After her sister is found dead and her brother-in-law goes missing, Hannah Wittmer rushes back to the Amish community she abandoned to care for her young nieces. Although she makes every effort to blend in, she's still seen as an outsiderand quickly attracts the attention of a killer. She knows Sheriff Spencer Maxwell is fast on the murderer's tracks, but the Amish townspeople are as suspicious of him as they are of Hannah. As threats escalatenow targeting Hannah and the handsome sheriffthey'll follow any trail to uncover a vicious criminal. Even if that trail leads them right to their own backyard
About the Author
Alison lives in Western New York with her husband of twenty years and their four children where the summers are gorgeous and the winters are perfect for curling up with a good book—or writing one.
For more information please visit: www.AlisonStone.com.
Read an Excerpt
The long shadows from the branches clacking against the bedroom window stretched across the two small lumps in the queen-size bed. Hannah tucked the hand-stitched quiltthe one her grandmother had madeunder her six-year-old niece Emma's chin and smiled. A pathetic smile. The poor child stared back, a cross between grief and contempt on her precious little face. On the other half of the bed, Sarah, Emma's nine-year-old sister, had already lost the battle against the flood of tears, and sleep had taken her. Merciful sleep.
Hannah blinked her gritty eyes a few times and drew in a deep breath, praying for wisdom.
"I want Mem." The plea in Emma's tiny voice tore at Hannah's heart.
I want your mem, too. But Hannah kept those words locked in her heart along with her conflicting emotions. She kissed her niece's cool forehead. "Sleep, little one. I'll be here in the morning."
Emma pursed her lips, unimpressed with the promise of another day with Aunt Hannah.
How many more mornings could Hannah maintain this routine? She had already been here for three days, and she only had two weeks before she had to return to her job as a bank teller in Buffalo. She tried to quiet her mind and prayed the young girls' father would return home soon. Everyone had anticipated that her sister's husband, John, would returned for his wife's funeral. Everyone was wrong.
Hannah's chest tightened. The circumstances surrounding John Lapp's disappearance were sketchy at best. Would leaving these two sweet girls with the father who had abandoned them at the most critical time in their lives be the best optioneven if he did return?
A little voice told Hannah John was not going to return.
Emma crinkled her nose at Hannah. The familiarity of the gesture took Hannah's breath away. How many times had she seen Ruth make that same face when she was a little girl? Poor Ruthie. Hannah smoothed her niece's hair, and the child jerked away.
Hannah's heart broke a little bit more.
"Guten nacht, Emma. I love you." Hannah took a step toward the door. Every inch of her ached for her precious nieces who had lost their mother in a horrible farming accident, after which their father had apparently run off in grief upon finding her body partially buried in the grain silo.
She shook her head, trying to dismiss the horrific image. She ran her hand along the smooth railing on the stairs. The swooshing of her long dress brushing against her legs felt strange yet familiar. She slowed at the bottom of the stairs, allowing her eyes to adjust to the gathering darkness. She hadn't bothered to turn on the gas-powered lights before she had headed upstairs to tuck the children into bed.
Now she didn't mind lingering with the long shadows. It suited her mood. She wondered fleetingly what time it was, then realized it didn't matter. The children and the chores on the farm dictated her day. Not a clock.
Through the front window, she noticed the sun low on the horizon. Soon the entire house would be cast in darkness. Then she'd be left with nothing but her thoughts because sleep didn't come for the guilt ridden. A chill skittered up her spine, and her neck and shoulders ached from exhaustion. She dreaded the long night in her childhood home in the middle of nowhere.
She wished she had something mindless to occupy her time, like TV or her iPad, two things she had reluctantly given up when she stepped foot into her sister's Amish home.
Her dead sister's home.
Her eyes drifted to the far wall in the room, an empty spot where her sister's simple pine casket had held her body as friends and neighbors came to give their final respects. She closed her eyes and felt the familiar tingling, the promise of more tears. How could it be that her younger sister was dead? She sighed heavily. Hannah had abandoned her Amish ways, but she hadn't abandoned her faith. She'd get through this. For the sake of her nieces, she had to.
Hannah found herself in the kitchen putting on the teakettle. She stared over the yard and daydreamed about the days she and her sistertwo years youngerhad run in and out of their mother's fresh sheets hanging on the line. The scent of clean laundry and newly cut hay. Not a care in the world.
A nostalgic unease wormed its way into her memory. No cares as long as Dat was busy working on the farm because as soon as his chores were done, he'd find a reason to scold Hannah while allowing Ruthie to play undisturbed with her dolls.
Hannah never understood the favoritism. Now, more than a decade after she had slipped away from Apple Creek in the middle of the night, she felt the emptiness. An emptiness that had kept her away.
A knocking at the door startled Hannah. She turned off the gas stove. Her pulse whooshed in her ears as her long gown whooshed around her calves. Had her sister's husband, John, finally returned? Doubt whispered across her brain. Why would he knock on the door of his own home?
Why would he abandon his daughters after their mother's tragic death? John was obviously not well.
