Visit the Amish community of Heavenly, Pennsylvania, where shop owner Claire Weatherly has come to appreciate a simpler, more peaceful way of life. But dark secrets are about to complicate things in this novel in the Amish Mystery series.
After the Stoltzfus barn catches fire, Claire is awed by the response of the community. Hundreds of Amish men gather together to raise a new barn for the family in a matter of days. But in the midst of the work, a human skeleton is unearthed. Found with the remains is half of a friendship bracelet last seen on Sadie Lehman, an Amish teen long believed to have left her strict upbringing for the allure of English ways.
Now Detective Jakob Fisher—once a member of the Amish community himself—is determined to solve the young woman’s murder. With Claire’s help, he must dig into the past and bring to light long-buried secrets—secrets that someone is willing to kill to protect...
Release date: March 3, 2015
Print pages: 304
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Claire Weatherly didn’t need to trade glances with her aunt to know what the woman was thinking. It was as palpable as the flames that danced in the hearth and the contentment she felt as she watched them.
Life was good. Great, even. And the man seated beside her on the floral couch was, without a doubt, a contributing factor in that assessment. The only question that remained was whether he was there as the friend she repeatedly tried to convince herself he was, or the something more Diane’s eyes were desperate to convey via their usual arched brow or deliberate blink.
Oh, how she wanted to lose herself in the kind of certainty reserved for the unhurt, but fear held her back. Instead, she turned yet another page of the paperback mystery novel she’d stopped absorbing the moment Jakob Fisher showed up at the door of her aunt’s inn, and mentally pleaded with herself to enjoy the moment.
“I think you were about fifteen when I opened the inn, weren’t you, Jakob?”
Claire lifted her head just in time to catch the detective’s faint nod. “I will never forget your smile the day you came out to my father’s farm to buy some pumpkins for your front porch. It was different than any I’d ever seen on an adult.”
“Different?” Claire echoed across her book. “How so?”
He trained his hazel eyes on her, eliciting a slight but audible intake of air from her lips in the process. “I don’t know. I guess the adults in my world at that time were more subdued. They smiled, sure, but not like your aunt did that day.”
“As I remember it, I wasn’t the only one smiling that day,” Diane teased before rising to her feet to add a log to the fire. “In fact, you were so smitten by that young girl walking along the road, I’m surprised you noticed anything else.”
Jakob’s momentary hint of confusion was quickly chased from his face by an expression more befitting a painful memory, piquing Claire’s curiosity in the process. “Do tell. Please.”
Hesitation gave way to an answer peppered by starts and stops. “That would have been Elizabeth Troyer.”
“That was Benjamin’s Elizabeth, right?” The second the words were out, she cringed. “Wait. You don’t have to answer—”
He shrugged. “Yes. Benjamin’s Elizabeth. But she was not Benjamin’s at that time.”
She noted the lingering bitterness in the man’s voice at the mere mention of Benjamin Miller and held it against everything she’d learned about the pair since moving to Heavenly, Pennsylvania, thirteen months earlier. The two men had grown up together, their proximity in age and common interest in all things outdoors helping to forge a friendship within the confines of their small Amish community. When they hadn’t been helping their elders on their respective farms or sitting side by side in their district’s one-room schoolhouse, the boys had often met at the creek to catch frogs, skip stones, and swim. It was a friendship that had soured, though, as they approached their teenage years, thanks to a jealousy Jakob’s own father had stoked in his son. Jakob’s departure from the Amish fold before his twentieth birthday simply served to sever the tie completely.
Diane returned to her upholstered lounge chair on the other side of the oval hooked rug and sank into its depths, a worried expression creasing her brow. “I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject, Jakob. I’m sorry.”
“No apologies needed. Elizabeth’s heart did not belong to me. I accepted that fact seventeen years ago.”
“Is that why you really left the Amish?” Claire whispered.
