From bestselling author Mary Ellen Taylor comes a story about profound loss, hard truths, and an overgrown greenhouse full of old secrets.
Adrift in the wake of her father’s death, a failed marriage, and multiple miscarriages, Libby McKenzie feels truly alone. Though her new life as a wedding photographer provides a semblance of purpose, it’s also a distraction from her profound pain.
When asked to photograph a wedding at the historic Woodmont estate, Libby meets the owner, Elaine Grant. Hoping to open Woodmont to the public, Elaine has employed young widower Colton Reese to help restore the grounds and asks Libby to photograph the process. Libby is immediately drawn to the old greenhouse shrouded in honeysuckle vines.
As Libby forms relationships and explores the overgrown—yet hauntingly beautiful—Woodmont estate, she finds the emotional courage to sort through her father’s office. There she discovers a letter that changes everything she knows about her parents, herself, and the estate. Beneath the vines of the old greenhouse lie generations of secrets, and it’s up to Libby to tend to the fruits born of long-buried seeds.
Honeysuckle Season Excerpt
Tuesday, March 15, 1943
Blue Ridge Mountains
There were three tricks to hiding. First, it was important to breathe as shallow as possible. If you were doing it right, your nostrils barely flared, and your breathing was as shallow as the James River in drought-hot summer heat. Next, a good rabbit tamed its racing heart and did not allow it to pound and drum against the ribs. Sounds had a tendency to echo beyond the confines of the body.
And the third trick, and not the least by far, was keeping your eyes cast downward. You never looked at whoever was hunting you. A fox might not be able to see a rabbit, but it could feel its stare as surely as if it were being tapped on the shoulder.
Sadie Thompson crouched behind the thick tangle of a honeysuckle bush twisting around the large stump of a fallen oak. Her heart beat fast in her chest, rapping against her ribs so hard she struggled to catch her breath. She was out of shape, and the mile-long run through the woods from her old truck had taken a surprising toll. A year ago, she would have done the run like a deer, twice as fast without breaking a sweat.
Darkness had descended on the Blue Ridge Mountains, tossing an inky blackness over the land. What little moonlight trickled through the thick rain-ripe clouds was caught in the canopy of trees. An owl hooted. Deer, disturbed by her unwelcome intrusion, bolted through the woods.
The poor visibility suited Sadie. She was accustomed to traveling at night and was intimately acquainted with the hills and the valleys of Nelson County. Her father had taught Sadie and her brothers how to negotiate the narrow back roads barely wide enough for a car. It could be rough going, but they were the best routes moonshiners had when avoiding the law. Her pa had made them memorize the sharpest curves in the road, walk the old Indian paths that cut up the side of the mountains, and he’d shown them the secluded caves best suited for cooking mash into moonshine. She and her family knew all the ins and outs of this part of Virginia, and they could stay lost forever. If that was what they wanted.
Sadie pressed her face against the damp leaves and took a moment to shake off the lingering panic that had sent her bolting into the night. Crickets whirred nearby, and a spider crawled over her hand, but she gave neither a second thought. She had a bigger problem facing her now.
Sheriff Kurt Boyd had arrived at her mother’s house an hour ago, most likely bent on arresting Sadie for attempted murder—maybe even murder, if the man did not pull through. Sadie was not a bit sorry for what she had done but now wished she had been smarter about exacting her revenge.
She had run from her mother’s house with not even enough time to pack a bag or kiss her sleeping baby before sprinting to her truck. She put the car in neutral and coasted down the backside of the hill, careful not to make a sound. Only at the bottom did she start the engine. But the sheriff must have heard the commotion of the rumbling engine and taken off after her. She drove as far as her old truck’s radiator would take her until it boiled over, leaving her no way to quickly repair it.
Arms pumping, and her work boots rubbing against her swollen feet, she dashed into the brush as the rumble of Boyd’s Dodge grew closer. She thought maybe she could cut across the mountain on an old Indian trail, but Boyd had seen that trick before and would simply circle around. That left her with no choice but to hunker down.
She would wait Boyd out and maybe later circle back to her truck and see if it had cooled enough to run again. Her aim was to get to Charlottesville and then ride a train as far away from Bluestone as she could manage.
