moments figurine from facing north to slightly southeast.
Rounding the corner, I peek over at my sister. In her red apron, she looks every inch the image of Betty Crocker. Her no-fuss, chin-length bob suits her. Cradling the cordless phone between her shoulder and chin, she washes her hands at the sink. It looks as though I'm not the only one hefting around extra pounds, but then I'm not one to point fingers.
Janni has been a domestic diva from the start. Everything she creates is a success, from her delicious home-cooked meals to her hand-sewn, quilted place mats.
With my cooking phobias, I'm just happy to find a plastic fork for my Chinese takeout.
Right when I open my mouth to say Janni's name, something sharp whacks at my nylons, causing a stinging sensation on the backs of my feet. I turn and see a full-grown brown squirrel that has evidently followed me into the kitchen. It is sitting on its hind legs, little arms extended, taking wild swipes at my heels. A scream starts from my toe-nails and works its way up and out of my throat with such force that it causes the windows to rattle. The creature's bushy tail thrashes the air with razor-sharp snaps, while his pointed barks shoot at me machine- gun style. My legs flail wildly around the room-carrying the rest of me with them-which only fuels the squirrel's attack.
My sister charges into the room with a large broom. Suddenly, I'm not sure who scares me more, the squirrel or Janni. Her eyes are wild and popped open wide. The veins on her neck are ballooned and purple. She's gonna blow. That squirrel had better hightail it up the nearest tree.
"Get out of here," Janni screams, broom waving madly. She thumps a nearby stand and wallops the sofa-which to her horror shoots dust to the four corners of the room. Fueled by anger, Janni goes after the squirrel, who's going after me, who's making a beeline for the hallway closet. Once I get there, I yank open the door and cram myself inside as fast as I can. Evil squirrel takes one final swipe at me before the door closes completely, and I hear his nails scrape the door. For the blip of a heartbeat, I feel sorry for him. But with the sting in my heels, I get over it.
Standing in the dark, I hold my breath and listen to the sounds of whacking, feet scampering, pictures falling off walls, and loud wails coming from Janni, the squirrel, and the house.
When everything but the hall clock is finally silent, I click the knob on the closet door, shove it slightly open, then carefully stick my lips through the crack. "Janni?"
She doesn't answer. My feet stumble on something beneath me. I'm not sure if it's safer in this closet or out there with the wild animal-the squirrel, that is, not my sister.
With my heart thumping against my chest, I push open the door and peek out. "Janni?"
Stepping out of the closet, I glance back at the floor to see an assortment of boots and shoes smushed to smithereens, compliments of my extra twenty pounds.
When I walk into the living room, I find Janni sprawled across the sofa.
"Did you get him outside?" I ask, slumping into the chair across from her.
"I got him in his cage," she says, lifting her index finger as though she barely has the strength and pointing to a large gold cage perched in the corner of the living room.
My mouth sags open.
"Sorry about all that. Wiggles is normally very sweet, but he doesn't like strangers. He'll warm up to you."
"Let me get this straight. That squirrel lives inside this house? As your pet?"
Smile back in place. "Last spring, right after you went home, we had a storm. Lightning struck a couple of our trees. Wiggles was only a day or two old when we found the nest. His eyes were still closed. Mama had abandoned him, poor thing."
I glance at my shredded nylons and don't feel sorry for him in the least.
"So I fed him milk with a pinch of maple syrup in it through an eye dropper." She smiles. "He survived."
Please. She even rescues squirrels? I've tried to feed birds in the winter. Even I have my moments of charity. They repay my kindness with droppings on my car. "And you're glad, why?"
She chuckles. "Well, like I said, he's only that way with strangers."
"All that running after the squirrel stoked up my furnace," I say, taking off my sweater.
Janni climbs out of the sofa, which appears to be a struggle for her. "So how are you, sis?" she asks in an animated voice, all excited and happy.
We stand and share a hug.
"I'm good. Though my heels hurt."
She pulls away and looks me in the eyes. "I've missed you."
"You too." Guilt washes over me in that familiar way it does when I come to Tappery, but I have my reasons for staying away. "I have to know one thing before we go any further."
"Does that squirrel make messes around your house?" Okay, so I just can't get past that wild-animal-staying-in-her-house deal.
Janni laughs. "No. He's paper-trained. When he has to take care of business, he goes back to his cage."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Nope. You think I'd keep him in the house if he wasn't trained? No way."
I toss another glance at the hairy rodent and shake my head.
"Why don't I show you to your room? You can settle in, then we'll come down to the kitchen and get something to eat." My sister's answer to life's problems is food. Proof positive that we're blood relatives.
"Wonder who moved this?" Janni asks, turning the Precious Moments figurine back to face north. Do I know my sister or what?
Tossing a quick glance at Wiggles, I heave my luggage up the stairs behind Janni. "Just so you know, if Thumper and Bambi show up, I'm outta here."
"Oh, once you get settled in, you'll see it's not so bad to come home for a visit." Janni's words come out in short puffs of air. "Harvesting syrup, working on the scrapbook, hanging out with family. The fun is just beginning."
Something about the way she says that causes dread to crawl all over me. But that's silly. It's only for a few weeks.
What can happen?
Excerpted from Be sweet by diann hunt Copyright © 2007 by Diann Hunt. Excerpted by permission.
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