Home > Sweet as Honey (Aster Valley #2)(5)

Sweet as Honey (Aster Valley #2)(5)
Author: Lucy Lennox

“We’ll take care of it,” Mikey said. “Are you okay? Did something happen?”

He was always so kind. The concern in his voice made my throat feel lumpy. “I’m fine,” I said. “Just help Sam.”

“Will do. Thanks for calling.”

After hanging up, I reached out for the special set of mala beads that hung from a hook behind the register. The multicolored stones were cool and smooth against my fingers.

I took a deep breath and tried to center myself. I tried to remember the meditation exercises my aunt had taught me, but before I could get through the first set, the shop door jangled open and Barney rushed in.

I regretted giving him a key, but there was no way in heck I could get up the nerve to ask for it back, especially if I wanted to remain friends with him. Which I did. Friends were thin on the ground for me here in town, and I couldn’t afford to lose a single one, especially the man who’d gone out of his way to care for me after the assault. He’d even taken care of me months ago when I’d had a horrible case of food poisoning. He was a good man. I just… didn’t want to explain things to him right now.

“There you are. Everyone is in a tizzy out there. What the heck were you thinking?” His head swiveled between the crowd supposedly still in the street and me clutching the edge of the old wooden counter where the cashier stand was. “What part of ‘stay out of trouble’ did you not understand, Truman? You know how the Stanners are. The last thing you need is to bring Erland’s attention on yourself.”

Sheriff Stanner wasn’t the only problem, though. It was his brother, Gene, who had it out for me. Gene and his grown sons. Gene had been the head ski lift mechanic back when the Aster Valley slopes were still running, and when the slopes had been shut down, he’d wanted someone to blame for losing his job.

Lucky me, I’d been the chosen scapegoat.

“I didn’t ask for Patrick Stanner to come after me,” I said, hating the defensiveness in my voice. “I was just planting flowers on the side of the highway when he came up ranting at me and chasing me around. He threatened to beat me up if I didn’t stop making a spectacle of myself. I don’t even know what he meant by that.”

“I would imagine running around in a bumblebee costume on the side of the highway would meet the definition of making a spectacle of yourself,” he said dryly.

There was no reason for me to argue the point, but I did anyway. “I wasn’t hurting anyone. I was minding my own business when he attacked me out of the blue.”

Barney gripped my arm. “Did he touch you?”

His grip was too tight, and I tried to pull my arm away. “That hurts,” I said. When he loosened his grip, I stepped away and rubbed the sore spot left from his hold. “He pushed me down, but he was too drunk to move very fast. I got up and ran away from him. That’s when Tiller and Mikey’s friend showed up on his motorcycle.”

Barney’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like the look of that man in the motorcycle jacket. He was in town a few months ago right around the same time the diner sign was vandalized.”

I almost laughed. “He was the one who fixed the sign. I saw him on the ladder during the snowstorm.”

“Be that as it may, you should stay away from him. He looks dangerous. Besides, if the sheriff set his sights on the man, that’s even more reason for you to stay out of it.”

I was tired. Tired of being persecuted for something that happened eighteen years ago. Tired of feeling like I needed to do penance for something that wasn’t my fault. Tired of being the focus of anyone’s hatred when all I wanted to do was live my own life. More than anything, I was tired of always having to mind my own business and keep off everyone’s radar in Aster Valley.

This was my home. Other than the years my family had moved to Durango to escape the whispers and threats, I’d lived in Aster Valley my entire life. I loved it. It was where I felt most myself, and I wished with all my heart I could live freely and happily here.

Enough time had passed now that most people had stopped thinking much about why the ski resort had closed down and how it had crushed the local economy for a while. Aster Valley had found a new normal somewhere along the way, and most residents seemed happy with the way it was here now. Even the people who still missed the resort or the tourists and jobs it had brought with it didn’t seem to still blame my then five-year-old self for single-handedly ruining anyone’s lives.

Except the Stanners.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said, deciding to mind my own business as usual. I forced a smile on my face. “I’ll stay out of it. Mikey and Tiller can help him.”

Barney nodded. “Precisely. You have enough to worry about without adding one more thing to your plate.” He reached out and pulled off my antennae headband. “Hopefully you have a change of clothes here,” he muttered. “This is ridiculous.”

I felt my cheeks go slack as my smile dropped. He knew how much I loved costumes. I had an entire shed full of them at home. I’d bought or made most of them to entertain the kids at the library when I volunteered there for story hour. They loved my costumes, so it was disappointing that the librarian himself didn’t. “Why is it ridiculous to want to make someone smile? Why is it ridiculous to want to make myself smile?”

He didn’t roll his eyes, but that was only because the gesture was considered beneath him. “Don’t put words in my mouth. But I do feel that you would be taken a bit more seriously if you behaved more like a grown-up.”

Maybe he was right. But I wasn’t sure it was worth the trade-off. During the years I’d spent growing up in Durango, my parents had made it clear life was less about having fun and more about working hard. It was my aunt who’d taught me otherwise.

Every summer when my parents had snuck me back into Aster Valley to help Aunt Berry on her farm during growing season, I got to escape their severity and learn a different way of life. Berry was a free spirit who believed in the power of the earth, positive thinking, and loving one another. She wore bright yellow stripes and dark purple paisley. Everyone in town came to Berry, not only for home remedies, but also for a kind word, gentle reassurance, and sometimes—if she deemed you special enough—a tarot reading, psychic prophesy, or love potion.

Aunt Berry had shown me that growing up didn’t have to mean a life of drudgery. Was she taken seriously? I wasn’t so sure about that. Plenty of people thought she was weird or quirky. But she was happy and successful.

“Speaking of behaving like a grown-up,” I said, reaching around for the zipper on my costume. “I need to get to work. I have several orders due out today.”

Barney sighed and reached over to yank down the zipper. I mumbled a thanks and made my way to the back room where I had extra clothes stashed. I peeled off the big fuzzy suit and stood there in nothing but yellow tights when I heard Barney’s voice behind me.

“I shouldn’t have complained about the costume,” he murmured.

I gasped and turned around, holding the fuzzy suit in front of me like a shield. Barney’s eyes were hungry in a way that made my stomach hurt. “D-did you need something?”

“I wouldn’t mind a kiss or two,” he said with a smile, stepping closer. “You sure are tempting me this morning, Truman.”

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