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Dying for Strawberries
By Sharon Farrow
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sharon Pisacreta
All rights reserved.
"I was buried in strawberries up to my neck!"
The customer at the counter looked behind her in alarm. I signaled to my friend Natasha Bowman to keep her voice down.
Unfortunately, Natasha always got far too worked up about her dreams, especially if they included food. "I could not even see my arms, just giant strawberries everywhere!" She slapped her hand on the café table for emphasis, causing half the contents of her iced tea to spill over. "And I could not move! Not an inch. I looked in my dream dictionaries, but there is nothing about such a terrible thing. You are the berry expert, Marlee. Tell me. Pozhalujsta! Please!"
Busy bagging two jars of gooseberry jam, a dozen strawberry muffins, and a bottle of blueberry salsa, I couldn't do more than answer, "I'm a store owner, Natasha, not a seer. If you want your dreams interpreted, head down the street to Gemini Rising."
Gemini Rising was the town's New Age bookstore, which was owned by Drake Woodhill, a former Olympic runner and longtime astrologer.
"May all my hair fall out before I set foot in his store again!" To emphasize she meant business, Natasha shook her gorgeous almond-brown tresses. "My husband is right. Drake Woodhill is a liar and a fraud."
As I handed the shopping bag to my customer at the cash register, I shot Natasha a warning look. Memorial Day was two weeks ago, and tourist season had officially begun in our charming lakeshore village. At least six out-of-towners were milling about the store, with dozens more strolling along Lyall Street. It was an unspoken rule that business owners did not disparage fellow shopkeepers when outsiders were within earshot. Since Natasha and her husband ran a culinary supply store called Kitchen Cellar three blocks over, she should have known better.
"Enjoy the rest of your stay in Oriole Point," I said to the woman at the counter. She accepted the bag with one hand, while keeping a firm grip on her restless toddler with the other.
I waited until they had left before joining Natasha at one of the bistro tables scattered near the ice cream counter. I had a few moments to spare. My other customers were trying to decide between berry-scented candles and a boxed set of organic cranberry tea.
"You can't go around saying Drake is a fraud, especially in front of tourists. That could hurt his business." After grabbing a napkin, I mopped up the tea she had spilled.
"But he is," she replied in a mercifully lowered voice. "I went to him last week for my horoscope. He told me I was going to die. And soon, too."
"I don't believe that. He makes a point of not telling anyone bad news. That's his policy. Nothing negative. Why do you think his blog is called The Affable Astrologer?"
"I don't know what this 'affable' means."
She made a face. "He was not so pleasant when he read my chart. And the whole time, he stared at me with those pale blue eyes. Eyes like a ghost, he has. And he talks strange, too."
I bit back a chuckle. Drake was an urbane British gentleman from Yorkshire who had moved to Michigan ten years ago. He possessed a mischievous smile, excellent manners, and a dry sense of humor. And while Natasha spoke nearly perfect English, her own accent became far more pronounced than Drake's when she was upset or excited — which was most of the time.
"I can't see him warning you that you'll die soon. You must have misunderstood. After all, you look pretty fit and healthy. And you're two years younger than me."
Indeed, Natasha displayed more nervous energy than a room full of poodles. She was also attractive enough to have snagged the title of Miss Russia when she was twenty. The crown, her looks, and her ambition enabled her to move to the United States, where she quickly became the wife of a wealthy man twice her age. She once more flung her head back, calling attention to her long, wavy hair. All that hair, combined with her enormous brown eyes and lush figure, brought to mind the character of Jasmine in the Disney film Aladdin. Given how animated she usually was, it made sense that she often seemed like an animated character to me.
"I hear Drake is maybe a sorcerer," Natasha said. "Or a druid. You know, someone who talks to trees."
"Drake's not a sorcerer, a druid, or even a wizard. It might be a lot more exciting around here if he was. He's just a quiet Englishman who knows a lot about astrology. And don't listen to rumors. After tourism, gossip is the main occupation in town." I threw her a sly look. "There are still a few whispers about the beauty queen who married a rich Chicago developer."
"Ne oskorblyaj menya."
"I say, 'Do not insult me.' Do I look like a greedy girl who marries for money?" I was glad she didn't wait for my answer. "If I want a rich man, I stay in Russia and marry the idiot son of the minister of culture. Or the minister himself. Both of them are nicer than the man I did marry."
"That I believe. Even the Grinch is more agreeable than your husband."
"But Cole is like Prince Charming in the beginning. And he treated me as if I am his princess. I had only to ask for something, and he would see it was done like that." She snapped her fingers. "I do not know what happened. It is confusing."
I was confused, too. That description sounded nothing like the unpleasant Cole Bowman I knew. "First, it was a mistake to marry a man you'd known less than six weeks. Second, he was twice your age. Third, he was Cole Bowman."
