“That pig got out again.”
I glanced up from my brochure notes as Gordon Stewart, manager of the O’Connell Organic Farm and Spa, strode into the kitchen, tie flapping over his shoulder, face mottled. His slicked-back hair glinted in the overhead lights. Not for the first time, I wondered if its black color was his or came from a Grecian Formula bottle.
“Clients don’t want filthy animals running amok while they’re relaxing,” he said to Esther. “You’re lucky that news van left.” He turned his attention on me. “Dana, I saw you near the pigsty. Did you leave the gate open?”
How did I get sucked into this? “Not a chance.” I focused back on my list of spa promotion ideas, but kept one ear tuned to the conversation to find out what happened with the pig.
Esther stuck the needle in her cross-stitch and laid her W
ELCOME TO THE
sampler on the table. “Good heavens, I don’t know how little Wilbur keeps escaping.”
As owner, Esther O’Connell had hired me a month ago to promote her new farm and spa. Considering how much farmland she’d razed to create the ten cabins and pool area complete with an adjoining Jacuzzi and two patios, the spa portion now overshadowed the farm side, but all herbs, fruits, and vegetables served at meals were grown organically in the nearby vegetable patch.
I’d been back in Blossom Valley for six weeks, following a nine-month stint of unemployment in San Jose. When Mom had mentioned my job status, or lack of status, to Esther, she’d hired me after her original marketing guy quit to become a blackjack dealer in Vegas.
Esther stood, her ample belly under her light blue cotton blouse jiggling against the table edge. “I’ll round him up, but I hope he doesn’t get the best of me again. I never thought I’d get the smell of manure out of my hair after the last time.”
An image of Esther floundering in muck while wrestling with Wilbur filled my head. Not good, especially now that guests were roaming the property. I flipped my notebook closed. “I’ll help.” Sure, I only wrote the marketing materials for the farm, but how hard could catching a loose pig be?
“Then get to it,” Gordon said. “We don’t need a squeamish client throwing a fit during opening weekend. Everything has to be perfect.”
“Wilbur running around will remind people they’re at a farm, too, not just a spa,” I said, wondering why Gordon didn’t catch the pig himself if he was so worried. After all, the manager’s number one priority at any place was to make sure the customers were happy. If he felt the spa guests wouldn’t like loose animals, Gordon needed to lasso that little piggy. But then he might get his dress shirt and shiny shoes dirty.
I followed Esther out the back door and down the path that led through the herb garden, my Keds crunching on the pea gravel. The striped rosemary saluted us in the warm morning sunshine, while the bright green cilantro swayed in the light breeze, the herbal scent filling the air.
As we rounded the clump of oak trees, I heard snorting and grunting mingled with the fainter clucking of hens. We stopped at the pigsty and I leaned over the top rail, watching the pink pigs root in the mud, snuffling over mystery bits. Sure enough, only four pigs. Wilbur had escaped again.
“Oh, no. Where could he be?” Esther touched my arm. “If this weekend isn’t a success, I’ll be ruined.”
“Don’t worry, the clients already love this place.” I pushed off the rail and turned to face her. “We have all the amenities these people expect, right down to the thread count in the sheets. No one can complain. Well, except for that Maxwell guy, but complaining seems to be his hobby.”
“That’s what I’m worried about. You know how fickle these celebrity types can be. ‘The swimming pool is too cold.’ ‘My mattress is too firm.’ And like Gordon said ...”
I waved a hand dismissively. “Forget Gordon. He’s wound up because the press is here.”
Esther had been excited when a production company had wanted to scout nearby locations for an upcoming horror movie and made reservations at the farm, even if she’d had to cut her rate by thirty percent. The extra attention from the Bay Area and Hollywood newspapers and TV stations that the film crew generated seemed like a good trade-off for the lost revenue. With enough press, the stars would soon see Esther’s spa as the go-to place for relaxation and rejuvenation.