As she lay on the ground behind the shrubs, the rumble of a car engine echoed. She recognized the sound of the sheriff’s grumbling Dodge engine moving slowly down the road. He knew she was close. He might not have been the smartest man, but he knew Indian paths, mining trails, and hiding spots almost as well as she did.
Seconds later headlights appeared. She pressed her belly closer into the damp soil, her tender breasts still filled with milk, straining against her roughly hewed shirt. Too curious for her own good, she stole a peek in time to see Sheriff Boyd’s thick frame pass in front of his headlights. He stopped and stood with his feet braced and a meaty right hand resting on his belt. She could not see his face but guessed he was frowning. Boyd had always reckoned a thoughtful man did not need to smile or say much. That was just as well, because when he opened his mouth, he never had anything worth saying. A flashlight’s beam cut deep into the darkness, passing just a few feet above her body.
“Dumb as a box of rocks,” her brother Johnny used to joke about the sheriff.
Her brother Danny had laughed. “Can outsmart him on my worst day.”
Thinking about Johnny and Danny made her throat tighten with a bone-deep sadness she doubted would ever leave her. God, how she missed those two.
“Don’t be thinking about me,” Johnny’s voice echoed in her head. “Be worried about Boyd.”
“Yeah,” Danny echoed. “He might be stupid, but he’s mean, and even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
The advice was sound. She would worry about her brothers and daughter once she was safe. Now she had to deal with Boyd.
What the lawman lacked in intelligence, he made up for in tracking skills. The man was part bloodhound. The state authorities would call Boyd if a prisoner escaped any jail in a twenty-five-mile radius. Even farmers called when they had a coyote killing their livestock. And at election time, he sniffed out enough illegal stills to make the Bible-thumpers happy.
Her father never took it personally when Boyd came after the stills. His job was to find them, and her father’s was to hide them. Everyone had to survive. But by Sadie’s way of thinking, Boyd had a petty streak in him. Those prisoners he brought back had a black eye or two when they finally made it to their cells. There was always a cow unaccounted for, and when Boyd wielded his bat against a still, he was always whistling a happy tune.
Boyd’s boots crunched on the soft dirt and leaves as he walked not more than twenty feet from her. “Sadie, I know you’re out there, girl. This is where your brothers used to hide. Make it easy on yourself and come on out. I won’t hurt you.”
When she was little, she and the boys had played rabbit and the fox in the hollow. She was always the rabbit because she was the littlest—but also because she was good at burrowing into a small unconsidered place and could stay silent as she listened to her brothers’ laughter turn to frustration when they could not find their little rabbit.
Sadie closed her eyes and willed her entire system to slow. She pressed her face hard against the ground.
I’m just a leaf on a twig, she thought.
“Nothing important here,” she wanted to say. “Keep on moving, Sheriff Boyd.”
Booted footsteps moved closer to her hiding spot. Boyd’s heavy breathing proved he was not used to running either. He was a good six inches taller than her, but he was not built for speed, especially in the backwoods.
Sadie and her brothers roamed these hills like the Cherokee, Siouan, Iroquois, and the German and Scottish settlers who followed. If she was not hauling water to their house, she was carrying bags of corn and sugar or toting boxes of mason jars filled with shine. Even as a young child she could heft two bucketfuls of water up from the creek in less than five minutes without spilling a drop. No lady was strong like Sadie, but then she had never claimed to be fancy.
“Come on out, Sadie,” Sheriff Boyd said. “No one wants to hurt you.”
Sheriff Boyd’s voice was coated in an extra layer of sugar, but there was nothing sweet about his lies. If he found her, he would put the cuffs on her, just as he had threatened a dozen times before. And this time, he would take her to Lynchburg and see to it that Dr. Carter made sure she never had another child.
She squeezed her eyes tighter and thought about her beautiful baby girl sleeping in the cradle. She willed away her tears and sadness. She was not leaving her girl because she wanted to. Life had taken a hard turn and stripped away her choices. She could only take comfort knowing the child would be fine—maybe even fare better—in her grandmother’s care.
Sheriff Boyd’s breathing slowed as his big feet snapped twigs. The brush near her shifted and moved. She pictured his big hands pawing through the sticks and leaves and grabbing her by the collar.