"I like older men. They are easier to control." She shrugged. "But Cole ended up being not so easy."
"Let's not explore your marriage right now. As for Drake Woodhill, you're the first person to say an unkind thing about him."
She leaned closer. "He tells me Mars is transiting my eighth house."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know. But I do not like it. He says I must get my affairs in order as soon as possible. And I should avoid arguments with angry men."
"Seems like good advice. Especially for someone married to Cole."
Natasha lowered her voice even more. "Drake knows how much we fight. Especially after Cole choked me on Valentine's Day. That was embarrassing."
"And painful, I imagine." Although embarrassment had probably factored in since the incident occurred in front of sixty other diners at the restaurant San Sebastian. A quick-thinking waiter had pulled Cole away from Natasha before he caused her to black out — or worse.
"Honestly, what does that husband of yours have to do before you divorce him? The man was strangling you."
"Oh, he just grabs my throat. If the waiter had not come, I would have scratched his eyes out with these." She held up her hands, which boasted long acrylic nails. "They are sharp like knives. Also, I know about his Achilles' foot."
"I think you mean his Achilles' heel."
"For Cole, that heel is in his head. His uncle tells me how Cole fell down the stairs when he was a boy and cracked open his skull. There is a spot right here" — she pointed to just above her left temple — "that doctors say means big trouble for him if it gets hit again. If he goes too far, I will smack him there. I tried once." Her expression turned icy. "One winter in Chicago, Cole threw me against a wall so hard, he breaks my arm. I want to hit him with a wine bottle using my other arm. But I am too slow." She shook her head. "That night, he almost breaks both arms."
My mouth fell open. I always feared the Bowman marriage was abusive, but I had never known for certain how bad things really were. "You must leave him. If you stay, he'll kill you! Listen to me. I have firsthand experience with marriages that end in murder."
She waved a dismissive hand. "You think too much about the silly woman on that Sugar and Spice show. She and her husband were sumashedshiye. They were crazy. Cole and I are not like that."
"The only difference is that you and Cole are alive and well, while Evangeline Chaplin is in prison. And John Chaplin is dead." I sighed with frustration. "It's dangerous to remain in your marriage. Eventually, one of those fights will go too far. If any man treated me the way Cole treats you, I'd smash him over both sides of his head!"
I looked up to see several tourists staring at us with obvious concern. At that moment, three more women entered the shop and made a beeline for the section displaying blackberry and blueberry wine. I couldn't spend more time today on Natasha's problems, especially since tomorrow was the big Strawberry Moon Bash. I still had to assemble the boxes of berry items I planned to sell at my booth along the river. Normally, Gillian would be helping me, but I'd sent her to the post office to ship out several large online orders.
"There are too many people in the store," I said in a voice barely above a whisper. "We shouldn't be talking about this. But please leave him before either of you come to blows again. There's a women's shelter in the county. I'll contact them for you."
"You do not understand, Marlee. It is not simple to walk away. Maybe if we are still in Chicago, Cole will not mind so much if I go. But after he loses his money, he says he will not part with anything else. And that includes me." Her face grew somber.
I took her hand. "The next time he tries to hurt you, you must come to me. I swear I will do everything I can to keep you safe."
"My brave berry girl. You should smother him with your strawberries." Natasha gave a rueful laugh. "Who knows? Maybe my dream means my angry husband will be killed by strawberries. And if he learns how much my horoscope cost, I would be the one who might be killed. Cole thinks about money all the time. Like Old Man Bowman thinks about Bigfoot."
Cole Bowman was enough of an unsavory topic of conversation. No way was I going to discuss his nutty uncle. Time for a change of subject.
"Are you going to the OPBA meeting tonight?" Every month, the Oriole Point Business Association met to discuss the town's retail interests. I was invited to join the board five months ago, when Kim Banks, the membership chairperson, moved to St. Joseph.
"Why should I go? Cole is on the board, not me."
"You're a business owner. Anyone who owns a business in Oriole Point is welcome."
"Kitchen Cellar is Cole's store. Only, he insists I must work there. He calls me the window dressing." She shuddered. "As if I care about waffle irons. It is a spa I want to open, but Cole holds on to money like it is glued to his fingers."
"That probably explains why he's the board treasurer."
"But you must go to the meeting tonight." The chorus of Katy Perry's "Roar" suddenly sounded, and Natasha fished her cell phone out of her handbag. Swiping at the phone, she looked down to see who was calling. "I think it will be interesting."
"What do you mean?" Before Natasha could reply, one of my customers held up what looked like a small metal baton.
"Excuse me, but what is this used for?" she asked.
