When Abigail Mackenzie left the police force to become a farmer and beekeeper in beautiful Las Flores, California, she imagined a life too sweet for murder . . .
Abby is delighted to provide her trademark lavender honey for her friend Paola, a truffle maker, who is renewing her vows with her husband Jake, owner of the Country Schoolhouse Winery. But things go sour after the ceremony when Abby discovers Jake shot dead in his car and Paola injured beside him. If Paola was meant to be the victim, Abby needs to protect her as she searches for the shooter. When a second murder occurs, it's up to Abby to crush the clues—before the killer gets her over a barrel . . .
Includes farming tips and delicious recipes!
Praise for the Henny Penny Farmette Mysteries
“Long on romance, sweet tips, and honey recipes.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Don’t miss this charming cozy series. A treat!”—Hudson Valley News
“Will leave readers buzzing happily.”
About the Author
Meera Lester lives what she writes—as the proprietress of the real-life Henny Penny Farmette, located in the San Francisco Bay area, and the author of her acclaimed Henny Penny Farmette mystery series. Raising chickens and honeybees, she blogs about life there at hennypennyfarmette.com. She is also the author of nearly two dozen nonfiction books. You can also visit her at meeralester.com/mlls; facebook.com/meera.lester; and Twitter.com/MeeraLester.
Read an Excerpt
The Varroa destructor parasite is a true bloodsucker, a mite that attaches itself to a honeybee's body and feeds on the hemolymph.
— Henny Penny Farmette Almanac
The steady drumming of rain had slowed to a light sprinkle as Abigail Mackenzie navigated her Jeep past Main Street shops decorated with vampires, witches, goblins, and other spooky motifs. It was the week before Halloween. She hung a left turn toward the Church of the Holy Names. Parking behind the priest's cottage, Abby glanced at the dash clock. Three thirty. Half an hour remained before the start of the ceremony, but it was well past the time for confessing the truth.
She'd had plenty of opportunities to tell Paola Varela about how she felt. So why hadn't she summoned the courage to speak up before now? Tell her friend the truth. But she hadn't. Not at the Wednesday night baking classes at the Kitchen Gadget Shop, where the two had become fast friends. Or at the Labor Day picnic in the downtown park where civic leaders held the holiday tree lighting in December and the Shakespeare festival in June. She'd even hesitated to bring up the subject at the Columbus Day parade, where they had volunteered to flip pancakes in the food tent. And what could she say, anyway? It wasn't her place to criticize Paola's decision to renew her marriage vows with her husband, Jake, even if his infidelities had become common knowledge around town. No, she'd kept silent. Now it was too late.
For Paola and Jake's wedding vow renewal ceremony, Abby had promised to lend Paola her grandmother's thin, well-worn band as something "borrowed." It seemed rather ironic, since Paola had an enviable diamond set in gold, which Jake had placed on her finger during their wedding seven years ago. But Paola had told Abby she wanted something that symbolized a long and happy marriage, in contrast to her own troubled one. Lending the ring was a way to show support for a friend Abby had come to look upon as the little sister she never had. Maybe the wrinkles in Paola and Jake's marriage would eventually smooth themselves out. Her friend deserved a bright future with the man she loved.
Glancing up into the rearview mirror before leaving the car, Abby spotted a worker cleaning up storm debris. Abby didn't recognize the man, who was bundled up against the cold, with a knit cap and upturned jacket collar, but surmised he was likely another fellow down on his luck. Father Joseph recruited helpers from halfway houses for ex-cons and recovering addicts to work on the church property. The men would do odd jobs and maintenance in exchange for a hot meal and a dollar or two in their pockets. The priest believed that anyone wanting to work deserved a job. This particular hapless man, Abby thought, looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties.
Looking more closely in the mirror, Abby flinched at the reflection of the swollen cheek beneath her left eye. Of all the stupid things she'd done since moving to the farmette, cleaning the bee fountain without donning her beekeeper's suit had to be the craziest. Even if the weather had turned cool and the bees were less active. Now, after two days, the bee sting under her left eye pooched out like a puff pastry. Donning sunglasses on a dark and rainy afternoon would look ridiculous. And bailing on her commitment to Paola was not an option.
