From USA Today bestselling author Laura Bradford comes a poignant, uplifting novel about an investigative reporter who will do anything to nail a story—until her world comes crashing down—landing her on assignment in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, where she’s forced to re-think her priorities, and her life.
Tess Baker thought she had the perfect everything—until her best friend, and (now ex) husband, betrayed her, leaving her with nothing, except her career as an investigative reporter. In her work for a leading magazine, Tess can lose herself in whatever story she’s chasing. So she’s devastated when her next assignment is far from the exciting location or action-packed quest she anticipated.
Thanks to a recent misstep, Tess is handed a bus ticket to Pennsylvania—to Amish country. The story? Write about living in the past in a modern-day world. Determined to prove herself by coming up with something juicier than a run-of-the-mill human-interest piece, Tess makes her way through this strange place, digging for dirt . . .
Yet no matter where she turns, scandal eludes her. Instead, Tess encounters kindness and grace, even striking up unexpected friendships with women who bear a wisdom and capacity for forgiveness she can’t imagine. It’s only when she meets eighty-something Miss Lottie, beloved by the community even after decades away, that Tess realizes she may have hit upon the story she was looking for. But can she betray the people who have opened their arms—and their hearts—for the sake of a scoop?
Praise for Laura Bradford
“Laura Bradford is a master storyteller; this book will stay with you for a long, long time.”
—New York Times bestselling author Tasha Alexander
“Engaging characters and a tender storyline will please fans of Amish fiction, especially readers of Amy Clipston.”
Release date: August 31, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 320
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Her New Story
Shaking herself off that mental path, she squared her shoulders inside her freshly dry-cleaned navy blazer and reclaimed the smile she’d woken with not more than an hour earlier. Let them grab coffee together . . . Let them wrap their arms around each other and glide down the sidewalk across from her place every day if they must . . . Because by this time tomorrow, Tess would no longer care. Instead, she’d be nestled in an airplane seat, basking in the rewards of finally believing in no one but herself.
The groan of the restroom door pulled her from her thoughts and sent her gaze scurrying past her own reflection to the sixtysomething woman headed in her direction. Short yet mighty, Debbie Callahan was to the magazine’s editorial department what sunlight was to a flower.
“I was hoping I’d catch you before you went into the meeting.” Debbie stepped over to the second of the bathroom’s two sinks and, after contemplating the nearly empty soap dispenser, turned her full attention to Tess. “Did you manage to get any sleep at all last night?”
“That depends on your definition of sleep.”
Debbie’s left eyebrow rose in amusement. “So that would be a no?”
“No. Well, not exactly. I—” She drew in a breath, held it to a silent count of five, and released it with a whoosh. “I got a little. Maybe two or three hours. Maybe a little less.”
“I figured as much.”
Tess glanced back at the mirror and kneaded at the stubborn shadows beneath her eyes. “It’s that obvious, huh?”
“No worries, dear. Your smile is all anyone is going to notice in there, anyway. Especially when it’s been such a long time since it’s been so genuine, so heartfelt.” Debbie leaned against the sink and grinned. “So, have you packed?”
“I have. One suitcase with warm-weather clothes, and one with cold-weather clothes, just like you said.”
“Good girl.” Reaching out, Debbie guided Tess’s fingers away from her face. “Nervous?”
“More like over the moon.” And it was true. For the first time in far too long, something was about to go her way. The plane ticket and month-long change of scenery it came with were simply the icing on the cake.
“I’m glad. You work every bit as hard as the so-called”—Debbie lowered her voice—“veterans. And you write every bit as well as they do, in my opinion.”
Something about the woman’s earnestness brought a mistiness to Tess’s eyes—a mistiness she hastily blinked away. Sure, it was a nice thing to hear, but just as life had taught her to count on no one but herself, it’d also taught her to place little stock in people’s words.
Except, perhaps, Murph’s.
