The first rule of beekeeping, and the one Isabel swore she would never break, was to remain calm. As she regarded the massive swarm of honeybees clinging to a Ligustrum branch, she suspected she was about to go back on her word.
She was new to beekeeping, but that was no excuse. She thought she was ready to capture a swarm. She'd read all the beekeeping books in the Archangel town library. She'd watched a dozen online videos. But none of the books and videos had mentioned that the humming of ten thousand bees was pretty much the creepiest sound she'd ever heard. It reminded her of the flying monkey music in The Wizard of Oz.
"Don't think about flying monkeys," she muttered under her breath. And that, of course, caused her to focus even more on the sound.
It took every fiber of power and control in her body to keep from fleeing to the nearest irrigation ditch, screaming at the top of her lungs.
The morning had started out with such promise. She'd leaped out of bed at daybreak to greet yet another perfect Sonoma day. A few subtle threads of coastal mist slipped through the inland valleys and highlands, softening the green and gold hills like a bridal veil. Isabel had hurriedly donned shorts and a T-shirt, then taken Charlie for his morning walk past the apple and walnut trees, inhaling the air scented with lavender and sun-warmed grass. Paradise on earth.
Lately, she'd been waking up early every day, too excited to sleep. She was working on the biggest project she'd ever dared to undertake—transforming her family home into a destination cooking school. The work was nearing completion, and if everything went according to schedule, she would welcome the first guests of the Bella Vista Cooking School at harvest time.
The big, rambling mission-style hacienda, with its working apple orchard and gardens, was the perfect venue for the project. The place had long been too much for just her and her grandfather, and her dreams had always been too big for her budget. She was passionate about cooking and in love with the idea of creating a beautiful place for other dreamers to come and learn the culinary arts. At long last, she'd found a way to grow into the house that was too large.
Her head full of plans for the day, she'd gone to check the bees with Charlie, the rangy German shepherd mutt. When she'd reached the hives, located on a slope by a rutted track at the end of the main orchard, she'd heard the flying monkeys and realized what was happening—a swarm.
It was a natural occurrence. Like a dowager making way for her successor, the old queen left the hive in search of new digs, taking along more than half the workers. From her reading, Isabel knew it was rare for a swarm to occur so early in the day, but the morning sun was already intense. Scout bees were out searching for the ideal spot for a new hive while the rest of them clung en masse to the branch and waited. As the beekeeper, Isabel would need to capture the swarm and get them into an empty hive before the scouts returned and led the whole mass of them away, to parts unknown.
She had quickly sent a text message to Jamie Westfall, a local bee expert. Only last week, he had left a flyer in her mailbox—Will trade beekeeping services for honey harvest. She'd never met him, but kept his number in her phone contacts, just in case. Unfortunately, a swarm in this intermediate stage was ephemeral, and if the guy didn't get here quickly, Isabel would be on her own. She'd thrown on her jumpsuit, hat and veil, grabbed a pair of loppers and a cardboard box with a lid, and approached the hanging swarm.
This should be simple, she thought. Except that the thing hanging on the bush looked like a horrible, reddish, living beard.
"Okay then," she murmured, her gaze never leaving the dense cluster of honeybees, her heart pounding. Capturing a swarm was supposed to be exciting work. It was the ideal way to fill more hives, and it prevented the bees from nesting in places where they'd be a nuisance, like in Grandfather's prize apple trees.
Charlie reclined laconically in the high grass at the side of the hill, sunning himself.
"I've got this," she said. "It's the perfect swarm. Ha ha, get it, Charlie?" She looked over at the skinny dog. "The perfect swarm. I crack myself up."
Isabel didn't feel strange, talking to a dog. She'd always done it, an only child growing up at Bella Vista, secluded by the surrounding orchards and vineyards and overprotected by doting grandparents. As a child, she had learned to be happy in her own company. As an adult, she guarded herself, because that was what life had taught her.