After sliding out of the Jeep, Abby eased her raincoat's hood up and over her reddish-gold locks, which she'd braided and twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck. Cinching her coat tighter around her black silk dress, Abby thrust her hand into her coat pocket and felt for the ring that carried the vibe of a loving marriage that had lasted a lifetime. She hurried up the steps and slipped into the small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, situated on the north side of the church proper. Silk-ribbon flowers adorned the chiffon that served as a backdrop for the icon. The scent of fresh roses permeated the small space. Silhouettes danced on the wall behind the flickering flames of the devotional candles as the door closed behind Abby. The chapel — with its single bench — afforded more privacy than the cavernous Holy Names. Abby knew how her friend Paola favored that chapel when she needed spiritual solace.
Upon hearing Abby enter, Paola looked up, brightened, and stood to offer air kisses to Abby's cheeks. In her Argentine accent, Paola whispered, "Thanks to God, Abby, you have come. I could not do this without you."
"Of course you could," Abby replied. "But you don't have to."
"My nerves are a wreck," Paola said.
"I can see that." Abby clasped Paola's fretful hands in hers. "You are renewing your vows with the man you love. So what's with the nerves?"
"Can you not guess?" Paola's brown eyes darkened under heavily mascaraed lashes. A faint line creased her forehead. "In my mother's time, a man like Jake would go to jail. But now, even in Argentina, when a man cheats on his wife, she endures the pain. Or she divorces. I don't want a divorce, Abby. I want our marriage to be good again. Is this possible?"
Abby released Paola's hands and looked at the younger woman with admiration. She couldn't fathom why Jake would seek affection from other women when he had an exotic Argentine beauty by his side. After sliding her hands back into her coat pocket, Abby sought and found her grandmother's ring. The slightly misshapen band had worn thin through forty years of marriage. Yet Abby could still sense its power to ground. Perhaps Paola would feel it, too. The younger woman desired a stable, secure, and happy life, the kind Abby's grandparents had. The kind Abby wanted for herself.
"You said Jake had changed," said Abby. "That he's promised never to betray you again. You've been through couples counseling. The worst is behind you. Surely, there are no more secrets between the two of you now." Abby hoped she sounded more enthusiastic and reassuring than she felt.
They could hear the soloist humming strains of the old hymn "O Perfect Love" from the adjoining church.
Paola looked intently at Abby. "Do you think he would have been a different husband if he'd married an American woman? An educated lady who speaks better English than I do?"
"Don't be silly," Abby said, shaking her head. She had a niggling hunch that Jake had used these excuses in the heat of arguments to intimidate the impressionable, vulnerable Paola.
"I love him, Abby. I do, but I don't understand what he wants or why he acts the way he does." Her eyes searched Abby's. "Why is that?"
"I don't know." Abby forced a smile and sought a way to lighten the mood. No woman should have to question a husband's love on the day she's renewing her marriage vows with him. "You are barely twenty-seven, and you're asking a woman at least ten years your senior who has yet to be a bride?"
Paola's features relaxed. "You just haven't found the right man ... but you will."
"Maybe." Abby touched her palm to Paola's shoulder. "After all you've been through, here you are, reassuring me."
Paola murmured, "Did you bring it?"
Abby extracted the ring from her pocket. "Here you go. Let's hope it blesses your union with Jake."
Paola slipped the thin band onto the first finger of her right hand. "Your abuela ... grandmother ... she had large fingers."
"Yes, she did." Abby chuckled. "And I have hands just like hers — all the better for kneading bread, making jam, and beekeeping," Abby said.
"I'll give it right back after the ceremony," said Paola. "I know the ring means a lot to you." She shifted her gaze from the ring to Abby. "Will you be able to read the verses with your cheek and eye so swollen?"
