In the wake of his estranged wife’s murder, widower Michael Forster returns to the Amish community he’d left as a teen. He wants a fresh start for himself and his daughter, Allie, away from those who still believe he’s guilty. In River Haven, a quieter life seems possible. If only Allie’s Amish schoolteacher, Catherine Brandt, was easier to ignore.
A problem solver by nature, Cathy can tell Allie’s withdrawn demeanor isn’t due to shyness. But getting through to Allie also means breaching her father’s hardened defenses. What starts as persistence soon grows into an attraction neither Cathy nor Michael saw coming. When the past suddenly threatens both his daughter and the woman he loves, Michael must risk everything to save them.
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The sign at the edge of town was new since he'd been here last. Welcome to River Haven. Michael Forster could only hope the welcome was genuine and that River Haven would prove to be a haven for a man who'd lost everything.
No, not everything. A glance in the rearview mirror showed him Allie, sitting very quietly and looking out the window beside her as the small town came into view. Too quietly for an eight-year-old?
Allie had never been a talkative child — at least not with him. How could she have been? He'd left for work before she was up in the morning, and arrived home, dead tired, just when she was going to bed. On weekends Diana wanted to socialize with her new friends, not spend yet more time with their child.
He could blame Diana's insatiable desire to have more of everything for the life they'd led. But he'd let her ambition become his. He'd devoted himself with single-minded determination to being what the world called a success. Now ... now none of that was left. He'd come, finally, to know how empty it had been.
What use was it to blame Diana now? Her death had changed everything, making Allie retreat even more into a silent world of her own. His mind winced away from the circumstances of that death and from the weeks and months that followed — the confusion, the questioning, the suspicion, finally the accusations.
It was over now. He'd come back to River Haven, to the only hope of home he had, with only one aim — to start a new life for Allie.
The state highway became Main Street, as it did in many Pennsylvania small towns, and shops and houses mingled on either side of the street. Off to the left he could glimpse the river, a little high with spring rains, and to the right the valley widened into fertile farmland before lifting to the wooded ridge.
"Daddy?" Allie's small voice surprised him after two hours of silence. "Why are there horses along that building?"
He sent a quick look in the direction she pointed. "That's the hardware store. The horses and buggies belong to Amish people who are shopping there. They don't drive cars, just buggies."
Her tightly controlled face didn't change, but her brown eyes filled with something that might have been wonder. "I wish I could ride in a buggy."
The words hit him like a hammer. He was bringing an eight-year-old into a completely new environment and he hadn't explained even the simplest things she should expect. That didn't say much about his parenting skills. But at least this surprise might be a good one.
"You will, I promise," he assured her. "Your cousins are Amish, and they ride in buggies all the time. They'll take you for lots of rides."
Would they? A momentary doubt assailed him. Great-Aunt Verna had invited them to share her home — they could be sure of a welcome there. But the rest of his family ...
Would they be happy to see him after all the years he'd ignored them? Or would they be as unforgiving as his father had been? Once Daad had made it clear that he didn't forgive, it had seemed pointless to try to contact his brothers and sister.
He'd know soon. They were approaching the other end of town already, and he'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts he hadn't noticed what should have been familiar landmarks.
"There's Great-Aunt Verna's place." He pointed. "See that white house with the greenhouses beyond it? That's her house. That's where we're going to live. She's actually your great-great-aunt, but you can call her Aunt Verna."
No response, unless he could count the apprehension that shadowed her eyes. He wanted to say something to chase it away, but he couldn't.
I promise. I promise I'll protect you. Always.
Michael pulled into the lane that ran between the house and the greenhouses and ended at the small barn and cluster of outbuildings. The racks along the outside of the first greenhouse were bright with spring flowers and herbs. He should have remembered that early May was prime time for the greenhouse business.
There was no time to notice more, because Aunt Verna appeared on the side porch, waving, and moving faster than any eighty-three-year-old ought to. He saw who came behind her, putting a steadying arm around her waist, and his heart leaped. Sarah, his "twin," eleven months younger than he was and always both closest ally and direst enemy in the perpetual battle of the siblings.
He stopped the car and went around, opening the door and offering his hand to Allie. She didn't usually take it, but this time she did, gripping it tightly as they moved toward the others.
Aunt Verna, eyes sparkling with tears in spite of her broad smile, swept him into a hug. "So. At last you come home to us."
The words were spoken in Pennsylvania Dutch, and to his surprise his mind switched easily back into that mode.
But he couldn't let that happen. "Englisch, please." He planted a kiss on Verna's cheek, rosy and wrinkled like a dried apple. "This is Allie." He drew her forward, but she clung to his side. "She doesn't know the dialect."
He glimpsed the disapproval in his great-aunt's eyes before her warm smile chased it away. She bent to Allie, reaching out to touch the child's shoulder lightly. "So you are Allie, and I am Aunt Verna. Wilkom. We are wonderful glad you're here."
