Three Can Keep a Secret: A Stella Crown Mystery #2

Three Can Keep a Secret: A Stella Crown Mystery #2

When Stella Crown hires a new farmhand to help run her Pennsylvania dairy business, she gets more than she bargained for. The Mennonite widow arrives burdened not only with grief, ...

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

Dr. Rachel Peterson stepped back and shook her head. “I have to tell you, Stella. I’m concerned.”

I glanced down at my arm where my tattoo, which used to say, “To thine own self be true,” lay disfigured by unadorned skin taken from my back. My leg, previously unmarked, would forever sport white patches of scarring after the motorcycle accident five weeks earlier had thoroughly scraped the skin off the entire left half of my body. It also itched like hell. I looked up at the doc. “I thought you said the road burns were healing nicely.”

“They are. It’s the rest of you I’m worried about.” She picked up my chart. “Your complexion is gray, you’ve got circles under your eyes the size of hoofprints, and you’ve lost thirteen pounds in five weeks. Not to mention your ribs aren’t healing.”

“I’m sorry.”

She let out a laugh. “You’re sorry? I don’t want an apology. I want changes. You can’t go on like this.”

I eased myself off the examining table and started pulling on my clothes, not trusting myself to speak.

“Stella,” Dr. Peterson said, “please. Sit down for a minute.”

I turned around, my shorts in my hand, but didn’t sit. It would take too much energy to get back up.

Dr. Peterson’s eyes glowed with kindness. “It’s not just the physical exertion, I know.”

I fiddled with a belt loop on my shorts.

Her voice was soothing, and soft. “Grief can tear you apart, if you let it. Do you have anyone to talk to?”

I shrugged, not wanting to be thinking about this. Around the same time I wrecked my bike I also lost my long-time farm-hand and mentor, Howie Archer. My dairy cows didn’t seem to notice the difference, but my dog Queenie and I felt Howie’s absence every day.

“I’m talking to you,” I said. “No, Stella. You’re not.”

I turned back around and resumed putting on my clothes. The doctor sighed. “Can you find someone to listen? Someone you trust. A friend, your minister.”

I closed my eyes and breathed through my nose. I had friends. Friends who cared, who would be there for me. I supposed I could talk to Ma Granger’s minister, if I wanted to go the church route. The problem was, I didn’t want to talk. To anyone.

“Okay,” Dr. Peterson said. “You know how I feel about that.

And about the farm work you’ve been doing.”

“Find me a competent employee, and I’ll start taking it easy.”

“Stella—”

“I mean it. How am I supposed to get my cows milked twice a day and maintain the rest of the farm without working twenty-four seven? I have Zach Granger helping, but he’s only fourteen. I can’t expect him to work full-time. And he heads back to school next week.”

“You are looking for someone to hire?”

“The farming grapevine is alive and hopping, well aware of my needs. Plus, I’ve got ads in the local papers and in Hoard’s Dairyman.”

“Which is…?”

“The national magazine for dairy farmers.” “Ah. Any calls yet?”

“So far, I’ve had two very un-recovered alcoholics, one seven- teen-year-old, a chick who’d never seen a cow in real life, and a guy who assumed I was the farmer’s wife.”

“Uh oh.”

“He stayed as long as it took for me to personally lift him back into his truck.”

Dr. Peterson laughed, but shook her finger at me. “Exactly the kind of activity you shouldn’t be doing.”

“Plus,” I continued, “I’ve had several kids from the Delaware Valley College Ag program, but they can only promise a year or two, and only part-time.”

“Which would be better than nothing till you find someone else.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. “I know. I was just hoping to find a hand who would stick around a while. I don’t want to go through this hiring thing again anytime soon.”

She patted my good arm. “The right person will show up before you know it.”

I grunted.

“And until then, you need to get some help. Even if it’s just temporary.”

“I have someone coming to apply this afternoon. Probably’ll turn out to be a serial killer or religious fanatic or something.” She laughed again and led me down the hallway toward the reception area. “I want to see you again next week. No excuses.”

I saluted weakly. “Yes, sir, ma’am.”

She stopped at the desk and handed the receptionist my chart. “And until then, you can call me if you need someone to talk to. Now go get some supper. And eat it all.”

I left the office, holding my ribs as I walked down the stairs outside. The sky was a vibrant blue, spotted with puffy white clouds, and the sun beat down on the blacktopped parking lot with ferocity. I opened both doors of my truck to let it air out before climbing in.

It was a beautiful August day. And I was miserable.

Chapter Two

On an average day the traffic on Old 309 is so bad I want to swerve around traffic and speed by on the gravel shoulder. That day, on the way home from Doc Peterson’s, there wasn’t even room to do that. I took deep breaths to calm my rising blood pressure and craned my neck to see what was holding us up. Couldn’t see a thing.