"Stop fretting. I'm fine. You just need to relax and be present with every beautiful moment that comes today."
"I suppose," said Paola. "God has turned Jake's heart back to me. That's what Father Joe says."
Abby leaned in and whispered, "How could your husband not adore you?"
Paola stretched out her hands and gazed upon the rings.
Abby considered the irony — the diamond-bejeweled band seemed more substantive and flashy than most, even as the marriage it symbolized had been withering. And the misshapen thin band that now encircled the middle finger of Paola's right hand had held Abby's grandparents' marriage together for a lifetime.
A tenor voice had joined the soprano.
"Showtime," said Abby, relieved that she didn't have to say things she might not believe — like that she was confident Jake was now fully committed. "See you inside," she said, bussing Paola's cheek.
After she'd left the chapel to cross the courtyard to the Holy Names Church, Abby encountered Jake.
"Is she ready?" he asked. His tone carried a hint of arrogant impatience, which Abby found offensive. At five feet nine, Jake wasn't a towering figure, but he did have a commanding presence, charisma, and the looks of a model, with large dark eyes, thick brows, and a chiseled face.
"She is," Abby said, noticing his longish dark locks slicked back into a ponytail. He had grown a goatee — perhaps at the behest of Paola — and wore a gray wool suit with a crisp white oxford shirt and a striped tie.
"Good. It's past time to begin. What happened to your eye?"
"Stung by a bee," Abby replied.
"Obviously, it found your face irresistible," said Jake. "I wouldn't mind being one of your bees." Grinning, he reached out to touch her other cheek. "I know how to sting a woman without damaging her."
Abby flinched and stepped back. Brushing away his hand, she drilled him with a stare. "You wouldn't if you knew what you'd have to give up."
He tilted his head slightly, as if assessing her. "Oh, and what would that be?" "Your life."
He grinned. "Might be worth it."
Abby's cheeks grew warm, and she looked past Jake to see if Paola could have overheard their conversation. To her dismay, Paola stood just behind Jake, her large eyes shimmering with tears. Not knowing what to do next, Abby hastened to the nearest side entrance into Holy Names. The pencil-thin heels of her shoes clicked softly against the marble floor as she entered the sanctuary. The pianist and a violinist had replaced the singers. From the first few measures, Abby recognized Pachelbel's Canon in D.
After spotting Katerina Petrovsky, her best friend and backup — even though Abby no longer served on the police force — Abby slid into a pew beside her. "I could wring that man's neck," Abby exclaimed beneath her breath.
"What? Whose neck?" the blond, blue-eyed Kat asked.
"Who else? Jake Winston." Abby narrowed her eyes and blew air between her lips.
"Uh-oh. Trouble in paradise already?" asked Kat, smoothing her short bobbed cut, which had been moussed into waves. She turned her head to locate Jake.
"Don't look," Abby whispered. "I'll explain later." She opened her small clutch purse and removed the folded paper on which she'd copied the verses that Paola had asked her to read. She scanned the words a final time. Eventually, she looked up and gazed around the room, taking note of the many family members and friends present for the solemnizing of the Varela-Winston vows.
Abby focused on calming herself by taking several slow, deep breaths. When she felt settled, she looked toward the aisle. Jake walked past her, headed to the front, where he took his place near Father Joseph. Paola followed on the arm of her brother Emilio, who worked as the chef at Jake's family winery. Emilio was the skinniest chef Abby had ever seen. Tall too. Maybe six feet. Longish black hair framed a tan face with thick brows and large dark eyes. He had full lips and an angular chin. Emilio took his seat next to his aged father, who needed two canes to walk because of a ranching accident in their homeland, and his prim white-haired mother. Jake and Paola stood stiff and silent in front of Father Joseph, waiting for the music to end.
"So I ask you," whispered Kat, "who but Paola could stroll in from a rainstorm as fresh as an Argentine orchid?"