Michael didn't see how Allie reacted, because Sarah grabbed him, a hand on each arm, pulling him around to face her. For a long moment she stared at him — long enough for him to see the changes that ten years had made. It was an Amish matron who faced him now, not the lively teenager he'd left behind. Then suddenly her face crinkled into laughter, and she was his Sarah again, pulling him in for a hug, laughing and hitting his shoulder all at the same time.
He returned the hug, lifting her off her feet the way he'd done when he'd first grown taller than she was. "It's so good to see you, Sally." The childhood nickname came to his lips automatically.
"I've been right here the whole time," she reminded him, giving him another light punch.
It was in his mind to ask about his father, but a glance at the child who stood next to his sister kept him silent. Daad's reaction to his return might not be something Sarah wanted to mention in front of her daughter.
"This is Ruthie, my oldest." She nodded to the little girl next to her. "Ruthie, this is Onkel Michael. And that's Cousin Allie. She's just your age, so you can be her special friend."
Ruthie had her mother's laughing green eyes and silky blond hair. And it looked as if she shared Sarah's engaging disposition, because she gave him a quick grin and went straight to Allie.
"Hi. I'm your cousin Ruthie. I know where your room is. You want me to show you?"
To his utter astonishment, Allie nodded. She took the hand Ruthie held out. The two of them trotted up the porch steps and into the house, letting the screen door slam behind them.
Michael looked from his aunt to his sister. "If I hadn't seen that, I wouldn't believe it. Allie's always so shy."
"It's blood," Aunt Verna said matter-of-factly. "Cousins always know each other."
"And brothers and sisters just pick up where they left off," Sarah said. "Let us help you unload. My husband and the kids will be here for supper before you know it."
"We thought you wouldn't want a houseful on your first night, so it'll just be us," Aunt Verna added.
He looked at Sarah. "Your family?" He was vaguely ashamed that he had to ask.
"I married Lige Esch. Remember him? Besides Ruthie, we have twins, Jacob and James, and the baby, Sally. So she's Sally now, not me."
"I'll remember." Anyway he'd try. "About Daad ..."
Sarah shook her head slightly, her eyes darkening. "I'm sorry. He's as stubborn as he always was."
He shrugged, turning to the car to pull out a couple of suitcases. Some things didn't change, for good or bad.
Somehow that thought kept running through his mind while he was unloading the car and putting things away in the rooms Aunt Verna had given Allie and him. Daad had always been harder on him than on any of the others. That went with being the oldest son, he guessed. Daad had never been forgiving of even the minor troubles any boy got into. How could he think Daad would change over something this big?
It didn't matter. Nothing did, except starting a new life for Allie.
He shoved an empty suitcase into the closet and stood looking around the bedroom assigned to him. The house was a typical Pennsylvania farmhouse, starting with two rooms up and two rooms down and gradually added on to as families grew. The spotlessly clean room was sparsely furnished, with a handmade double wedding ring quilt on the bed, a sturdy oak dresser and an oak desk with a battery-powered lamp. What else did anyone need?
Michael stepped out into the hall and paused for a moment by the door of the room allotted to Allie. Ruthie seemed to be chattering away, with a word or two from Allie now and then. Not much, but at least she was talking.
A wave of gratitude swept over him for Sarah, who'd done exactly the right thing in bringing Ruthie to be a friend for Allie. He could leave them together.
He took two steps down the stairs, glanced at the bottom and stopped, clinging to the railing. The memory roared over him before he could brace himself.
Eight months ago. He'd come back to the house hoping to talk to Diana, thinking if only they'd sit down and discuss things they could find some solution other than the divorce she'd decided she wanted so badly.
All right, so they hadn't been getting along well for months, maybe years. Diana had wanted to spend the evenings entertaining or being entertained, enjoying the company of the fancy new friends she'd made since they'd moved to an upscale suburb. He'd come home from working crazy hours, trying to make a go of the construction company he'd started so that she could have the endless list of things she needed — the things, she'd pointed out, that would have been hers by right if she hadn't been so foolish as to run away and marry a penniless Amish teen.
Their relationship had gone from bad to worse, right up to the night he'd come home and found she'd packed a bag for him. She needed breathing space, she'd said. A little time apart would do them both good.
Both, nothing. She wanted her freedom, that soon became clear. She wanted a divorce.
He'd arrived at the house that last night to find she'd changed the locks. A simple thing, but it infuriated him. This was his house, built by his sweat and muscle. And she had changed the locks.
He'd pressed the doorbell, hearing it chiming again and again. Diana had to be there — her car was visible in the garage. He pounded, resisting the temptation to shout. No use rousing the neighbors and having someone calling the cops.
Okay, she was there and she wouldn't answer. She'd find it would take more than a locked door to keep him out. It was the work of moments to pop the lock on the side door to the garage and go in that way. He stormed into the kitchen, calling her name.
