Something was wrong with her little brother. Rachel Weaver Mason swept the paint roller along the wall of what would be the registration area for her bed-and-breakfast, darting a sideways glance at her brother Benjamin.
Benjamin knelt on the drop cloth, straw-colored hair hiding his eyes, as he carefully cut in the edge of cream paint next to the woodwork. Benj might be only fourteen, but like most Amish youth, he possessed a number of practical skills, along with a strong work ethic. He'd said he'd help her with the painting, and he'd turned up bright and early this morning for what he called a work frolic.
Rachel suppressed a faint twinge at the expression. With any ordinary Amish family, a dozen or more relatives would have shown up at the word she needed help with the house her mother-in-law had so surprisingly left her.
But she was not Amish any longer. Running away to marry Ronnie Mason at eighteen, leaving behind her home, her family and her faith, had put a period to that part of her life. Even though she'd come back to Deer Run in the end, a widow with a nine-year-old daughter to support, she couldn't expect to be treated as anything other than an outsider.
Only Benj, the little brother she'd hardly expected to remember her, looked at her as if she were family. The one time she'd seen her father since she'd returned, Daad had been as stiff and polite as if he'd never seen her before, and her heart still ached at the pain of that reception.
Was Daad hurting at the distance between them as well? Maybe so, but he'd never show it, and Mose, the brother who'd always been as close as a twin to her, copied Daad's attitude.
Maybe that was better than seeing the pain and longing in her mother's eyes. Mamm wanted her daughter back, wanted to be close to the granddaughter she barely knew, but Rachel's return couldn't wipe out the grief of her leaving. As for the two younger sisters who were little more than children when she'd leftwell, Naomi and Lovina watched her as warily as a robin might eye a prowling cat.
"New paint makes it look better, for sure." Benj sat back on his heels, glancing up at her with eyes as blue as her own.
Innocent eyes, but holding an edge of worry that didn't belong there. Benj shouldn't be jumping at sudden sounds and glancing warily around corners. That wasn't normal.
"Was ist letz?" The question came out of her without conscious thought in Pennsylvania Dutch, maybe because that was the language of her heart. "What's wrong, Benj? Are you worried about something?"
His hand jerked, depositing a drop of cream paint on the woodwork, and he bent to wipe it off with concentrated care. Benj was outgrowing the blue shirt he wore, his wrists sticking out of the sleeves, and the back of his neck was as vulnerable as her daughter Mandy's.
"Worried?" he said finally, not looking at her. "I got nothing to worry about, ain't so?" He tried to make it sound light, but his voice shook a little.
Rachel wanted to touch his shoulder, to draw him into her arms for comforting the way she would have when he was four. But she'd left then, abandoning him as she had the rest of the family. The fact that he seemed willing to start fresh with her didn't mean she could go back to the way things once were.
"I don't mean to pry," she said, choosing the words carefully. "But if you ever want to tell me anything at all, I can keep it to myself."
Benj seemed frozen, brush poised an inch from the wall. She held her breath, willing him to speak.
Then Mandy came clattering down the stairs, jumping the last few as if in too much of a hurry to take them one at a time, and the opportunity was gone.
"My room is all cleaned up," she announced. "Can I help paint now?"
Mandy had obviously fixed her own hair this morning. The honey-colored braids were loose enough that strands already worked their way free of the bands, and the part was slightly erratic.
"No pictures of puppies on the wall?" Benjamin grinned at Mandy, his troubles apparently forgotten for the moment.
"I'm way past that," she said loftily.
Rachel caught back a chuckle before Mandy could think she was being laughed at. Only nine, and Mandy sometimes sounded more like a teenager than Benjamin.
As for Benj, he treated Mandy like a little sister rather than the niece she actually was, to the obvious pleasure of both of them. He even had Mandy saying a few phrases in Pennsylvania Dutch.
"You can paint if you're careful." Rachel reminded herself that she'd wielded a pretty mean paintbrush at Mandy's age. Amish children learned to work alongside their parents almost from the time they could walk. "You can use this roller, and I'll go up the stepladder and do the top part."