She drew in a deep breath and reached for the door handle. What could she possibly say to him? Could she muster the compassion her brother-in-law needed? She feared she'd be unable to hold back the torrent of angry words criticizing him for not manning up when it came to his bereaved children. She yanked open the door, praying for the former. The greeting froze on her lips.
"Miss Wittmer, I'm sorry to bother you so late. I'm Sheriff Spencer Maxwell. We met earlier today."
Alarm sent goose bumps racing across her skin.
"Yes, Officer?" Self-consciously, Hannah smoothed her apron and skirt, an outfit she wore out of deference to her grieving mother. Hannah's English wardrobe would have been an in-your-face reminder that her mother had lost not one, but two daughters. The handsome sheriff had paid his respects at the funeral earlier today in the barn. He was one of only a few outsiders to mingle among the hundreds of Amish. That's the reason she noticed him, or so she told herself.
The sheriff removed his hat and pressed it to his chest revealing short-cropped hair and kind eyes. "I almost didn't stop when I noticed the lights weren't on, but I took a chance."
Something in his tone made the fine hairs on the back of her neck stand on edge. "It sounds important." She didn't invite him in, fearing the neighbors would question why a single Amish womanshe referred to herself as Amish in the loosest of termshad invited a man into her home.
Part of her wondered why she cared. "Do you have news regarding my brother-in-law?"
"No, I'm sorry. I don't." His even tone gave nothing away. "But I do have something important to discuss."
Hannah listened for any sounds from the bedrooms. It was quiet save for the chirping of the crickets floating in through the open windows on the warm summer evening. Hannah hoped Emma had finally drifted to sleep. Hannah stepped onto the porch, pulling the door closed behind her.
"Let's talk out here."
Hannah sat on one of the rockers, fearing her legs wouldn't hold her upright. She was still struggling to get over the news that her sister had died. Her twenty-seven-year-old sister.
Sheriff Maxwell walked the length of the porch slowly then turned around and stopped in front of her. He leaned back on the porch railing. He seemed to be collecting his thoughts, but his hesitation made her feel suspicious, like when a man wandered into her bank with sunglasses and a baseball cap tugged low over his eyes. "Please sit, Officer Maxwell. You're driving me crazy and if you don't sit, I'm going to lose it."
The sheriff angled his head and studied her for a minute. She knew the look. Something wasn't adding up in his head. She had seen it many times, mainly in Buffalo. It was the double take of a bank patron when the word yah slipped from her lips. Or the pestering of her coworkers who couldn't understand why she didn't join them for happy hour. Or her roommates, who playfully mocked her unassuming wardrobe.
Now her English vocabulary was invading her Amish ruse.
The sheriff lowered himself into the chair next to hers and ran his hand along the smooth wood of the arm. "You seem different than the other Amish women I've met."
And there it was.
Hannah flattened her hand against her prayer covering and forced a smile. "Is my bonnet on crooked?" After burying her sister and suffering withering looks from her former Amish neighbors and so-called friends, she was in no mood to be scrutinized by the sheriff, too.
The setting sun reflected in his brown eyes, and his brows shifted, as if he were adjusting his line of thinking. Regret at her snippy comment teased her insides, but not enough to apologize.
"I didn't mean to pry." He tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair. "I have some difficult news."
Hannah hiked her chin and tried to ignore her racing heart. "At this point, I'm numb to bad news."
"You've had a rough time of it." Sheriff Maxwell's Adam's apple moved in his throat, and his hesitation made her panic swell, forcing all the air from her lungs. She wasn't as numb as she claimed to be. He shifted toward the edge of the rocker and looked like he wanted to reach out and take her hand, but thought better of it.
Hannah sent up a silent prayer.
Dear Lord, please be merciful and let me handle whatever it is this man has come here to say.
"Yesterday, I drove out to Bishop Lapp's farm."
"John's father." The elder Lapp had to be escorted by the arm into the barn for his daughter-in-law's funeral. His stooped posture radiated his grief. The bishop had only a few terse words for Hannah. It didn't come as a surprise, considering the bishop's loss and Hannah's non-grata status in the community.
"The bishop's other son, Lester, dismissed me without hearing what I had to say." The sheriff stared toward his vehicle parked on the side of the road; its presence no doubt had the neighbors' tongues wagging. Wireless technology had nothing on the old-fashioned rumor mill in Apple Creek.
"Bishop Lapp must be having a difficult time." Hannah said the first polite thing that popped into her head. She had no firsthand knowledge on how he was doing. Since Hannah had never been baptized, she wasn't officially shunned, but the bishop was determined to freeze her out all the same.
"I understand, but I need to talk to him about his son, John."
"I'll be of no help there."
"It's important you know where the investigation is headed, especially since you're staying in John Lapp's house."
A hot flush swept over her body. "This was my family's home before John moved in with my sister."
"I understand." Spencer sounded contrite, but determined.
She tugged on the folds of her skirt to allow the fresh evening air to cool her shins and bare feet. "You're investigating my sister's accident?"
"Yes. It's customary for the medical examiner to be called out after a death like this. Law enforcement needs to make sure there was no foul play involved."
