First Chapter: Keepsake

Chapter One

Lark

As the crow flies, Tuxbury, Vermont wasn’t all that far from Boston. But I didn’t make the journey via crow, I made it in my aging Volkswagen Beetle. And in rural Vermont, the roads don’t often go where you need them to go. So the trip took me two and a half hours.

The late summer sun had already set by the time I drove up the Shipley’s lengthy gravel driveway. The pinging of pebbles against the undercarriage of my car was a sound that announced: you have left the city.

And good riddance. The past month at home with my parents in Boston had been excruciating.

I put my baby in park and killed the engine. Then I sat there for a moment, taking in the softly lit Shipley farmhouse. Laughter drifted from the screened windows. And through the lace curtains I glimpsed the bodies moving about the dining room in preparation for dinner.

The meal would be served at any moment, and I knew I should go inside. But I lingered behind the wheel another moment, putting on my game face. There was nowhere I’d rather be than here at the Shipley farm. But I’d forgotten that harvest season on a working farm would involve a cast of thousands. Okay—not thousands. But dozens. And lately, I wasn’t so good in a crowd.

You’ll be fine, I coached myself. These people love you. If I was a little off my game, they’d understand.

I got out of my car and pulled my duffel bag out of the back seat. Even before I got the car door closed, there was a squeal from the kitchen door. “She’s heeeeere!”

Smiling, I braced myself for my friend’s hug. I’d met May almost exactly seven years ago when Boston University assigned us to the same freshman dormitory room. So I’d been on the receiving end of May’s hugs many times.

This one was a doozy. My best friend was always affectionate, even under normal circumstances. But the fact that I had lately caused her—and everyone else in my life—a steaming heap of stress, meant that she had a go at trying to crack my ribs now that I’d landed safely back on American soil.

“It’s good to be here,” I managed through constricted lungs. A second later, May pulled back, only to grab my hands and look at me through teary eyes. “God, it’s good to see you safe. I was so worried when there wasn’t any news…”

“I’m sorry,” I said immediately. I’d been saying that a lot this month.

She took a deep breath. “I’m just glad you’re here. But I’ll get a grip now so we can have dinner, okay?”

I followed her up to the kitchen door and stepped inside. When the screen door slammed shut behind us, we left the pretty August evening behind.

I’d been hoping to make a quiet entrance, but it was not to be. The kitchen was abuzz with various members of the Shipley family trying to get a meal onto the table. And the sudden crush of humanity made my blood pressure jump.

“Lark!” cried several voices. 

“You made it just in time for dinner!” Mrs. Shipley added. In her hands was a giant bowl heaped with mashed potatoes.

“I drove fast,” I explained. It wasn’t a clever answer, but at least I was holding it together. I’d spent the last three weeks moping around my parents’ creaky old Beacon Hill mansion, ducking questions about my ordeal and just generally trying to remember what life felt like when you weren’t bargaining with God to save your sorry ass.

It didn’t used to be this way. I didn’t used to be this way.

A year ago I’d had both a boyfriend and a job that I’d loved. The boyfriend had split first, unhappy with my decision to take a twelve-month assignment in Guatemala. And then the job had nearly gotten me killed. I was technically still employed by the nonprofit that sent me to Guatemala. But now I was on “mental health leave” after my misadventures south of the border.

Under the scrutiny of my parents in Boston, I’d tried (and failed) to hide how much the experience had gutted me. My parents had marched me to psychiatrists and physicians who asked too many probing questions.

Some of those questions didn’t yield answers. There were a few key moments leading up to my rescue that I couldn’t remember. And that made everyone edgy.

So when May had called yesterday to invite me to Vermont for the entire apple-picking season, I had put down the phone and packed a bag.

“What can I do to help with dinner?” I asked now, watching the eighteen-year-old Shipley twins—Dylan and Daphne—fly around the room with plates and serving ware.

“Find yourself a drink and a seat,” Ruth Shipley answered. “We’ll eat in ten minutes.”

May took the duffel off my shoulder and tossed it into the TV room at the back of the house. “Come through to the dining room,” she said. Then my friend paused, her hand on the dining room door. “I wish I could give you a quieter evening for your first night,” she apologized. “But we have the Abrahams and the Nickels most Thursdays, unless we’re at one of their places.”

