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Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Charlotte pulled her black sweater snug and looked around at the people in attendance for her mother's funeral, a final good-bye to the woman Charlotte only thought of as Janell despite their shared genes. Almost everyone at the service was Amish, except for a couple of people from the psychiatric hospital where Janell had resided for the past three months. Was it obligatory for someone from the rehab facility to attend or, at the least, considered polite protocol?
Bursts of sunlight penetrated a cloudless blue sky as orange, yellow, and red leaves swirled within a gentle breeze, misting the small crowd. As a groundskeeper fought to corral the fallen leaves into a pile, a tractor in the distance harvested a corn maze in which Charlotte wished she could get lost.
Janell had fled four days ago, apparently found her drug of choice, and overdosed. At least that was what the autopsy results would most likely reveal. She had been found on the outskirts of Lancaster County, lying on the steps of a small church with a syringe in her hand. Preliminary toxicology reports showed large doses of methamphetamine in her system — enough to stop her heart, the doctors said. It would remain a mystery as to how Janell ended up at the church, but Charlotte prayed that she'd brought Jesus into her heart before she left this life.
Janell had been an abusive mother, whom Charlotte had tried to love after reconnecting with her a few months ago. She knew her mother's mind wasn't right, but even after Janell had been weaned off the drugs, she spat abuse like a snake, poisoning anyone who came near her with a large dose of verbal venom.
Charlotte wasn't sure if her mother's passing was unintentional, or if she'd committed suicide, like Ethan. She couldn't help but worry since she had the same DNA makeup as the rest of her family. A father killed in a barroom brawl. A mother hooked on meth with mental problems and a mean streak. And a brother whose heart was too tender to endure heartbreak, so he'd taken his own life. I miss you every day, Ethan.
Trembling, she forced herself not to cry. A part of her wanted to weep for the mother she'd never had, but stifling her tears protected her from an onslaught of emotions that might derail her. Despite her odious childhood, a few tender memories crept to the surface, comingling loss and anger into a knurly ball of grief.
Daniel reached for her hand and squeezed, a particularly endearing gesture since the Plain People weren't big on public displays of affection. Charlotte loved him for embracing her shaky hand at that moment, but she also loved Daniel Byler for the many ways he'd calmed her soul since she moved to Paradise, in the heart of Lancaster County.
A few moments after the pastor said the final prayer, Hannah Miller and her new husband, Isaac, walked up to Charlotte and Daniel. Hannah's face was moist, her cheeks flushed. Charlotte eased her hand from Daniel's to hug her. Hannah didn't really know Janell, so Charlotte was surprised by the outpouring of emotion, something else uncommon to her Amish friends.
Hannah held on to Charlotte like her life depended on it. She finally backed away as her bottom lip trembled. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Charlotte nodded, sniffling. Hannah was her best friend, but if anyone knew that Janell's passing was causing Charlotte to have mixed emotions, it was Hannah. And ultimately, the Amish believed that everything that came to pass was God's will.
"Where are your parents?" Charlotte had noticed that Amos and Lena weren't at the funeral, which was odd.
"They said they are sorry they can't be here." Hannah reached into the pocket of her apron, pulled out a tissue, and dabbed at her eyes.
Charlotte waited for Hannah to give her a reason for their absence, but Hannah just hugged her again, then turned and left. Isaac tipped his hat before they both walked away.
"Do you think Hannah is acting funny?" she asked Daniel, staring into the comfort of his soft gray eyes, his broad shoulders a protective shield from the early morning rays of sunshine.
He shrugged. "People handle death in different ways."
"I guess." Charlotte wanted to fall into Daniel's arms. Not only would it be inappropriate, but the bishop was heading their way.
Bishop Miller offered his condolences to Charlotte before he asked to speak to Daniel privately. Michael Miller, a man in his early forties, was the youngest bishop Daniel's district had ever had. As such, he was thought to be more lenient than past bishops and elders in the community.
Charlotte knew more about the Amish folks than she could have ever thought possible. Most of them had welcomed her into their world, although some slower than others.
Daniel walked with Bishop Miller until they were away from the crowd and out of earshot. The bishop sighed as he ran a hand the length of his dark beard, slowing his stride as he turned to face Daniel. "Today is not the right time, but I feel we must talk, Daniel. Can you come visit with me within the week?"
Daniel swallowed hard. Bishop Miller had only been bishop for a year, and so far he'd been fair. But Daniel feared that an ultimatum was heading his way. "Ya. Okay." He squinted from the sun's glare, not wanting to prolong the conversation. He searched the area until he saw Charlotte talking with his mother and sister. "Can we just talk now?"
Bishop Miller nodded. "Ya. Then we can follow up at another time if you'd like." He paused, stroking his beard again. "I took note of those in attendance today, and they were mostly our people. Charlotte has become a member of our district without being a member at all. She's not even Amish, yet she seems to be living the lifestyle."
