Stirring up the Sheriff(3)

By: Leslie North

The woman shot up like a startled cat and dropped the seeds she was holding. She revolved more slowly to face him, her expression one of dismay before they had even locked eyes. Trent's smile died instantly, but it wasn't due to anything the woman had done wrong.

He hadn't expected her to look so…angelic. In contrast to the mature figure and salty language on full display, the woman had a round, youthful face, with wideset sky-blue eyes and a pensive pink mouth. Her skin—where it wasn’t covered with dirt—was porcelain-white, a complexion he hadn't seen on anyone around these parts for a very long time. She removed her sunhat quickly, revealing a gorgeous head of chocolate-brown hair tied back messily at the ivory nape of her neck. She was a vivacious mix of color contrasts, none of them local, and Trent took a second to catch his breath before asking:

"Marianne Mantel?" She looked too young to be Celia's adult niece.

"Stanton. Marianne Stanton." The woman removed one gardening glove to shake his hand. "And you're Sheriff Wild, aren't you? I mean…I guessed as much from the uniform," she carried on hurriedly.

Trent relaxed his posture and hooked his thumbs through his belt. "My reputation precedes me."

"My aunt used to talk about you a lot." Even as she spoke, Marianne's eyes wandered to the seeds scurrying away from her. A thin stream of water from the garden hose was sweeping them off down one of the trenches she had dug. "Not sure I can promise you the same bottomless pint Celia always had on tap for you, but I'll try my best."

Trent grimaced. "I certainly don't expect it, ma'am."

"Sorry," she added quickly. "I didn't mean to come across as…I just meant I'm expecting a lot of growing pains with the transition. As you can see." She laughed and gesticulated toward the little garden plot she was in the process of drowning. Trent liked her laugh. It was clear and breathless and genuine, a pretty rebuke to all outward evidences of stress. "Really. I promise I'm not being stingy. I'd love to buy you a drink."

"That won't be necessary," Trent said.

"Did I say 'buy you a drink’?" Marianne's laugh came again, more forced this time, and she looked embarrassed. "I meant offer. Offer you a drink."

And I'd sure as hell like to take you up on that offer, Trent thought. Instead he said aloud: "Anything I can do to help?"

"No! No, thank you, I've got everything covered here."

Trent ignored her refusal of his help—politely—and squatted down to scoop up the errant seeds that came his way.

"Never saw the point in gardening alone," he said. "Never saw the point in gardening at all, to be honest, but when my grandparents started it up every spring, they always did it together."

"I'm definitely new to it," Marianne admitted as she dropped down beside him. Trent let the excess water drain from between his fingers before passing the seeds back to her. "But it sort of comes with the territory of owning a brewpub."

"Brewpub?" Trent paused in his rescue mission, and a few seeds slipped past his boot. "Celia never said anything about a brewpub."

Marianne bent behind him to recover the seeds he missed. "Honestly, I didn't break the news to her until she had already transferred the property. I didn't think she cared one way or the other what I might decide to do with the place." She kept her tone carefully neutral. When her eyes flickered to him briefly, Trent realized she must have detected the note of resistance in his own voice.

"Look, it's not that I can't get behind a good brewpub," he explained as they rose together. "But the Honky Tonk's been around since before your aunt Celia was even born. There's a lot of history involved here. It's hardly changed at all since it was originally established, and folks like it that way."

"It's not my intention to make a huge splash in Lockhart Bend, Sheriff," Marianne said quickly. "I have huge respect for the traditions of this town. I promise it's nothing personal. I'm just trying to eke out a living doing what I do best…and what I do best is brew some damn good beer."

Her confidence should have been reassuring, but it wasn't. Trent glanced at the back porch, remembering all the off-duty nights he had spent leaned up against the railing under the stars, chatting with familiar faces behind the soft glow of cigarette embers. This place didn't just hold tradition in the grain of its wood beams—it held truth. Things men and women couldn't say to each other by the light of day—their worries and fears, their small-town tragedies and triumphs—lived on at the Honky Tonk long after closing time. How could he hope to express it all to this well-meaning outsider?