by Sherri Stewart
A Historical Romance/suspense
Everything is going wrong at the Buttercup Inn. Following the fire, the accident, and the theft, Winnie’s confidence as an innkeeper is at an all-time low. If it weren’t for Matthew Lister’s steadying presence and help, she’d sell the inn and move away from St. Augustine. What’s more, the chemistry between Matt and herself is more than she can handle, especially since he answered her all-important question the wrong way. He didn’t have a camel.
Winnie Flaherty doesn’t know whom to trust. Someone is trying to ruin her business and possibly even kill her. Her love life isn’t faring any better because, after all, how many potential suitors in St. Augustine own a camel?
The horse ignored her.
“Come on, Malarkey,” Winnie pleaded, “Help me. I can’t pull this cart out of the ditch by myself.” She blew an errant strand of hair from her damp forehead, scratched the horse’s withers, and surveyed the cart. Its tilted wheel stuck fast in the muddy grooves that skirted the road, and the wheel had separated from the cart.
“What am I going to do?” Why was this happening?
She peered up at the clouds. God, help.
She tugged at her damp, scratchy collar. The sun’s intensity was unusual for February in St. Augustine. The balmy Atlantic breezes failed to reach this backroad between Joe Buck’s General Store and the Buttercup Inn.
Winnie fingered Malarkey’s mane. “You are not helping. The icebox items will go bad if we don’t get a move on. Miss Simpson will throw a fit if I don’t serve clotted cream with her strawberries. She already thinks I’m a failure as an innkeeper.”
When her horse continued to ignore her, she tried bribery. Rifling through the bags, she extracted a carrot and held it close to Malarkey’s nose. “Doesn’t this smell good?”
He didn’t budge, so she tried appealing to his higher equine nature. “Malarkey, a good tea service means happy guests, which means more guests, and money for a real stable.”
She inched backwards, cajoling, prodding, and pleading. He didn’t budge.
She was tugging on his reins when her heel landed in a rut. Flailing arms had no effect on overcoming gravity. Like a dead weight, she fell, the stony surface of the road digging into her lace bloomers.
Moaning, she pushed herself to a seated position and assessed the situation. The heel of her shoe remained stuck in the rut—as stubborn and immovable as Malarkey. The carrot had flown in some unknown direction. Her summer frock was stained and covered with dust, and her shoe had no heel. Something dripped off her cheek—she dabbed at it. Russet-colored mud. She wiped it with her sleeve.
What else could go wrong? She sniffed the air. Was that a skunk she smelled?
Her ears perked up at the clip-clopping of approaching hooves. At last, someone to help save her parcels of food. She started to rise when the hem of her dress caught in her one good shoe and ripped.
“Great, now I’m not decent,” she whined to the horse.
Grasping a handful of torn cloth from the rear, she rose to her feet and balanced on her one good shoe.
She hoped whoever was coming wasn’t that harridan, Miss Landis, who owned the inn across the street from her Buttercup Inn. Maybe that was why she smelled skunk. She smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt and tried to appear dignified.
A man rounded the corner, slowed, and stopped six feet from her.
“May I be of service?”
She held back the impulse to roll her eyes. Nothing irked her more than people who stated the obvious. Despite the sun’s glare, she caught the amused lines that skirted his eyes, and her anger flared inside.
That was all she needed—a smug Northerner. Winnie knew almost every one of the nearly two thousand residents of St. Augustine. He was not from around here—of that she was sure. His stifled grin wasn’t lost on her.
He slid off his horse, tipped his bowler, and proffered a hand. Thick raven hair framed his tanned face.
Something about him was familiar. Strong chin. Aquiline nose. Laughing, kind eyes. It couldn’t be the boy from grammar school. This man was tall, rugged, and sure of himself.
“Matthew?” She wiped her hand on her skirt and took his hand. “What happened to that lad who followed me home from school every day?”
“If it isn’t Winnifred Flaherty. As I recall, someone needed to be there to pick you up when you fell off your horse or the playground swing or whatever.” He studied the cart. “And that need still exists, I see.”
The skin on the back of her neck prickled. “It’s Winnie now, and yes, I was a tad accident-prone when I was younger. It wasn’t easy playing games at recess in a dress. But I’m all grown up now, so I can handle things myself.” An untimely dollop of mud dripped from her hair onto her dress with a plop. She dabbed at it with the back of her hand, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
He ambled to the cart and squatted to examine its wheel. “The shaft is broken, but I can fix it.” He rose and laid his hand on the horse’s mane. “Malarkey? Hey boy, I remember you.” With a soft voice and a gentle touch, he guided the horse forward.
Malarkey snorted playfully. Within a moment, Matthew hauled the cart onto the road.
She gaped at him. “How did you do that? You must have a way with animals.”
“It’s a gift. It comes in handy when you’re a veterinarian.” He gave her the barest glance as he patted the horse’s flank and spoke quiet words in his ear. He picked up the carrot she had dropped earlier and fed it to him. Malarkey strutted and huffed, enjoying the attention.
She crossed her arms and eyed the bags of food growing warm in the hot sun. “I don’t know how I’m going to get those parcels home.”
“Let me see what I can do.” When Matthew bent down to examine the underside of the cart again, Winnie stared at his back, irritated at his success with the horse. She didn’t appreciate his smirk. This wasn’t the best of days for her, and he should be more compassionate, as he had been in grammar school—when all she had to do was crook her finger and he’d come running.
