Maple Syrup Magic
Afterwards, she was never quite sure why she’d thought of it.
As Beth Taggart sat in her tiny kitchen, gazing out the window on one frosty Tuesday morning in November, she suddenly thought of brownies.
She wasn’t actually thinking of baked goods—instead she was thinking of the pixies or imps or whatever they were that her grandfather had told her about when she was a child.
According to Granddad Ian, if you left milk out for the brownies overnight, they would be very grateful and clean your kitchen and do your household chores in return—particularly ones that involved caring for the animals in your barns.
Granddad Ian had emigrated from Scotland, and he’d said that the brownies had followed him. But Beth had never seen any sign of them, and there weren’t any animals in her barn—at least not yet.
She smiled as she sipped at her coffee.
A man came into view, and Beth caught her breath. He had sandy hair and an honest, open face, and he looked very sturdy in his flannel shirt and jeans as he trudged across the backyard carrying a toolbox and a big block of wood in his ungloved hands.
Beth knew it was cold outside—very cold, in fact—but the man wore no coat and didn’t seem to feel it.
He paused and smiled at two men who came up behind him and then nodded his head briefly in greeting.
He was young—about Beth’s age—and she knew his first name was Dean—she’d heard some of the other men calling out to him.
Dean was there with Ashe Construction Company to refurbish her barn. It was nearly two hundred years old, and it wasn’t really fit to house animals in any longer—the roof leaked in more than a dozen spots, and the wind whistled through the walls as though there wasn’t any barrier there at all.
Besides, Beth needed something more than an ordinary barn. She intended to keep animals from her practice there—the ones who were sickest and needed the most care—and she needed proper heating in the winter and cooling in the summer—not to mention excellent lighting, ventilation, and floors and surfaces that could be kept properly clean and sanitary.
Bales of hay and straw-covered floors wouldn’t be enough for her patients.
Dean turned abruptly and began to walk back toward the house. As he did so, he happened to glance toward the window, and his eyes met Beth’s.
Beth started and nearly ducked down below the edge of the window, but she stopped herself just in time.
Dean smiled and nodded his head at her, and Beth raised a hand in greeting.
Then he continued on past her and disappeared from view.
He’d probably forgotten something in his truck and was just going to get it.
Beth could feel a blush rising to her cheeks, and she berated herself for acting like a schoolgirl with a crush, but she couldn’t help lingering by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dean when he returned.
He did indeed return after a moment, this time carrying a bucket that had the block of wood sticking out of it, and Beth stood by the window and angled herself so she could watch Dean without his seeing her.
As he walked away from her, Beth realized that there was something about him that reminded her just a little of her granddad. Dean didn’t look anything like him, of course—Granddad Ian had had coal-black curls that Beth herself had inherited, and a long, rangy frame that was quite different from Dean’s sturdy muscularity—but there was something there.
Somehow, Dean gave her the same sense of safety and serenity that her grandfather had once given her—even though she’d barely spoken four words to him.
Dean disappeared into the antique barn with the other men, and Beth sighed softly to herself.
She’d give a lot to be able to talk to Dean.
But she just didn’t know how.
Beth finished her coffee, and as she was putting her breakfast things in the dishwasher, the phone rang.
She answered on the second ring, and a breathless, panicked voice poured out of the little device.
“Dr. Taggart? Is that you?”
Beth recognized the anxious tones of one of her clients—it was Mrs. Davis, the owner of a cat named Bluebell, who had just undergone surgery.
“Yes, Mrs. Davis, I’m here.”
“How is Bluebell? Is she okay? Did she survive the night?”
Beth’s voice was soothing. She calmed Mrs. Davis’s fears and promised that she was going in to the office to check on Bluebell right now.
Then Beth said goodbye to her own cat, Peyton, and her English bulldog, Growler, and hurried out to her car.