"It's going to look so neat." Mandy grabbed the roller, and Rachel steadied her arm for the first few strokes. "It was nice of my grandmother to leave us her house, wasn't it? I wish we could have visited her."
Rachel used climbing the stepladder as a pretext for not answering the implied question. She certainly wasn't going to tell Mandy that the grandmother she'd been named after hadn't ever invited them to come, not even when Ronnie died.
Amanda Mason had known how to hold a grudge, and Ronnie had been just as bad. Well, he'd been hurt, and he'd tried to mask it by insisting he didn't care. His mother had always taken such pride in him that he hadn't expected her iron opposition to his marriage. He'd been so sure she'd come around, but she never did. Rachel's throat tightened, and she swallowed, trying to relax it.
Mandy swept the roller along the wall. "When it's all finished, then we'll start having guests, won't we, Mommy?"
"I hope so."
If they didn't.. Well, she wouldn't go there. Ronnie had left nothing for his widow and child but a few debts, and his mother's gift of the house hadn't included an income to run it on. But Mrs. Mason had left a trust fund to cover Mandy's education, to Rachel's everlasting gratitude.
Mandy wouldn't be tossed out into an unforgiving world with an eighth-grade education, the way Rachel had been, per Amish custom. That was a little fact neither she nor Ronnie, wrapped in the glow of first love, had taken into consideration.
"That's not so bad." Benjamin was studying Mandy's efforts. "Chust don't go too close to the woodwork, ja? I'll do that with the brush."
"Ja," Mandy echoed, her face serious and intent. Usually Rachel thought Mandy looked like her father, with that honey-colored hair and those changeable green eyes, but sometimes, as now, her expression was like looking into a mirror.
Benjamin moved over to paint next to Mandy, grinning at her, his face relaxed as he said something teasing to her about finishing first. His expression reassured Rachel. Surely there couldn't be anything seriously wrong, or he wouldn't be laughing with Mandy, would he?
She'd been jumping to conclusions, maybe putting her own worries and fears onto him. He was probably
The front door rattled with a knock and opened. Rachel turned, brush in hand, and whatever she'd been about to think was forgotten when she looked at Benjamin. Eyes wide with fear or shock, body rigid, a muscle visibly twitching by his mouth.
She'd been right to begin with. Something was very wrong with her little brother.
Rachel forced herself to glance aside. Benj was at a sensitive agehe wouldn't like knowing he'd given himself away to her.
And she found her stomach jolting as she looked instead at Colin McDonald. He stood in her hallway, seeming as cool and relaxed as if he were in his own house. But then, nothing ever did ruffle Colin. Whether he'd been driving his truck far too fast up a mountain road or winning a bet by climbing to the top of steep slate roof on the Presbyterian church, he'd never betrayed a tremor. A challenge might bring a little added spark to his cool gray eyes, but that was all.
"Colin." Belatedly realizing she was on the step-ladder, paintbrush in hand, she climbed down, telling her nerves to unclench. "I didn't expect to see you today."
Or any other day, for that matter, but that was wishful thinking. Now that she was back in Deer Run, seeing Colin would be inevitable.
He arched an eyebrow, giving her the smile that had charmed most of the females in the township at one time or another. Even her, for a few brief moments, until she'd realized what he was really like.
"How could an old friend like me not come to welcome you back?" He glanced at the paint she'd managed to accumulate on her hands. "Don't think I'll offer to shake hands, though. Or give you a hug."
Same Colin, always just a bit superior. But she wasn't a shy little Amish girl any longer.
"Afraid of getting your hands dirty?" She let her gaze sweep over the spotless khaki pants and blue polo shirt he wore. Perfect as always. That strand of blue-black hair tumbling onto his forehead and the laughter in his eyes just added to the image of someone who had it all together.
It was that exterior, so Ronnie said, that had fooled adults into believing that whoever had caused a particular bit of mischief, it couldn't have been Colin.
His expression seemed to grant her a point. "Just not dressed for painting, that's all." He let his gaze move on past her. "Hi, Benj. And here's Mandy, all grown up."
"Mandy, this is Mr. McDonald, an old friend of your daddy's. Benj
" But her brother was gone, sliding through the door to the kitchen with an unintelligible murmur.