Nothing. His thoughts fled to Allie, and he took the stairs two at a time. If she'd gone out and left Allie alone in the house —
But Allie's room was empty, her bed made, the stuffed dog that slept with her gone. Overnight at a friend's? It slid through his mind to wonder why Diana would farm her out on a school night.
He went quickly through the rest of the upstairs, then the downstairs, his anger building. Where was she? Heading through the kitchen, he spotted a line of light under the basement door. He grabbed the knob, yanked it open and choked on her name.
Diana was there. He could see her, but his mind didn't accept what he saw. She lay at the bottom of the basement steps, the back of her head covered with blood.
Somehow he'd stumbled down the steps, knelt beside her, crying her name. Touched her hand and found it cold, stone cold. Diana was dead.
Voices from below recalled him to the present. He was gripping the stair rail in Aunt Verna's house, his knuckles white. The past was gone, and no one could force him to relive it. He made himself let go, to focus on the voice calling his name.
"Michael, supper! Ruthie, Allie, supper!"
"Coming." He heard the clatter of children's feet behind him and started down.
By the time he reached the kitchen he'd put his game face back on. He had no idea how much the family knew, but Harrisburg was only two hours away, and the local papers would have picked up the story.
It was like a splash of cold water in his face. What had he been thinking? This was Diana's hometown as well as his. Her relatives still lived here. Everyone would know. This could be the worst possible place he could resettle.
But he didn't have much choice. At least here there were a few people who still believed in him. Aunt Verna had offered him a home. He could make this work. He had to.
By the time supper ended, with a huge slab of cherry pie and a mug of coffee, Michael had almost persuaded himself it was going to be all right. He sat back, silent, and surveyed his family.
Aunt Verna never changed — if anything, her fiercely independent spirit had intensified. She'd taken over the greenhouse business after her husband's early death, run it her way and turned it into a thriving business. She was scrupulously honest, blunt-spoken, and she had a heart as big as all outdoors.
As for Sarah ... he still saw his lively, mischievous, pesky little sister behind the facade of the Amish matron able to serve an immense meal, correct the four-year-old twins' table manners, feed the baby and take part in the conversation at the same time. In comparison, her husband, Lige, was soft-spoken, slow and steady in his movements, able to quiet his sons with a glance and share a look of love and harmony with Sarah that sent a sharp stab of regret through Michael's heart. That was what he and Diana should have had.
He and Lige lingered over coffee, talking about some building repair the oldest greenhouse needed, when Sarah interrupted with a question.
"What are you going to do about school for Allie?"
Allie, sitting on the floor in the corner helping Ruthie build a block tower for the baby to knock over, looked up alertly.
Michael rubbed the back of his neck. Something else he should already have thought through, he guessed. "I don't know. Isn't there still an elementary school on Oak Street?"
Sarah and Aunt Verna exchanged glances, and he suspected they'd talked this over already. "You want to send her to school with the Englisch?" Sarah's voice was carefully neutral.
"That's what she's used to." Irritation prickled. He was trying to do what was best for Allie, wasn't he?
"She would be very wilkom at our school, and Catherine Brandt is a wonderful gut teacher," Sarah said. "Besides, then Allie could be with Ruthie."
"But ..." Objections formed in his mind.
"I want to go to school with Ruthie." Allie's voice startled him, even though he'd known she was listening. "Okay?"
They all looked at him, and he had the sense of being both outnumbered and outmaneuvered. "Are you sure? The English school would be more like your old school."
Allie shook her head, her face set stubbornly. "I want to be with Ruthie."
He hesitated, wishing for a sense of certainty about Allie's future that didn't come. Finally he shrugged. "Okay, the Amish school it is."
Satisfaction and approval filled the room, and he sensed he'd passed the first hurdle on the road home. He wasn't sure he liked that. He'd have said he hadn't missed this life at all, but now it seemed to reach out, surround him and pull him in.
Sarah had begun to make noises about getting her brood home to bed when Lige suggested he and Michael check out the section of greenhouse that needed work.
"You're a builder, ain't so?" There might have been a little challenge in Lige's steady gaze. "You'll want to help with the work."
It wasn't a question. Obviously, he was part of the family so he'd help. "Sure thing. Let's have a look."
The sun had slid behind the ridge, and a cool wind blew across the valley as night drew in. It seemed natural, somehow, to walk along with Lige, discussing the materials that might be needed. He could have been talking to any of the men he'd worked with over the years.
They'd just passed the parked car when Lige stopped dead. "What's that on your car?" He pointed the beam of the large flashlight he carried.
Michael looked, and his stomach recoiled. Blood — splashed over the front of the car. Blood on Diana's head, soaking into the basement floor — Reason asserted itself. It couldn't be. He forced himself to walk forward, to touch it, to smell.
"It's paint. Looks like someone emptied a gallon of the stuff over the car." His relief was forced out by anger.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Amish Outsider"
Copyright © 2019 Martha P. Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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