Sneak Peek of Whiskey and Gumdrops
Book 1 in the Blueberry Springs Series
All books in the Blueberry Springs series can be read as standalones.
Mandy Mattson stood behind an elm and watched the church, her feet turning to nicely pedicured ice blocks due to the slush seeping through her designer boots. The old teak doors swung open and the bride and groom burst into the spring sunshine smiling at each other like they were the only ones in the small town of Blueberry Springs.
Mandy turned away to stop the world from spinning, the rough bark of the tree snagging her long, loose hair. Against the wishes of the smart little voice in her head, she peered around the trunk, waiting as the couple kissed and waved their goodbyes before piling into the limo. Taking several quick steps to the right, she crouched behind a budding bush, seeking better cover as the limo pulled out. The last thing she needed was word to get back to her ex that she’d been wedding-stalking him.
Was it crazy that she’d needed to see proof of his nuptials herself? To see with her own eyes that he had indeed chosen to spend the rest of his life with her rival? To slide that knife a little deeper into her soul?
She sighed and wiggled her left foot which was threatening to fall asleep due to her cramped position. The decent man options were waning and, like the men available, she wasn’t getting any younger. Before long the only ones left would be used and abused models—divorcés—or the late model lemons nobody had wanted in the first place.
She winced as an idea struck her core. If everyone worth snapping up was snapped up … did that imply she wasn’t worth snapping up? Well, obviously not by the man she’d been with for eight years and had hopelessly chased for the past three and a half. That stupid kiss he’d given her two years ago had given her unrealistically high hopes. She was embarrassed how she’d acted, following him around, setting her kitchen on fire—well, that was an accident—and basically, trying to respark the connection they’d once had. Although, she was only embarrassed because it hadn’t worked. And maybe also because she’d done stupid things in order to keep him at her side—and failed. Publicly.
She’d been trusting enough to believe that he was The One and that he’d felt the same way about her. But the truth was, you didn’t know if a man was a lemon until you test drove him for a while. And even then he could still surprise you and dump your designer-clad buttcheeks on the side of the road. Or worse still, you could end up like her parents who hadn’t realized they’d chosen a lemon until it was waaaaay too late.
And, sue her but the idea of test driving another man felt like too much work in her current frame of mind.
Mandy stood, stretching her tingling leg as the limo swung around for another toot-toot drive-by. Son of a
She dashed behind another shrub and ignored the light rustling beside her as she kept an eye on the car. Another rustle-rustle and she glanced over at Mrs. Everett’s cat, Fluffy, who was prancing like she had to pee.
The whole outdoors is yours, kitty.
Wait one second …
She stole another glance at the cat, noting the wide, white stripe down its back—a stripe Fluffy did not possess on her all-black body. The skunk aimed its poofy tail straight at Mandy’s caramel leather jacket with the Italian style zipper.
“Oh!” Mandy scrambled backward, the butt of her perfectly worn-in jeans landing in wet, cold slush as the skunk filled the air with its scent, stinging Mandy’s eyes.
“Son of a—!” She gagged and choked as she whipped a handful of heavy slush at the skunk, sending it hustling for the protection of a nearby shrub. Between gags she spit out, “You know how much this outfit cost? I’ll never be able to wear it again!”
Not caring if anyone across the street saw her, she stalked deeper into the square, eyes streaming. She’d be lucky if she only smelled into next week and not the rest of her life. She’d be turning off diners at Benny’s Big Burger and get herself fired from the highest tipping restaurant in town. And without Benny’s she’d be exactly…nothing. Her status would officially become ‘a small town nobody waiting for true love to come along and save her from a humiliatingly lonely and meaningless existence.’
Sooo not her style, but she could see her future gliding that way as though it was being guided to a runway lit up at night: land here! She needed to do something—anything—to modify that flight plan. But first she had to deal with the present crisis of eau de skunk.
