Bonus Epilogue: A Lion in the Sunflowers
There was a lion in Marta’s sunflowers.
It was, to be fair, a very small lion, and stuffed, and had clearly been well-chewed by a dog or a teething baby. Or both.
Marta picked it up in disgust and brushed a caterpillar off of it. Dean’s dog Bingo had probably lost it here. Half of its mane had come off.
Yards in Green Valley weren’t very private, but this little corner of her garden was fenced in and shielded from prying eyes with tall sunflowers. Marta grew her favorite hardy plants here, and had a comfortable chair where she could read books with shirtless men on the covers without neighbors being judgy. Marta liked having a space that was all her own, having grown up in a crowded family of siblings in a house that was too small for all of them.
It annoyed her to find evidence that someone else had been here.
But then, it wasn’t hard to annoy her these days. Marta didn’t like change, and everything seemed to be changing.
She left the plush lion at the top of her gate post when she left. Someone walking by was sure to recognize it and return it to the rightful owner.
Marta almost turned at her gate to go to Tawny’s house, then remembered that it wasn’t Tawny’s house anymore. She lived in a big place out in the hills with a billionaire husband who doted on her, and Marta had to coordinate their morning meet-ups like Tawny was some kind of socialite. Gone were the days of drop-ins. Devon lived in that little house now, the second Devon in the little town, with his kid sister Abby, who was just exactly the kind of straight-talking barely-child that Marta preferred. There was chatter that he was shopping for a larger house so that his girlfriend could move in.
Marriage seemed like an optional sort of thing these days, and Marta had very mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it would certainly prevent a lot of terrible unions. On the other hand, it seemed to lessen the meaning of relationships.
Marta supposed she shouldn’t judge, since she’d always been too particular to settle down with anyone, and she turned the other direction onto Green Valley’s little downtown block.
Gran’s Grits hadn’t changed much, but the clientele was different now. Fire Chief Turner wasn’t unexpected, eating a sandwich in one of the old booths, but the very fancy woman he was facing would have been painfully out of place a year or two before.
Marta gave them both a nod and went to pet the cat sleeping in the front window. “You owe me a game of backgammon,” she murmured.
The cat gave a rusty half-purr and rolled over to lick one paw and ignore her.
Marta settled into a seat by the door where she could hear the quiet conversation throughout the room and pretend to nurse a cup of coffee and a plate of fries while she half-read a book with a discreet cover that didn’t hint at how dirty it actually was.
This was her favorite way to get gossip. It wasn’t that she was eavesdropping, exactly, but she picked up plenty from the chattering conversations that swirled around, catching more of what they didn’t say than what they did.
Of course, she got plenty of the straight scoop, too. Gillian stopped by briefly, full of gleeful scandal that she seemed completely oblivious about indirectly causing, and later, Julia at the grocery store checked her out slowly enough to catch her up on every town drama.
When she came home with her totes of groceries, the stuffed lion was gone, but there was another lion in Marta’s sunflowers.
It wasn’t as small as the stuffed lion, nor nearly as well-chewed, but it was clearly still young, dappled in spots, with no hint of a mane.
“What are you doing in my garden, Trevor Powell? If you need a litter box, you run home and use your own garden.” Marta had a good guess which of the Green Valley citizens were shifters. She was good at digging out secrets.
The little lion sneeze-snorted and his ears perked up. Then, rather as if he didn’t mean to, he shifted into a lanky boy wearing nothing but one of her sunflowers hastily pulled in front of him for modesty.
“A little nudist, too? What are you doing running around like this where anyone could see you?”
“Sorry, Marta!” Trevor said, though he never sounded sorry when he was apologizing. “I was playing hide and seek with Aaron.”
“Is he around here as a bear, too? Do you kids have even a shred of common sense between the two of you?”
Trevor and Aaron had become more inseparable than ever when Clara moved away with her family, and they were even more trouble without her to keep them out of it. Especially now that Aaron was shifting.
“The whole point is hiding,” Trevor pointed out.
“Well, go do it in someone else’s garden, and don’t let the neighbors catch you!”
Trevor obligingly shifted back into a lion and scampered back into the scrub of the empty lot behind Marta’s house.
She watched him go with a shake of her head.
The golden afternoon sun beat down in her yard and Marta went in to stow her groceries and then came back out. It was almost too hot to enjoy being outside. The air was thick and muggy in the peak of a Green Valley summer. Her house was an old bank built of brick, and it was cool and still inside.
Marta stripped out of her heavy jeans and sweaty plaid shirt and took her book out into her reading nook…but she only set the book on the table by her chair before she flowed down onto the tempting grass beside it and rolled decadently.
There was a lion in Marta’s sunflowers.
And it was her.