(Scroll to read)
“Leave it, Poe. Quit fooling
Rick Stannard wrestled his
glove away from his coyote. She was forever burying, slobbering all over, or
chewing holes in his good work gloves. Ever since he’d rescued the abandoned,
starving pup from the woods at the edge of his property, he’d been living with
the eccentricities of having an animal meant for the wild living in his cabin.
He’d trained her. Knew she wouldn’t attack him while he slept, but now and
then, her feral nature would flare up. Poe considered it playing, and most of
the time so did Rick, but today he had to insert the taps on his maple trees
and inspect the lines. The sap was about to run and that meant the Stannard
Mountain Pure Vermont Maple Syrup Company—Rick’s company—was all systems green.
“C’mon, you beast. We don’t
have all morning to waste. We’ve got work to do.” Rick gave a final tug that
freed his glove from Poe’s jaws. He stumbled back, landing on his backside on
the hickory floor of his small kitchen. “Brat.” He swiped Poe’s muzzle with his
The coyote licked his hand and happily
trotted beside Rick as he went into the garage to load his sled with the
necessary tools. Clothed in his snow pants, thermal shirt, fleece jacket, knit
hat, boots, and snowshoes, Rick was ready for a day out on his three-hundred
acre property in the woods of Danton, Vermont. He’d upgraded his equipment, all
gravity-fed lines, about three years back. The only assistance he accepted was
from his aunt, Joy Stannard, and his cousins, Hope and Sage, who ran the bakery
and book swap storefront of the business during the late winter and early
spring months. Customers needed a cozy, friendly little shop from which to
purchase their maple products. Rick didn’t do cozy or friendly, but Aunt Joy
and his cousins excelled in both areas.
Leaving the sled outside, he
pushed open the door to the storefront and let Poe scurry in first.
“Morning, Rick! I was
thinking if we arranged the tables this way, it would allow for more
interaction between customers, and if the customers interact more, this place
could become the social center of Danton. It would mean more sales, more book
swapping, more action. Sometimes this place can be such a tomb, but with the
tables like this, maybe some hot, interesting guys will come in and whisk me
Rick held up two hands
to stop Hope from continuing her verbal assault. Too much. Too early.
“Sorry.” Hope pushed in
a chair at one of the tables she’d moved. “I forgot you aren’t a morning
“Isn’t much of an
afternoon or evening person either,” Sage, Hope’s sister, called from behind
the pastry case where she had been vacuuming the shelves.
Rick shot her a glare
to which she responded with a snarl that ended in a grin.
“What brings you
amongst the people, Grouch?” Sage gathered her long, blond hair into a ponytail
then leaned against the pastry case.
Rick pointed down to
his winter attire. “What does it look like I’m going to do?”
“Sumo wrestle with
Bigfoot?” Hope offered, making Sage chuckle.
“If you weren’t so busy
turning this place into a dating club, you’d know what’s going on.” Rick pulled
his glove off to scratch Poe between the ears as the coyote pushed her muzzle
into his knee.
“I’m not turning it
into a dating club, Rick.” Hope gestured to the tables arranged in a tight
little formation that made him a little claustrophobic. “It looks better this
way, doesn’t it?”
“It looked fine the old
way.” Rick shrugged.
“How is it that you’re
only six years older than me but seem as if you’re eighty-six years
older?” Sage asked. “Change is good, old man.”
He knew Sage was only
busting his chops, but it stung a little today. He didn’t know why, which made
him feel exactly like an old man.
“I don’t care what you
do with the tables, Hope, as long as there are tables and they’re clean.” Rick
headed for the door. “Where’s Aunt Joy?” And why do I want her around?
Because Hope and Sage are picking on me? Foolish.
“She went into town to
buy some fabric. Don’t freak out, Rick.” Hope grabbed his biceps and opened her
brown eyes real wide as she stood on tiptoes in a useless attempt to look him
in the eye. “She wants to make new curtains for these windows. Now I realize
she didn’t clear it with you first, O Master of Keeping the Status Quo, but I
don’t think a curtain change will destroy the world as we know it.”