She felt herself drowning in the humming sound. It filled her head and then flowed through her like the blood in her veins. She kept reminding herself that there was nothing to fear despite the fearsome appearance and furious sound of the swarm. They were looking for a home, that was all. Anyone in the world could understand that need. And if there was anything Isabel craved, it was to feel at home in the world.
While she stood there, protected from head to toe by her jumpsuit, hat and veil, the scouts were out seeking a place to create a new hive. If they found a spot and returned to the branch before Isabel bagged the swarm, it would all be over.
"Here goes, Charlie," she said. "I'm going in. No loud noises, no sudden movements."
She picked up the cardboard box and set it on the ground under the branch, which was sagging now under the weight of the bees. Yikes, that was a big swarm. The sun beat down on her back, reminding her that time was running out.
Her hands trembled as she picked up the loppers. "Now," she said, steeling herself. "I'd better not wait any longer." She was tired of missed chances. It was time to seize the moment. Heart thumping, she opened the jaws of the loppers and chopped off the branch just above the swarm. The swarm landed in the waiting box—most of it, anyway.
It took all her control not to flee. The humming intensified, and individual bees broke away from the cluster. She was just inches from breaking the unbreakable rule by freaking out. So what if the swarm disappeared? It was hardly a matter of life or death.
But it was a matter of pride and will. She wanted to keep bees. Bella Vista had always been a working farm, its orchards and gardens sustaining the Johansen family since the end of World War II. Now Isabel wanted to expand the produce. She wanted her own honey.
The bees were docile at this stage of swarming. They weren't defensive because they were engorged with honey and had no home to defend.
"All right, guys," she said through gritted teeth. "Here we go." She bent down and gently adjusted the branch so it would fit in the box. The bees that dropped free of the box crawled back again, joining the cluster. They would stay with the queen. It was the only way to survive.
Shaking from head to toe, Isabel lifted the box. The thing was heavy. Heavier than she had imagined. And the bees seemed agitated. They were moving faster, or maybe that was just her imagination. She wondered if that meant the scouts were returning. A fiery pinching sensation on her shoulder nearly made her lose control. "Ow," she said, "Ow, ow, ow. You're supposed to be docile. What's wrong with you?" She had probably trapped the poor thing under her jumpsuit. To herself, she added, "Slow and careful. I'm supposed to be good at being slow and careful. Too good, if you ask Tess."
Tess was by far the more impulsive one. Sometimes she got exasperated by Isabel's deliberation and caution.
The crucial moment was upon her. The next task was to get the swarm into the waiting hive.
Just then, Charlie gave a woof, stood up and trotted toward the road. She heard the sound of a motor, its pitch different from the humming of the bees. An orchard worker?
She turned as a banana yellow Jeep with a roll bar and its top down crested the hill, jolting over the rutted track and spitting gravel out the sides of the tires. A flurry of bees erupted from the box. Several landed ominously on the veil covering her face.
Slow down, she wanted to yell. You're disturbing them.
The jeep scrabbled to a halt in a cloud of dust, and a long-bodied stranger jumped out, levering himself with the roll bar. He had long hair and big shoulders, and he was wearing army green cargo pants, a black T-shirt and aviator shades.
Jamie Westfall? Isabel wondered. She wouldn't mind a little help at the moment.
"This the Johansen place?" asked the deep-voiced stranger.
Charlie made a chuffing sound and sat back in the grass.
"Oh good, you got my text," she said, keeping her eyes on the heavy, moving cluster in the box. "Great timing. You're just in time to give me a hand."
"What, are you high?" he demanded, peering suspiciously as though trying to see her through the veil. "That's a swarm of frickin' bees."
"Yes, so if you don't mind—"
"Shit, I got stung." He slapped at the side of his neck. "What the hell—? Christ, there's a dozen of the little f—Jesus Christ." He swore some more as he swatted violently at a few stragglers. He swore a lot. He used swear words to modify his swear words. The swatting motion agitated them further. Isabel felt another fiery pinch, this one on her ankle, where the fabric of her suit ended in a cuff.