Fifteen minutes later I finally got a glimpse of the traffic light at Bethlehem Pike and Route 113. The changing of the light’s colors made no impact on the flow of traffic, since a police officer stood in the intersection directing vehicles around an accident. As I crawled by I did my share of rubber-necking, but couldn’t see anything other than a pickup with a bashed-in front end. The ambulance must’ve already left, since the only people I saw were emergency folks trying to rid the road of glass.

It brought back way too many memories of my accident just weeks before.

Finally free of the worst of it, I drove the remaining distance to my house and pulled into the lane, parking in the shade of a maple tree. A well-used Ford Taurus sat in the drive, and a woman stood leaning against the door, her face turned toward me. I stepped down from the truck, careful of my sore ribs. The woman stood up straight, her expression anxious.

I walked toward her. “You must be Lucy.”

She scrutinized my clothes and tattoos—especially the one of the cow skull emblazoned on the back of my neck that peeked around underneath my ears. “And you must be the boss.”

“Name’s Stella.” I stuck out my hand, and she shook it firmly. So far, so good. In the next few minutes I was sure she’d do something to disqualify herself, but until then I’d hope for the best. She looked the most promising of the candidates I’d seen so far, even if she was a bit small.

“Your last name’s Lapp, right?” I asked. “Sounds Mennonite.”

She smiled slightly. “It is. I’m Mennonite to the core. Is your next question going to be why I don’t look Amish?”

“Sorry to disappoint you. Living around here, I know plenty of Mennonites who wear jeans.” Such as the entire clan of Grangers, including Abe, my best friend since I was ten. “Not too much about the Mennos could surprise me anymore. Now, if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes, I’ll change my clothes and we can get to work.”

“All right if I walk around a bit?”

I pursed my lips, not sure I wanted some stranger snooping around. I finally decided she couldn’t do too much harm in such a short time. “Suit yourself.”

I started jogging to the house, slowing to a walk when my ribs protested.

In my bedroom I took a second to roll my neck and ponder the woman outside. Physically, we were exact opposites. At five- nine, I could look straight over her head. Bulk-wise I could throw her down and truss her up in a matter of seconds. Not that I’m fat. My body is basically one big muscle. No curves, no softness, just angles and bones. Especially now I’d lost that weight the doctor was complaining about.

Lucy was built more like a cheerleader—short, with curves in all the right places. But older. Her skin tone and the lines beside her eyes said she definitely wasn’t in high school anymore. And the look in those same eyes was tired, and hard. Had to be a story there. I wondered if she’d be around long enough for me to learn what it was.

Once I’d donned my barn boots, jeans, and T-shirt, and had popped one of my Motrin, I found her outside, checking out the site where my heifer barn had burned to the ground a little over a month before.

She turned when gravel crunched under my boots. “Electric?” she asked, indicating the barn.

“Arson.”

That sparked some interest, but I wasn’t ready to fill her in until I knew she was staying.

“Ready to milk?” I headed toward the milking parlor, and she soon followed.

Zach was guiding the cows into their stalls when we arrived. My collie, Queenie, lay in her usual corner. She got up and trotted over to me, ignoring Lucy, which meant she must’ve checked her out already and decided Lucy was okay. Score one for Lucy.

“Hey, Zach,” I said. “This is Lucy Lapp. She’s applying for the farmhand position.”

He clipped a cow into her stall and came over, wiping his hand on his jeans before offering it to her.

“Hi, Lucy,” he said. “Don’t let Stella intimidate you. She’s not as scary as she looks.”

“Gee, thanks, Zach,” I said.

Lucy’s lips twitched, but the impression of humor was fleeting. Gee, this one was a laugh a minute.

“Why don’t you help Zach get the girls in,” I said to Lucy. “I’m going to go see about my temporary help.”

Zach grinned, knowing I meant Abe.

“Did you check on Poppy?” I asked Zach. To Lucy I said, “We have a cow soon to calve, and Zach and I have a bet going as to when she’ll produce. The sooner the better, for my wager.”

Zach’s grin grew. “She’s still huge.”

“Don’t count your calves before they’re hatched,” I said, and left Lucy in his capable hands.

When I got to the office I peered through the window in the door to see if Abe was there. He sat at the desk, chin on his fists, staring at the computer screen. He worked weekdays at Rockefeller Dairy, doing their books, and spent every other available moment doing charity work for me. I was surprised he wasn’t asleep.