She slipped through the quiet downtown at a light jog, unable to outrun her smell, thankful the majority of the town was still at the wedding. By her estimation she had about two minutes to make it to safety before the streets filled again and the ‘closed due to wedding’ signs disappeared from store doors.
Turning onto Plum Street she headed for the one person who could help her. The one person who had stood by her through all the years and the ups and downs of pursuing and keeping her ex. Frankie.
Everyone believed she’d been cruelly leading on her friend ever since he fell off the water tower while painting her name on it all those years ago—and earning himself the nickname Frankie-Fall-Off-The-Tower-Smith—but they had an agreement. They were just friends. And always would be. Nothing more.
She banged on the back door to his ancient, three-room cottage with the cedar shake roof and cracked clapboard siding. Frankie’s dog, Heart, sounded the alarm on the other side of the door before it opened, then slammed shut again.
“Holy Mandy! What on earth?” Frankie hollered through the door.
She turned the knob and pushed on the door. “Frankie, you’ve gotta help me out.”
“Stay out of here. I’ll never get the smell out!”
Teary-eyed, Mandy gave the warped door a shove. The lock clicked into place and the sounds of Frankie scrambling on the other side sifted through. She slumped onto the small step. Now what? Living above the flower shop she was certain the owner would catch wind of her new aroma and kick her out for stinking up the building—at least until she smelled right again. Nobody wanted their shop smelling like she did. Nobody wanted there anything smelling like she did. And the way her eyes stung, she wasn’t sure she’d ever smell like herself—a gentle blend of vanilla and Pears soap—ever again.
“Frankie, you gotta help me,” she moaned, leaning her head against the closed door. “My family will never let me live it down.”
If her older brothers found out she got sprayed and then heard about the scent lingering in the town square, they would put two and two together. They would know where she had been and why. In other words, they would mock her patheticocity until her dying day.
This would definitely top Frankie falling off the tower while declaring his undying love.
Her friend appeared around the corner of the house in a pair of old sweats and a ripped T-shirt he usually reserved for renovating his tiny abode. He carried an old drywall mud pail and large shopping bag.
“Follow me.” He pointed to the large garage out back where he rebuilt muscle cars.
Mandy followed him at a distance, watching how he moved, his movements efficient and with purpose.
Pausing at the garage door, Frankie grinned and clipped a clothespin over his nose. He shoved open the door and drew her into the garage. “Let’s see what we can do about your new outdoorsy perfume.”
Mandy looked in Frankie’s pail. She held up a small bottle of juice he used to mix with cheap beer when his next paycheck was still a week away. “Clamato? Really?”
He shrugged. “You’re supposed to bathe in tomato juice or peroxide and that’s the best I have.”
Mandy looked at it hopelessly. Her voice wobbled as she said, “I’m going to smell like clams.”
“You can pretend you took a trip to the sea.” He gave her a wink and set down the pail, uncapping the tomato juice. He poured it in, barely covering the surface of the pail’s bottom. They looked at it doubtfully.
Frankie tapped the bottom of the upturned bottle. “I think we’re going to need about eighty of these.”
They looked at each other and started to laugh. Near tears, Mandy plunked herself on the cold concrete floor amid the oil stains and fine layer of grit that had blown in. She leaned against the lime green 1969 Dodge Challenger Frankie was currently rebuilding for a client in the city.
“This sucks. Really, really sucks.”
Frankie crouched in front of her with a washcloth dripping tomato juice. “Come here.” Gently, he tipped her face up, dabbing her forehead. “We’ll need to wash your hair and probably burn your clothes.”
Mandy fought tears. She’d worked two week’s worth of extra shifts to buy this outfit. It was one of her best and it always made her feel good when her confidence was flagging. She’d miss this outfit more than she’d care to admit. She let out a loud sigh supposing it was divine retribution for dressing up in her best to be ready with her arms outstretched in case her ex was unable to say, “I do.”
“Sorry, Miss M,” Frankie said.