I’d noticed the press myself in the form of one very hunky reporter for the
, Blossom Valley’s weekly paper. When I wanted to know what was happening in the world, I read the
San Jose Mercury News
. When I wanted to know what time the Fourth of July parade started in town, I scanned the
. The cute guy with the dimples in his cheeks hadn’t interviewed me yet about my marketing position at the spa, but I was keeping my fingers crossed.
“Gordon knows these media folks are important,” Esther said.
“But he thinks one bad review will shut the whole place down,” I said.
Esther clasped the front of her blouse, clearly worried.
“Not that anyone will write a bad review,” I added before she panicked more. “When people get wind of the Hollywood types staying here this week, they’ll be pounding down our door.”
“I hope so. But I’ve heard people at the feed store talking and they’re not crazy about an organic farm. Think the place is too highfalutin, especially with the yoga classes and spa food.”
A pig stuck his snout through the fence and bumped my leg. I patted his head, the coarse bristle on his skin scratching my palm. “You’ll always find naysayers. Most people are thrilled that you’re bringing out-of-towners into Blossom Valley. The downtown needs a boost before more businesses go under.” Already, the vacancy rate on Main Street was hitting an all-time high.
“I don’t know if my little farm and spa can help the town much, but I’ll give it my best shot. Thank God I have you and the others helping me. I couldn’t possibly do this alone, now that my dear Arnold is gone.”
Her eyes filled with tears. I reached out and squeezed her hand, her words reminding me how she and Mom had bonded at a widows’ support group. Her wrinkled flesh was clammy to the touch and my heart ached at the sight of the grief etched on her face, reminding me of my own pain when my father passed away last year. I instinctively reached up and fingered the St. Christopher medal he’d given me years ago and that I always wore now.
“Let’s track down Wilbur,” I said, shaking off my melancholy. “Before he freaks out a guest.”
I left the pigsty, looped behind the chicken coop, and started down the paved walking path that led past the cabins, studying the dense bushes that lined the walkway for any sign of hoof prints. The soil at the base of the foliage was soft and crumbly from that morning’s sprinkler session, but offered no clues as to the location of the errant pig.
Esther trotted behind me, alternating between calling Wilbur’s name and whistling as if Wilbur was a dog instead of a pig. I was pretty sure Wilbur wouldn’t respond to her pleas, but at least this distraction kept Esther’s thoughts away from her husband and his death from cancer a few months ago.
As we approached the pool and the large patio on the other side, Esther stopped whistling. Maroon crepe-paper streamers cascaded down the backs of the deck chairs. Silver and gold balloons hung from the posts of the redwood pergola that partially covered the expansive patio. The banner that we had strung between two posts, proudly proclaiming O’C
had loosened on one side and now drooped toward the brick below.
The dozen or so guests had arrived Thursday night, serenaded by The Kicking Boots, Blossom Valley’s country-western band. The drummer couldn’t keep a beat and the lead singer was tone deaf, but Esther couldn’t argue with the rock-bottom price. Between the questions from reporters and the chatter of the locals who’d been lured to the opening by the promise of free food, no one noticed the off-key performance.
The party had wound down around one, when the guests dispersed to their rooms. Once the staff stopped replenishing the food trays, the locals had disappeared faster than a lizard when you flipped over a rock. Yesterday had been subdued in comparison, as guests lounged by the pool, soaked in the Jacuzzi, or hiked on the nearby farm trails in the warm May weather.
Now, across the pool’s clear blue water, Christian Harper led four guests in a series of yoga postures on the smaller patio. At the moment, everyone was concentrating on the Proud Warrior pose, while Christian studied their forms, bending a knee here, straightening an arm there. Though I’d been working here a month, I barely knew Christian; but then, I’d been creating brochures and fliers in the office to advertise the big opening, and he had only joined the staff a few days ago.
In his mid-forties, Christian was lean and tall and sported a long brown ponytail. His tank top and electric blue biker shorts emphasized his well-defined biceps and quads. According to Zennia Patrakio, the farm’s forty-two-year-old cook, he was once an accountant but had gone on a spiritual retreat to India a few years ago and found his true calling. Esther had hired him to teach yoga and Pilates. When he wasn’t directing a class, he provided massages for the guests.