He shifted his body ever so slightly, grazing his shoulder against hers as he did. “No. I left because I wanted to help solve John Zook’s murder—as a policeman.”
It was a decision that had cost Jakob everything, not the least of which was any hope of a relationship with his childhood family or anyone else from his former Amish life.
“When Elizabeth first told me of her feelings for Benjamin, I was angry. I saw it as yet another way I didn’t measure up. But, years later, when I had time and distance to reflect, I knew it was more than that. Elizabeth had changed during Rumspringa. At first, it was a change that brought us closer. But then, like everyone else, she could not accept what I wanted to be.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I was fascinated by the police long before Zook was murdered. The uniforms that made my family and friends wary, excited me. I wanted to know what they did and where they went. During Rumspringa, while my Amish friends were wearing English clothes and listening to English music, I was spending my time talking to police officers and watching what they did. When Rumspringa was over, my fascination with law enforcement had only grown. Which is why, looking back, I should have known baptism was not right for me. But I resisted. Had I not, I could be a part of my sister’s and brother’s lives now.”
It was a part of the Amish culture she would never understand. The notion that a man like Jakob could be excommunicated from his family for choosing to serve the public simply didn’t sit well. But it was not hers to judge, as Diane always said. Had Jakob made his decision to leave prior to baptism, everything would have been different.
“And Elizabeth?” Claire prodded. “She was bothered by your fascination?”
“When her own Rumspringa was over, she was very quiet. I remember her crying a lot. She would never really say why, but she’d let me hold her sometimes when she was really upset. Oftentimes I would ask her if she was sure she wanted to be Amish. Each time I asked, she insisted she was.
“I was skeptical until the moment I told her I was thinking about becoming a police officer. She got so upset at the mention of me becoming a cop that I knew, at that moment, that she was confident in her decision to be baptized.”
Diane reclaimed her copy of the Heavenly Times from its spot atop the end table and smoothed it across her lap. “Did you happen to know that young Amish girl who left during Rumspringa and never came back?”
“Sadie Lehman?” Jakob clarified. “Sure, I knew her. She was Elizabeth’s closest friend. They were like two peas in a pod, as my mother used to say. They played together, dreamed together, went on Rumspringa together. Having Sadie take off like that in the middle of it all was hard on Elizabeth. She thought they were friends, she thought they would be baptized together.”
Diane clucked softly under her breath. “Hence the tears that you dried when Elizabeth’s Rumspringa was over . . .”
“Hence the tears I dried,” Jakob confirmed. “But it was Benjamin, not me, who was finally able to convince Elizabeth that Sadie’s decision was God’s will.”
There was something about Jakob’s tone that made Claire want to reach out and smooth away any and all lingering hurt from his features, but she resisted. There was simply too much uncertainty where his feelings for her were concerned.
“And then, only a few years later, it was Benjamin who had to accept God’s will.” Diane shook her head slowly, the downward turn in the room’s atmosphere beginning to weigh on the sixty-three-year-old’s shoulders.
Jakob stiffened ever so slightly beside Claire. “What happened to Elizabeth, exactly? All I’ve ever been told is she passed away shortly after she and Ben got married.”
“Oh, Jakob, it was such a sad, sad tragedy,” Diane murmured. “It was early December, if I remember correctly. She was walking out near those thick woods next to Bishop Hershberger’s farm and—”
“Wait. That’s hunting season.”
“Yes, it was.”
Jakob raked his fingers through his dark blond hair, groaning as he did. “Awww no . . .”
Claire looked from Diane to Jakob and back again. “What? What am I missing?”
Pitching forward on the sofa, Jakob dropped his head into his hands. “She was killed by a stray bullet, wasn’t she?”
Her gasp wasn’t loud enough to drown out Diane’s affirmation and Jakob’s subsequent, louder groan. “I . . . I had no idea,” she stammered. “I . . . I just assumed she’d been sick or something.” A glance to her right confirmed she wasn’t the only one who’d made a similar assumption.
