Monday, July 3, 2017

Week #27: Honeysuckle Cove Secrets by Mary Manners

Peyton Foster harbors a secret…from the day he first stepped into her life she’s loved Luke Maddox. Though she thought they’d developed a lasting friendship, events surrounding her mother’s death chased him away. It’s all for the best, since Peyton’s passion as proprietor of A Whisper in Time proves the perfect complement to her shyness—a much better fit than her former misguided schoolgirl attraction to Luke.

Luke Maddox feels a connection with Peyton Foster from the first moment their paths cross. But when he settles in Honeysuckle Cove, a past riddled by years traversing the foster care system leaves him longing to fit in, leading him to take part in a foolish school dare that costs him Peyton’s friendship. Haunted by the mistake, he searches for a way to mend the past and find a way back to Peyton’s heart. When a break-in at A Whisper in Time causes their paths to once again cross, Luke must make a choice—bare his heart and face the consequences, or allow the only woman he’s ever loved to slip away.
1st Chapter:
Peyton Foster nibbled a fingernail as the tile floor came into focus through a wash of tears. Her shop lay in ruins. One glimpse of the destruction caused her nerves to vibrate like the low hum of morning rush hour traffic along the boulevard. A Whisper in Time was her baby, a livelihood rooted in whimsical dreams that she’d nurtured to one of the most respected small businesses in Honeysuckle Cove.
Countless hours spent at her grandmother’s knee drinking in rich, fanciful lore of the cove had encouraged Peyton’s childhood dreams to take wings and fly. Now the brownstone shop she’d rescued nearly half-a-decade ago from the jaws of demolition had been horribly breached during the overnight hours. Treasures she’d tirelessly accumulated lay scattered and strewn across the floor like Humpty Dumpty after his fall.
“Is anything missing?” Luke asked in a tone as soothing as warm chocolate. He eased in beside her and raked a hand across his jaw, where a shadow of stubble brought out the depth of chiseled cheekbones. Together, they surveyed the damage. “I know it’s a mess, but can you tell if anything was taken?”
Peyton struggled to focus on the task at hand as her gaze lifted to Luke’s eyes. Usually wooly-gray as a blanket of daybreak mist that billowed over Wanderlust Lake, this morning the color shone glimmering onyx. The subtle change often proved the case when his temper flared. Today that temper was elicited by an early-morning phone call that had him sprinting to find her ankle-deep in shattered glass from the shop’s smashed front door.
He hadn’t hesitated to help so much as a moment. The thought wove a ribbon of tenderness through Peyton.
“I’m not sure if anything’s been taken.” Peyton knew every detail of the shop as if it were an appendage of her body, but the extent of destruction made it difficult for her to wrap her brain around the chaos. She’d designed and set up each of the dozen or so displays for the spring season herself, and her memory served like an accounting photograph. But right now the mental film was blank, her mind overrun with a sense that her precious territory had been deeply violated. “The jewelry and coin displays weren’t even touched, but whoever did this paid special attention to the collection of music boxes, pawing through them as if searching for something in particular.”
“Yeah, I’d have to agree with that. It’s odd…almost like they weren’t concerned about the monetary value, but more as if they’d embarked on some kind of scavenger hunt.” Luke edged toward the corner display table. A variety of music boxes lay like wounded soldiers across the polished tabletop. One had been abandoned just inside the doorway, and it lay atop splinters of glass as if it had been dropped there when the looters fled. He bent to pick it up and, turning it over to check for damage, found a small engraving along the bottom panel. He read the initials aloud. “M.M.B…”
“Hmm…that’s strange.” Immediately, Peyton’s curiosity piqued. “I hadn’t noticed the engraving until just now.”
“Do you know what—or whom—the letters stand for?”
“No, I haven’t had time to adequately research that piece. It’s merely on display for the time being, not for purchase. I make it a policy not to add anything to the saleable inventory without first fully investigating its origin.” Peyton had spent a great deal of time admiring the curved shape with a pattern of delicately inlaid flowers along the porcelain finish. The piece was the epitome of beauty…a real treasure. “All I know for sure is that it’s dated pre-nineteen hundred.”
“That’s old.” Luke whistled softly as he ran his callused finger along the mysterious initials. “I wonder what sort of stories it would tell if it could talk.”