Rick growled at Hope,
and she laughed along with Sage. Even Poe let out a few short barks that
sounded like chuckling.
“Whose side are you on,
mutt?” He nudged Poe with his knee, and the coyote let out a whimper of
“You headed out now?”
“Take this.” Sage placed
a thermos on top of the pastry case and slid it toward him. “Minestrone like no
For all her poking fun,
Sage took care of him just as Aunt Joy and Hope did. They were his family, all
he had. All he needed.
“Thanks.” He took the
thermos and held it out of Poe’s reach as the coyote tried to climb up his leg
for it. “Down. No meat in this one.” He tapped her on the nose, and Poe sank to
all fours. Even if the soup did have meat in it, he wasn’t sharing. Everything
Sage made tasted like heaven. That was what made her a fantastic caterer when
it wasn’t sugaring season. She was busy cooking all times of the year. And her
cookies? Off the charts tasty.
“I’ve got some website
updates I’ve been working on.” Hope gestured to her laptop on one of the tables
she’d moved. She handled all their online sales, promotional materials, and
website. She was awesome at it too, which was good because Rick didn’t want to
handle that stuff. Lots of people didn’t want to handle that stuff, so Hope was
busy with that work in the off season.
“Okay,” Rick said.
“Make them happen. I’m sure it’s all good.”
Hope patted his cheek.
“I love that I have you trained to believe I’m always right.”
“Except when you move
Hope stuck her tongue
out at him then said, “Don’t get lost out there.”
“Have I ever?” Rick
zipped the front of his fleece coat.
“No,” Sage said, “but
we can dream.” She smiled sweetly and turned on the vacuum again.
He could still hear his
cousins’ laughter as he left the store with Poe on his heels. He put on his hat
and picked up the cable attached to his sled. A day out in the tranquility of
the woods stretched before him, and he couldn’t think of a more perfect way to
spend his time. The morning sky was clear, and a fresh snow had fallen last
night making his property seem like uncharted territory, free from any
indications of civilization.
On a whistle, Rick and
Poe headed out. His snowshoes cut a trail across the blank white page of his
land, and he fell into the easy rhythm of his work. He moved at a steady pace,
covering more ground than he’d expected. The terrain was a bit hilly in this
section of the sugar bush, but he pushed onward. He chewed up some of his time
watching a moose and her calf at the edge of the still frozen Cassie’s Pond.
The cow’s ears constantly twitched as she listened for signs of danger. The
baby huddled beside her, its thick brown coat lightly dusted with snow.
When a hawk cried
overhead, the cow nudged her baby and the two wandered deeper into the woods.
Woods that weren’t a part of Rick’s property, but were tapped by him. When he’d
first started his syrup business on his land, he’d cut a deal with his neighbor
to lease and tap her trees. She received a specified amount of money per tap
for the intrusion, which she didn’t seem to mind, and Rick always supplied her
with free syrup every year. She was a great neighbor. Not around much and as
respectful of his privacy as he was of hers. A marvelous business arrangement
if such a concept existed. Someday Rick hoped to own her land when she was
ready to sell it and double his empire without having to go all big city and
He continued inserting
spiles until the sun faded and hunger knocked on the walls of his stomach. He’d
install the taps on his neighbor’s trees tomorrow and spend tonight going
through three boxes of donated books back at his cabin for the book swap. The
bonus was he got first dibs on anything of interest in the donations, and he’d
made some good finds in the past. An early edition Kafka. A leather-bound
collection of Shakespeare plays. An autographed Jane Austen. Those finds were
now displayed on the floor to ceiling bookcases that lined three of Rick’s
living room walls.
Anticipating the buzz
he always got when surrounded by books, he pulled his sled around to head home,
but as he turned he dropped the rope attached to the sled. He was on enough of
a hill that the sled immediately slid away from him. Not wanting to have to
chase the sled and his tools all the way to the bottom, Rick ran after it in
No easy feat.
