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Authors: Diann Hunt

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Be Sweet (4 page)

BOOK: Be Sweet
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“Keep massaging, and I won't care what you say.” Daniel is practically starting to purr.

“Did he mention why he wasn't at church last Sunday?” Janni asks.

“Yeah, he had to perform an emergency root canal.” Daniel's words are slurring together.

“Talk about anything else?” Janni asks.

“Guy stuff.”

Janni playfully slugs him on the shoulder. “Oh, you're no fun.” Massage over.

He protests, but she ignores him. “Hey, wouldn't it be fun to have him over while Char's here?” Janni says as though she's just come up with the best idea.

I groan. “Please, don't try to set me up. I'm already dating someone back home.”

“Is it serious?” Daniel asks.

“I don't do serious.”

“We've noticed,” Daniel and Janni say simultaneously. “By the way,”—Daniel treads easy here—“I went into the bank today. Linda Kaiser wanted to know if you were in town. Said she thought she saw you leaving the bakery.”

“Gail probably called her the minute she left the bakery.” Of course, I would run into Linda and Eddie. Tappery is a small town. Still, I can do this. I'm not the same person I was when I left. They'll see.

“I know we told you that Linda and Eddie had split up, but I'm not sure if you knew it's official now. Their divorce recently went through. And you don't have to worry about running into him in Tappery, because he evidently just took off and married wife number three.”

The news causes me a moment of hesitation. “Well, if Linda wants sympathy, she's not going to get it from me.” And I wanted to prove to the town I'd changed—show them that now I'm able to hold my tongue and actually be sweet. Who was I kidding?

“I think it's been hard on their daughter, Carissa.”

It takes a moment for that to sink in. I forgot about their daughter. The child I should have had. “Let's see, since Eddie and I got divorced just a few months before she was born, that would make her—what—about six now?”

“She appears to be about that.”

Daniel gets up and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Sorry if I upset you, sis.”

“Upset? Who, me? Why should I care?” I say.

“Glad to hear it. Well, I'd better get going.” Daniel heads out of the room, then turns to Janni and winks. “Oh, and throw on an extra potato tonight, honey. Russ is coming to dinner.”

three

“Are you sure you want to walk out here, Char?
It's not exactly summer.” A wisp of breath shrouds her words as Janni stuffs the scarf deeper into her coat.

“When I have the time, I like to take a walk before dinner. Besides, I can use the fresh air.” No need to tell her they keep their house so hot, it could melt iron.

Tiny snowflakes drift from a gray sky, like feathers from an open pillow, while our feet crunch through brittle twigs and old leaves. The wind dashes through the backyard trees, swirls around us, and then races into the distant forest.

Janni yawns. Her steps are slow and deliberate. I don't mind, though. Walking in the woods is the one time I actually force myself to “stop and smell the maples,” so to speak.

“Are you all right?” I ask.

Janni shrugs. “Should probably take some vitamins. It seems no matter what I do, I'm always tired.”

“Maybe it's your thyroid. If your levels are low, that could give you low energy.”

She stops and turns to me. “How did you get so smart?”

“Finally, someone notices. Hey, let Gail in on it and maybe she'll pass the word around town.”

Janni chuckles and picks up a twig, tossing it from our path. “I suppose I need to bite the dogbone”—Janni never gets clichés right—“and go to the doctor.”

“You have to keep up on things at our age, Janni. Regular checkups, yearly pap, mammogram, all that.”

“You're right. I'll call soon.”

“The air seems barely cold enough to snow,” I say.

“That's a good thing, or we won't get much sap. Cold nights, mild days, that's what we need.” Janni lifts her gaze toward the sky. “Weather-man says it's not supposed to stick.”

“That's good.” Our feet scuff against the ground, breaking the silence.

Janni glances at me. “Don't you miss this place, Char?”

“I miss the forest.” Just then a white-throated sparrow calls from a nearby tree. “My life is very different now.”

“In a good way?”

“In a great way. I love my work, the frenzied world in which I live.”