Frowning, the bishop raised one shoulder, taking his time to drop it. "But she only practices some of our ways. She has no electricity, but she drives a big red pickup. She attends our worship services every other week, but she hasn't been baptized into the faith. And the entire community knows a romance is kindling between the two of you."
Daniel stood taller, his jaw tensed, ready to defend Charlotte's reputation if necessary.
Bishop Miller chuckled. "Calm down, Daniel. I know what it's like to be in love, and I know that you and Charlotte are abiding by God's rules as you sort through your emotions. But I feel that it's time for her to consider what she wants. She can't have her cake and eat it too, as the Englisch would say."
"Ya, ya. I know." Daniel eased his stance and shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he scratched his head. "She lives in her bruder's haus, and it didn't have electricity when it was left to her after his death."
Daniel had felt comfort in the fact that Charlotte hadn't chosen to put electricity in. At first her decision had been financial, but she'd been at her proofreading job at the newspaper long enough that Daniel suspected she could have installed power if she'd wanted to. "As for the worship services ..." He sighed. "Hannah and her parents are Charlotte's family, and I think she wants to share in that fellowship with them."
Bishop Miller smiled. "Back in my father's and grandfather's days, an Englischer would not be allowed to worship with us on a regular basis. And if a young lad was courting someone in the outside world, he could have expected a good talking-to. But I've let this go on between you and Charlotte because the poor girl has suffered, and I was hoping that the two of you would figure things out. But I fear the time has come to make decisions. If a situation goes on for too long, it becomes the norm, and I can't allow that."
He held up a finger. "Now, having said that, Charlotte must be given time to grieve. But I would like to see this resolved — one way or the other — before the holidays are here."
Daniel nodded as he glanced back at Charlotte again, still talking to his mother and Annie.
"Your mudder would also like to see this resolved." Bishop Miller winked at Daniel.
"Ya, ya ..." Daniel said under his breath. His mother had been one of the last people to accept Charlotte into her heart, fearful the Englisch woman would snatch her son away and take him into her world. His mother wasn't aware that Daniel would go with Charlotte wherever God's path led them, even if that meant leaving the district. He loved her, and his future was with her.
Bishop Miller put a hand on Daniel's arm. "Please tell Charlotte I am sorry for her loss."
Daniel watched the bishop walk away. If the man only knew how many times Daniel had tried to talk to Charlotte about making a life together. Too many to count.
Charlotte held her breath as Eve put a hand on her stomach and cringed. Daniel's mother was eight months pregnant. And in her fifties. "Are you okay?"
Eve nodded. "Ya, ya." After a couple of moments, a smile filled her face. "This little one is more active than Daniel or Annie ever was."
Charlotte glanced at Annie, who was scowling.
"You shouldn't have come," Annie said to her mother before she turned to Charlotte. "Daniel tried to talk her out of attending the funeral. Too much walking, and she's been having these pains, which the doctor said were early contractions." Annie folded her hands in front of her. "But she wanted to pay her respects."
"Eve, I would have totally understood you not coming." Charlotte sighed. "And you shouldn't have ridden in a buggy for sure. I can take you home in Big Red."
Annie chuckled. "Are you still calling that old truck Big Red? I figured you would have bought a car by now."
Charlotte shrugged. "I guess I have a soft spot for that old truck." She'd been so touched when Amos King had given it to her, she couldn't imagine parting with it. "Anyway, I'm happy to drive you home." She paused. "Um ... Hannah and Isaac left without delay, and Lena and Amos didn't come today. Do you know if everything is all right?"
Daniel's mother and sister exchanged quick looks before Annie cleared her throat. "Ya, ya. I'm sure everything is fine." She blew out a big breath. "We have to go. We are so sorry for your loss, Charlotte."
"Don't you want me to take you home?" Charlotte called out to Eve as she and Annie started to leave.
"Nee, nee." Eve waved over her shoulder. "It's not that far."
Charlotte didn't move as her gaze drifted from Eve and Annie Byler to the casket. Three men were waiting, presumably until everyone left, so they could lower Janell into her final resting place. She looked around again. Almost everyone was gone. Daniel waved good-bye to the bishop and headed her way, but he stopped to talk to his mother and sister. Charlotte made her way to the casket, offering a weak smile to the three men.
She pulled a rose from one of the nearby flower arrangements. The Amish didn't believe in flowers at a funeral, but this wasn't an Amish funeral and her friends had made sure there was an abundance of flowers for the service.
The three men all stepped away, giving Charlotte some privacy. Her tears threatened to spill again, but more from guilt this time. God, forgive me. I feel relieved.
It was a horrible emotion to have, but when it came to Janell, there would always be more bad than good on which to reflect. Janell's resurrection back into Charlotte's life only picked up where she'd left off, chastising and berating Charlotte at every turn.
