Leave Tomorrow Behind:  A Stella Crown Mystery #6

Leave Tomorrow Behind: A Stella Crown Mystery #6

She’s back! Tattooed, hardworking, and often crabby dairy farmer and biker Stella Crown is hot—because it’s summer and because she has plenty of things to raise her temperature, including a ...

About The Author

Judy Clemens

Judy Clemens spends her days in rural Ohio, where she writes, spends time with her family, and eats too much ...

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Chapter One

The conversation was simple. Miranda, my future sister-in-law, would make a suggestion, and I would say no. Like this:

“Off-the-shoulder?” “No.”

“Three-quarter-length sleeves?” “No.”

“Puffy ones, then.” “No.”

It was early. Well, early for some people. I’d been up since five-thirty, when I’d milked the cows, and now I was supposed to be eating breakfast and watching the morning news. But sometimes plans fall through, and we have to soldier on. That’s what I was doing. Except I’d be hard-pressed to find an actual soldier who would want to face the grilling I was getting.

Miranda had, in a moment of what she called “insanity,” kept me from being impaled by a pitchfork earlier in the summer, but that hadn’t made us instant bosom-buddies. In fact, sometimes it seemed she regretted her whole impulse to save my life. I can’t imagine why.

Back in the whole annoying conversation, she sighed. Heavily. “Fine. We don’t have to talk about the sleeves right now. How about the skirt? Full? Floor-length? Flared?”

“No.”

“You have something else in mind?”

“No. I mean…no, there’s not going to be a skirt.”

She blinked, then gave a little clap. “You mean you’re going to wear slacks? Oh! Silk pants! That could be nice.”

“I am not wearing silk pants.”

“So, what, then? I suppose you’re just going to be naked?” “I’m not going to be naked, Miranda. I’m going to be wearing jeans.”

“Jeans? You can’t wear jeans!” “Can so.”

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. And then she was suddenly smiling, like one of those manic televangelist ladies with all the makeup and the big hair. “Okay, Stella. I get it. If you don’t want to talk about your dress right now, we can talk about something else.”

“I am not. Wearing. A wedding dress.”

She waved a colorful brochure in the air. “Cake. Let’s talk about cake. Now, I was thinking, maybe, one of those multi-tiered cakes, with the flowers, and the little figurines on top, you know, made to look like you and Nick. Or, we could get the guy on that TV show, the Cake Boss guy, he could make a themed cake, like with—” she swallowed “—cows, or motorcycles, or houses, like our family’s development company builds—”

“Ma’s making the cake.”

She laughed and flicked her hand at me, like I was the silliest thing she’d ever seen. “My mother couldn’t make a cake to save her life.”

“Not your mother. Ma Granger. She’s making the dessert.” “Ma Granger? I don’t know, Stella. Do you really think she’s equipped to make that much?”

“She raised eight boys. I think she can make enough dessert for fifty people.”

She blinked, a whole lot, like she had dust in her eyes. Which wouldn’t have surprised me, actually, since we were in my old farmhouse, and it was a dry summer, and I wasn’t exactly on top of the dusting.

“Um,” she said, “I believe I just heard you say fifty people?”

“Yeah, around that. Could be sixty, maybe, with all the Granger kids.”

“Kids? But wait, there are almost three hundred guests on the invitation list. And none of them are children.”

“What invitation list?”

She poked around on her iPad, then swiveled it toward me. “This one.”

I scanned the names. I didn’t recognize any of them. “Who are these people?”

“Folks from Virginia, mostly, although your friends are on it, too, of course, somewhere. You know, it’s mostly our family’s friends, church members, employees, neighbors—”

I shoved the tablet back to her. “You can pick twenty-five.” She choked. “But…but the venue. It’s huge. We’ll be swallowed up.”

“What venue? I think the yard here will hold seventy-five people just fine.”

“Yard? Here? I don’t think…”

“Hey, there.” My fiancé, Nick, entered the kitchen, his hair messed up from sleep, but otherwise looking mighty fine. He walked over and planted a kiss on my mouth. “How’re you this morning? Cows all good? Queenie?”

“Nick.” Miranda’s chin stuck out toward New Jersey. “You have got to talk to her.”

“I am talking to her. I asked about the dog, and work, and how she’s feeling.”

“I mean you have to talk to her about the wedding.” “What about it?”

“She won’t agree to anything!”

“She agreed to marry me. That’s the most important part.” He went to the counter and poured a cup of coffee. “Nice to have you here, Sis. Otherwise, I have to make my own brew.” He took a sip and sighed contentedly.

Miranda shook the iPad at him. “Twenty-five people, Nick.

That’s what she said I could have.” “For what?”