Right now, Christian was eyeing the young blonde in the boy shorts and sports bra who stood closest to the pool, as if he’d only recently discovered the difference between girls and boys. I’d met a few of the guests opening night and remembered she was an actress named Tiffany Starling. In her early twenties, she’d booked her stay to celebrate landing her latest role, something to do with a giant octopus and man-eating crabs. She’d told me about a handful of other movies she’d had roles in, and while I’d seen a couple, I couldn’t remember her face at all. Since they were all slasher films, she’d probably played Victim Number Two or Dismembered Body in the credits.
I’d met the woman now posing next to her, Sheila Davenport, this morning, when she’d come looking for aspirin. Her smooth skin and rich auburn hair made her appear to be in her early forties, but the creases in her neck and lines on her cleavage suggested she was a good decade older. She took one look at my bare earlobes and ringless fingers as I handed her the pills and gave me a card for her jewelry design business just over the hill in Mendocino.
I watched as she brought her legs back together and squatted into a chair pose, her short hair gently swaying with the movement. Yoga was clearly nothing new for her.
Next to her was a plain-looking woman I hadn’t met yet, and on the end stood Maxwell Mendelsohn, his thighs quivering as he tried to maintain his posture while also looking around the other woman to watch Sheila. A little romance in the air?
Esther had approached me yesterday afternoon to get my opinion on why Maxwell was here. He’d refused to eat the wild rice and tuna salad for lunch, calling it “rabbit food.” Not that I’d ever seen rabbits eat tuna. He’d complained that the curtains were too thin to keep the morning light out and whined incessantly to Gordon about the spotty Wi-Fi reception. Even now, his Bluetooth was lodged firmly in his ear, matching his close-cropped business hairdo. Judging by his wobbly tree stance and the price tag peeking out of the waistband of his yoga pants, yoga was not a form of exercise he normally practiced.
As I watched, Maxwell’s right leg, the one supporting all his weight, swayed from side to side. His arms pinwheeled as he crashed into the woman next to him. She somehow managed to put her other leg down and stop Maxwell’s momentum before he toppled them both.
“This damn malarkey,” Maxwell said, his voice carrying over the water. He glared at Christian. “You don’t even know what the hell you’re doing.” He snatched up his terry cloth towel from the nearby redwood bench and stalked off toward the cabins.
Christian watched him go, and then turned back to the other students. “Release your pent-up breath. Let the negative energy flow from your body.” He bent forward. “Now try Downward-Facing Dog.”
Esther tugged on my sleeve and I snapped back to attention.
“Sorry, we’ve got a pig to catch,” I said. We started down the path again.
“He’s probably rooting around the vegetables,” Esther said with a quiver in her voice. “Eating tomorrow’s lunch.”
“I bet we get him before he can do any real damage.”
We rounded the bend to find Wilbur, a pink and brown piglet, knee-deep in arugula, snorting happily as he ripped another set of dark green leaves off the plant. The scent of pepper filled the air.
“Wilbur, no!” Esther shrieked.
Wilbur’s head shot up. Esther lowered her voice to a more soothing timbre. “You need to go back to the pen. The other pigs miss you.”
I dug a black-and-white elastic headband from the back pocket of my jeans and pulled my dishwater blond hair into a rudimentary ponytail, getting ready in case Wilbur made a run for it. Esther inched toward the pig and he watched her approach. I looked past them at the nearby low hills, the lush green from the spring rains already fading after the temperature had noticeably risen in the last two weeks.
Standing among the vegetables, I tried not to think about the fantastic job offer that had come in from a major computer company days before I was set to depart for Blossom Valley. Although any twenty-eight-year-old would be thrilled at the offer, I’d had my reasons for refusing the job, but helping Esther catch a loose pig only added doubts to my decision.