As she drove, she thought of the brownies again. She didn’t know if Dean’s vague resemblance to her grandfather had put them in her mind, or if she simply wanted something else to care for while she waited for her animals. She had Peyton and Growler, of course, but they were both hale and hearty and didn’t need her medical expertise at the moment.
But brownies were mysterious and shy—maybe she could draw them out.
She didn’t need any housecleaning done, but she could test her granddad’s stories—see if she could catch sight of one of the little creatures.
Beth smiled to herself. She knew very well nothing would come of it, but she resolved to put out a little dish of milk that evening anyway.
She would do it in honor of her granddad.
Somehow the idea made her laugh, and she was in excellent spirits as she arrived at the office.
She went first to check on Bluebell, and the blue-gray cat blinked blearily and yawned, showing a pink tongue, when Beth turned on the light.
A dog in a nearby kennel began to bark excitedly, and Beth went to check on all of her overnight patients.
Beth was able to call Mrs. Davis and reassure her that Bluebell was doing well. But she cautioned her that the patient needed to stay in the office for one more day—first, so that she could get proper rest after surgery, and second, so that Beth could keep an eye on her feline charge.
She didn’t expect any complications, but she wanted to be sure.
And that was really the purpose of the barn at her house—she could keep surgery patients and difficult cases out there. That way she could check on them late at night and first thing in the morning.
She might even move her whole practice out there eventually and give up the office space she was renting.
But that was a little way in the future yet, and right now, Beth needed to work.
She put on her white coat and looked over the day’s appointments.
She had a thriving practice, and as soon as her doors opened in the morning, people and animals started to stream in.
Beth loved her work, and she got ready to start another enjoyable and fulfilling day.
That evening after the practice was closed, Beth was met at her house by her cousin, Rosalie. Rosalie was a tall, striking brunette with thick, lustrous hair that bounced and gleamed like she was in a shampoo commercial, even when she was doing something as simple as getting groceries out of her SUV.
Beth and her cousin loved to bake, and the two of them were planning to cook up a storm for the local community center’s bake sale. As the two of them walked toward the house, Beth caught sight of a burly construction worker heading toward her barn.
Rosalie cast her cousin a slyly inquiring look. “So who’s he?”
Beth frowned a little in thought. At one time or another she’d caught the name of just about everyone who was on the crew.
“I think that’s Lyle.”
“And who’s Lyle?” Beth cast an appreciative eye over him.
“He’s helping to fix up the barn—get it ready for my patients.”
Rosalie continued to watch him. “He’s working late. Any particular reason?”
“Yes—he is working late. They start early in the morning and keep going until well after dark. I think their owner might be pushing them to work around the clock.”
Rosalie’s eyebrows rose. “Their owner?”
Beth felt herself blushing. “Sorry—I think I’ve got my mind too much on work. I mean, the guy who owns the construction company might be pushing them.”
“And why would he do that?”
Beth could feel her blush growing redder. “I think maybe he likes me.”
“Oh—oh—” Rosalie made the word one long singsong syllable. “And what’s his name?”
“His name is Leo Ashe. But there’s nothing there,” Beth said hastily.
And there really wasn’t. The two of them had met at a fundraiser for a local animal shelter, and then at a few other events, and while Leo had clearly been interested in her, Beth couldn’t say that the feeling was mutual.
At that moment, Dean walked by, and he glanced over at Beth.
He gave her a shy smile, and she raised a hand in an equally shy, silent greeting.
Then he walked on.
Rosalie eyed her cousin. “And who’s that?”
“That’s Dean.” Beth felt herself blushing again. “I’m sure I told you about him. He kind of reminds me of Granddad Ian.”
Rosalie watched Dean as he disappeared into the barn.
“I can see it. He doesn’t look anything like him, but I get the vibe. Kind of old-fashioned.”
She cast a speculative eye over Beth.
“For a girl who claims to have her mind on work, you sure do seem to have been paying a lot of attention to this construction crew.”
Beth blushed yet again.