She nodded and burst into tears. How could she be so pathetic? She was being weak and needy. Why couldn’t she be that confident, independent girl everyone seemed to think she was? Everyone kept telling her she was better off without her ex and that she was so brave, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Frankie rubbed her back and asked gently, “You went to watch despite your promise, didn’t you?”
She nodded again, crying harder. He drew her into his arms and held her close. “Oh, Mandy.” He smoothed her hair. “Why do you do this to yourself?”
She tried to push him away, but he squeezed her even tighter. “I’ll make you stink,” she sniffed.
She felt a rush of emotion for her best friend and slipped from his grip, swiping at her wet cheeks.
Frankie handed her a towel from the shopping bag. “You can use this to cover yourself as you bathe. I’m going to run out and get more juice. I threw an outfit in there for you to change into later.”
“I’ll pay you back,” she said quickly.
He shrugged off her offer and gave her a skeptical look as she pulled out the outfit. “Maybe change into it after I get more juice though.” He stepped to the door. “A lot more.”
“Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
He paused, his hand on the doorknob. “If anyone asks why all the juice, I’ll tell them Heart found a skunk.”
Mandy gave him a grateful smile and turned the red-soaked cloth over in her hands. “Thanks.”
He returned her smile and she felt a whoosh in her gut. He was always so good to her and half the time she felt as though she didn’t even deserve him as a friend. Sure, she was a good friend, too, but sometimes she wondered why he put up with her chasing another man when he’d made it clear over the years that he was willing to pick up where their first—and only—date had left off.
He stepped closer, a look in his eyes that made her tense up. “Why can’t you see it?” he asked, his voice quiet.
“See what?” she asked cautiously.
“How strong you are.” He came closer again. “And that you could have anything you wanted.”
Mandy stood and crossed her arms. “Frankie, what you want and what you need are two different things.”
“You’ve got to start giving yourself some credit.” He cupped her chin and leaned closer, intense. “You are more than you know, woman.”
“Frankie,” she sighed, a raw edge to her voice. “This isn’t about me.”
“I think it is.”
She tried to ignore the way his proximity was making the blood rushing through her body go extra tingly. “You know any woman would be lucky to have a good man like you.” Her eyes prickled with emotion and she tugged herself out of his grip. She crouched, busying herself with wringing out the cloth.
Glancing up, she caught him shooting her that goofy, crooked grin that always made her want to comply with whatever kooky idea he had. More than once she’d found herself racing across the meadow track in her 4×4 trying to outdo one of his muscle cars after he’d shot that grin in her direction. Such a challenge lay behind those lips, and he knew perfectly well how well it usually worked on her.
He crouched beside her. “The same could be said about you,” he whispered. He slowly leaned in and, when she hesitated to move away, placed his lips gently over hers. He gave her a deep kiss that awakened parts of her that had been dormant for a very long time. And for a very good reason.
She shoved him away and stood up. “Dammit, Frankie!”
She blinked back tears and moved to the other side of the car where she’d be out of reach, leaving them both safe. The Charger stood between them, its cold frame protecting her. Frankie placed his hands on the hood and stared at her. She panicked. Panicked like her truck had lost its brakes on Bear’s Pass. Except there was no runaway lane to save her before she went flying over the edge. Her voice crept up a few octaves as she said, “I can’t do this with you, Frankie. I can’t. Okay? Please.” She shook her head. “Our friendship—”
“Stop worrying about me. I’m a grown man.”
He turned on his heel and strode out, slamming the door in his wake.
Mandy drew in a long breath, the familiar scent of oil and gas barely making it past the choking smell wafting off her in great waves. Only Frankie would kiss her like that when she smelled like this. And only Frankie would think she could give him something she couldn’t.
She plunked down and began dabbing her face and hair with the tomato-stained rag. Don’t think. Don’t feel. This will pass and everything will go on as it always has.
But if that was what she truly wanted, why did it make her feel as though she was losing out on something really great?
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Copyright Jean Oram 2013. Not to be copied or reproduced in any form without written permission from Jean Oram.
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