Max Murphy—aka Murph—was everything Tess wanted to be as a reporter. A legend in the business, Murph could smell a story halfway across the country. His way with sources, with words, with everyone except, perhaps, his fellow reporters, was, quite literally, award winning. Yet for reasons she still couldn’t quite fathom, he’d grudgingly agreed to mentor her: a wet-behind-the-ears newbie who’d spent her first month under his tutelage, crying at the drop of a hat. Without him, she’d be hard-pressed to still have a job, let alone poised to be sent out on the kind of assignment normally reserved for those with more than a decade of experience under their belt.
“You okay, Tess?”
Startled back into the moment, she met Debbie’s worried brow with an emphatic nod and a reciprocated squeeze. “I’m fine. Really. Just thinking, I guess.”
“Then I’ll leave you to it.” Debbie crossed to the door and tugged it open. “Good luck in there this morning, Tess. I hope you get someplace really fabulous. You deserve it.”
Turning back to start, she stared, unseeingly, at her now-lone reflection, her thoughts revisiting the litany of possibilities she’d dreamed up during the wee hours of the night . . .
Would she be paired with a criminal profiler? Travel the back roads of some drug-infested country alongside an undercover agent? Or would she be given something safer this first time—like shadowing a former, yet still beloved, celebrity as he or she searched for their comeback role?
All she could do was guess. For the moment, anyway.
Inhaling deeply, Tess glanced at her watch and then back at the mirror, the smile she found there a perfect reflection of the one she felt clear down to her toes. “It’s time. It’s really, really time,” she whispered.
They were all there, seated around the conference table as if it were any other Monday morning, when she stepped through the open doorway, notebook and pen in hand. Yet, for the first time since joining the magazine’s editorial staff the previous year, she didn’t scurry toward the end of the table reserved for the junior staff. Instead, she made haste toward the chair Murph motioned her to with his chin and a look she couldn’t quite identify.
“I was beginning to wonder if Sam opted to pull you aside first,” he murmured as she sank onto the vinyl seat beside him.
She gasped at the thought. “Are you kidding me? I want to get my envelope with all the appropriate fanfare just like I watched you and Russ and Stanley get last year. Giving it to me out in the hallway would ruin half the fun.”
Swiveling her chair ever so slightly toward the left, Tess met and held the eyes of the man she both admired and tried to emulate inside the newsroom. To her ignorant and shallow peers, Max Murphy was just some crotchety old man who was set in his ways and would likely die of old age while pecking away at his keyboard in the corner office they all coveted. But to Tess, Max Murphy was everything a veteran newsman should be—sharp, dedicated, and wholly devoted to putting out the magazine’s best-ever issue every single time. If he thought an article was well written, he’d say so. If he thought it could have gone a little further, answered a few more questions, he’d mince no words about that fact much to the chagrin of the junior reporters on the team. But what they failed to acknowledge—what they failed to step back far enough to see beyond their bruised egos—was something she had come to embrace by the end of her first week on the job: Max Murphy was always right.
He knew the magazine’s target market better than anyone else. He knew the kind of stories that spoke to their readers more than any other. And he knew how to tackle them in a way that both educated and intrigued. Anyone who doubted that needed only to look at the byline name on ninety-five percent of the plaques hanging throughout the building.
Yes, the folks in the advertising department were important, their work kept the once-a-month glossy publication thriving financially. And yes, the art department was masterful in its ability to compel people to pick the magazine off the newsstand. But without Murph leading the editorial charge, everything else would be for naught. Period.
Today, though, he looked tired—even a little worn-out. And it unsettled her in a way she hadn’t thought anything could in that moment. Glancing quickly toward the owner’s still-empty chair, she lowered her voice to a level only Murph could hear. “Are you okay? You look . . . off.”
He lifted his pen from the table, poked at his own notepad a few times, but said nothing.
“C’mon, Murph, today is gonna be a great day. For you . . . for Russ . . . for Stanley . . . for”—she sucked back another squeal—“me! In just a few hours, you’ll be on your way to somewhere supercool, doing what you do best. And when you’re done, and it’s time to come back, you’ll turn all those pages and pages of notes you’ll have taken into yet another award-winning story for the magazine, and yet another shiny new plaque for the lobby.”