I took a moment to study him and wonder where our relationship was headed. He had brought home another woman the month before, and I had finally admitted—to myself and to him—that I wasn’t sure I liked it. He didn’t like it either and was eager to pledge me his unending devotion. I wasn’t quite there yet. I had suffered through a quick and painful romance with a barn painter at the same time Abe had brought the city gal home, so I wasn’t sure I was ready for just one man, no matter how much I cared about him.

I pushed open the door, and he jumped. “Geez, you scared me.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to.”

He spun his chair around. “What did the doctor have to say?”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “And that’s your business because…?”

“Because I care about you. And your health.”

“Oh.” I considered that, and felt Dr. Peterson’s presence beckoning me to share my feelings. She might be right, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. “Let’s just say I’m not her model patient.”

“Surprise, surprise.”

“I told her if she found me a farmhand I’d slack off a bit.” “Then let’s hope today’s the day. Lucy Lapp should be here any minute.”

I cocked my head. “She’s in the parlor, helping Zach.” “Oh. I guess I missed her driving in.”

“That’s unlike you. What’s so fascinating on the computer?” He looked at me warily. “You sure you want to know?” “Oh God, Abe, not girlie sites?”

Red rushed to his face. “You know me better than that.”

I laughed. “And I know you’d never stray off the straight and narrow. So what was it?”

“Well….”

“Come on.”

“Okay. You know your finances aren’t any too hot right now.” “Tell me another one.”

Since the shit hit the fan a month before, I’d been lucky to keep my phone and utilities paid up, and food on my table. It had been discovered that my cows were producing tainted milk because of their food, so besides having my feed stores cleaned out and new feed brought in, I’d had to milk my cows for several days and watch the milk get carted away for destruction until the FDA had proclaimed my herd “cured.” Needless to say, the government wasn’t giving me any help with the money, and insurance interpreted the situation as an Act of Terrorism and was therefore denying reimbursement. After September Eleven insurance companies had to rethink their stance on terrorism claims, but so far their policy changes hadn’t done me any good. Thank God for the free help I’d been getting from Zach and Abe, along with some charity from other folks. Not that my farming friends have much to give—time or money.

“Anyway,” Abe said, “I’ve been thinking about some of the extra expenses that have come up lately. Your truck has been giving you problems, you’ll need money to hire a new farmhand, and of course there’s the obvious project of the heifer barn.”

“I can fix the truck myself, I was paying Howie anyway, and insurance will pay for most of the barn.”

Abe ignored me. “I’ve been studying some possible sideline incomes.”

“Oh, great. Waitressing in between milkings? Bagging at the grocery store?”

“Something here at the farm. Did you know the Hoffmans are considering an ice cream parlor?”

“What?”

Marty and Rochelle Hoffman were other small-time dairy farmers, good friends of mine.

“They haven’t mentioned it to me,” I said.

“You have enough to think about these days. They didn’t want to burden you worrying about them. Anyway, there are all kinds of things to do. Run a vegetable stand, sell flowers, let a phone company build a cell tower on your land, rent out one of the barns for parties—”

“For Pete’s sake, Abe. Next thing you’ll be wanting me to give hayrides and have Easter egg hunts.”

He shrugged. “Why not?” “First off, I scare children.”

He grinned. “Only ones who don’t know you.” “Second, we have no barn to spare at the moment.”

“That will change as soon as we get the heifer barn rebuilt, and you said insurance will be paying for it.”

“Third, what should I tell Jude when he wants to plant my back acreage and he can’t because the phone company’s erecting a permanent eyesore?”

“All right, I understand those problems. But what about the other stuff?”

“Which?”

“Flowers and vegetables. Basically no contact with the public if you use the honor system, and it would take up lots less land than a phone tower.”

“And I’m going to tend the plants with what time?”

He looked at me steadily. “How about the time you’re putting into fixing up the bike that almost got you killed?”

I stared back at him. “That Harley is all I have of a life outside this farm, Abe. And most of my friends are bikers.”

“I’ve offered you another way.”

I stifled a groan. “Marry you and become the perfect yuppie wife?”

“Is that so unattractive?”

I pushed myself out of my chair. “Abe, you know you’re one of my favorite people, and I appreciate all the work you’ve done for me. But this farm is all I have left of my parents. Of Howie. No matter how I feel about you, I’m not ready to abandon it.”

He studied me. “Well, then, isn’t it worth it to consider one or two of these other options? I want to help save the farm. You know I do.”

I jammed my hands into my pockets and looked out the window at my house. I did love the place. But how much more sacrificing was I going to have to do for it?

“So leaving my bike behind and tending a garden has become my only option?”

He tapped on the computer screen. “I’m doing my best to come up with others. None of them leave much room for joy-riding. But look at what it means in the end.”