He started off all
right until the tip of his left snowshoe got caught under a fallen branch
hidden below the snow. His ankle made an unnatural grinding sound as his foot
stayed wedged in one direction and his body fell the opposite way. He let out a
howl of pain that had Poe darting over to sniff his face.
“Back, Poe.” Rick
pushed the coyote out of his space, but she circled around him, sniffing and
The hurt in his ankle
was a slow burning that got hotter as he tried to release his boot from the
snowshoe. Every movement sent ripples of fire up his entire left leg. After too
many minutes of struggling, he finally managed to unfasten the straps. His foot
spilled off the snowshoe and when it landed in the snow, he hurled a shout into
the arm of his fleece jacket. The muffled agony further agitated Poe who began
howling. A few dogs replied, and Rick suddenly felt very Stephen King.
Not a great feeling.
Knowing it would be
dark soon, he tried to stand. That went okay until he put his weight on his
left foot and crumpled right back down to the ground.
Dammit. I don’t need this now.
He grumbled under his
breath as Poe ran a little ahead of their position and then galloped back to
him. When she came close enough to sniff him again, he grabbed her. Pointing
her toward the sled resting at the bottom of the hill, he said, “Go get it. Get
Poe barked once and
shot down the hill toward the sled. She dug in the snow a bit and touched her
nose to the ground. When she raised her head, the rope was in her teeth. She
bounded back up the hill with the sled gliding along behind her, and Rick
cursed over his stupidity.
What good is having a coyote if I don’t know how to use her?
Poe continued past him
with the sled until it rested on level land. The coyote stood by the sled and
barked at him as if to say, “C’mon. Let’s go.”
“Would love to, Poe.”
As much as he didn’t want to, Rick untied his boot and slid it off with a few
grunts of pain. He removed his thermal sock and glanced at the instant swelling
in his ankle. That was the last thing he saw.
When he opened his eyes
again, the snow-covered canopy of trees had been replaced by the
tongue-and-groove pine ceiling of his living room. He was still in the jeans
he’d worn during the day and his thermal shirt, but a flannel blanket had been
thrown over him. Good thing too, because he was freezing.
And maybe a little
dizzy. Definitely tired as all hell.
“You awake, sugar?”
Aunt Joy came in from the kitchen.
He attempted to sit up,
but found he didn’t have the strength.
“Easy, Rick. Take it
slow.” Aunt Joy stood over him with a smile on her face he knew was forced.
“How’d I get back
“When nine o’clock
rolled around and we didn’t see this face,” she bent to pat his cheek, “we knew
something not good had happened.”
Aunt Joy helped him
wiggle up to a sitting position on the couch, and a plastic air cast spanning
up to his calf stared back at him from the armrest on the other end. Rick let
out a groan and flopped his head onto the back of the couch.
“Yeah, it’s severely
sprained. Doctor Reslin made a special house call so we didn’t have to take you
to the h-o-s-p-i-t-a-l.” Aunt Joy whispered the letters, and despite his
situation, Rick appreciated the woman’s tenderness. She knew better than
anybody how much he hated hospitals.
“The police found you
in the snow, one shoe on, one shoe off, and out cold in more ways than one.”
Aunt Joy sat on the edge of the old chest Rick used as a coffee table and
rested her chin in her hands. “Gave an old lady a good scare, sugar. I don’t
like when you do that.”
He pulled his gaze from
the cast and looked at Aunt Joy’s face. Her brown eyes were watery, her nose a
little red. He reached his hand over and tugged one of hers out from beneath
her chin. Giving it a squeeze, he said, “I’m sorry, Aunt Joy. I tripped. It was
“It was an accident.
Could happen to anyone.” She placed her other hand atop his. “Just glad you’re
okay. You’re a miserable hermit most of the time, but I kind of love you, you
“I love you too.”
“Of course you do.