“It’s okay.” And, really, it would be. I hadn’t lost my nerve so completely that I couldn’t dine at a crowded table. Right?

In any case, I could get better at faking it.

She pushed open the door, and my stomach spasmed as I counted the faces on the other side. The old Lark would never have been afraid to greet a room full of people. I knew the exact date I’d stopped being fearless. It was sixty-seven days ago. 

I wasn’t sure I’d ever be the same again. Just hovering here on the same wide-plank floors I’d stood on a dozen times while visiting the Shipleys in college, I began to sweat.

The only thing to do was to slap on an impersonation of my usual self. Stepping into the dining room, I lowered my shoulders and lifted my chin.

Ten heads turned in my direction. No—even more. There was Grandpa Shipley, his weathered hands cupped around a coffee mug. And then May’s older brother gave a familiar shout, using the nickname he’d given me seven years ago when May and I were freshmen. “Hey! It’s the Wild Child!”

“Hi, Griffin,” I managed. He slung his arm around his smiling girlfriend, Audrey, who had just followed us in from the kitchen.

As for the others at the table, I recognized some of them, but I needed a refresher on a few names.

“Everybody, this is Lark,” May said. “She’s going to be staying with us and helping out at the farmers’ markets.”

“Awesome,” said a youngish guy seated at the table. “She can count the cash boxes. I hate dealing with money.”

“And that’s why you don’t have any,” Griffin said. He pointed at the guy. “That’s my cousin Kyle. And his brother Kieran.” He pointed at another guy, too.

I could see the resemblance. The Shipleys were a tall family, with dark eyes and shiny, brown hair. Kyle and Kieran were of a similar make. Kyle had a somewhat silly, lopsided smile, whereas Kieran looked more serious.

“Nice to meet you both,” I said.

“And that’s Jude and Sophie. They just came back from their honeymoon on Martha’s Vineyard.”

I’d never seen Jude before. He had longer hair and a bunch of tattoos sticking out of his shirtsleeves. He wore a sort of closed-off expression which didn’t invite me to linger, but his wife gave me a cheerful wave.

“And you remember Zachariah.” May indicated a blond guy in the corner.

My gaze caught on the farmhand I’d met just before I left for my trip in the spring. Who could forget him? Zachariah was a thing of beauty. He had thick blond hair, and his tanned, muscular forearms rested casually on the table in front of him. His well-worn T-shirt was stretched over broad shoulders and well-defined pecs. And even as I stared at him, he gave me a shy smile.

Yowza.

“The Abrahams sell cheese, beeswax and honey at the farmers’ market,” May was saying beside me.

I dragged my attention back to the introductions. There was a pause, as everyone expected me to say something. I went with: “I love beeswax candles. They smell so good.”

The couple I was supposed to be meeting beamed at me from across the table.

“Isaac and Leah are right down the road,” May explained. “Our two farms partner up on a lot of different things, so they’re like family.”

It only took one look to peg the neighbors as crunchy, young, back-to-the-land Vermonters. Leah’s hair was fashioned into dreads, and Isaac wore a homemade sweater. A messy-haired toddler sat curled into Isaac’s lap.

“It’s nice to meet you, sweetie,” Leah said.

“Likewise,” I replied.

Ruth and her helpers had filled the table with food, and now May’s teenaged siblings squeezed themselves into chairs on either side of the too-attractive-to-be-real Zachariah. Daphne gave him an appreciative glance before dropping her napkin onto her lap.

I had to bite back a smile at the poorly disguised teenaged yearning in her expression. Of course she adored Zachariah. Not only was he beautiful, but he had kind eyes.

We found seats, too. I was between Griffin’s girlfriend and May. And finally Ruth Shipley took her place at the head of the table. It used to be her husband who sat there, but Auggie Shipley had passed away when we were in college. 

Poor May had come home from taking her last final exam our sophomore year to hear that her father had suffered a heart attack and died before he even reached the hospital. It had been a dark time for my best friend.