The two cousins soon got to work in the kitchen. After a long night of baking, they had a kitchen table full of cooling cookies, cupcakes, and both Rosalie’s famous pumpkin pies and Beth’s equally famous maple scones.
They put everything into plastic containers once it was all cool enough, and Rosalie gave Beth a hug before she headed for the door.
“I’ll be back tomorrow night to help you cart all this stuff over.”
Then she departed.
Beth stood looking over their handiwork, and Peyton and Growler came to sit by her feet and stare up at her.
“Nothing for you guys here,” she said. “You’ve got a well-balanced diet already. The last thing you need is too-rich people food.”
Growler licked his nose expectantly, and Peyton simply continued to stare up at her with his big yellow eyes.
“All right, you two. It’s time for bed.”
Then Beth paused—she’d nearly forgotten about the brownies.
She smiled to herself as she poured out a shallow bowl of milk and placed it on a high shelf.
“Okay, guys,” Beth said. “This is for the brownies. Promise me you won’t touch it.”
Growler licked his nose again and gave a soft whine. Peyton continued to stare.
Beth wasn’t actually worried about the two of them getting to the milk—the shelf was so high and awkwardly placed that even Peyton couldn’t get up there.
She turned out the light and went to bed.
In the morning, Beth was up before dawn as usual, and as she went out to her car, she caught sight of Dean.
He paused. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Beth said.
Then the two of them stood, staring at each other uncertainly.
Eventually, Dean raised one ungloved hand and turned toward the barn.
As Beth watched him walk away, she berated herself for her shyness.
Then she drove to work.
The day was a busy one, and Bluebell, along with a little terrier named Sancho, were now well enough to go home, much to the delight of their human companions.
The day flew by, and before she knew it, Beth was heading home to meet her cousin.
As she stood in the kitchen, looking over the table full of baked goods, she suddenly noticed that the baking pans she’d left to clean in the morning—and had forgotten to do—were somehow sparkling clean and sitting in the dish drainer.
Maybe she hadn’t forgotten to do the dishes—maybe she’d just forgotten that she’d done them already.
She thought then of the brownies and climbed up on a step stool to retrieve the bowl of milk.
But to her surprise, the bowl she expected to be heavy and full was actually light and empty—and very clean.
It looked as if it had been washed.
Beth climbed down and looked at Growler and Peyton, who were sitting on the floor by the stool and staring up at her.
She tipped the clean bowl toward them.
“Do you guys know anything about this?”
But the dog and the cat just stared at her innocently.
The empty bowl was soon forgotten, however, as Rosalie bustled in, and she and Beth bundled almost everything up and drove over to the community center.
Beth got to keep one of Rosalie’s pumpkin pies as a thank-you for the use of her kitchen.
Later that night, Beth returned home happy but exhausted.
As she prepared to go to bed, she thought once again of the empty bowl and eyed her furry companions.
Growler, she knew, was completely incapable of climbing up onto that high shelf—he was broad and squat and climbing really wasn’t his thing. And Beth had believed that Peyton was also incapable of climbing up onto that shelf, but it seemed to her that she must have been mistaken—the cat clearly could reach it despite its awkward position.
She decided to put out something she knew Peyton wouldn’t touch, and this time she knew it would still be there in the morning.
Beth got out a dish and put a scoop of peanut butter in it. Peyton hated peanut butter and would wrinkle up his nose and run away from it. A little voice in Beth’s head reminded her that mice loved peanut butter, but she pushed that objection aside. Then a sudden thought made her get out another bowl and pour a little maple syrup—left over from the scones—into a thin layer on the bottom.
“The brownies will love this,” she thought to herself, and then she pushed that idea aside also.
The point was that Peyton wouldn’t love it, and it would still be there in the morning.
Then she placed both bowls on the high shelf and went to bed.
In the morning, Beth hurried to get the dishes.
The bowl with the scoop of peanut butter was untouched, and Beth smiled in satisfaction to herself. But as she lifted down the bowl of maple syrup, she saw that it was empty—and scrupulously clean. As Beth glanced down, it seemed to her that the kitchen floor was shinier than usual, too.