“I don’t need another plaque,” he said.
“It’s not about needing, Murph. It’s about earning. But this time—since I’m part of the mix now—I plan on giving you a run for your money for Story of the Year.” Glancing around at their coworkers, she lowered her voice even more. “Just in case you were wondering, that is.”
He paused his pen on top of the pad and finally met her eye. “Take it from me. There are other things in life that are more important than a writing award, Tess. Or could be, if you don’t narrow your world too much.”
“Said the man who has an oft-utilized cot in his office . . .”
“My point, exactly.” Dropping his pen onto the table, he glanced from the door, to the wall clock, and back again, an odd sense of discomfort blanketing his very being. “These location assignments aren’t always the be-all that ends all you seem to think they are, kid. They’re really not.”
A sense of unease tickled at her spine. “They are to me.”
“I know that. But they shouldn’t be. Some of the best stories are born in unexpected places—remember that.”
“Is there a reason you’re saying this stuff, Murph? Is there something I need to know . . . something I—”
“Good morning, everyone! Sorry I’m a few minutes late.” Sam Livingston, president and CEO of In Depth magazine, blew into the room in his trademark way—shoulders hunched, hair askew, tie in need of straightening, glasses crooked. In his hand, atop his normal meeting notepad, was the stack of envelopes Tess had been imagining for weeks.
“I’m so excited right now I could explode,” she whispered to Murph from behind her hand.
Murph, in turn, said nothing as his gaze moved from his feet to their boss.
“We’ve got a lot to cover in a short amount of time so let’s get right to it, shall we?” The wheels of Sam’s chair squeaked as he pulled it out from under the table and sank onto its vinyl cushion. “The last issue, with one notable exception, was a good one. Eye-catching pictures . . . thought-provoking interviews. . . and more than a few stories that have prompted some great reader response . . .
“Murph, that piece on the kids’ cancer nurse was a real tearjerker that not only resonated on an emotional level but also one that had people reaching into their pockets and donating money to the tune of ten thousand buckaroos in the past week alone. So nice job with that.
“And, Stanley, you’ve managed to stir up some strong opinions on that piece about the homeless guy and his guitar. So much so, in fact, I’m thinking the subject merits a revisit in an upcoming issue. Surely there are others, like him, with a talent you can showcase.”
“You got it, boss.” Stanley jotted a few notes on the pad in front of him before returning his attention and, thus, Tess’s back to Sam.
“Unfortunately, much of the good I just mentioned was eclipsed by news of an engagement between two of the biggest celebrities of the decade—news our competitor managed to scoop us on even though our very own Tess Baker was in the same park, at the same time it all happened.”
Like moths with an open flame, every eye in the room found Tess.
“I . . .” She stopped, blew out a breath, and began again. “I’m sorry, Sam. I just missed it.”
Sam held up the competitor’s cover picture showing the male half of the powerhouse couple on bended knee. “Life and Times didn’t.”
She dropped her gaze to the table and swallowed.
“C’mon, Sam. Just because Tess was in the same park at the same time doesn’t mean she knows what’s happening around each and every corner. Life and Times got lucky, that’s all. End of story,” Russ interjected from his spot on the opposite side of Sam. “Look at the picture. Our boy Romeo clearly picked a low traffic area to pop the question. I mean, save for the person on the park bench in the background, it’s clear there was no one around other than the photographer with the telephoto lens.”
“Oh?” Sam slapped the magazine down on the table in front of Russ. “See anyone familiar on that park bench?”
Tess swallowed again, her face hot with embarrassment.
“Whoa,” Russ murmured, looking from the picture to Tess and back again. “Wait. You were sitting right there when he asked? How did you miss that, Tess?”
Murph held up his hands as Russ turned the picture for everyone else on staff to see. “What’s done is done, right? Harping on it now isn’t going to change anything.”
