If you looked up “New England” you’d probably find a picture of my hometown, Penniman, Connecticut. Miles of gray stone walls bordering narrow country lanes? Check. A covered bridge? A town green with a war memorial in the center of the emerald swath of grass? Check and check.
My rented car’s engine purred as I drove one of those lanes under the spreading branches of oaks whose leaves would shimmer with crimson and gold come fall. A warm feeling of homecoming washed over me as the car rattled across the covered bridge that spanned the Seven Mile River and swept into the village center.
I took a spin around the green, enjoying the familiarity of the charming boutiques, restaurants, and stately Victorian houses that had been restored and painted to perfection, then parked in front of my dad’s used bookstore, The Penniless Reader. The brown clapboard building was shaded by a cheerful red-and-white-striped awning. Two benches flanked the front door, and a reader with a golden retriever at his feet sat there with a book in one hand, a coffee in the other. Golden marigolds and red geraniums burst from window boxes and the hanging basket outside the front door. The last time I’d been home, pine and holly wreaths hung in the windows.
As I got out of my rental, a blue convertible Mustang I’d splurged on, I turned slowly, taking in the green that was the heart of the village. Dad’s bookshop was at the north end of the Penniman town green, and a white Colonial-era Congregational church, graceful with tall columns, watched over it from the south end.
The more things changed, the more Penniman stayed the same. Thank goodness.
The retriever’s tail thumped as I bent to give him a pat. I’d come home to be with my best friend Caroline Spooner at her mom’s funeral, but I had just enough time to stop first to see my dad. I pushed open the door.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” My dad, Nathaniel “Nate” Hawthorne Rhodes, rushed from the front counter and wrapped me in a hug. His words were light but he held me close. “Riley, I missed you, honey.”
“I missed you too.” I felt a pang as the sunlight streaming through the window highlighted the gray in his curly brown hair and bushy eyebrows. I let my cheek rest for an extra moment against the chest of his blue plaid shirt. Dad was wiry, six feet tall with stooped shoulders, and I fit perfectly under his chin.
My dad had left his teaching job and started The Penniless Reader soon after I was born. My mom passed away when I was two, and for many years it had been just the two of us. Until Paulette.
“Is that Riley?” My stepmother’s lovely voice fluted from the back of the shop.
Ten years ago, Dad hired Paulette, a retired nurse, to work part time in the shop. When Dad asked me for my blessing to marry her, what could I say? I’d started taking overseas assignments and I wanted someone to look after him. If only she weren’t so perfect. Despite the fact that I was a thirty-five-year-old librarian who did occasional undercover work for my employer, a certain three letter agency in Washington, D.C., had several thousand followers of my own food blog, and traveled the world solo since I was sixteen, Paulette’s Stepford perfection always had a way of making me smooth my unruly shoulder-length black hair and wonder if I had spinach in my teeth.
“Welcome home!” Paulette emerged from the local history section, gracefully opened her arms in welcome, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Though she was sixty-seven (she never mentioned her age, but I looked it up), she had an ageless beauty. Everything about her gleamed: her flawless manicured nails, her silver hair, her diamond-stud earrings. Paulette’s elegant cream-colored cashmere top contrasted with the shop’s warped linoleum floors, narrow rows of overstuffed shelves, and Dad’s goofy homemade signs that read Treat Your Shelves and My Weekend Is Fully Booked. Her lovely cornflower blue eyes swept over me.
“You’re tired.” Paulette turned to Dad. “Doesn’t she look tired, Nate?”
“She’s a sight for sore eyes.” Dad beamed.
“Jet lag. I couldn’t get comfortable on my flight from Rome. I came as quickly as I could when Caroline called to tell me Buzzy’d passed away.” Caroline’s mom, larger than life Elizabeth “Buzzy” Spooner, owned Penniman’s iconic Fairweather Farm and the Udderly Delightful Ice Cream Shop for decades.
Dad’s voice softened with concern. “How’s Caroline holding up?”
On the phone, Caroline’s strained voice had sounded overwhelmed and exhausted. She lived in Boston where she worked as an art appraiser for an auction house, but for years drove to Penniman every weekend to help Buzzy in the ice cream shop.
“She’s holding up. The Brightwoods are a huge help.”
“Thank goodness for them,” Dad said.
I agreed. Darwin and Prudence Brightwood had run Buzzy’s farm for years so she could concentrate on the shop.
Paulette lowered her voice. “I heard there’s been fresh tension with Mike.”
Her words didn’t surprise me. Caroline and her brother had never been close. The little bell over the door jingled as customers entered the shop and I bit back the words I’d been about to speak: What now?
“Sometimes people rise to the occasion,” Dad said. “I’m sure Mike will support Caroline now that she needs him.”
Dad always saw the good in people. I loved that about him, but I didn’t share his optimism. I’d known Mike for too long.
I checked my watch. “I’d better get going. The funeral’s at two o’clock.”
“You and Caroline must come for dinner tomorrow,” Paulette said.
“Thanks, Paulette, we will.”
Dad hugged me again. “We’ll see you at the service.”
As I got in the Mustang, I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror and recalled Paulette’s words. So I had bags under my eyes. My eyes were the same emerald green as my Granny’s—“Green as the cliffs of Moher,” she’d say. The lilt in her voice as she put on an Irish accent always made me smile.