“In some ways, I think an illness would have been easier for Benjamin. It would have given him time to prepare. But a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? There’s no way to prepare for something like that . . .” Diane’s words whispered off only to return on the heels of a weighted sigh. “They’d been married less than three weeks. Three weeks.”
She searched for something to say—for Jakob, for Benjamin, for the woman who’d clearly meant so much to both men—yet she was speechless.
“I always knew it would take someone mighty special to make that poor man even consider the notion of getting married again. It’s just a shame that—”
Desperate to keep her aunt from finishing, Claire cleared her throat, then trained her attention on their guest. “Hey . . . you okay?”
Jakob’s hesitation gave way to a reassuring pat on her hand. “Yeah. I’m okay. I’m just stunned. Stunned and saddened for Elizabeth . . . and Ben.” Then, squaring his shoulders, he plucked a familiar red-and-white-checked bag from the pocket of his coat and handed it to Claire. “I stopped by Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe after work today and thought maybe you’d like one of Ruth’s famous chocolate chip cookies . . .”
The rustle of newspaper on the other side of the rug did little to disguise her aunt’s cluck of approval, but it didn’t matter. Diane was right. It was a sweet gesture. By a sweet man.
“I’d love one, Jakob, thank you—”
“I’m still not sure what I think of this.” Diane adjusted her reading glasses atop her nose and then tapped the paper with the back side of her hand. “But I know Ryan O’Neil must be absolutely beside himself.”
Reluctantly, Claire broke eye contact with Jakob to address her aunt. “Who is Ryan O’Neil?”
Jakob’s non-cookie-holding hand shot into the air. “Wait. I know this. He was the mayor of Heavenly during the last few years I lived here as a teenager.”
“That’s right. And he held that office for another three terms before losing to Don Smith about seven or eight years ago. Folks around here thought Ryan would run again the first chance he got, but his pride was wounded and he never did.”
Claire took a bite of Ruth’s cookie, savoring the instant burst of chocolate. “Mmmm, okay, so what’s going on now?”
“His son, Mike, is throwing his hat in the ring for the next mayoral race.”
“Yeah, some of the guys in my department were talking about that this morning. They seem to be divided on how he’d be as mayor. The ones who grew up around here seem to find the notion funny; the ones who didn’t, think he’ll do a decent job.”
“That’s because the ones who grew up around here remember the Michael of old and it’s not a very flattering image. Especially in conjunction with someone who wants to hold a position of power in our town.” Diane took one last look at the article, then peered up at Claire’s sofa mate. “Do you remember Mike from back then, Jakob?”
“Vaguely. I know from my time hovering around the police department during my Rumspringa that he set something on fire once. But nothing happened to him on account of being the mayor’s son . . . And I know he was part of Elizabeth’s Rumspringa crew a few years later, thanks to Miriam Hochstetler.”
Claire stopped chewing. “How could he have been a part of Elizabeth’s Rumspringa? He’s English.”
“And that’s exactly why he was part of her crew . . . because he wasn’t Amish,” Jakob said.
“Oftentimes, it’s through those English counterparts that Amish teens come in contact with things they might not have otherwise,” Diane added by way of explanation. “Cigarettes, alcohol, mischief, et cetera.”
“Which brings us back to the limited memories I have of the mayor’s—”
The wail of a siren as it raced past the inn brought Jakob’s sentence to an end and him to his feet. “That’s the fire department.”
Diane pushed the paper from her lap and stood, her stride and her destination matching that of both Jakob and Claire. When they reached the bay window that overlooked the Amish countryside, they dispensed with the traditional pull string and, instead, parted the curtain with their hands to reveal a bright orange glow in the distance.
Claire felt the gasp as it escaped her throat, knew it had been echoed by her aunt, but all she could truly focus on was the sound of Jakob’s voice as he barked into the phone now clutched to his ear.