Sam’s charcoal-colored eyes lit on Murph’s before coming to rest on Tess once again. “I believe the more apt summation in this case is what’s not done is not done. But, yes, there’s nothing that can be done now except hope we don’t lose those readers who put a high value on celebrity news.”
A weighted yet deliberate silence hung in the air for a few moments before Sam grabbed hold of the stack of envelopes at his elbow. “Moving on. It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone, but it has. As it always does. But, honestly, this year’s crop of assignments is out of this world, if I do say so myself. In fact, these places and subjects have got me itching to be sitting where you are instead of where I am.”
The murmuring was back. So, too, was Tess’s excitement.
“So, without further ado, here we go.” Sam pulled the first envelope off the stack, the name visible to everyone at the table thanks to the large block letters. “Russ, you might want to pack an extra coat for this one, my friend, because it’s going to be cold, cold, cold.”
Russ accepted the envelope from the boss, shook it, felt the right-hand corner with his index finger and thumb, and grinned. “Dare I hope the key I feel in here is for a snowmobile?”
“You can hope, sure. But we figured you’d rather have a place to sleep seeing as how you’ll be gone for a month.” Sam moved on to the second envelope. “And, Stanley”—he handed it to the always-rumpled reporter—“you don’t need a coat of any kind.”
Stanley held up his envelope, his gaze meeting and finding Russ’s. “Want to switch?”
“Nope. I don’t do heat.” Russ set his still-unopened envelope on the table in front of him as, once again, all eyes in the room shifted back to Sam.
“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to wait to open mine,” she whispered to Murph. “Especially when I want to rip everyone else’s open.”
He started to say something but stopped as Sam turned to him. “Murph? I, for one, can’t wait to see what you’re going to come back with from this one.”
Murph leaned in front of Tess, took the envelope with his name on top, and nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
She knew Murph was still talking—knew he was even exchanging a bit of rapid-fire trash talk with Russ and Stanley—but it was all just an audible blur. She was next . . . She was about to get—
Sam’s voice commanded the room once again, causing an immediate flutter in Tess’s chest. “Tess?”
She wiped her palms down the sides of her navy blue slacks as he studied the fourth and final envelope in his hand. “Yes, sir?”
“I suggest you move Murph all the way to the top of your holiday shopping list this year. Because, quite frankly, if it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t even be going here.” He thrust the envelope into her trembling hand, waited a beat, and then released her gaze as he stood. “Now while I’d love to stay and watch the reactions to your various locations, I’ve got a conference call I need to be on in two minutes. That said, if there are any questions your various instructions do not cover, I should be available again in about thirty minutes.”
And then he was gone, the echo of his purposeful footsteps quickly drowned out by the repeated chorus of “Open them” from the room’s empty-handed.
“Man, Tess, so much for being the rising star,” joked Russ as he flipped his envelope over in his hand and slid his index finger beneath the seal. “As for this? Drum roll, please. I’m going to—yes! Alaska! Finally!”
Pulling out first his plane ticket and then a sheet of paper, Russ silently read the words his eyes raced across. Halfway down the page, he laughed. “So much for a snowmobile . . .”
“Snowshoes?” Stanley quipped.
Russ shook his head.
Murph leaned forward. “Cross-country skis?”
Again Russ shook his head. “Nope. Dogsled.”
“Nice,” Murph murmured before nudging his chin toward Stanley. “What about you? Where are you going?”
“Let’s find out, shall we?” Stanley ripped open his envelope, reached inside, and pulled out his own plane ticket and instructions. “I’m going to . . .” He stopped. Cleared his throat. And, when he felt everyone was properly salivating, turned his ticket around for all to see. “South Africa. To hunt lion poachers of all things.”
Murph ended his own ensuing silence with a finger snap. “Okay, yes! Poachers are using lion parts to make magic potions! Great assignment!”
Stanley gathered the contents of his envelope in his hand, stuffed them back inside, and then nudged his chin back at Murph. “What’d you get?”
“Let’s take a look.” Murph pulled a letter opener from his shirt pocket, slid it beneath the seal, and peeked inside, a slow smile making its way across his lips. “I’m shadowing a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan.”