I turned the key and the engine surged to life, the rumble and sense of power a pleasure I savored. Dad had always taught me to look for the good in difficult times, that beauty can be a consolation, and I tried to let the charm of the countryside on the short drive to Buzzy’s farm wash over me.
It didn’t work. What was Mike up to now?
“Riley, can you believe it?” Caroline said. “Mom always lied about her age. Now she’s made it official!”
Church bells chimed as our steps took us from the cemetery behind the Congregational church, leaving the gray marble headstone that marked the spot where Buzzy was buried next to her husband, Charles. I did the math—the birth-date-to-death-date span was eighty years, but underneath was inscribed Aged 29. Buzzy had stopped counting birthdays at 29 and she’d had the last laugh.
“I can’t imagine the Gravers approve,” I whispered to Caroline. “Gravers” was our nickname for two of Buzzy’s part time staff, retired sisters Flo and Gerri. Devoted genealogists, they spent their free time “graving”—documenting graves for a website called Finding Your Dearly Beloved. The name tickled me. How beloved could they be if no one knew where to find them?
Caroline smiled, but took off her thick tortoiseshell glasses to dab her almond-shaped brown eyes. Though petite as a princess in the pre-Raphaelite paintings she loved, Caroline had strong features: a prominent aquiline nose, full lips, and thick brown corkscrew curls. “I need to get back home,” she said. I put my arm around her as we walked toward the parking lot, my mind turning one last time to Buzzy.
Buzzy had always encouraged me to see the world and she’d been thrilled that I started a blog, Rhode Food, to document my travels and the food I discovered while on the road. She’d called herself my number-one fan.
Dad and Paulette joined us. “Honey, I’m sorry we have to go. We have an appointment at the shop.”
“You’re both coming for dinner tomorrow,” Paulette said as she brushed away an invisible piece of lint from the sleeve of Dad’s jacket.
“Yes, thank you,” Caroline said.
I watched Caroline’s brother, Mike, shake hands and slap backs as he shouldered through the crowd to join us. He’d left Penniman right after high school, but everyone remembered the tall, dark, and handsome star of the high school football team.
Buzzy had fostered Caroline and Mike, then adopted them, but though they were biological siblings they’d always been different: Caroline introverted, studious, and artistic; Mike a hard-partying athlete. Despite having the square jaw and physique of an action-movie hero, Mike had never been someone you could rely on.
“Mr. Rhodes, Mrs. Rhodes, thank you for coming.” He shook hands with my dad and gave Paulette a kiss on the cheek. Mrs. Rhodes. I still wasn’t used to hearing Paulette called that.
Dad and Paulette embraced me and Caroline. “We’ll see you tomorrow.” They headed to the parking lot as Mike wrapped Caroline in a careful hug. She hesitated, then closed her eyes and leaned her head against his broad chest.
The last stragglers left the reception in the church hall, including our former high school gym teacher Mrs. Danforth. We’d called her Dandy because on humid days her overbleached blond hair frizzed and reminded us of dandelion fluff. Now her shoulder-length hair was gray and tamed smooth into a bob, another reminder that I’d been away from home too long. She chatted with Mike’s best friend, Kyle Aldridge, and Kyle’s wife, Nina.
“Mike!” A woman with a waterfall of straight white-blond hair, dressed in a pink suit with a tiny miniskirt edged through the crowd. Though I hadn’t seen her since high school, I recognized her immediately.
She took Mike’s hands in hers, batting heavily mascaraed blue eyes. “Remember me?”
Mike threw a quick look at me and Caroline, his message clear—Help me! “Of course I remember you, Sugar Bear! It’s been too long.” Sugar Bear was what Mike called all his girlfriends, especially when he couldn’t remember their names.
Behind us, Dandy stumbled as she shot that same disapproving look I remembered from high school at the woman’s too-short dress. Some things never changed. Kyle steadied her, then Nina said something that made her laugh.
But the woman in pink plowed on, despite Mike’s panicked expression and Mrs. Danforth’s reproachful look. “Emily Weinberg! You took me to prom!”
I shared a look with Caroline. This should be good.
“How could I forget?” Mike gave her a kiss on the cheek. “You look great.”
“Thanks, so do you.” Emily tilted her head and beamed.
Was she still crushing on Mike all these years after high school?
“Sorry for your loss, Caroline. Hi.” Emily looked at me, then recognition dawned. “Oh, you worked at the ice cream shop too. You don’t have glasses anymore.”
“Or braces.” Inwardly I rolled my eyes but pasted on a smile. “Riley Rhodes.”
Emily had been one of the queen bees of Penniman High School and had never given me or Caroline the time of day. Had she even known Buzzy? She was as out of place as her outfit.
I couldn’t help it. I glanced down at my sensible black travel dress and Caroline’s even longer black pencil skirt and leather flats. I had to agree with Dandy: Emily’s outfit was inappropriate for a funeral.
Emily had turned back to Mike, angling her body in front of mine. “You look great, Mike. You know, we could get dinner sometime…”
“Sure.” Mike’s dark brown eyes radiated equal parts sincerity and flirtatiousness.
Emily fished in her purse. “Here’s my card.”
“Here’s mine.” He handed her a card and they laughed.
Copyright © 2021 by Meri Allen