She stepped down and set the two bowls on the counter, and stared at the empty syrup bowl again.
Then she turned to Peyton and Growler, who were once again watching her with interest.
“I know you guys didn’t do this,” she murmured to herself. “And if a mouse had gotten to the maple syrup, surely it wouldn’t have left everything so clean.”
The empty bowl, however, couldn’t give her any more answers, so she set it in the sink and got a quick breakfast for herself and her pets.
Then she stooped down to scratch Growler and Peyton behind the ears, and then she was out the door.
Dean happened to be passing, and Beth wondered if he knew what time she usually left the house—he often seemed to run into her—and she thought—hoped even—that it might be on purpose.
She hoped even more when he stopped and looked her full in the face.
Dean smiled and Beth could see that his eyes were green. She could also see that they crinkled nicely when he smiled.
“Hi, Beth,” he said. “It’s nice to see you. How are you this morning?”
Beth gasped—that was the most he’d ever said to her.
“I—I’m good—great,” she replied. “How are you?”
“Good.” Dean hunched his flannel-clad shoulders against the early morning cold and put his hands in his jeans’ pockets.
He seemed to be waiting expectantly.
“Well, I—I—” Beth racked her brains, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I—should be getting to work,” she concluded.
Then she turned to her car and drove off, burning with embarrassment.
Dean was so handsome, so confident, so perfect, she lamented to her cousin later that day at lunch—was it any wonder that she hadn’t known what to say?
“Oh, just ask him out already,” Rosalie said.
“Ask him out?” Beth squeaked.
“Yes—do something low-key, like go get coffee.”
Beth shook her head. “I can’t. What if he says no? What if he doesn’t like me?”
“Oh, he likes you all right. From what you’ve described he’s trying to talk to you, just like you’re trying to talk to him. You’re both shy.”
“I don’t know,” Beth said. She knew Dean’s smile was a little shy, but she really couldn’t picture him being nervous about anything—or even picture herself ever talking to him again after that disaster.
But Rosalie made her promise that she would at least consider it.
The rest of the day was busy for Beth, and she stayed late to soothe some ruffled patients.
When she finally got home, the construction crew had left for the night, and Beth didn’t have a chance to see Dean.
She was relieved—she’d have the night to rest up before she tried talking to him again.
But before she went to sleep that night, she put another dish of maple syrup up on the high shelf.
Beth was wondering if the previous night was just a fluke—or if something would make the contents of the bowl disappear again.
She went to bed, and her last thoughts were of Dean—and whether she would see him tomorrow.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, Beth woke up in her dark room.
“Thank you for the dark syrup,” whispered a voice. “We love it. We didn’t like the sticky paste so much, but the syrup is wonderful—we’ve never tasted anything like it. And we’d like to offer you a gift in return.”
“How about you send me a friend?” Beth murmured.
She smiled dreamily—she knew which one, too.
She fell asleep again.
In the morning, Beth had a vague recollection of a tiny voice in the night—but now she doubted it.
As she took the bowl down from its shelf, however, she saw that it was empty once again, and her heart fluttered just a little.
Maybe she’d get that friend after all.
But Dean wasn’t outside when Beth left the house, and she even hung around outside for a few minutes trying to spot him.
Eventually, she had to give up and go to work.
Her day was busy in the best kind of way—everything seemed to go right—and she found herself in the unaccustomed position of finishing all of her appointments early. She sent her staff home, and made sure to forward the office phone to her cell—in case of emergency.
Then Beth went home herself.
Since it was still daylight, she had a look around outside the house, hoping to spot Dean—but she didn’t see him.
Disappointed, she went inside.
Beth was just fixing herself a cup of hot chocolate when there was a knock on her door.
She caught her breath—it was Dean. She just knew it.
She hurried to the door and opened it.
But instead of Dean, it was a different familiar figure.
It was Leo Ashe, the owner of the construction company Beth was using.