The thought caused Peyton’s pulse to skitter. If her grandmother were still alive, she’d most likely provide a depth of insight. Grandma Carlene spent a great deal of time immersed in stacks of books and news-clippings at the public library, volunteering as Honeysuckle Cove’s honorary town historian. She’d passed much of her knowledge on to Peyton, who loved to spend her free time steeped in history, dreaming of the people who shared leading roles in Gran’s stories. The thought that Luke was also intrigued by the past made the idea that much more appealing.
            Gran’s memory lived on through the shop, which had been initially leased following her death with funds she’d willed to Peyton. Peyton felt a special connection to her within these walls, as if Gran’s spirit was somehow delicately woven into the collection of pieces gathered here.
“I wonder about such stories, too.” Peyton reached for the porcelain box. Whoever it had originally been purchased for so many years ago must have been very special. The delicate trinket resonated romance. She sighed, wishing she’d one day be gifted something equally lovely and romantic by a special someone who loved her. She often wondered how she’d be remembered by future generations who chose to make Honeysuckle Cove their home. With admiration and respect like Grandma Carlene, or as a tad quirky and eccentric like the cove’s designated cat-lady, Mrs. Steinweiler.
Peyton turned the box over and cranked a small brass lever tucked along the underside. When she righted it once again and lifted the top to expose a delicate velvet compartment, the light scent of honeysuckle drifted from the fabric to kiss her nose.
“The gears seem to be working OK and I don’t see any chips or dings.” Luke peered over her shoulder. “And is that perfume I smell…sweet and earthy, like a hint of flowers?”
So the scent had found its way to him. It wasn’t her imagination.
“It smells like honeysuckle.” To Peyton’s great relief as the crank unwound soft music began to resonate from the box. The whimsical song coupled with a honeyed floral scent brought back memories of the mysteriously captivating Honeysuckle Cove Inn lore that Grandma had shared with her on more than one occasion.
Legend had it that Malachi Brennan, the grand patriarch of the Brennan family as well as Maggie O’Connor’s paternal great grandfather, had built the inn during the late 1800’s for his new bride. According to Gran, Malachi disappeared one evening not long after the newlyweds moved in, as a storm blew through the cove while he fished on the lake.
Gran had insisted his spirit roamed the shores searching for a way back home. She was also convinced the spirit of Malachi’s young bride, Mary Margaret, strolled the inn searching for her beloved husband. The warm, fruity scent of honeysuckle proved her signature.
Peyton pondered a question as she slid a finger once again over the engraving. M.M.B….Mary Margaret Brennan…could it be this music box had once belonged to her?
“It’s lovely.” She tore her thoughts from the mystery as she turned back to Luke. “Mrs. Hollister brought this in a few months ago along with a crate full of other trinkets. She said she found it when she was cleaning her great aunt’s attic. She’d never seen it before, as far as she could remember, and she’s not sure how it got there. She asked me to do a little research to see what I could learn.”
Guilt nagged. She’d been so busy preparing for the Touch of Spring Small Business Expo on the Town Square that had taken place over the weekend that she hadn’t given Mrs. Hollister’s request much thought. She would have to rectify that immediately.
Or as soon as police and insurance reports were filed, the tile floors cleared of shattered glass, inventory assessed, and the disrupted displays sorted and reassembled.
To name just a few of the things on today’s unexpected to-do list.
“Though the other trinket boxes were tossed around, none of them have been knocked from the table.” Luke turned a slow circle, drinking in the damage. “So, with any luck they should be OK.”
“I sure hope so.” Peyton set the delicate music box back on the tabletop, her mind now reeling with questions that went beyond the break-in. With great difficulty, she shook them off and took a moment to right a few of the other trinkets before a wave of emotion suddenly swept through. She choked back a sob and swiped at her eyes as the full impact of this morning’s events clamped down and held tight.
For a few long moments all she heard was her own ragged breathing. Then glass crunched beneath Luke’s shoes as he eased closer.
“It’s going to be OK, Peyton.” He draped a hand over her shoulder and squeezed lightly. His fingers were warm and strong while his tone soothed the ache that gripped her heart.