“The invitation list!”

Nick slid out a chair and sat next to me. “Twenty-five sounds fine.” He frowned and put his arm on the back of my chair. “But the Grangers will be more than that. We’re not limiting them, are we?”

“No,” I said. “They’re on my part of the list.”

“And she said she gets sixty!” Miranda pointed at me, just in case Nick wasn’t sure who she was talking about.

“It is her wedding.” Nick took another sip. “It’s yours, too.”

He smiled. “Exactly.”

Her mouth opened. Then it shut. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. I don’t know why I’m helping you two, anyway. It’s not like any of it is appreciated.” She whisked all of her lists and brochures and magazines and samples together, whacked them on the table to even them out, then stacked them on her iPad. She stood up, knocking her chair against the wall, and stalked out of the room, leaving some flowery scent in her wake.

Nick took another sip of coffee.

“The cows are good,” I said. “Want some breakfast?”

 

Chapter Two

“You sure you got this?” I watched Lucy, my farmhand, who was supervising her daughter Tess, now nine years old, as she bottle-fed the newest calf.

“I said I got it. Go. Take Zach to the fair. We’ll come later and see him, when he’s settled.”

It was too hot to do much, anyway. Even Queenie, my collie, had decided to take the day off. The last I’d seen her, she was lying on the plain cement of the barn floor, well out of the sun. If I stayed home I’d end up doing something like mowing the lawn, or fixing some rotted boards on the far side of my garage, and I really didn’t feel like doing either. Besides, I’d promised Zach, and he’d be showing up any minute, ready to transport his calf to the barn at the county fair.

“Mom!” Tess squealed. The nipple on the huge bottle had collapsed.

Lucy took the bottle, pinched the nipple until it popped back into form, and returned it to her daughter. “Nick going with you?”

“Don’t know. He seems to be feeling pretty good today, so maybe.”

“He seems to be feeling pretty good all the time now.”

Nick had been diagnosed with MS, multiple sclerosis, during the last year, which of course had taken its toll on the two of us and his family. But lately, with a new diet and medication regimen, along with exercise and Nick’s generally positive way of looking at life, things hadn’t seemed so bad. In fact, some days I almost forgot he wasn’t the same guy I’d fallen for a year before. No, that’s not right. He was the same guy. Just…different. “He’ll probably come along,” I said. “To get away from the wedding planner, if nothing else.”

Lucy grinned. “You never know. Miranda might have a good idea tucked away in there, somewhere.”

“If you’re someone else, maybe.”

The calf hiccuped, and the bottle popped out of her mouth, sending a stream of colostrum, the mother’s first milk we couldn’t use in our regular tanks, shooting all over her face. She backed up on knobby legs, shaking her head and spraying droplets all around. Tess, giggling, used the towel Lucy handed her to wipe the calf ’s face, then got the nipple back in its mouth. The calf sucked so hard she almost pulled Tess over, but somehow the girl remained standing.

I congratulated Tess on her success with the calves, and went to find Nick. He sat on the sofa in the living room, laptop open, hands on the keys.

“You have to talk to her,” Miranda was saying. She perched beside him on the sofa. Both of them had their backs to me. “This wedding is not going to happen if she doesn’t let me…if she doesn’t make any plans.”

“How do you know she hasn’t?”

“Fine. Show me a plan. Anything. Building rental. Flowers.

Invitations. A date.” “We told you a date.”

“You said, ‘We’re thinking of maybe July 27.’” “That’s a date.”

“But nothing concrete. ‘Thinking of maybe?’ What kind of commitment is that? And it’s next month.”

“Miranda.” Nick paused, then shut his laptop and set it on the coffee table. “Look, Sister. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. No, really, I do. But you’ve got to understand, Stella is… she’s a lot different from you. In a lot of ways.”

Miranda snorted. “I do realize that. I’m not an idiot.” “Didn’t say you were. But listen. You want to make a   nice wedding—”

“The best wedding.”

“But are you wanting the wedding you would want? Or the wedding Stella would want?”

“I’m planning—or trying to plan—the wedding any woman would want. Any normal one, anyway.”

“Well,” Nick laughed, “maybe Stella’s not normal.”

“Who’s not normal?” I stepped into the room, and Miranda jumped up so fast I thought her ass was on fire. Nick merely turned and smiled at me. “You, of course.”

“Never claimed to be. So, hey, you want to go to the fair with me and Zach?”

“But…” Miranda fluttered her hands.

“You’re welcome to come, too, although you’ll have to drive separately. We can only fit three adults in my truck, and if we go by foot size, Zach is now officially a grown-up.”