Colin looked after him. "What's wrong with Benjamin? He and I are old friends, and he's looking at me as if I were a zombie."
"A zombie?" Mandy inquired. "What's that?"
"Like an ogre," Rachel said quickly, before Colin could attempt to explain. "From a fairy tale." She hadn't been able to give Mandy the safe, protected childhood she'd had, but she'd tried to guard her from the worst of current culture.
Mandy nodded, small face serious, and Rachel could practically see her storing that information away. Then Mandy pinned Colin with an assessing gaze.
"You don't look like an ogre," she observed.
"I'm not," he said quickly. "That was a joke, because Benj ran off when I came in."
"He didn't run off," Rachel said, exasperated at the turn the conversation had taken. "He's gone to the kitchen for some lemonade, that's all. Mandy, you can go and have a snack, too, while I talk to Mr. McDonald. Then we'll get back to work."
With a lingering glance at Colin, Mandy walked toward the kitchen and disappeared from view. And, Rachel trusted, from earshot.
She turned back to Colin, hoping he'd take the hint and make this visit brief. She found him surveying her quizzically, making her uncomfortably aware of her frayed jeans and the oversize old shirt of Ronnie's she'd found in the closet. Why couldn't he have come when she was looking her best, not her worst? Not that she cared, she reminded herself.
"Trying to protect your daughter from my bad influence?" he asked.
Rachel felt her cheeks grow warm. "What makes you think that?"
He ignored the question, taking a casual step closer to her. She'd thought the past ten years hadn't changed him much, but she was suddenly aware that he was taller and broader than he used to be. The athletic boy had matured into a man.
Physically, maybe. Somehow she guessed that the teenage hell-raiser wasn't far under the civilized surface.
"You always did think I was a bad influence on Ronnie, didn't you?" Those cool gray eyes pinned her in place, and Rachel found her pulse fluttering erratically.
She'd had good reason to know it, but before she could attempt an answer, he stepped back with a rueful smile.
"Never mind. There's seldom any point in revisiting the past, is there?"
"I guess not." Too bad she did so much of it, especially now.
"Anyway, to business. You know I've taken over my dad's real estate firm, don't you?"
"No, I didn't." She hadn't been back long enough to get caught up on all the local news, and this particular item was a surprise. "What happened to the guy who said he'd never come back to this one-horse town?"
"He grew up." Colin clipped off the words, as if that might be a sore subject. "So Amanda Mason left this mausoleum to you, did she?" He sent a disparaging glance around the high-ceilinged hall, a few shreds of floral wallpaper still visible that Rachel had missed in her scraping. "Was that her way of punishing you for marrying her precious boyto saddle you with this white elephant?"
"I don't know what was in her mind," Rachel said carefully. Colin didn't need to know how astonished she'd been to be contacted by her mother-in-law's attorney after all those years of pointed silence. "But it was very kind of her."
"Kind?" He looked at her as if she were crazy. "How would you like to list it with me?"
?" Her mind went blank.
"Put it on the market." He said the words slowly, as if she were deficient in understanding. "You probably know it's a terrible time to be selling, but I think I can still get a decent price for you, as long as you're not expecting the moon and the stars." He paced toward the stairwell, as if mentally measuring the hallway.
Real estate market, of course. "That's kind of you, Colin, but I don't plan to sell."
Colin stopped in midstride, turning to give her an incredulous look. "You can't intend to live here."
That was a comment she'd made to herself a number of times in the past month, but hearing him say it made her bristle. "Why not? It's my house now."
"It's a wreck," he said bluntly. "I don't know what Amanda was thinking, but she let the place go in her final years. You'd have to sink a fortune in it to get it back the way it was, and I don't suppose she left you that."
"No." Just the house, a small yearly amount to pay the taxes and enough in a trust fund for Man-dy's education.
"Well then, the only thing to do is sell the place." He made it sound as if she had no choice, but she did.
"I'm not going to sell. I'm going to run it as a bed-and-breakfast."
Colin stared at her, expressionless. "You've got to be kidding," he said finally. "Unless you've got an independent income, you can't expect to get by that way."