Heavenly, PA has been transformed into a Christmas wonderland, and Claire is delighted to celebrate the season...but a fiendish killer has other plans in this all-new installment in the national bestselling series.
As the owner of Heavenly Treasures, the local gift shop, Claire is busier than ever helping her English customers (and even a few of her Amish friends, like Esther and Ben) find the perfect gift for the special people on their shopping list.
Claire makes sure she has time for her boyfriend, Detective Jakob Fisher. But the man, who was raised and then shunned by the Amish over his choice of career, has been unusually secretive lately. She tries not to worry, to trust their relationship, but trying and doing aren't exactly matching up.
Before she can figure out what's going on with Jakob, word comes that Ruth and Samuel Yoder are being questioned in the death of an elderly Amish couple, found murdered not long after the newlyweds were seen leaving the victims' farm. Ruth, in turn, seeks Claire's help in convincing the police that she and Samuel had nothing to do with what happened. But when Claire comes across a cryptic note tucked inside the wedding gift the victims had given the newlyweds no more than an hour before their murder, she finds herself in dire need of a little convincing as well.
Can Claire get to the bottom of things in time to ensure a merry Christmas for all?
About the Author
While spending a rainy afternoon at a friend's house as a child, Laura Bradford fell in love with writing over a stack of blank paper, a box of crayons, and a freshly sharpened number-two pencil. From that moment forward, she never wanted to do or be anything else. Today, Laura is the national bestselling author of the Amish Mysteries, including Just Plain Murder and A Churn for the Worse. She is also the author of the Emergency Desert Squad Mysteries, and, as Elizabeth Lynn Casey, she wrote the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
Claire Weatherly backed away from the butcher block paper, her thoughts, her gaze, riveted on the single taunting question mark she'd underlined a half-dozen times over the past hour. Every detail she'd painstakingly planned for Heavenly's first ever Christmas festival was right there in front of her in red and green marker.
The Living Nativity was all set now, thanks to Esther and Eli Miller's promise of three sheep . . .
Santa Claus was secured for a five p.m. arrival atop Heavenly's sparkly new firetruck . . .
The horse-drawn sleigh that would transport festival-goers from one end of Lighted Way to the other had been located and rented . . .
Annie's friends had agreed to sing Christmas carols by the gazebo . . .
The Amish teen tasked with manning the open fire so folks could roast their own chestnuts had confirmed his participation . . .
The flyers she'd created the previous weekend were already posted on every shopkeeper's door, and buzz was growing . . .
"That is a lot of things for one person to keep track of."
Slanting her attention toward the open doorway, Claire smiled at the Amish woman standing just a few feet away, studying the paper with a mixture of curiosity and confusion. "Ruth Miller-I mean, Yoder! How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough to know you have been working very hard on your plans." Ruth stepped forward, collected her hug, and then reclaimed their original distance to study Claire from head to toe. "But not quite long enough to know why you look so worried."
Claire opened her mouth to protest her friend's assessment but instead perched against the edge of her simple metal desk and allowed her shoulders the sag she could no longer hold back. "It's just that I want One Heavenly Night to be perfect. For everyone. I mean, I know there will be things that work and things that don't. It's new, so mistakes will be made. But it's my first real sizable contribution as a Lighted Way business owner, and I want it to be the best it can be."
"And you do not think it will be?" Ruth asked, her naturally arched brows inching upward toward the snippet of blond hair peeking out around the edges of her white prayer kapp.
Claire looked again at the paper. "It's missing something. It's not something big, or probably even all that important, really, but whatever it is, I feel like it'll tie the proverbial bow on everything."
"If you need another cow, Samuel can bring over Nettie or Nellie. And if it is a goat, he could bring over Gussy."
"No, the animal portion of the Living Nativity is all set, although I'll keep that in mind should one of your brother's cows or goats come down with a case of stage fright."
"A cow is just a cow," Ruth said, drawing back, her startlingly blue eyes momentarily dull. "And a goat is just a goat. They do not get stage fright."
Claire's answering laugh filled the tiny work space. "Technically, I was kidding. But it's the unexpected stuff that tends to throw a monkey wrench into stuff like"-she swept her hand toward the papered wall-"this."
"I saw Esther today," Ruth said, stepping all the way into the office. "She is very excited for your festival, too. Everyone in our district is."
"I'm glad." And she was. Really. It was just tempered, quite heavily, by a healthy case of nerves she couldn't quite get under control . . .
"What do you think it is missing?"
Claire swung her gaze back to her plans and shrugged. "I don't know. One final touch that will put a smile on everyone's face."
