“STARBUCK, STOP THAT!” WILLA GIGGLED. The pony snuffled Willa’s shoulder and nibbled at the ends of her walnut-colored hair. Willa reached around and scratched the pony’s whiskered chin.
“She’s hungry,” Ben said. He snapped stems of the clover that grew along the driveway, just out of the buckskin pony’s reach. He held out the bouquet, tickling Starbuck’s lips.
“How could she be hungry?” Mom asked, not even looking up from the garden patch she was weeding. “You give her fresh-picked treats all day.”
Starbuck stretched out her neck and tried to lip at the white flower, but Ben quickly pulled it away.
“Please don’t feed her any of the herbs and plants we’re growing for the restaurant,” Mom said, shaking a seed packet. Soon the kids’ dad would be opening a restaurant right there, on the main floor of their house. It was going to be part of the family’s bed-and-breakfast, which was called Misty Inn. Of course, they’d had only two guests so far, but they had all worked hard getting the old house ready.
“Don’t tease her,” Willa insisted. She scowled at her brother.
“I don’t want to spoil her,” Ben claimed. A sly smile played at the corner of his mouth.
“Just give it to her, Ben,” Mom said, “but then call it quits. If you keep hand-feeding her, she’ll forget how to graze like a normal horse.”
Willa knew that wasn’t true. Starbuck was too smart to forget something like that. Besides, grazing came naturally to horses.
“Sometimes I forget she’s here,” Ben confessed, combing his fingers through her black mane. “And it’s like a big present when I look in the field.”
“Me too,” Willa agreed. “But sometimes it feels like she’s always been here. Doesn’t it?” It was a funny thing for Willa to say. After
all, the Dunlaps hadn’t lived at Misty Inn that long. It had been less than a year ago that their family had moved to Chincoteague Island. The large Victorian house was very different than their tiny apartment in the big city of Chicago.
Starbuck had come to live at Misty Inn several months later, in the fall. The pony had spent almost the whole summer at their grandma’s rescue center. While she was there, the kids had helped Starbuck get better from a leg injury. After that, they had worried that Grandma Edna would find a new home for the sweet mare. Their grandma was very practical with the animals at the rescue center. “Miller Farm is not a place for pets,” she often said.
In the end, it was clear that Starbuck was the one who chose her new home—and she chose to be with the Dunlaps. It was also clear that Grandma Edna understood that they belonged together.
Now it was spring. “It doesn’t matter how long she’s been here; it just matters that she stays here,” Ben said.
Starbuck whinnied and threw her head in the air. “Starbuck agrees,” Willa said.
Ben laughed, and their puppy, Amos, barked. With his tail wagging, he circled Ben’s feet. Amos was new to Misty Inn too. He had arrived with Buttercup, a neighbor’s horse who lived in the old barn.
The only one who had real history at the house was New Cat. As a stray, the tabby
cat had enjoyed her afternoons on the sunny, warm porch.
In fact, that was where she was resting now. New Cat was sprawled out, her green eyes barely open. Her ear twitched at the sound of a motor. She forced her lazy eyes open as the noise came closer.
“It’s Grandma!” Ben called, waving toward an old, red pickup truck that pulled into the driveway.
“Afternoon, Dunlaps,” Grandma Edna said. She reached to pick up a package from the other seat. “I’ve got something for you.”
“For me?” Ben asked. Willa shook her head.
“For all of you,” Grandma said. The skin around her eyes crinkled when she smiled. “But mostly for your parents, I guess.”
Willa turned to see her mom’s face. Were adults used to getting surprise packages?
Grandma Edna slid out of the truck and held out her freckled arms. The present was wrapped in brown paper, tied with twine.
“Hi, Mom.” The kids’ mom tucked the seed packet in the pocket of her gardening apron.
“Hello, dear,” Grandma responded. “This is something to help you on your way.”
Willa and Ben exchanged glances. Grandma Edna almost always said what was on her mind. But lately they had noticed that she was dropping hints. She didn’t always say what she really meant. Willa wondered if she was doing that now.
Mom started to pull at the wrapping, but then Ben rushed forward and ripped the paper wide open. “What is it?” Ben asked.
“It’s a banner,” Grandma said. “It says ‘Grand Opening.’ It is for your bed-and-breakfast. You’ll have a full house next weekend.”
Mom gasped. “What?”
“My friend runs an inn on the far side of the island,” Grandma explained. “She accidentally double-booked all her rooms, so I said you would take her extra guests.”
“What?” Mom repeated.
“You really can’t put off opening this inn any longer, dear,”
Grandma Edna said. “You and Eric have to be in business by summer if you want to be a success.”
“Did I hear Edna Miller out here?” Dad appeared on the porch, holding a whisk in his hand. He was smiling.
“My mom just found us a house full of guests for next weekend,” Mom told Dad.
“An inn full of guests,” Grandma Edna corrected. “You are about to officially open your bed-and-breakfast. It isn’t just a house anymore. It’s an inn.”
Grandma returned to her truck and, before she drove away, called out the window, “I’m excited for you!”
Willa looked at Dad. The whisk now dangled at his side. His smile was gone.