Nobody takes better care of you than me.” Aunt Joy patted his cheek again and
stood. “Okay, here’s the scoop. Cast for a few weeks. Stay off the ankle for
the rest of this week and keep it elevated, then Doc left you a cane so you can
Rick opened his mouth
to protest, but Aunt Joy waved him off. “I know. I know. ‘Aunt Joy, how am I
supposed to stay off my feet when there’s so much to do?’ Listen, kid, this is
the way the cards got dealt this hand. Roll with it.”
She made it sound like
no big deal. No big deal that he was reduced to the functioning level of an
infant during a key time for his syrup business.
“It doesn’t hurt that
much,” Rick said.
“That’s because you’ve got these in you.” Aunt Joy reached
to an end table by the couch and shook an orange bottle of prescription pills.
“Wonder drugs. Once they wear off, you’ll be writhing in pain.” She leaned in
close to his ear. “Here’s a tip, sugar. Don’t let them wear off.”
As he continued
stacking books, Poe padded to the door and woofed once at it.
“No customers today,
Poe. Not yet.”
She barked again at the
door and as she sat by it, a soft knock echoed in the store. Rick put down the
books he had in his lap and limped to the nearest window. A Jeep he didn’t
recognize was in front of the store along with footprints in the remaining
patch of snow. The knock came again, but he couldn’t see who was at the door.
He contemplated not answering as he often did when the phone rang, but figured
it wouldn’t waste much time to explain the store wasn’t open yet.
He ambled to the door,
resting his hand on the tables as he passed by without the cane. As he neared
the door, another knock sounded.
“Okay, okay,” he said.
“I’m coming.” He cursed his slowness and hoped he’d be rid of the cast soon.
Not likely, judging by the ache, but a man could hope.
He reached the door and
pulled it open. What was standing on the other side of it made him forget his
A woman. Not much
shorter than him with reddish-blond hair that brushed her shoulders and curled
about a face meant for makeup commercials. Her skin had a wonderful glow he’d
never seen on any native Vermonter, and her eyes were blue-green jewels. Slim,
black jeans spanned down two long, shapely legs and disappeared into brown,
knee-high leather boots that belonged on a runway not on his partly muddy,
partly snowy doorstep. The rust-colored dress coat that hung to her thighs also
seemed out of place in this setting, but not out of place on her. The woman was
perfection in that coat, and the cream-colored scarf she had looped around her
neck fascinated Rick.
Poe barked and the
woman jumped. “Is that a coyote?” Her voice, soft yet assertive, matched her
delicate mouth and intense eyes, but she looked as if she were ready to run for
“Yeah, but she won’t
hurt you. She’s been raised to think she’s a big hamster.” What is this
woman doing here? Then the pieces fell into place in his mind. “You’re one
of Hope or Sage’s friends, right?” That had to be it, but he didn’t remember
ever seeing this one. He didn’t think he could forget her if he had seen her.
God, she was tall.
“No,” she said. “I
don’t know Hope or Sage. I’m looking for whoever signed this.” She pulled an envelope
out of her shoulder bag and rifled through it. While keeping a wary eye on Poe,
she handed Rick one of the documents, and he scanned it quickly.
“You’re looking for me
then.” Why did that make something in his stomach tighten?
“You’re the neighbor? You
knew Gail Hinsdale?” A section of snow slid off the roof and landed in a pile
about a foot away from the woman. She stumbled back and threw a glance all
around her, almost dropping the envelope in the process.
“Come in,” Rick said,
though he hadn’t remembered consciously deciding to invite her inside.
“Thank you.” She
knocked the mud and snow off her boots and squeezed past him into the store.
She smelled like grapefruit and coconut and sunshine. Like something far too
exotic to be here with him. “Could you…” She motioned to Poe and made a shooing
gesture with her gloved hand.
“Sure. C’mon, Poe.”
Rick smacked his thigh and shuffled toward the kitchen behind the pastry case.
He pushed open the door and guided Poe in. She whimpered on the other side when
she realized he’d locked the door.
Poor girl. Rick
felt like a big, fat meany.
“I appreciate that.
Wild animals unsettle me.” The woman pulled off her leather gloves to reveal
long, slim fingers with nails polished a deep crimson.