"Be still. You're making them defensive." Some beekeeper, she thought.
"Oh, you think? Lady, I'm out of here. I am—"
"I thought you came to help." The humming crescendoed, and the swarm in the box moved faster, undulating like a living storm cloud. "Oh, no ..." She set down the box and waved her hand at a flurry of bees. The scouts had returned. She felt another sting—her wrist this time—and set the box on the ground.
"Shit, look out!" The strange man grabbed her and threw her to the ground, covering her with his body. Charlie gave a sharp bark of warning.
Panic knifed through Isabel, and the fear had nothing to do with bees. It felt like a cold blade of steel, and suddenly she was lost, hurled back to the past somewhere, to a dark place she never thought she'd escape. "No," she said in a harsh whisper. She bucked, arching her back like a bow, bringing up one knee and connecting with ...something.
"Oof, holy shit, what the hell's the matter with you?" The guy rolled to one side, drawing his knees up to his chest and holding his crotch. The shades flew from his face as a groan slipped from him.
Isabel crab walked away, not taking her eyes off him. He was big, he smelled of sweat and road dust, and his eyes reflected a fury of pain. But he hadn't hurt her. She was as startled as he by her overreaction. Easy, she told herself. Take it easy. Her pulse slowed down by degrees, dulled by mortification. Then she tore her gaze from the stranger in time to see the swarm lift up en masse, a thick, spreading veil of heavy silk. The scouts were leading the entire colony off into the wilderness. The dark cloud of insects grew smaller and smaller, sailing away like an untethered balloon.
"You're too late. They've gone," she said, rubbing her shoulder. Glowering, she stood up, kicking the cardboard box in defeat. A few dead bees tumbled from the now empty ligustrum branch.
"You can thank me later," the guy said. He was sitting now, too, regarding her with narrowed eyes.
"Thank you?" she demanded, incredulous.
"You're welcome?" he returned.
"What kind of beekeeper are you?"
"Um, do I look like a beekeeper? I thought that's what you were, unless that headgear is some new style of birka."
She peeled off the hat and dropped it on the ground. Her hair was plastered to her head and neck by the sweat of her fruitless hard work. "You're not Jamie Westfall?"
"I don't know who the hell that is. Like I said, I came looking for the Johansen place." He regarded her with probing eyes. She couldn't help but notice the color, deep green, like leaves in the shade. He was ridiculously good-looking, even pock-marked by bee stings.
"Oh, my gosh," she said, "you're one of the workmen." The tile guy was on the schedule today to finish the majolica tile in the teaching kitchen.
"If that's how you treat a worker, remind me not to get on your bad side. But no, let's start over." With a groan of discomfort, he got up. For the first time, she noticed a big, hinged brace of some sort on his left knee. "I'm Cormac O'Neill," he said. "I'd shake hands, but you're scary."
The name meant nothing to her. O'Neill was not on the list of contractors she had been working with over the past year.
"And you're here because?"
"Because, oh Christ ... I'm dying." He slapped at his beefy bare arms, his face and neck.
"What? Come on, I didn't kick you that hard." She turned just in time to see him hit the ground like a dropped sack of potatoes. "Really?" she asked him. "Really?"
"I got stung."
"I can see that." In addition to the bites on his face, welts had appeared all over his neck and arms and hands. "I'm sorry. But they're honey bees," she said. "It's not like their stings are lethal."
"Only to people who are highly allergic," he said, trying to sit up and speaking as though his tongue was suddenly thick. A whistling sound came from his throat.
She knelt down beside him. "You're allergic? Highly allergic?"
"Anaphylaxis," he said, yanking at the neckline of his T-shirt.
"If you're so allergic, why did you come running?"
"You said I was just in time. You said you needed a hand." His throat was bulging, his eyes glazing over. He looked as if he was just inches from dying.
I shouldn't be surprised, thought Isabel. I've never had much luck with men.