“Detective Fisher. What’s going on? Copy that address, please . . . Okay, got it. I’m on my way.”
He snapped the phone closed inside his hand, returned it to his pocket, and then gathered Claire’s hands inside his own. “Stoltzfus’s barn is on fire and they’re worried about the house going next. I’ve got to get out there and help. But I want to thank you”—his gaze left hers just long enough to offer a quick yet deliberate nod in Diane’s direction—“for tonight. For the conversation, the warmth, and the sense of normalcy. I can’t think of the last time I felt so at home anywhere.”
And then he was gone, his strong, confident footfalls disappearing as he made his way through the front door and into the night, the rising pillar of flames in the distance guiding his path.
Claire stood at the lone window overlooking the alleyway between her store and Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe and watched as Ruth Miller carried one box after the other through her side entrance.
The boxes, in varying shapes and sizes, were a normal part of the workday for each and every shopkeeper along the cobblestoned thoroughfare that connected the English and Amish sides of Heavenly. But unlike the other shopkeepers, the Amish bakery owner didn’t carry her own boxes. Ever.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t capable—because she was. And it wasn’t that the twenty-two-year-old beauty was some sort of kapp-wearing diva—because nothing could be further from the truth. But she was Eli Miller’s twin sister. That, coupled with being Benjamin Miller’s unmarried little sister, was all the explanation needed.
Every morning, while the gas-powered lampposts still burned bright up and down Lighted Way, Benjamin delivered the bakery’s supply of fresh milk in his horse-drawn wagon. Once the shop opened, Eli showed up at various points throughout the day to attend to any deliveries and carry out the trash that had accumulated between visits. They came quietly, performed their tasks quietly, and left quietly, the only indication they were around coming via the whinny of their respective horses in the now-empty alley.
Something was wrong.
It had to be.
Squaring her shoulders amid the lull in customers, Claire wound her way around the counter and into the back room, the hinges of the screen door announcing her presence in the alley as surely as any verbal greeting ever could.
Ruth looked up from the dwindling stack of boxes at her feet and smiled shyly. “Good morning, Claire.”
She took a moment to study her neighbor and the many features that made the young woman more suited to a high-end fashion runway in Paris or Milan than a small Amish bakery in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Only with Ruth, her beauty didn’t hinge on one particular feature and an artist’s ability to highlight a few others. No, the youngest Miller’s beauty was a complete package—one that included large, ocean blue eyes, high cheekbones, and long golden blonde hair parted severely down the middle and pinned into place beneath a plain white kapp. And that was just the exterior.
The true beauty that was Ruth Miller transcended the obvious and resided in an inner genuineness that was recognized by everyone. Except, perhaps, by Ruth herself.
“Is everything okay?” Claire finally asked by way of a response that had taken far too long in coming.
Ruth’s brows furrowed ever so slightly. “Everything is fine. God has made it so.”
She crossed the alley and gestured at the two remaining parcels on Ruth’s top step. “I guess I’m just used to seeing Eli carrying your deliveries inside . . .”
“I have been telling them for years I can do such things myself, but they do not listen. Even now, when Eli is married, he still spends too much time worrying about things I can and want to do by myself.”
“He loves you. Benjamin does, too. They just like to make sure you’re okay, is all.”
Ruth glanced over her shoulder and through the screen door, the lull of customers in Claire’s shop holding true inside the bakery as well. “I know they do. And I am grateful.” Slowly the young Amish woman lowered herself to the top step and invited Claire to do the same. “But it is okay for me to look after them, too.”
Claire claimed the cold concrete step just below Ruth and raised her face to the late winter sun just starting to peek itself over the top of her store. “Of course it is. That’s what loving someone is all about.”
“Eli did not return to Esther until dawn. It was even later when Benjamin’s wagon went past the house. It was a long night of much worry and hard work.”
And then she knew. Ruth was referring to the fire that had cut her unexpected evening with Jakob short—a fire that had burned for hours before night had finally reclaimed its hold on the view from Claire’s bedroom window. “Did it spread to the house?” she asked.