During her stay in the mental hospital, Janell had called Charlotte every name imaginable. The nurses had tried to make Charlotte feel better by insisting that Janell was mentally ill, in addition to her drug dependency. They were probably telling the truth, but Charlotte tried repeatedly to have a relationship with Janell, despite everything.
Now, as she stood staring at the casket, she finally cried — deep, wracking sobs she couldn't control. But when she felt a hand on her shoulder, she reached up, laid her hand on Daniel's, and quieted her cries. Again.
"Good-bye, Janell." She fought to keep the quaver out of her voice before she faced the man she loved. Charlotte tried to recall if Janell had ever told her that she loved her, and she couldn't think of one single time.
Charlotte gazed into Daniel's gray eyes as wispy strands of dark hair danced in a soft breeze around his strong face. "I love you very much." It was the first time she'd ever said it. She and Daniel had a secret code between them for the past few months. A triple hand squeeze meant "I love you," but neither one of them had ever said it. For Charlotte, she'd known that it would signify the need to make a decision.
Can I embrace the Amish religion in its entirety to be with Daniel? Something about the finality of Janell's passing made Charlotte think about how short life was. What if something happened to her tomorrow, or the next day?
Daniel pulled her into his arms. Everyone was gone or getting into their buggies. He kissed her on her forehead. "I've been waiting a long time to hear that."
Charlotte smiled through her tears. "I've been waiting a long time to say it."
"I love you too." He held her tighter. "But you know that."
She nodded, finally eased away, and sniffled. Looking over her shoulder, she closed her eyes. Rest in peace ... Mom.
"I'm ready." She latched on to Daniel's hand as they crossed through the cemetery toward Big Red. "I offered to take your mom home in the truck. I don't think she should be riding in the buggy when she's so far along."
"I offered to hire her a driver, but she wouldn't hear of it." Daniel shook his head.
They walked in silence for a few moments. In the far distance a man in a dark suit moved toward them. Charlotte thought it might be someone from the funeral home, stopping to offer condolences or to make sure everything went okay.
"Hannah acted funny when I asked her why Amos and Lena weren't here. And your mom and Annie acted a little weird too." She stopped and looked at him when his hand tensed around hers. "What's going on, Daniel?"
"I, uh ..." He took in a deep breath.
"I knew it. What is everyone not telling me?"
Daniel opened his mouth, then clamped it shut when the man in the suit came into range a few moments later. They both waited until he stopped in front of them.
"Are you Charlotte Dolinsky?" The guy pushed a pair of black sunglasses up on his head. His short, dark hair was neatly parted, and his ebony eyes pierced the space between them. The man had a boyish appearance and distinct dimples, even though Charlotte suspected he was around her age — late twenties. He raised an eyebrow as he waited for Charlotte to answer. She nodded.
He offered the hint of a smile but stilled his expression. "First, let me offer you my sincerest apologies on the death of your mother."
"Thank you." She prayed the man wasn't a bill collector. Charlotte had done a good job of getting her finances in order, but paying for her mother's funeral, modest as it was, had set her back. Even though Janell was considered indigent and qualified for state assistance, Charlotte didn't have the heart to concede to a pauper's burial. "Are you with the funeral home?"
He smiled a little. "No." He glanced over his shoulder at a black Lexus parked near the curb. "Does the name Andrea Rochelle mean anything to you?"
Charlotte stopped breathing as her heart hammered against her chest. "Who are you?"
The man looked down for a few moments at his shiny black shoes, then lifted his eyes to Charlotte again. "I'm Blake, a friend of Andrea's."
Daniel stayed quiet, but he clearly recognized the name, too, as he glanced back and forth between Charlotte and this stranger.
Charlotte gazed past Blake at the car, and she thought she saw movement from inside.
"So ... um, I just wanted to make sure I had the right person and if you knew who Andrea was."
Charlotte's knees were weak, and despite the cool fall temperatures, sweat broke out across her forehead. "Yes. I know who she is."
Blake looked over his shoulder again, then scratched his forehead and frowned as he turned back to Charlotte. "She felt like she should be here, but I can't persuade her to get out of the car. She's nervous about seeing you."
A vision Charlotte had fought to forget slammed into the forefront of her mind like a derailed train that had jumped the track and was heading right for her. The memories had haunted her for years, and now the product of those recollections was less than a basketball court away.
"Should I ...?" She glanced at Daniel, then back at Blake. "Should I go to the car?"
Blake raised a shoulder, then lowered it, his expression somber. "I guess it's up to you."
Charlotte looked at Daniel again.
"I think you will regret it if you don't," he said softly.
Charlotte took in a deep breath and blew it out in a slow stream.
Excerpted from "Home All Along"
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Wiseman Mackey.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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