"That's a muddler, which is basically a long pestle." I got to my feet and went over to her. "They range in length from nine to twelve inches. As you can see, I carry them in stainless steel and cherrywood." I held up one of each as the woman and her friends gathered around me. "Bartenders use them to mash herbs and fruit for drinks. If you've ever had a mint julep or a mojito, then you've enjoyed a concoction made with a muddler."
"I thought bartenders used blenders," one of them said.
"They do for a lot of drinks. However, some drink recipes specifically call for mashed berries. The bartender at San Sebastian makes a drink called a Dessert Fizz. If you watch him, you'll see he uses a muddler to mash strawberries with lemon juice and agave nectar." I smiled at the ladies. "If you haven't eaten at San Sebastian yet, you really should. It's the best restaurant in all of west Michigan."
A woman in the group held up a strawberry huller. "Can you show us how this works?"
To my left stood a butcher-block table displaying small containers of fresh strawberries. I grabbed one of the red and green hullers and proceeded to remove the leaves and stems from several strawberries with its steel claw.
"You can also hull strawberries with a plastic straw. Insert the straw at the tip of the berry and push it through until it comes out at the top, where the leaf is." I brought over several strawberry slicers. "These can also be used to slice eggs or mushrooms."
After a few moments, I let the women play about with the hullers, muddlers, and slicers without my hovering over them. I walked back to where Natasha sat. I would have apologized for leaving her alone, but whenever I'd glanced her way, she'd been busy texting on her phone. Even when I sat across from her once more, her thumbs continued to fly over the phone keyboard.
"Sorry that took so long."
Natasha kept her eyes on the phone. "You are a good saleswoman. Cole has hullers in our store, but he is lazy and does not show people how to use them. We do not sell many."
"It's time for me to get back to work. Piper's coming here later to talk about what I'm bringing to the Bash."
She finally tossed the phone into her white straw bag. "Oh, that Piper. She makes my head ache with this Strawberry Moon stuff. I bet she made the whole thing up."
"I thought so, too, until I did a little research. A Strawberry Moon occurs whenever a full moon in June falls on Friday the thirteenth. The next one won't take place for decades."
"Why strawberry? Will the moon look red?"
"No. But according to some Native American tribes, every full moon is named after something related to that month. For example, April has a full Pink Moon, since one of the first wildflowers to bloom then is pink phlox. Because the short harvest season for strawberries occurs now, the full moon for this month is often called the Strawberry Moon."
Natasha wagged her finger at me. "See, you are a strawberry expert."
"I just sell the berries. I don't grow them."
"But this winter you will marry one of those sexy men who run Zellar Orchards. And you know all about these pretty berry things." She gestured at the items in my sun-filled shop. "Who in town knows more about strawberries? Nikto. No one. You are the berry person."
She had me there. I was the owner of The Berry Basket, which sold berries, fresh and frozen, as well as anything made from berries. This included ice cream, muffins, jams, syrups, bread mixes, smoothies, coffees, and much more. I also carried an array of products tied to berries, from mugs and T-shirts stamped with our logo to actual berry baskets handwoven in nearby Allegan County. In just two years, The Berry Basket had become one of the most successful small businesses in town. If it continued to grow, I hoped to be able to buy the building I rented in another three or four years. After that, I had plans for franchising The Berry Basket. Natasha was right. Aside from my fiancé and his family, I was the go-to person for berries in Oriole Point.
"Please tell me about my strawberry dream, Marlee. Should I stay away from strawberries? Am I in danger?"
I took a deep breath before launching into my strawberry tutorial. "Strawberries generally represent happiness and purity. But in dreams, strawberries can mean that a person desires 'forbidden fruit' or that someone close to them has a secret wish. And if you pick the fruit in your dreams, it may symbolize repressed sexual desire."
Natasha looked worried. I hoped her ongoing marital troubles didn't include illicit affairs or perverse sexual practices.
Their arms filled with store items, the ladies who had asked about the muddlers made their way to the cash register at the same time another customer entered the store.
I stood up. "However, the Cherokee regard the strawberry as a good luck symbol. They often keep it in their homes as a reminder not to argue. So being buried in strawberries seems like a pretty great dream, symbolically speaking." I hurried over to cash my customers out.
Natasha got to her feet as well. Several of the women at the counter threw envious glances her way. I didn't blame them. Few females could compare with the former beauty queen. While I didn't regard myself as unattractive, compared to Natasha, I was just an average-looking brunette with a nice smile. Standing there in four-inch espadrille sandals, with her wavy hair spilling about her tanned shoulders, she looked as if she could once again take Miss Russia's crown. And her midriff-baring pink summer top and short pink skirt made her look as if she was still twenty years old. Small wonder Cole was insecure and jealous. He was a vicious troll who had somehow enthralled a sexy fairy queen.
Excerpted from Dying for Strawberries by Sharon Farrow. Copyright © 2016 Sharon Pisacreta. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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