Ruth shook her head.
“Was anyone hurt?”
Ruth’s shapely shoulders rose and fell beneath her simple, plain blue dress. “No people. But a few horses perished.”
Claire turned her body just enough to afford a clear view of her friend. “I was told the barn belonged to the Stoltzfus family?”
“Yah. Jeremiah and Miriam Stoltzfus.” Ruth fiddled with the front of her apron for a moment and then continued, “I did not speak to Benjamin long this morning, but he said the barn is gone. There is nothing left.”
“I know how important a barn and horses are to an Amish farmer. To start over must be difficult.”
Ruth waved aside Claire’s worry. “The Stoltzfus farm will have a new barn by week’s end.”
“By week’s end?” she echoed. “But how?”
A hint of surprise raised Ruth’s perfectly arched brows. “The men will come together to raise a new one. They will work all day long and the women will make sure they are fed.”
“And they can raise an entire barn in less than five days?”
“With many able hands they can raise it in two.”
* * *
She was less than a hundred yards from Sleep Heavenly when she heard the car approaching, the quiet whir of the engine and the slow rotation of the tires making her step onto the strip of gravel shoulder separating the grass from the pavement.
A familiar black sedan rolled up alongside her and stopped. Seconds later, the window lowered to reveal Jakob’s smiling face and knee-weakening dimples. “Isn’t it a little chilly to be walking home?”
She felt the flutter in her chest and the way it manifested itself in a matching smile she couldn’t contain even if she’d wanted to. “According to the calendar, the official start of spring is only three weeks away.”
“Mother Nature doesn’t follow a calendar in these parts.”
She laughed while simultaneously pulling the flaps of her jacket a little closer. “Exactly. And that’s why I’m getting a jump on things now. You know, the whole early-bird thing . . .”
“You’re a nut, do you know that?”
“I do. But when you’ve spent most of your adult life thus far sidestepping people and taxis in order to walk five blocks, I guess I find walking around here almost therapeutic. Besides, you can’t beat the fresh air or the uninterrupted quiet time.”
He winced dramatically. “Ouch.”
She felt the color drain from her face as her last three words looped their way from her mouth to her ears. “Wait. No. I didn’t mean that the way that it sounded. It’s just that there’s no song on the radio to cloud my thoughts or—”
“Hey, I was just kidding. No offense taken, I promise.” His gaze left hers long enough to note her royal blue sweater and partially zipped coat. The appreciation on his face as he returned his focus to hers warmed her cheeks instantly. “Any chance I could entice you into getting in the car with me? There’s something I’d love to show you if you’re game. Unless”—he leaned forward against the steering wheel to gesture toward her aunt’s inn—“you need to get home to help Diane with dinner?”
There was no mistaking the hope in his eyes or the renewed flutter in her chest as she contemplated the answer she was all too eager to give. “We’re in the middle of a trio of rare guest-free nights at the moment. While not necessarily good for Aunt Diane’s bottom line, it does provide a rare opportunity for her to get out. Tonight, she’s meeting friends for dinner in Breeze Point. So, in answer to your question, yes, you can entice me into your car . . . provided it has a heater.”
She opened the door and slid into the passenger seat, the blast of warm air from the dashboard vents a welcome reprieve from an evening that had gotten cold, fast. “Oh. Wow. It’s nice in here.”
“I’ll pretend you’re referring to my company rather than my heater,” he teased before a rare shyness took over. “Thanks for saying yes. I’ve been wanting to take you to see this since they started showing up a few hours ago.”
“Since who started showing up?”
He swiveled in his seat just enough to gain an unobstructed view of the road, then did a U-turn that took them back toward Lighted Way. “Did you have much of a chance to look out your window at the shop today?”