"Indeed." Abby trained her gaze on Paola's belted, knee-length ivory knit with three-quarter-length sleeves. The dress accentuated her petite and perfectly formed figure. Her waist-long black hair had been tied and twisted into a chignon at the nape of her neck, its only adornment a red silk hibiscus. Noticing the Stuart Weitzman bright candy-colored pumps with narrow heels Paola had chosen to wear, Abby smiled. The two of them had selected those shoes together.
Straightening her spine against the back of the pew, Abby listened to the final strains of the music and gazed at Paola's stunning ensemble. The dress's ivory hue symbolized the seven-year marriage. Abby had suggested that some colorful shoes could make a statement. The right heels, she'd told Paola, could signify to everyone that Paola was going places, putting her individual stamp on the world with her truffle business. Then they'd found the chic boho heels with splashes of red, yellow, and blue. Abby recalled how animated Paola had become as she explained why she needed the heels.
"Good fortune must be in the air," the saleswoman had remarked. She'd explained that another woman had just purchased the same heels. The woman and her husband were taking a cruise. "A second honeymoon," the saleslady had told them. Much deserved after all the hard work they'd put in to take their Silicon Valley software company public, which had made them overnight millionaires. Paola's smile had widened, as if she had been injected with a bolus of happiness.
Jake now faced Paola, whom he'd sworn to love, honor, and cherish until death. Did he feel one iota of guilt for the come-on he'd initiated with Abby? He didn't show it. His gaze swept the room; perhaps he was checking out the females present.
The priest spoke softly, apparently guiding the couple, because Jake reached out and took Paola's hands in his. He gazed into her eyes. Father Joseph spoke again. Abby thought she caught the words "God is smiling."
Father Joseph asked the two to reaffirm before God and those assembled that they were recommitting their lives to each other. Both said yes. At the priest's prompting, Jake began to address Paola. His promises sounded sincere. When it was Paola's turn, her wan smile and questioning eyes revealed all the anxiety she must be holding inside. In a barely perceptible voice, Paola began to recite her vows.
Father Joseph said, "Love is kind. Love believes all things, endures all things, and forgives. Love is a refuge. Love is a comfort. Love never fails. " Jake's and Paola's expressions remained somber and stoic. Father Joseph called for a short period of silent reflection and then recited a prayer. He then called for the reading.
Abby whispered to Kat, "My cue." She rose, walked to the lectern, and settled herself, paper in hand. She began with the biblical verses from the book of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs by Solomon.
"My lover is for me a sachet of myrrh ... a cluster of henna from the vineyards. ..." Abby hesitated, not so much for dramatic impact as to calm herself against the rising anger she felt at Jake's behavior. "His body is a work of ivory covered with sapphires. ... His mouth is sweetness itself."
Abby looked up to see Jake gazing at Paola in a strange way, as if he were seeing her for the first time. Or maybe he was imagining someone else. Paola regarded him with tenderness. They were no longer holding hands but were still facing the priest. Paola now slowly twisted Abby's grandmother's ring around her finger, as if it were a touchstone for happiness.
Buoyed by the glimmer of hope she detected in the couple's faces, Abby proceeded to read the next stanza, which addressed true love's union. "I belong to my lover and for me he yearns. ... Set me as a seal on your heart." The next verses were taken from Proverbs. Paola had confessed to Abby that she wasn't entirely sure they should be included, but in the end, she had added them. "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who are truthful are his delight. ... In the path of justice, there is life, but the abominable way leads to death." For some inexplicable reason, a cold shiver ran up Abby's spine as she finished reading the words. The site around the bee sting on her cheek began to itch.
As the music started up again, Abby tucked the paper of verses into her coat pocket, stepped down from the lectern platform, and walked back to her seat. She took a tissue from her purse and gently rubbed her itchy skin, eventually finding a modicum of relief. She decided to take an antihistamine as soon as the vow exchange ended, but for now she'd just have to endure the itchiness.
Excerpted from "A Hive Of Homicides"
Copyright © 2017 Meera Lester.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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