Miranda’s jaw worked, and then she smiled, although it was a little like the smile adults give children when they really can’t stand being around them.

A car pulled into the drive and I peeked out the window. “He’s here. You ready?”

Nick got up and held his arms out to the side. “As long as I’m dressed okay.”

“For the fair? Before it’s even open?” I surveyed his jeans and Phillies T-shirt. “You look perfect.”

“Not as perfect as you.”

Miranda made a gagging sound and stalked to the stairwell, where she slammed the door behind her.

“Shall we?” Nick said, and we went outside.

Mallory, Zach’s older sister, climbed out of the driver’s seat of the old sedan to pet Queenie, who trotted out from the barn to see who had arrived. Mallory’s boyfriend, Brady Willard, unfolded from the car, too. All six feet of him.

“Where did that come from?” I asked.

“What?”

“You’re taller than me now.”

“Dad’s tall.” Brady’s father was the town’s one and only detective, and he’d helped me out when my farm had been threatened. And when my life had been threatened. And…well, we were friends.

“Yeah, he’s a big guy, but when did you get so huge?” He shrugged.

Zach rolled out of the back seat. “So, where’s Barnabas?” “Where you left him, lazy butt. It’s not my job to get him ready.”

He dropped his bag in the grass and loped off toward the barn. Queenie followed, tail wagging.

“So,” Mallory said, “Mom and Dad will probably call you, like, ten times to make sure he gets settled okay.” She rolled her eyes. “Like the fair is such a dangerous place.”

“It is,” Brady said. “Dad says cops will be all over because of everything that goes on there.”

“Like people dying from eating deep-fried Snickers?”

“No, like drug dealing, fighting, prostitution, gambling, drunk guys peeing in the fairway. Or puking.”

Mallory put her hand over his mouth. “Stop! Gosh! I’m sorry I asked.”

I glanced at my feet. “Glad I’m wearing boots.” “You should be,” Brady said, in all seriousness. “So are you guys going, too?” I asked.

Mallory made a face. “Not after that.”

Brady shrugged again. “Later this week. For the derby or whatever.”

Demolition derby, he meant. “Which one?”

“Combine, of course. I got a friend in it. His ride’s called Smashmaster.”

A combine demolition derby. Yes, you heard right. It’s huge in Ohio, apparently, and now Pennsylvania had decided to get in on the fun. Farm kids use rusted, outdated combines, paint them all up, and bash them into each other in the hopes of a prize. It’s loud and muddy and fairly safe. Pretty entertaining, actually, if you like that sort of thing.

Mallory tugged on Brady’s arm. “Come on. I told Grandma we’d help with corn today, and we’re already late.”

“Right. Yippee.” He swung his arm in an “all right” gesture. Mallory swatted him. “You know you love it.” She looked at me. “Grandma makes all these awesome desserts, and the only way you get any is to help with the corn.”

I nodded. I’d attended more than one corn-freezing day at Ma’s house. And I had eaten more than my share of chocolate cake. “Better get going then, before your dad inhales it all.”

Brady’s eyes widened, and he practically dove into the   car.

Because Mallory’s father, Jethro, can really pack it away.

Once they were gone, I headed into the barn.

“He look okay to you?” Zach stood in the stall beside Barnabas, the beautiful Holstein calf he would be showing. The yearling waited, chewing his cud and looking about as bored as a calf can look. He’d been born the summer before, raised right there on the farm. I’d given him to Zach as a baby, just after Zach had lost another calf, and he’d been Zach’s ever since. Zach had bottle fed him, brushed him, and named him. I hadn’t done anything except supply the barn and the feed. And the occasional taking care of when Zach was gone. Zach had been a good worker for me for years, so I was happy to offer what I could to pay him back. Beyond the cash I’d already given him. “He looks perfect. But he’ll look even better once we get him to the fair and you wash him up.” “I guess.”

We led Barnabas out to the trailer, which I’d already hooked up to my truck, and he waltzed right in without a fuss.

“He’ll be okay in there?” Zach peered into the back. “He won’t be scared?”

“Zach, you’re acting like an amateur. How many times have you helped transport cows?”

“I know. Sorry. It’s just, he’s so small compared to the milkers.” He trotted over to grab the bag he’d left in the grass, and met Nick and me back at the truck, where I was explaining to Queenie that she would be staying at the farm.

Zach hesitated, shifting from foot to foot.

“No,” I said before he could ask. “You are not riding in the trailer with Barnabas. Get in the cab.”

After a little who’s-going-to-sit-in-the-middle dance, Zach slid onto the bench, and Nick took the seat by the window. We waved at Queenie and headed off to start Zach’s adventures at the fair.

I really wish we hadn’t.

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