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Stirring up the Sheriff (Wildhorse Ranch Brothers Book 3) by Leslie North (1)

1

Marianne

Marianne Stanton absolutely hated dirt, and Lockhart Bend was lousy with it.

You can do this, she coached herself as she squatted down in her garden plot. Don't forget you're a Colorado girl. You love nature, and you definitely don't shy away from manual labor.

Still, she wasn't used to being so personally…entrenched in it. It's not like she could maintain a manicure anyway, being a brewer, but today her nails were coated with soil and positively wrecked. She fancied her hands were barely recognizable as human anymore. What was the point of gardening gloves if all the dirt got into them anyway? Hell, what was the point of gardening, when you got right down to it?

She would get down to it, of course. Besides the broader importance of feeding mankind and sustaining a healthy population, in her case, she wanted her brewpub to have a display garden to showcase her ingredients. The little house she had purchased on the edge of town, almost a week ago now, had a patch of lawn that certainly tried to be verdant in the oppressive Texas heat, but at the end of the day it was only ornamentals. If she was going to turn her aunt's Honky Tonk Bar into a real brewpub, then she wanted every growable ingredient used in her recipes to be seen by her customers.

If she could convince the people of Lockhart Bend to be her customers.

"Be ready for some pushback," Aunt Celia had told her, right before the older woman had passed her the keys to the bar. Marianne still remembered how heavy they had felt in the crease of her palm, weighted with a thousand expectations and baring just as many teeth. "It may not look like much, which is why I sold it to you for the price I did—that, and we're family." Celia had grinned at this. "But this town is close-knit, Annie, and like it or not, this rundown little labor of love of mine has made itself a fixture. Besides the Tin Horseshoe up the road, this is the only watering hole Lockhart Bend has got. You might find that even the beer-swilling good old boys turn their noses up at your craft brews if they find them too fancy."

"Don't worry about me, Aunt Celia." Marianne remembered trying to appease her aunt's worries with a bright smile and a dose of radiant Colorado confidence. "You just promise to enjoy newlywed life in sunny Florida. I can look after myself here just fine."

"I know you can, honey." Aunt Celia's face, already looking ten years younger with the excited expectation of the new chapter ahead of her, had collapsed on itself in a moment of unguarded grief. "Oh, Annie."

Her aunt had pulled her into a tight embrace then, and Marianne had gone unresisting. She had been anticipating that moment for a while.

"I can't help but think how awful it is that my marriage is starting just as yours is ending. It isn't right!"

"It's all right, Aunt Celia, really." Marianne had rubbed her aunt's back awkwardly as she assumed the role of momentary comforter. "It's been more than a year now. My divorce is long finalized. Please don't trouble yourself with any more thoughts about it. I sure as hell don't." Marianne had drawn herself back and beamed to let her aunt know she meant it. "I'm thrilled for you. Now go on—get out of town. And call me as soon as your flight lands."

"Will do, honey. I love you." Aunt Celia had smoothed Marianne's hair back from her forehead, like she was still the cherished, innocent child that had grown up in Lockhart Bend—and not a divorcee on the cusp of thirty, whose first agenda item upon moving back was to piss off everyone in town.

Maybe that last part was a bit of an exaggeration. Despite her aunt's misgivings, Marianne had yet to properly meet any of the locals. Even her next-door neighbor was absent most of the day, in total service to whatever job he or she held for what seemed like sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Then again, Marianne had often been away from home herself while she saw to the bar's renovations. Lockhart Bend may have been small and sleepy on its face, but the locals who lived there took their various vocations seriously.

She was determined to be no exception.

"Fresh start," Marianne muttered to herself now as she stared down at two hand-labelled, identical-looking seed packets. "This is your fresh start, Marianne. Don't screw it up."

It was hard to feel fresh when her entire body was sweat-soaked beneath the clinging second-hand clothes she had purchased to garden in. The men's cotton dress shirt she wore stuck to the small of her aching back, and the sunhat sheltering her was beginning to make her scalp itch in earnest. Marianne removed it and wiped the back of one filthy wrist across her forehead to dash the sweat away. She knew she was only stalling. The perspiration around her hairline would return with a vengeance in no time, and she wasn't any closer to telling “lavender” from “coriander.”

"How is that even possible?" she muttered as she squinted at the clerk's penmanship. "How do you make two different words look exactly the same?" It was like deciphering ancient runes.

A peal of shared laughter drew her attention. The Saturday morning farmers’ market appeared to be wrapping up. Aunt Celia had always welcomed shoppers to park in the Honky Tonk spaces during the bar's off-hours, and that was at least one tradition Marianne wasn't going to part with anytime soon. A couple strolled back to their car, their arms loaded down with more produce than either of them could comfortably carry, but they were obviously enjoying the day and each other's company. A black lab wearing a bandana bounded at their heels, jaws smiling and tongue lolling as if he was a third party to their joke. Maybe he was.

Marianne felt a sharp pang of longing, so strong the shock of it nearly knocked her out of her galoshes and into the trench she had just dug. The feeling startled her, and she blinked, stupidly watching as the picturesque couple assisted one another in loading up the back of their pickup.

It couldn't be that she actually missed Simon, could it? No way in hell. The mere thought of her ex-husband was enough to make her ill, and that was absolutely a good sign. No, what she missed was the collaboration, the comradery, that came with working toward a mutual goal alongside someone you absolutely gelled with…and that wasn't something she had ever had with Simon. It had only taken getting away from him to realize it.

Maybe it was something she never had at all.

Could a person really miss something they had never experienced in the first place? Maybe I should just get a dog, Marianne thought as she split open a packet of seeds. A dog is a surefire way to avoid cat lady status, right?

"Shit!" she said out loud—drawing attention from the couple, their dog, and the man just rounding the corner.