“She’s not wild,” Rick
“Right. Tell that to
her teeth.” The woman dropped the envelope on one of the tables and unlooped
the scarf to expose a slender neck. She turned in a tight circle to survey the
store. What was she thinking? She obviously came from a place where the stores
didn’t look like his.
“You knew Gail
Hinsdale?” She leveled her gaze on Rick, then flicked a glance down to his
ankle. “Do you want to sit down?”
“I think I’m supposed
to ask you that.” He indicated the chair across from the one he currently had a
death grip on.
She slid the chair out
and sat on it, but just on the edge, not like she meant to stay for any length
of time. This saddened Rick, because for the first time in his life, he didn’t
have the urge to get rid of company.
He eased onto the opposite
chair, and the muscles in his entire body relaxed as the pressure was taken off
his ankle. The woman noticed.
“What happened there?”
She peeked under the table.
He shrugged, determined not to explain any further though the woman waited a
moment as if he might. “How is Gail? I haven’t seen her in a little while.”
The woman’s lips
twisted down at the corners, and Rick had this ridiculous urge to scoot over to
her side of the table and… and do something.
“Gail died.” Those
piercing blue-green eyes grew watery. “My grandmother is gone.”
“I’m so sorry,” Rick
said. “She was real generous with allowing me to tap her trees. Nearly doubled
my productivity.” He had reaped nothing but benefits from his arrangement with
Gail Hinsdale. One of the smartest, healthiest business moves he’d ever
“She left me the
property.” The woman extended her hand. “I’m Lily Hinsdale.”
Taking her hand in his
and noting how cold her fingers were, he said, “Rick Stannard.” He looked at
the envelope again. “Are you thinking of moving to the property?”
At this, Lily let out a
loud laugh. “Moving to Vermont? Are you serious? I don’t want to be here right
now, never mind live here.” She brushed her hair out of her face with a
“What’s wrong with
Vermont?” Rick asked. It was the perfect place as far as he was concerned.
“Umm, everything.” Lily
stretched her magnificent legs out to the side of the table and peered down at
her boots. Cringing, she knocked her heels together letting caked mud drop to
the floor. “Vermont is no California.”
With a stop to check a
few taps, he confirmed the sap wasn’t running yet, but it would be. He could
feel it in the air. The woods were beginning to smell like the woods again
after being asleep under the snow for months. This was truly his favorite time
of the year. This in-between time, when one season surrendered to the next.
When the trees shared their natural goodness with him so he could make a living
on the land he loved.
When… an ugly cream-colored
Jeep was parked in front of his store.
“Oh, I don’t think so.”
He shuffled as fast as he could with Poe jogging along beside him.
He swung open the door
and marched in to find Aunt Joy, Hope, and Sage sitting at a table. With her.
Their laughter filled the empty store and burrowed right underneath his skin.
“What are you doing?”
All four women jumped
in their seats, and Rick had to contain his satisfaction. He hooked the cane on
the nearest chair and limped over to them. Pointing a finger at Lily, he said,
“You. Get out. Now.”
“Rick,” Aunt Joy said.
“Where have your manners gone?”
“My manners? Are
you kidding me?” He lasered a glare at Lily. “I don’t know what you think
you’re doing, but you’re not welcome here.”
“That’s it,” Sage said
to Hope. “He’s finally lost all of his social skills.”
“Shut up, Sage.”
Sage shrank back in her
seat, and Rick clamped his mouth shut. He didn’t usually snap at his cousins
like that. This… this outsider was turning him into a monster.
“Did she tell you what
she’s doing here?” He gestured to Lily. Why does she have to be wearing a
low-cut, black sweater that hugs her amazing body? He shook his head and
looked back to Sage.
“She’s staying at
Gail’s house,” Hope said. “Gail passed away. She was Lily’s grandmother.” Hope
rested a hand on Lily’s and gave her a compassionate look.
“So maybe you could try
to act like a human, Rick,” Sage said, “and be nice to the girl who just lost
her grandmother, huh?” She shook her feathery blond hair out of her face.