“Must be exciting.”

“It is. So how many chickens do you have now?” How I can go from exciting to chickens, I'll never know. The rusted hinges screech when I yank open the coop doors.

“We have about fifteen chickens.”

When we step inside the coop, the ammonia smell takes my breath away. My lungs protest, making me cough.

“Yeah, I know,” Janni says. “It's hard to take when you've been away from it for a while.”

“Hard to take? You should provide oxygen masks at the door,” my muffled voice calls between my fingers.

Wooden floor boards complain as we shuffle through the pathway littered with straw, feathers, and a strutting chicken or two. Resting on a wooden shelf that runs around the building, chickens plump on their tangled nests like fluffy pillows. Basket in hand, Janni reaches under a squawking hen and pulls out a couple of eggs.

“Since you haven't done this in a while, why don't you check the next one?”

We step over to the next bird. I take a deep breath—well, as much as I dare considering the smell and all—and shove my hand under the irritable chicken. She gives me what for. Can't say that I blame her. “Sorry,” I say to the chicken, “I know you don't know me all that well, but we are family, after all.” The chicken doesn't look convinced. My fingers grope around the nest and land upon some warm eggs.

Janni laughs and shakes her head while I pull out the eggs, put them in her basket, then look around.

“There's a rag over there,” she says, reading my mind.

“Thanks.” I wipe my hands on the cloth. “A hand sanitizer might be a good idea out here,” I say, glancing down at the soiled eggshells.

“It's farm life, Char. My, how citified you've become.”

“I can live with that.”

We continue on through the coop, filling the basket with more eggs. Janni stops in front of a hen. “Henrietta here has been coming up empty lately. I think she's tired . . . and old.”

“Boy, can I relate.”

“Oh my goodness, Char, you're not old. Why, you know as well as I do, maples have to be forty years old before they start to produce sap. So I figure life gets good after forty.”

I stop in my tracks and stare at her.

“What?” Janni asks.

“Are you having a brainiac moment?”

Janni shrugs. “It happens now and then.”

“Why do you keep her around if she's not producing?” I ask.

Right then Henrietta squawks, and her eyes pop open wide. It could be that whole Janni-sticking-her-hand-into-Henrietta's-nest thing, but I don't think so.

“Bite your tongue! Henrietta is like one of the family. You don't put something out to pasture just because it can't produce anymore.”

“Another profound comment? Knock it off, will ya? My brain just can't handle it. I want more cookies.”


Gourmet
cookies.” Sarcasm lines her voice, but she laughs and shakes her head.

When I glance once more at Henrietta, I'm almost positive she is wearing a ha-ha sort of smirk. Can chickens do that?

Janni scuffles toward the door of the coop, and I follow. We step out-side, and I take a breath so deep I fear I'll pop a lung.

“Oh, before I forget to tell you,” I say between gasps, “don't plan on me for dinner. I'm going to go see Mom and Dad.”

“Are you doing that because Russ is coming over? He goes to our church, you know. He and Daniel get together for coffee. They're good friends. Daniel really didn't invite him because of you. He was teasing you.” She leads the way to the barn.

“Seeing him will be like a blast from the past, and I'm not—”

“Char, you can't wipe out your past. It's part of who you are. You never come home anymore.”

“I have a new life. I don't need to prove myself to anyone anymore.” Well, maybe I want to show the town I'm successful, but I don't
have
to prove anything. I merely
want
to.

“Then it shouldn't be a problem for you to come home. You admitted to me that you're a workaholic. Why? Are you sure you're not still trying to prove yourself?”

“Yes. I just enjoy selling real estate. Janni, this isn't my home any-more. My home is in Maine.”

Silence hovers between us.

“It must be nice to have purpose in your life.”

“You have purpose, Janni. Your family, your friends, your circle of influence ripples all through town. You've never had to prove yourself. You are the town saint. You can do no wrong.” I hide the sneer in my voice.

Janni looks down at her hands and whispers. “You're the one who never had to prove yourself. To anyone. You were homecoming queen, for crying out loud—the envy of all your peers.”