“Oh, I know it will. It’s just…this is a big setback. One I really don’t need right now. Not one little bit.” She estimated the break-in wreaked havoc serious enough to close the shop to customers for the better part of the day—perhaps even into tomorrow. Not good at all, since heightened advertising and exposure from the business show coupled with unseasonably warm weather had people strolling the sunny boulevard and in the mood to shop. “And I was off to a really great month—the best one yet. Actually operating in the black. So much for getting ahead.”
 “I’ll help you put things back in order and make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Luke soothed with his eyes, making her feel as if she was wrapped in a soft, downy blanket. “First things first—you need an iron-clad security system, and I’m going to take care of that immediately. Today.”
She was thankful he didn’t add ‘I told you so’ since he had done just that on more than one occasion. She’d failed to heed the warning, and now she was paying for her stubbornness in spades.
“I was hoping…” The words caught on a sob. Her tears began to fall with a vengeance. She brushed them away furiously as anger laced through like a thorny weed. She swallowed hard and found her voice again. “Good grief, this is Honeysuckle Cove. We’ve never had a crime issue. Maybe this was just some kids—”
“Regardless of who did this, there’s no sense taking a chance on it happening again, Pey.” Luke’s hand slipped down to splay across her lower back. He turned her toward him and drew her in, offering the warmth of a gentle hug. “Like it or not, times are changing.”
“I really don’t want to believe that.” She dipped her head and pressed her cheek against the corded muscles of his chest, melting into him as he wrapped her up. “Other places might experience such side effects as a result of community growing pains but not here…not in the cove.”
“Don’t fret, Peyton.” He placed a kiss along the crown of her head. “Whatever may come, I’ve got you. Just hold on tight.”
So she did just that. She fisted her hands along the hem of his shirt and held on. She hadn’t felt this off-kilter since middle school, when an anonymous note slipped into her locker on the heels of her mother’s horrific death had her world rocking from the height of Mt. Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench. Her heart had been shattered in much the same manner as the door glass at the shop entryway.
Luke had begun his inexplicable journey of avoidance that day, and after all these years she couldn’t say she blamed him. She’d been a train wreck back then, a real mess in the weeks and months after her mother was buried and she’d gone to live with Gran. The ugly letter, deposited before her emotional wounds had time enough to scab over, had only served to deepen her somber mood. Its horrid words still mocked on the occasional sleepless night.
You’re going to end up like her…
As the center of a spotlight in a small town like Honeysuckle Cove, she’d felt like a circus side show—with everyone but Luke. He was there for her as darkness descended, a genuine comfort until the letter launched a sort of unspoken crevasse between them. Though they’d begun to build what Peyton initially believed was a lasting friendship, he’d quickly shunned her for his football buddies and the occasional, impromptu Saturday night party along the shores of Wanderlust Lake.
He’d never asked her to join him…not that she would have, given the chance. Her mother’s death brought unexpected debts that were only compounded by her father’s subsequent emotional breakdown and long-term inability to work. She had no savings, so her meticulous studies and the valedictorian honors they garnered were all the hopes she had of making it through college with a business degree.
She didn’t have time for frivolity. Instead, she’d do everything in her power to grow a future and a legacy she could be proud of.
I will not end up like her. I will not…
She had plans to turn Gran’s stories and her dreams into reality by opening her own antique shop. Nothing would get in the way of that.
Not even Luke Maddox.
Peyton breathed in the scent of him, a whisper of pine mingled with a hint of soap. He smelled like he’d just stepped from the shower, and she heard his heart beating steady as the tick of a clock.
This was the Luke she’d grown to love, even if that love remained well-hidden in her heart. He was a man she could count on. A man of few words yet deep, unfathomable emotions. He knew how to laugh…how to make her laugh. And she’d seen him cry, as well.
Maybe she was becoming just a little more carefree and playful than she used to be, and she had to admit the change felt good. She’d learned to let go of the rigid routines that had given her a sense of security in the midst of her chaotic teen years while also casting her as somewhat of an outsider. Maybe that’s why Luke had turned away and left her in the dust. Who wanted to hang out with a girl who found calm reassurance in cataloging the history of her Honeysuckle Cove ancestors?