He gave Beth his smarmy smile, and she had to sigh in disappointment.
Then Beth upbraided herself—his smile wasn’t smarmy, and she shouldn’t be judgmental—many women in town found Leo extremely attractive.
But as he continued to grin at her, Beth couldn’t help but feel that there was something insincere about him. She’d met him at a number of charity functions, and despite his obvious interest in good works, his mind always seemed to be on money—and appearances. Beth got the feeling he did charity work because it made him look good.
She chastised herself again for her decidedly uncharitable thoughts. She didn’t know anything of the kind, and she didn’t have any right to judge him like that.
She didn’t really know what he thought.
“Hi, Beth,” Leo said. “How have you been?”
And then there was that voice—it made shivers run down her back, and not in a good way.
Leo’s voice was deep and rich—and also oily and unctuous. He’d asked her out before, and she’d turned him down because of it.
She couldn’t trust anyone with that voice.
Beth caught herself being judgmental again, and she made herself stop.
She didn’t have to go out with him—he probably just wanted to talk to her about the barn.
She made herself put a pleasant smile on her face, and she prepared to answer him politely.
But Leo went on before she could say anything—it was almost as if he hadn’t noticed her lack of response.
“How do you like the progress on your new medical wing?” Leo asked.
“It’s wonderful,” Beth replied. She’d gone out every night after dinner—and after the crew had left—to inspect the barn. It did indeed look wonderful—and it looked like it was nearly finished.
“Yes, it is marvelous,” Leo said, “even if I do say so myself.” He gave his wide grin again. “I’ve got my men working around the clock, just for you.”
“Thank you. Thank you all.”
“Of course, I choose good people, and they benefit from my leadership—and my expertise. As good as they are, I doubt they could do a thing without me. It’s almost as if I’ve done the whole thing myself.”
“Ye-es,” Beth said. She wasn’t so sure about that. “Well, thank you again. I’m sure my patients will appreciate it once it’s done—and I know I will.”
Leo continued. “That’s what I like about you. You’re an entrepreneur like me, and you’re expanding your business.”
“Well, I’m not exactly expanding it—I’m just trying to make my patients more comfortable—and I’d like to be able to keep an eye on them overnight.”
“Exactly right. You’re thinking of the customer experience.”
Beth stiffened just a little. “They’re not customers—they’re my patients. I’m a doctor of veterinary medicine.”
Leo smiled. “Yes—a businesswoman and a doctor. You’re absolutely perfect for me. Which is why—”
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out two paper tickets. “I’d like you to go with me to the Harvest Ball next week. It’s for a good cause, and we’d look great together.”
Beth groaned inwardly. The Harvest Ball was a fundraiser for the local children’s hospital, and she already had two tickets herself. She hadn’t been planning to go—but it was, as Leo had said, a good cause—and she’d bought the tickets just to support the hospital.
She groaned because she felt bad about turning down an invitation to a charity ball—and she felt bad about turning Leo down—again.
But she had to do it.
Good cause or not, she just couldn’t go out with him.
“Leo,” Beth said. “I’m really sorry. I just can’t—”
He held up a hand. “Swamped with work. I understand. But you haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll be back again, Dr. Beth Taggart.”
As Leo walked away, he looked back at her and winked, and there was a twinkle in his eye.
Beth felt herself groaning inwardly again.
As she watched Leo disappear, she felt another eye upon her. She looked up to see Dean standing a few feet away—and he didn’t look happy.
Beth wondered if he’d heard the whole conversation, and she hoped he had—then he’d know that she’d turned Leo down.
But Dean gave her a glance that looked suspiciously like a glare and then slouched off toward the barn.
Beth thought about going after him, but then she stopped herself. She’d barely spoken to Dean, and she had no real reason to believe he might be jealous—or to believe he might want to go out with her himself. Maybe he just didn’t like his boss.
If so, Beth couldn’t blame him.
She caught herself being judgmental yet again, and turned and went into the house.