Right. And all I ever wanted was a
real
friend. “You can't understand.”

“Come on, Char. You're beautiful. What have you ever had to prove?”

“Looks aren't everything. I'm the black sheep of the family. See the big
D
?” I point to the middle of my forehead. Town loser, lost her husband to another woman. That's me—that
was
me. Not anymore. I'll show them.


D
?”

“Divorcee. Not exactly model material here.”

“It happens.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“Everyone makes mistakes, Char. I'm just saying it's time to move on.

” Yeah, uh-huh. Her mistake? If I think real hard I can probably come up with something—like too much salt in the potatoes?

More silence.

“Did I tell you that Russ moved back to take over his father's dental business? His dad hasn't retired completely yet, but he's working part-time. He could have retired several years ago.” She bends over to pick up a tin bucket someone left out. “By the way, did you know Russ served as a dentist in the military?”

I shake my head. I'm not all that interested in hearing about Russ, but at least it gets Janni off her soapbox.

“His wife died last year. Aneurysm, I think it was.”

A sad ping skips through me for the skinny kid from high school. “I'm sorry for him, but as I said, I hardly remember him.”

Okay, maybe the memory of him is becoming clearer, but I don't need to give her any fuel. My sister is on a mission. I can feel it, and I don't need that right now. I'll admit Russ was a cute and sweet guy in high school. Unfortunately, Eddie already had my heart tied up in a nice, neat little package with a bow.

“He seems to be doing all right now, though I'm sure it's been a hard road. Mom keeps me filled in.” Janni chuckles.

A broken tree limb pokes through my path, and I step over it. “Mom?”

“Yeah, she cleans his condo for him. Gives her something to do—and something to talk about.”

Suspicion floods to the surface. I narrow my eyes at her. “Is this a conspiracy?”

Her hand flies to her throat. “I don't know what you're talking about.” She's not even trying to hide the fact that she's lying. So much for that saint business.

“Shut up.”

“What?” She's acting offended.

“You do too know what I'm talking about. You all are trying to set me up with this guy. I'm dating someone back home. I told you that.”

“Yes, you did, but you said it wasn't serious. Besides, what's the big deal about eating dinner with an old friend? We know you don't want a serious relationship.”

My feet stop in place. “Now, see, why do you say that? If I found the right person, I would consider it.”

Janni stands there with her hands on her hips, judgmental eyes staring me down. “Well, you've had countless dates since your divorce, and the fact that you haven't gotten close to anyone in over six years tells me something.”

“It tells you I haven't found anyone I care about yet.”

Janni backs away, palms up. “Okay, I'm sorry.” We take a few steps in silence. “You're over him, right?”

“Who?”

“Eddie Kaiser. Your ex-husband, remember?”

“I was over him the minute I caught him kissing Linda Loose Lips.”

Janni turns to me. “I'm sorry, Char.”

“I'm over it.”

“You sure?”

“I'm sure. When did Russ move back?” I ask, wanting to talk about anything other than Eddie and Linda.

“A couple of months ago.”

“Wonder if it was hard for him to come back.”

“It's not such a bad place to live, Char.”

“I know that, but being in the military, he's probably seen the world. Tappery can hardly compare with all that.”

“Yeah, I guess you're right,” Janni says, surprising me. She never admits I'm right about anything. She's up to something. I can feel it.

Paint chips dust the ground when Janni slides open the massive opening to the barn. A handful of gray and white kittens shoots out from the door. Janni laughs. “Oh yeah, we've got some barn cats. I'm not sure how many, but I think around five. They keep mice at bay.”

I forgot about the mice. Do I really want to go inside?

Janni steps in, and I reluctantly follow. Not exactly Chanel No. 5 hitting me in the face here, but it beats the chicken coop. I'm not a prima donna, mind you, but my cottage by the sea is looking—and smelling—better all the time.

“Click on the light, and I'll get the door,” Janni says, lugging the barn door to a close while cold air races around the room.

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