“Seriously?” Stanley asked.
Murph pulled out his sheet of paper, unfolded it, and nodded. “I leave tonight.”
“Wow! Nice! I’m jealous.” Russ nudged his chin at Tess. “And you? What’d you get?”
Looking down at her name written in black Sharpie across the center of the envelope, Tess willed the roar borne on Sam’s reprimand to recede from her ears. Twenty minutes earlier, she’d been eagerly anticipating this moment, crazy excited to see where she was going. But now . . . after what Sam had said . . .
She sensed the curiosity building around the room. Felt the table shift as her colleagues seated on the other side leaned forward, waiting. But it was Murph’s squeeze on her shoulder that let her know she couldn’t stall her way out of opening her envelope.
Drawing in a breath, Tess turned her envelope over in her hand, silently counted to five, and bypassed Murph’s offer of his letter opener in favor of her finger.
“Don’t be thrown,” Murph whispered. “Not here. Not in front of everyone.”
Don’t be thrown?
Slowly she reached inside the envelope and slid the contents onto the table.
“Is that a bus ticket?” Stanley asked, pulling a face of disgust.
She stared down at the ticket, the noted destination making her double-check her name on the envelope. When she found no suitable explanation, she unfolded the accompanying letter and—
Please, God, no . . .
Glancing at Murph, she saw the confirmation she didn’t want yet couldn’t ignore away.
“C’mon, Tess, we don’t have all day,” Russ said, standing. “Where are you going?”
She looked down at the paper a second time, hoping and praying she’d read it wrong the first go-round. But as her eyes fell on the destination printed across the top, and the description of her assignment outlined succinctly below it, there was no mistake to be made. “I-I’m going to Pennsylvania.”
Stanley’s booming voice cut short a snort of amusement from one of her peers. “Coal mine assignment?”
She shook her head.
“Fracking?” Russ paused en route toward the door. “Because that could actually be a pretty interesting assignment. Especially in the areas where people are starting to realize the environmental risks outweigh the economic benefits.”
Stanley, too, stood. “Russ is right. Some of the protests going on in those areas are getting pretty heated.”
“I-I’m not going for fracking, or for coal mines,” she whispered on the heels of a hard swallow. “I’m going to . . .” She squeezed her eyes closed. “I’m going to Amish country.”
The second the conference door clicked closed with Murph’s deliberate guidance, Tess pushed back from the now-empty table and gave voice to the frustration she could no longer contain. “Amish country?” she echoed. “Amish country?”
“Keep your voice down, Tess. You don’t want—”
“Don’t want what? To reinforce what everyone—including Sam—knows is true?”
Murph crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned back against the door. “What is this truth, exactly?”
She stared at her mentor, her jaw slacking. “You can’t be serious . . .”
Tess stood and made her way around the back side of the table, her feelings if not her destination crystal clear. “I’ve earned way better than some throwaway assignment to-to Amish country of all places! I mean, Amish country? Really?” She stopped beside their boss’s vacant seat and, after staring at it for a moment, lifted her eyes to Murph’s. “Wait. Are Sam and Celia having issues again? Because now that I think about it, the last time their marriage was on the skids, his brain sort of disengaged from anything resembling common sense.”
“Sam and Celia are fine as far as I know.”
She considered his words, another thought dawning on their heels. “Could he be sick? I know he had some sort of doctor visit a week or so ago . . . Maybe there’s an issue or something?”
“It was a dentist appointment—routine teeth cleaning. He’s fine.”
“Then why on earth did he give me this?” Tess waved the assignment sheet in the air. “I’m better than this.”
“You saw the cover of Life and Times, Tess. That was a huge miss on your part, kid. Huge.”
“Okay, so I missed a story. One. Story.”
“One too many,” he countered. “But in reality there’s been a lot more than just that one missed story. You know this.”
She stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Tess, let’s not do this right now.”
“No. Please. Let’s. What else have I supposedly missed? Because I can’t think of a single . . .” The re. . .
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