I’m a gnat. A bug on a log. Too small to notice.
“Haven’t you been enough of a disappointment to your mama? Hasn’t she got enough on her shoulders without worrying about your brothers and the bastard she’ll surely be raising?”
Tears sprang up behind her closed lids. Maybe she was one of the worst daughters a mother could hope for. But she sure as hell was not going to let this hick sheriff use her own failings to flush her out of the brush like frightened quail.
“You’re a sorry girl.” Sheriff Boyd’s words trickled out on a heavy sigh. “You’re trouble.” When his berating did not work, he shifted gears. “You’d be so much better off if you let me help you. I’ll talk to the judge and tell him to go easy on you. We all know you didn’t mean to run that man over with your truck. It was an accident, pure and simple.”
His words burrowed under her resolve, and a sob took hold and sprang up in her throat. More tears filled her eyes. She pursed her lips. God help her; it had not been an accident. If given the chance, she would do it again.
Time slowly crawled by as she listened to the sound of his breathing. He took another step closer, and she could smell his cheap aftershave.
She held steady, doing her best not to think about Boyd. Boyd would not find this little rabbit tonight.
“Damn it, Sadie. I will find you.” The sheriff muttered a string of curses and ended his tirade with something about her burning in hell. “And I’ll see that the judge locks your scrawny ass up for a long damn time.”
The leaves rustled under Boyd’s boots as he turned back toward the road and the halo of headlights.
His car door slammed with anger, and the engine sputtered like an old man clearing his throat as he shifted into first. The clutch was going bad. She had told him often enough about the worn clutch, but just like everyone in the valley, he did not take her too seriously. Finally, the rubber tires began to roll; the engine ground from first to second gear and rattled off into the night, growling like an old man.
As tempted as she was to move, she stayed pressed against the cool earth. Her right arm, tucked under her body, had gone to sleep and now felt as if a thousand needles prickled under her skin. This was not the first time her arm had been pinned, and she had surely felt worse discomfort than this before.
An owl called out, hunting for its own rabbit, which hopped into a hollowed-out tree near her. Sadie smiled at the irony.
She knew Boyd was a wily son of a bitch, and she would not put it past him to double back on foot.
When she finally lifted her head, the moon had climbed in the night sky, and the clouds had parted, revealing an endless number of beautiful stars.
She tipped her face toward the North Star and then pushed up onto her knees. She paused, listening for Boyd again, before she brushed the dirt from her denim overalls and her brother’s old cotton work shirt. It had been his favorite, and normally, he would have been annoyed, but he was overseas fighting a war, and she knew it would be the least of his worries.
Slowly, she pushed through the brush and made her way up to the road. Going left would take her west, back up the mountain. There were plenty of places to hide, but staying hidden from Boyd would mean turning the woods she loved into its own kind of jail. Twenty miles to the south lay Charlottesville and the train station.
She slid her fingers into the big pockets and fingered the money her mother had given her. It was her mother’s emergency fund, and it weighed heavily on her soul, but she needed the three dollars. “I’ll pay you back, Mama.”
Sadie started walking, occasionally stopping to listen for the sound of that Dodge. As she kept walking, she heard only the hum of the crickets and crunch of her boots against the dirt road.
“Good Lord, Johnny and Danny, this is a mess.”
“You always did have a talent.”
Her brothers’ voices echoed in her head. Johnny’s letters had arrived regularly until very recently, but Danny had sent only a few since he had gone into the army. She feared the war had swallowed them both up.
As she walked, her breasts ached, and her nipples began to leak milk. Her baby girl must be so hungry by now. There was canned milk at the cabin and Karo syrup. Her mother would know how to prepare the two and see that the baby had been fed. Her mother would not let her down, even if Sadie had shamed her mother with her own foolish choices.
The first hints of sunrise appeared on the horizon, lighting the mountains in rich orange and yellow. As pretty as it was, it was also working against her now.
As she rounded a familiar bend, a set of headlights appeared on the road. The smooth engine did not sound like Boyd’s Dodge, but knowing Boyd, he had called on anyone with a car to get out and look for her.
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