His broad shoulders rippled under his shirt. He certainly had grown into his body. The combination of gentleness and strength awakened dormant feelings inside her, which overpowered her mouth.
“You’ve filled out.” As soon as the words spilled out, she covered her lips with her fist. Her gaze dropped to the ground. Hopefully, he hadn’t heard.
When she glanced up, he was shaking his head. “So, you still say whatever comes to mind.”
Her cheeks warmed. No, she wouldn’t bite back. Instead she changed the subject. “Last time I saw you was in tenth grade when you announced you were moving out west. I heard you joined the army.”
“That is correct.” He opened his mouth to say more but then pressed his lips together in a narrow line.
When he didn’t offer more information, she asked, “what brings you back here?”
“My grandfather. He died in early 1879. His house has sat empty for two years. I’m staying there while I settle his estate, but I’m also searching for a place to open a veterinarian clinic. My cousin is here as well. You remember Mel Maislin?” He dropped to the ground and shimmied under the cart.
“How could I forget boisterous Mel? All the times he got in trouble for his pranks on the teacher or some unassuming classmate.” Mel and Matthew had been an inseparable pair, but Matthew was the kinder, smarter, and quieter one, who stood back and allowed his cousin to enjoy the limelight.
School memories came billowing back in waves as she stared at Matt, lying on the dusty road under the cart. The time when he left his group of friends to help her up and dust her off when she fell out of a tree after trying to retrieve a ball. And that dark day in eighth grade when he’d insisted on walking her home from school after she received news that her father had died.
Even then, she had a crush on him, not that she would have admitted it to anyone but God. Although he was a few years older, his desk was behind hers because Lister came after Flaherty in the alphabet. Whenever she glanced back, he met her eyes with a wink. It made her blush when he caught her staring at him.
She said, “Sorry about your grandfather. I know how hard it is to lose someone.” She cleared her throat. “Isn’t Mel at Yale?”
“He just finished his first year of law school. Still loves to have a good time.” He rose to his feet, removed a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his hands. “So what have you been up to?”
“I run the Buttercup Inn. Mother passed a year ago, and now it is up to me to keep it going.”
“I’m sorry about your mother. She was a wonderful woman.”
This grown-up Matthew Lister intrigued her. He didn’t hesitate a moment to get his clothes dirty. Her interest triggered that all-important question—the one never too far from her mind. “By any chance, do you have a camel?”
“What?” He stared at her for a moment, then pointed back. “Just the horse.” After retrieving his hat, he mounted his steed.
She limped over to him and patted his horse. “Thank you for helping me … again and again. Why don’t you and Mel come by the inn for tea. It’s the least I can do.”
He put on his hat. “What would your husband say?”
“I’m not married.” She forced the next words out. “But I am already taken.”
A groove formed between his brows. “Are you engaged? Do I know him?”
“No and no.” She couldn’t tell him the truth because he’d laugh at her. She was determined to be faithful to her promise. He continued to stare at her with head cocked, so she said, “It’s a long story. You don’t want to know.”
She hesitated, but she owed him something for helping her since she couldn’t afford to pay him. “Remember Fran and Lizbeth from school? The year after you moved away, the girls in our class—all six of them became obsessed with finding out who they would marry. I didn’t care, but everyone else did. Fran and Lizbeth even paid for a session with Miss Miranda, the fortune-teller who lived above the general store.”
Matt took a brush from his saddlebag and rubbed his horse’s black mane. “Why didn’t you care?”
“Father had died. Mother and I were in survival mode. We had more important things to think about.” Like money for food, she thought. “The girls talked me into going with them to Miss Miranda’s, but I chickened out at the last minute and waited outside. It didn’t seem right to trust a fortune-teller for such an important decision and to have to pay for it.”
“Wise choice, but you haven’t answered my question.”
“I’ve said enough.” She didn’t add another word because he wouldn’t understand. She didn’t tell him that she preferred to get her answers from the Bible. She didn’t tell him she’d prayed for God to reveal her future husband’s identity. When God didn’t answer her, she let her Bible fall open and pointed with her eyes closed. “And behold, he stood by the camels at the well,” the verse in Genesis said. Because that piece of information seemed so obscure, she prayed again and followed the same procedure. This time she pointed at the name Melchizedek.
Even though Florida had no camels, she held onto her promise from God. Her husband Melchizedek would have a camel. When anyone showed her the slightest interest but clearly didn’t qualify, she responded with, “I’m already taken.”
He broke into her thoughts. “You’re still a daydreamer. I put the wheel back on and fashioned a temporary shaft. You’ll make it to the inn, but I will follow behind in case it doesn’t hold. I would be happy to come by tomorrow and put a new shaft on it.”
“That is very generous of you.” Her shoulders loosened. “Of course, I want to pay you for your work.”
“Not necessary. My pleasure.” His eyes were kind, but his jaw tightened. “I want to warn you. The break on the shaft was a clean one.”
“What does that mean?”
“The wood was cut with a saw. It may have been done intentionally.”
Once she passed the bar, Sherri’s immediate plan five years ago was to practice immigration law in Atlanta, but God had other plans for her. She teaches twelfth grade English in Orlando during the day and writes romantic suspense novels in her spare time at night. Her first two novels, Come Out of Hiding and A Well-founded Fear of Death won awards at writers’ conferences in Florida. Inn Danger, which won a Tapestry award, is her third novella. Sherri lives with her husband Bobby, son Joshua, and dog Lilith near Orlando. She enjoys golf, walking, reading novels, trivia, the Bible, and her friends and family.
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