She thought of the anonymous letter tucked into a hidden, zippered compartment of her purse. She’d saved it all these years and took it out from time to time to remember the pain of the heckling words. It served as a reminder of how far she’d come from the insecure girl whose mother struggled so deeply with life that she’d finally taken her own, leaving Peyton with nothing but memories.
It also proved a gauge of how far she still had to go.
She relaxed against Luke and felt the tension ease down a notch or two. His embrace felt so right, she wanted to stay cocooned in it forever.
But she knew he was simply being nice in rushing to help her this morning…nothing more. She might have felt an unexplainable attraction to him since he showed up at Honeysuckle Cove Middle School out of the blue on a mid-November day their eighth grade year, but he obviously hadn’t returned the sentiment. Oh, she’d been a good enough friend until the in-crowd scooped him up and welcomed him to their tight-knit circle. From that point Peyton became yesterday’s news. And that hurt, it really wounded. Because she could have used a special friend all those years ago, when the sky crashed in on her world.
Maybe a touch of hope remained. Without explanation, Luke began a few months ago to stop by the shop during his lunch break and sometimes on his way home from work to make small talk. Often he brought her favorite eclairs and flavored coffee from Perini’s Bakery down the street, and they’d share dessert for lunch. Other days he presented her with bouquets of wildflowers meant to brighten the reception desk. Only a week ago, just as Peyton was closing up shop for the evening, he’d arrived with a stack of old postcards he’d found on the shelf of a closet in the house he rented. He’d asked her to join him for dinner and they’d walked down to Minter’s Deli, where they’d spent the better part of the evening poring over the cards’ delightfully scrawled messages.
Their distance across the years began to melt away as their paths wound together once again. Each time Luke came around—and it happened with greater and greater frequency—he seemed genuinely glad to see her. Though she enjoyed the time they spent together, Peyton couldn’t help but wonder…would it last?
Peyton reminded herself that Luke wasn’t here today of his own accord. He’d come to the shop that morning because she’d called him.
And she’d called him because he was the first person—even before the police or Mr. and Mrs. Constantine, who owned the art gallery next door and treated her like a daughter—she’d thought of when she’d arrived at A Whisper in Time to find the entrance door ajar, the glass panes smashed and the showroom miserably ransacked.
She’d dialed Luke because she knew he would come. And she knew he could—and would—offer the help and comfort she needed.
And she’d be fibbing if she failed to acknowledge she was still secretly in love with him, just as she’d been all through school.
Ugh…she’d thought such unrequited love played out only in sappy romance novels. But in this case truth rang stranger than fiction. She was certainly living, breathing proof.
Pathetic. It was time to move on. If Luke had any inkling of returning her romantic feelings, he would have made it known by now. Confidence was one thing Luke Maddox had quickly mastered as he’d settled into life in the cove. And as much as she’d like to imagine it, coffee breaks coupled with bakery sweets didn’t make for enduring love stories.
Luke shifted feet and Peyton felt the scrape of fabric where the Maddox Security emblem was embroidered into his navy polo shirt. She reminded herself again why he’d come. Luke owned a security company—the most reputable in the greater Honeysuckle Cove region. He was here to put in a fail-safe security system, one proven to ensure last night’s break-in would be the first and last.
“I guess we’d better get started.” With tremendous difficulty, Peyton untangled herself from his arms. Foot traffic along the boulevard had increased to a brisk pace. Soon her neighbors would get wind of what had happened. There was no sense in adding to town gossip by being spotted among the window display, swept up in Luke’s arms. “Chief Burke said he’d stop by to take a report as soon as the morning’s school traffic clears.”
“Good.” Luke snagged a stray hair from her tear-stained cheek and tucked it behind her ear. Concern tinted his eyes. “If you’ll give me the insider’s tour of this place we can figure out together the best type of system to suit your needs. How does that sound?”
“Perfect.” Peyton swallowed hard. “Sounds great.”
But it wasn’t great. All at once she felt like an insecure schoolgirl all over again. Her love life was D.O.A., her antique shop rivaled the Wreck of the Hesperus, and the installation of a security system—by Luke Maddox, of all people—stood at the top of her must-do list.
No, this chapter of her life wasn’t headed for a love story. Were her life penned for a romance novel it would never make the bestseller’s list. In fact, the story would be lucky to land in the slush pile instead of the circular file.
Could things possibly get any worse?

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