That night, as Beth was clearing up the kitchen before she went to bed, she paused as she held an empty bowl. She considered filling it with more maple syrup—again for the brownies—and then she wondered what she was doing.
First of all, brownies weren’t real—something else must have drunk the syrup.
And second, they’d sent her the wrong “friend.”
Beth shook her head. She was crazy to even be considering this. But she filled the bowl with a shallow layer of maple syrup and climbed up to reach the high shelf.
“You brought me the wrong one,” she whispered fiercely.
Then she set the bowl down.
She climbed down and headed to her room with Peyton and Growler following at her heels.
It was Friday night, but Beth didn’t feel like attempting to go anywhere. Instead, she watched TV for a little while with her two furred companions, and then, feeling tired and irritable, she went to sleep.
Somewhere, in the middle of the night, Beth woke up, and she thought she heard a tiny voice whisper in her ear.
“No, we did not!”
Beth went back to sleep.
In the morning, she was pleased to see a light dusting of snow on the ground, and after Peyton and Growler were happily chowing down on breakfast, Beth got herself a cup of coffee and went to stare out the kitchen window.
The snow was white and clean and perfect—as yet untouched by the events of the day—and the first golden rays of the morning were breaking out of a rosy sunrise.
There was a bird feeder by the window, and Beth was glad she’d remembered to fill it last night. A tiny little flock of yellow-and-black birds was feasting at the feeder, and one little guy had strayed away from the others and was perched on the windowsill.
Beth soon saw why—across the thin white coverlet of snow that blanketed the windowsill was strewn a line of birdseed—little kernels of red, yellow, and gray.
The lone bird had them all to himself, and he hopped amongst the little colored nuggets, choosing the red ones and leaving the yellow and gray ones behind.
Beth suddenly felt a lightbulb go on in her head.
The bird was choosing which seeds it wanted…
Just as the brownies had chosen maple syrup over the peanut butter…
And now she had a choice, too.
Dean had been around every day for weeks, and she hadn’t been talking to him. She didn’t know how long the brownies had been observing her, but even if it was only a few days, they would have seen Beth passing by Dean, just as they had passed up the peanut butter.
So they had brought someone else.
Beth suddenly realized how crazy her thoughts were, and she glanced behind her as if Growler and Peyton could tell what she was thinking.
But they, of course, were occupied with their food, and they had no idea that their legal guardian was a crazy lady.
Maybe she was crazy. But crazy or not, she would choose.
The weekend went by more slowly than she would have liked, but eventually Monday morning rolled around.
Beth waited by the window in the kitchen until she saw Dean’s flannel-clad form—still without a coat—appear.
Then she hurried out into the cold.
“Dean!” she cried. “Dean!”
He stopped and turned toward her.
His face was wary—even suspicious.
“Dean!” Beth said. “I need to talk to you!”
He waited where he was, and Beth rushed up to him.
“Your boss—Leo,” she said breathlessly. “He asked me out on Friday.”
Dean’s expression tightened just a little, but he said nothing.
Beth continued. “He asked me out to the Harvest Ball. But I don’t want to go with him. I want to go with you.”
A look of astonishment spread over Dean’s face.
Then a smile quirked at the corners of his mouth, and a twinkle gleamed in his eye.
Beth felt relieved—and elated.
Dean wasn’t unhappy at all—he was pleased.
Beth took out the tickets that nestled in her coat pocket.
“I’ve got tickets to the ball, too. It’s next week. And I’d like you to go with me. What do you say?”
Dean’s face went very blank, but there was still just a hint of a twinkle in his eye.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Beth found herself smiling in response.
She liked his sense of humor already.
The two of them ended up going out for coffee after Beth finished at the office and Dean got off work for the night.
The low-key date was a success, and after Beth got home, she left out a slice of Rosalie’s pumpkin pie for the brownies.
She felt they deserved it.
© 2019 by Catherine Mesick
Image by Piviso/Pixabay
Thanks very much for reading!