Settling her head against the back of the seat, she took a moment to look out at the scenery as blacktop gave way to cobblestones and the quaint shopping district she’d left on foot less than ten minutes earlier. “Now that Esther isn’t working at the shop any longer and I’ve yet to hire a replacement, I don’t have much time to do anything except take care of customers, stock shelves, and keep the books straight. Although, today, I did get to spend a few minutes in the alley talking with Ruth.”
“You need to hire some help. Working seven days a week isn’t good for anyone.”
She swung her focus back to Jakob. “You sound like my aunt right now.”
“There could be worse things. Diane Weatherly is a wise woman as you well know.” The thump-thump of cobblestones beneath the tires gave way to the distinctive ping of fine gravel as they left the shopping district and headed out into the Amish countryside. “Anyway, if you’d been able to look outside, you’d have seen far more Amish buggies than normal moving along Lighted Way this afternoon. Dozens and dozens of them, actually.”
“Did someone die?” she asked quickly.
“Did someone get married?” Though, even as the question left her mouth she knew it was a silly one. Wedding season among the Amish took place in late fall. And even in the rare instance when one took place in late winter, they were held only on Tuesdays and Thursdays—never Wednesdays.
“They came because of last night’s fire.”
“But the fire was put out last night, wasn’t it?”
A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his lips as he nodded. “It was.”
“Then I don’t understand . . .”
“You will in about two minutes.”
He returned his full attention to the road in front of them and she followed suit in time to notice the parade of empty buggies now lining both sides of the quiet Amish road as dusk settled around them. “What’s going on?”
They rounded the next corner in a near-crawl and then came to a complete stop on the far side of the driveway belonging to Daniel Lapp and his wife, Sarah. “Come on, it’s just past that tree line over there.”
She followed the path made by his outstretched finger but saw nothing out of the ordinary except the continued line of buggies and an usually bright light in the distance. “I’ve never seen a light like that on this side of town,” she mused.
“It’s propane powered and it’s a necessity tonight.” Unlatching his door, he stepped onto the road and met her on the passenger side of the car, his hand finding hers in the growing darkness. “Come on. This is a sight not many people outside of Lancaster County ever get to see, and they should.”
She quickened her pace at the slight tug to her hand and, together, they made their way along the winter brown grass that bordered the gravel road. A curious horse or two turned their head to watch as they passed, but, for the most part, it was just the two of them and whatever mission Jakob had in mind.
“Can I have a clue?”
“Nah.” He dropped back a step, put his hand to the small of her back, and guided her around an outcropping of trees. “You’re smart. I think you’ll figure out why I brought you here in about five seconds.”
“I’m not too sure what I think of this cryptic side of you . . .” She stopped speaking midprotest as they reached the next clearing. Jakob was right. She didn’t need an outstretched finger or verbal directions to know which way to look. The sheer volume of men working to clear burned and mangled debris from the spot where Jeremiah Stoltzfus’s barn had stood twenty-four hours earlier took care of that all on their own.
“By the day after tomorrow, there will be a brand-new barn in that exact spot.”
She heard Jakob’s voice, even processed his words, but the nonstop motion less than twenty yards away claimed the bulk of her attention and made her jaw go slack. “There are so many of them . . .”
And there were. Hundreds of hatted Amish men in black pants and suspenders worked together to move charred lumber and cover the site with fresh dirt. Teenagers carted fresh lumber from wagons and lined it up along the ground at a safe distance. Still younger boys sorted tools and passed out shovels for those who turned over the earth in hopes of accelerating the cooling process for anything still smoldering.
“The apostle Paul said that to fulfill the law of Christ, brethren must bear one another’s burdens,” Jakob explained. “The Amish believe that it is God’s will for them to assist each other through financial ruin, disaster, fire, sickness, and even old age.
“When there’s a fire like this one, the Amish come from all over to help. They bring bales of hay, tools, food, and anything they think the family might need. Once the fire is cool and the debris is removed, they start raising a new barn.” He leaned against the nearest tr
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