"Perhaps this"-Ruth held out her hand to reveal a small rectangular piece of candy wrapped in green wax paper and tied at each end with red ribbon-"will put a smile on your face while you figure it out."
Claire's stomach rumbled in response as she took the treat. "What is this? It looks so festive."
"It is one of Hannah's caramel candies wrapped for the holiday."
"One of Hannah's caramels?" she echoed, untying both ribbons. "Ooooh, I love Hannah's caramels."
"Then I am glad I brought you one."
"I am, too." She folded back the top edge of the green waxed paper, took a bite of the candy, and gave in to the moan of pleasure the first bite always demanded. "Oh. Wow. So, so good."
Ruth nodded knowingly. "Yah. People still buy my apple pies, but it is Hannah's caramels that are the favorite now."
"Trust me, it's not a reflection on your pies," Claire said between chews. "It's just that the newbies to Lighted Way aren't getting lured up the steps by their smells the way they did when you worked there. Now I think it's more about what kind of treat they're hankering for when they go into the bake shop on their own accord. Maybe they want caramels, maybe they want brownies, maybe they want cookies . . . But if they opt for a piece of your apple pie, I have no doubt they'll be every bit as addicted as your unending allegiance of fans."
Shyness drove Ruth's gaze toward the floor while hunger pulled Claire's attention back to the remaining candy in her hand. "I love this wrapper . . ."
"It was what you said to Samuel and the other shopkeepers that made me think of such wrappers," Ruth said, looking up.
"What I said?"
"Yah. Samuel said it was when you spoke of"-Ruth gestured toward the papered wall again-"your special night."
Claire waved at the woman's words with her candy-holding hand. "It's not my special night, Ruth. It's for everyone who lives in Heavenly. It's for the grown-ups and the kids and everyone in between. If the holiday window displays in front of Glick's Tools 'n More, and Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe, and Glorious Books, and Heavenly Brews, and Taste of Heaven(ly), and your Samuel's furniture shop lull people back to shop along Lighted Way the next day, that's wonderful. But the real fun, the real memories, the real reason for doing this, will be happening outside-on the sidewalk and by the gazebo, and down in the park area. That's where people will be celebrating the season and visiting with their neighbors. Assuming, of course, people even come . . ."
"You do not think people will come?" Ruth asked, stepping back.
"I can't know for sure. Not yet, anyway." Claire finished the last bite of caramel and then carefully folded the green paper in her hand. "It's the first time doing this. There's no precedent."
"It is all Esther and I talked about this morning."
"So then you'll both be there? With Samuel and Eli, too?"
"Yah. Many Amish will be there. They have said so when Samuel and I have been visiting."
She peeked at Ruth, her thoughts tilting between her friend and the festival. "You and Samuel have not finished your post-wedding visits yet?"
"Sunday we will finish. With Mary and Daniel Esch." Ruth leaned her slender frame against the wall, her eyes, if not her thoughts, returning to the paper and Claire's notes. "When we learned Samuel's hope would not be so, I wished we had visited them first. But he is a good man. He understands God's will and does not question."
She knew Ruth was talking, even knew it was something she probably wanted to hear, but at that moment all she could really focus on was the green wrapper, the red ribbons, and-
"Wait . . . Oh my gosh-Ruth! This is it! The missing piece!" Holding up the wrapper and ribbons, Claire unleashed her growing smile on Ruth. "These candies! Wrapped up just like this! Can Hannah make more? For us . . . for this?" She jerked her chin and Ruth's attention back to the board as the elusive last detail finally clicked into place. "It-it doesn't even have to be just caramels. It could be peppermints, or-or brownies, or wait-no, I've got it! We'll do cookies . . . shaped ones. Maybe a snowman or a reindeer or something like that. And they could be decorated really sweetly, so they look extra special when the kids untie these red ribbons and pull off this green paper!"
Ruth furrowed her brow. "I would need to cut the wrappers larger for a shaped cookie . . ."
"You cut this wrapper yourself?" she asked, looking down at the wrapper and ribbons once again. "You didn't buy these?"
"I bought the paper and the ribbons, but I cut them to the right size, just as I do with the white paper the caramels are usually wrapped in."
"I can help cut them during quiet times here, and maybe Hannah could do the same at the bake shop. And I'm sure, if we needed more help, Esther would lend a hand, especially if we timed it to when the baby is sleeping. And maybe, after each cookie is wrapped up, we could stick on one of those little Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe stickers you always used on your pie boxes."