I turned slowly toward him. “What it means is I lose one more part of my life that brings me happiness. I don’t have too many of those left.”

He seemed about to say something, but I couldn’t listen anymore. I left the room, closing the door a little harder than I meant to. I leaned against the wall and pushed on my temples with my fingers. It had been five weeks since my life had changed irrevocably, and I wasn’t in a place to be adding more responsibilities to my already overflowing plate of chores. Let alone manage the stress that comes with trying out a new take on an old relationship.

I shoved myself away from the wall and went to check on my farmhand hopeful.

The cows were hooked into their stalls and Lucy was placing the milker on the first one when I got back to the parlor. Zach caught my eye over a cow’s back and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

I stood and watched Lucy work. Seemingly oblivious to my presence, she projected an understanding of cows, unlike some of my loser applicants. She was gentle, patting their rumps and talking to them, but not so delicate she wouldn’t put a knee in their leg to move them over, or prod them awake with her boot. Her hands on the milking apparatus were sure and steady, and she moved like she was at home.

Hope began creeping its way into my chest, and I had to work hard to stifle it, afraid of yet another disappointment.

I steeled myself and went into the feed room to get the cows’ grain. There was no way to tell it anymore, but that little room was where I had found Howie, my beloved farmhand, taking his last breaths. I couldn’t even look at the doorway to the room without feeling queasy.

I made it out to the parlor just in time to see Lucy avoid getting peed on by a cow. She waited for the river to stop, then stepped beside the cow to wipe off the teats with a paper towel. Another good attribute for a farmhand. Cool in times of excrement.

Zach was busy in his row with the same routine as Lucy— wiping off the teats and hooking on the milkers. I had just started filling the feed trays when Queenie growled a low, bone-chilling rumble. From where I stood I couldn’t see her, but I could see Lucy, who had frozen.

“What?” I asked, and took a step. “Stop!” Her voice was a forced whisper. I stopped.

“We’ve got a problem,” Lucy said.

By shifting my weight I could get my eyes around the cow blocking my view, and I sucked in my breath. Queenie crouched low on her haunches, her teeth bared. About a foot from her face a beautiful black and bronze snake lay at attention, its eyes locked with Queenie’s. A copperhead. Venomous and not at all friendly.

“Holy crap,” Zach said. “Where did that come from?” “Stella,” Lucy said. “Do you have a rifle?”

“In the office, but there’s no way—” “Somebody bring it to me.”

I took a deep breath and let it out. She seemed to know what she wanted, and I was no expert on snake extermination. “Okay. Zach, you’re closest. Go—”

“Slowly,” Lucy said.

“—and get it. You know where it is. Grab some ammo, too.”

Lucy, Queenie, and I stood stock still, keeping our eyes straight ahead, while Zach made a slow and quiet exit. Once he was gone Lucy’s shoulders relaxed a little.

“Keep him far away,” she said. “Copperheads can be lethal to kids.”

“What about you? You’re smaller than Zach.”

“It’s not necessarily your size that matters.” “Here it is,” Zach said from the doorway.

Lucy angled her eyes toward him. “Okay.” Her lips barely moved as she talked. “I want you to hand the gun to Stella without taking another step, then the ammo. Then get out of here.”

Zach stretched his arm out, and by leaning slightly to the side I could reach the gun. He was too far away for me to reach the bullet, so I wiggled my fingers and he gave it a gentle toss. I closed my hand over it, then watched as Zach took a backward step and retreated into the hallway.

Lucy’s arm was already stretched over the cow between us. Her eyes, focused on the snake, were cold and hard. By standing on my toes and balancing against a cow I could just get the gun to her fingers. She transferred it slowly to her left hand, swiveling her eyes toward me. I said a small prayer, then repeated Zach’s process of tossing the bullet, which fortunately found her hand.

All of this seemed to be taking an eternity, but in reality it must have only been about five minutes. It took another year for Lucy to get the bullet into the twenty-two and rack it. A tremor shook my chest as she raised the gun to her shoulder. There was no way she’d hit the snake from where she stood. She was much more likely to hit Queenie or ricochet the bullet around the room, killing a cow or one of us.

“Lucy,” I said.

She slid her eyes toward me impatiently, and the look in them silenced me. I shook my head and she went back to taking aim. The shot pierced the air in the concrete room, and I recoiled violently, slapping my hands over my ears. Lucy’s ears had to be ringing, too, but when I straightened she nodded and walked carefully toward the snake. I stepped out from behind the cows and watched as she scooped up the dead serpent with the barrel of the gun.

“Good grief,” Zach said.

I stared. “Lucy. We need to talk.” “I hate snakes,” Lucy said.

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