Apprehension prickled Hannah's scalp. She winced and scratched her hair through the fabric of the cap. Her tight bun was giving her a headache. "My sister's death was an accident. A tragic farming accident." That's what everyone had repeated over and over as they paid their final respects and then again when they delivered casserole dishes with wordy instructions on how to warm them up.
Such a shame. A tragic farming accident. And those poor girls, to lose their mother
They'd shake their covered heads then bustle into the kitchen and make tsking sounds at her nieces, who sat cross-legged on the floor, stacking blocks.
What was left unsaid, but blatantly obvious in their Amish faces, was that if John had been a better husband, Ruthie wouldn't have been left with the brunt of the chores while her husband fraternized and schemed. What exactly he had been scheming, Hannah's mother wouldn't tell her.
Apparently, John Lapp hadn't entirely shed his youthful, rebellious ways.
This wasn't news to Hannah.
Sheriff Maxwell stood and faced her. The setting sun behind him cast his face in shadows. Tension hung heavy in the air. "There's no easy way to say this." The shaky quality of his voice made icy dread pool in her stomach.
"Tell me." She wrapped her fingers around the arms of the chair and squeezed.
"Before your sister ended up in the silo, she was already dead."
Miss Wittmer slumped in the wood rocker. Spencer's first instinct was to reach out, grab her, but she clutched the arms of the chair and stiffened her back, as if determined to be strong, regardless of the devastating news. The color draining from her face told a different story.
She drew in a deep breath. don't understand." The Amish woman rose and stood next to him. A thin strand of brown hair poked out from underneath her bonnet. She turned to face him, her eyes shiny with unshed tears. "Are you telling me my sister was murdered?" Her tone was shaky, brittle.
"I'm afraid so." Spencer let his hand hover near her elbow, ready to grab her if she should faint. She stood absolutely still, and he thought he heard Miss Wittmer's gasp above the incessant chirping of the crickets. As a cop originally from the inner city, he still hadn't gotten used to the racket nature created.
She shook her head briskly, as if trying to shake away the image, or perhaps his words. "My sister was murdered." It was no longer a question.
This time there was no mistaking her gasp. Spencer clutched her elbow. She crumbled to her knees, her thin frame swallowed in a pool of black material. She bowed her head. Spencer had seen loud griefthe wail of a mother who had lost her child in a drive-by shooting. He had never seen such a quiet, heartbreaking display. He didn't know how to react, and he didn't know which was worse.
Spencer crouched next to the woman and held her arm. "Let me help you up. I can get you some water. A cold washcloth. Something."
"Who did this?" Her words came out, barely a whisper.
The woman brushed his hand away and grabbed the railing and pulled herself to her feet, a mix of embarrassment and anger lacing her tone. "Ruthie told me she was afraid."
Spencer's pulse ratcheted up a notch.
Miss Wittmer yanked off her bonnet. The moon rising above the trees lit on the golden strands of her dark hair. If she weren't an Amish woman, he would have thought she had highlighted her hair. She smoothed a hand over the few loose strands that had sprung free from the bun at the nape of her neck.
She sat, resigned. "She told me she feared too many things were changing." She leaned back and wrapped her fingers around the arms of the chair. "My sister and I hadn't seen each other for over a decade, then about five months ago, she called me. She wanted to see me."
Spencer rubbed his jaw. "I guess it's my turn to be confused. She called you?"
Miss Wittmer looked up at him, a battle waging behind her watchful eyes. "John had a phone installed in the barn." She shrugged. "Claimed he needed it for work."
"And you have a phone, too?"
"I'm not Amish."
Spencer bit back a comment.
"I left Apple Creek and the Amish community eleven years ago." Miss Wittmer dragged her lower lip through her teeth. "It" she lifted her palms "this life wasn't for me. Once I left, my father refused to allow me to visit."
"You were shunned." Spencer had been sheriff of Apple Creek for only a year, but he was slowly learning the ways of the Amish.
She shook her head. "I was never baptized, so technically, there was no reason to shun me. But my father was a controlling man. He was part of the reason I left. I felt suffocated. And I suppose there was always the fear that if I came back home for a visit and talked about my wonderful, worldly life, who's to say my sister wouldn't want to leave with me." Heavy shadows masked her expression, but Spencer thought he detected an eye roll when she referred to herself as worldly.
"The clothes." He gestured to her long gown, her apron, the bonnet in her hand.
"It's easier this way. I wanted to make sure I respected both my sister and my mother." She grabbed a fistful of material by her thigh and fluttered her skirt. "This is my sister's." Her words came out droll, sad, lifeless as if to say, "She won't be needing it anymore."
A thought nagged at Spencer, and he didn't know how to broach it. He decided to be direct. "If you were estranged from your family, why did they contact you when your sister died?"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great mystery! -- A great mystery and you get to enjoy both worlds, the Amish and the Englisch. Alison wrote this with more than one or two suspects so you do keep guessing until the end. You think it's this person, then another, now back to the first one and then another one pops up. I don't remember reading any of Alison's books before but I will surely be on the lookout for them now. I see three definites that she has already written that I want! I hope others will enjoy this book as much as I did.