Ruth reached out, touched the wrapper, and then pulled her hand back, the hint of a smile lifting her already high cheekbones even higher. "Would you need many cookies?"
"I don't know . . . maybe a hundred, maybe . . ." Turning back toward her desk, Claire grabbed her festival notebook and flipped to the second page. "Yeah, I'm thinking you'll need to make more like a hundred and fifty just to be safe. I'd rather have some leftovers than not have enough for every child who comes. If we have a surplus, I could always take the leftovers to the police station, or some of the Amish schools around town, or even the library, for that matter."
"One hundred and fifty is a lot of cookies and a lot of wrappers," Ruth said.
Rising up on the toes of her ankle-length boots, Claire closed the notebook, hugged it to her chest, and let loose a tiny squeal. "I'd be willing to help bake so it wouldn't take too much of your time from Samuel. And as for Benjamin and Eli, it's not like Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe would be donating these cookies at its own expense. The Lighted Way Business Association would pay you for the cookies just like we're paying to rent the sled and the horse and the chestnuts and everything else we need to pull this thing off."
"They would buy them?"
"Absolutely. Just tell me what you would've charged for them when you were working at the bake shop, and we'll pay the same amount."
"A hundred and fifty cookies, you say?" Ruth asked.
"For one night . . ."
Claire swapped the notebook for the red marker, pulled off the cap, and held it to the butcher block paper. "That's right, one night-One Heavenly Night, to be exact . . . So? What do you say? Do you think Samuel will be okay letting Shoo Fly Bake Shoppe borrow his new wife for however long it'll take to make, decorate, and wrap a hundred and fifty Christmas cookies?"
"It would only take a few hours," Ruth mused, tapping her finger to her chin. "And it would certainly help with . . ." Waving away the rest of her sentence, Ruth nodded at Claire and the marker. "Yah. I think a hundred and fifty cookies will please Samuel very much."
Claire lowered the red and white porcelain mug to her lap and sagged back against the wooden swing, defeated. "For a moment there, I'd actually dared to hope the steam was playing tricks with my eyes, but it's not. The gap is there, the gap is real."
"Gap?" Aunt Diane tucked her chin inside the turned-up collar of her down coat.
"In the lights. See?" Claire pointed at the colorfully lit spruce tree just beyond Sleep Heavenly's front porch. "It's about midway up, and then slightly to the right."
"Midway up, slightly to the right, and"-Diane dismissed her visual tour with a flick of her hand-"I don't see any sort of gap."
"No, it's there. Squint," she said, demonstrating. "You'll see it."
Diane looked back at Claire. "Why? Who walks around squinting?"
"You don't do it because people walk around that way, Aunt Diane. You do it just in case. So you can know it's perfect."
"Seems to me the only thing your squint test does each year is drive you batty."
"There's that, yes. But it works!" she protested.
The sixty-three-year-old innkeeper rolled her eyes. "Remind me again, dear, who taught you this silly squint test? Because I'd like to remove them from my Christmas card list if they're on it, or add them just so I can remove them if they're not."
With one last look at the strands of lights she'd spent the better part of two hours arranging, Claire pulled the mug to her chest and breathed in the limited warmth that remained. "I'm not sure exactly. Probably someone in New York-an old co-worker, or someone I met through Peter, maybe?"
"Then consider whoever it was to be on and"-Aunt Diane brushed her gloved palms against each other-"now off my list. And you-you need to just see that tree the way I see it."
Lifting the mug to her lips, Claire refrained from taking a sip in favor of smiling at her father's only sister. "Okay, so tell me how you see it, then . . ."
"Beautiful. Elegant. Charming. Magical. And most definitely spirit-igniting."
"Spirit-igniting?" she echoed, cocking an eyebrow.
Aunt Diane nodded. "I could see you from the kitchen window while you were stringing those lights."
"I left the soup simmering while I went up into the attic and brought down my Christmas decorations for the kitchen." Aunt Diane unburied her chin just long enough to take a sip of her own drink. "Those Santa canister covers we bought at that outdoor market over the summer look even more darling on my countertops than I imagined. Ditto for the Rudolph spoon rest."
"Ooooh, I must see them." Claire dropped her slipper-clad feet onto the floor, stilling the swing's answering sway with the tip of one foot. "Martha brought in some canister covers with snowflakes embroidered on them for the store. I'm sure they're going to fly off the shelf, like everything else she makes does."
Aunt Diane's chin rose above her collar once again, her warm brown eyes landing on Claire. "Actually, dear, could we hold off on looking at the kitchen for a few moments? Maybe talk for a little while instead?"