“I’m not going to be
nice to her,” he said. “She’s leaving.” He slid Lily’s purse off the back of
the chair and made a move to grab her by the bicep.
“Rick, you will not lay
a hand on our guest.” Aunt Joy’s tone froze his hand just shy of Lily.
“It’s okay, Joy,” Lily
Joy? First name
basis. So nice we’re all chums here.
Rick tossed Lily’s
purse onto the table where it landed like a bag of rocks. It upended the saucer
Lily’s teacup rested on and sent the tea into her lap. She popped up from her
seat as did Aunt Joy, Hope, and Sage.
“Rick!” his aunt and
cousins said together.
He tried to feel
triumphant over the dark, wet stain on Lily’s light blue jeans, but he couldn’t
get past the way the denim molded to her thighs and tapered down her legs.
Amazingly long legs. She was so much taller than his aunt and his cousins. They
were mere dolls next to her.
“Get some towels,
Hope,” Aunt Joy said as she handed Lily some napkins in the meantime. “I’m
sorry about my nephew.” She turned to Rick. “What’s your problem? This is
Robert Hinsdale’s daughter. Robert Hinsdale, the actor. The one I adore,”
she said through clenched teeth. “I know you don’t do people very well, but
I’ve never seen you be this rude.”
“Tell them.” Rick
stared at Lily, and she swallowed as if she had trouble doing so. He’d
interrupted her game, her attempt to win over his family then dive in for the
“Tell us what?” Sage
“This is not Miss
Hinsdale’s first trip in here, is it?” He pulled another chair over and sat. He
would have loved to remain standing to appear more imposing, but his ankle was
screaming from walking so fast to the store. Plus, his foot was soaked with
“I stopped in
yesterday.” Lily took a towel from Hope and dabbed at the stain on her jeans.
“To make a deal with Mr. Stannard.”
“What kind of a deal?”
Aunt Joy sounded suspicious now. Good.
“Well, I was getting
around to telling you before the Abominable Snowman came in.” She shot Rick a
glare. “I work for Utopia Resorts and—”
“Those fancy hotels
with the themes?” Sage asked.
“So not everyone is a
recluse up here, I see.” Lily nodded at Sage. “Yes, I design those resorts.”
“Oh, my God,” Hope
said. “Sage and I have been saving a little money every year with the wild
notion of visiting one of those resorts sometime.”
“You have?” Lily and
Rick said at the same time. Lily with encouragement, Rick with disdain.
“Well, sure,” Sage
said. “They’re beautiful hotels and who wouldn’t want to escape this.”
She threw her hands out indicating everything around her. “I mean, I love it
here and all, but it is a bit monotonous.”
“And quiet,” Hope
added. “So quiet.”
“I’ve noticed the
quiet.” Lily folded the towel and placed it on the table. “California is not
like this at all.”
“No, it isn’t,” Rick
said. “And I’m not going to let you turn Vermont into another California. One
is all we need.”
“I never said I wanted
to recreate California here,” Lily said, a laughing edge to her voice that
irritated Rick. “If you’d let me finish my discussion yesterday, you would have
seen that Utopia wants to keep this resort natural, outdoorsy.”
“And get rid of my
home, my business, my woods.” Rick shook his head. “Not going to happen. I
don’t want to live next door to a fancy resort either. No one around here
“I’m sorry about your
grandmother,” Aunt Joy finally said, “but I have to agree with my nephew. This
is no place for a mega-resort.”
Finally. Someone is
making some sense. Rick nodded at Aunt Joy, and she patted his hand.
Lily reached into her
bag and pulled out a small laptop. “Let me show you some of the designs I’ve
“We’re not interested, Miss Hinsdale,” Rick said. But why
was he interested in the way her strawberry curls fell around her neck? In the
small freckle below her right eye?
She lives in Rhode Island and occasionally Vermont with her husband, two cats, and a big, black German Shepherd who guards her fiercely against all evils.