At the other end of the table, Grandpa Shipley folded his hands and bowed his head. Everyone got quiet for his muttered prayer. After an “amen,” he forked a piece of pot roast onto his plate and then passed the platter. Side dishes were lifted and passed, and the swell of conversation began to rise up around me. I took spoonfuls of potatoes, Brussels sprouts and scalloped potatoes, while listening to May talk about the farmers’ market schedule.

“We don’t do a Friday market,” she said. “That’s why we have our big social meal on Thursday nights. Nobody is scrambling in the morning.”

There was a sudden crash, and I felt myself jerk in my chair. But it was only the sound of a serving spoon falling off one platter and onto another.

My flinch must have been distracting, because Dylan mouthed “sorry” from his side of the table.

Deep breaths, I coached myself. I’d been back from Guatemala four weeks, but my jumpiness refused to abate. I lifted another bite of food from my plate. “Who made these Brussels sprouts?” I asked. “They’re fantastic. Is that…bacon?”

“Hell, yes,” Audrey piped up. “I put bacon in everything.”

“I knew I liked you.” See? I could do this. Small talk and food. No big deal.

“Guys?” Griffin asked. “Audrey and I have some news.”

“Omigod!” May squealed beside me. “You’re pregnant!”

Audrey choked on a sip of water. “No!” she sputtered. “But should I burn this top?” She glanced down at her blouse.

Everyone laughed.

“What is the news, kids?” Grandpa asked, his fork halfway to his mouth.

“Audrey is going to France this fall,” Griffin said. “For ten weeks. So you won’t have bacon in your Brussels sprouts for a while.”

There were noises of disagreement. “What?” “No way!” “Why?”

“I’m taking a fermentation class in Paris, where I’ve always wanted to study cuisine,” Audrey said brightly. “My mother gave me some money, and Griff and I hatched this plan for me to take a course taught by famous vintners and brewers. So we can expand the cider business and win even more awards next year.”

“Audrey, no!” Kyle argued. “You can’t leave! Griff is going to be a grumpy bear for the whole harvest season. Do you even know what you’re doing to us?”

There was more laughter, and, when Griff lifted his wine glass, he managed to give his cousin the finger while taking a sip.

“I know you’ll miss me!” Audrey sang. “And my enchilada sauce.”

Grandpa put his chin in his hand. “Let’s not forget the coconut rice.”

“I’m not worried about the food,” Kyle said. “Aunt Ruth never lets me down.”

Ruth smiled at him, but Kyle’s brother Kieran murmured “ass-kisser” under his breath.

“But, seriously. If Griff gets too cranky you can expect a call from me. Can’t you, like, come home on the weekends?”

“You make me sound like Caligula,” Griff grumbled. “I wasn’t so bad.”

A silence and a half-dozen hidden smiles disagreed.

“Tell us about your classes, honey,” Ruth said.

“The course on fermentation is the real draw,” Audrey responded. “There’s no other course like it in the world.”

“My girl has a good nose for cider,” Griff boasted. “We’ll be unstoppable next season.”

“I’m also looking forward to a short course on pastries,” Audrey added. “Drinks and croissants, people! I’m perfecting all the finest things in life. I’ll make pastries for you all when I get home.”

While she talked, I kept eating. I’d lost more than ten pounds these past couple of months. Food had been scarce during my…ordeal. And afterwards, I just hadn’t been very hungry.

But Mrs. Shipley’s pot roast was excellent, and Audrey’s garlic mashed potatoes were creamy and delicious. Even in a room full of people, I began to find my appetite. 

This is good, I reminded myself. These are nice people, and this is a safe place. The safest place in the world. I’d always loved it here.

May held a wine bottle in her hand. “I’m sticking with water, but I could pour you some wine. Any interest?”

“Hell, yes.”

Cousin Kyle laughed at someone’s joke, and I smiled at him, doing my best impression of a happy, well-adjusted person. I would work on this farm and share meals with these people. I would smile and act normal for as long as it took. Until acting normal seemed normal again, and the dragons in my heart forgot to blow their fire.

Keepsake is a stand-alone novel in the True North series. Available at Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo | Google

S.P.Comment