Meredith King longs for escape. Life in Deer Run is stifling, the Amish town too small for a modern woman staying just to care for her ailing mother. When a friend enlists her help in clearing the name of an Amish boy whose decades-old death is still shrouded in mystery, she welcomes the distraction. But when a ghost from her own past reappears, there is suddenly a lot more at stake.
Zach Randal was always a bad boy, and their romance never had a chance. As charming as ever, he returns to town on the heels of a deadly new threat. Is Zach as dangerous as Meredith was always led to believe? Or is the attraction they both feel the only thing that can save them from harm?
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"You are the only one who can find the truth, Meredith. You must do it."
Meredith King stared in dismay across the small cafe table at her cousin Sarah. With her hair drawn tightly back under her kapp and her simple Amish dress, Sarah seemed an unlikely person to be urging her cousin to investigate a death that had occurred twenty years ago. But worry had driven lines around Sarah's normally placid blue eyes, and she reached one hand across the table in pleading.
"I'm not sure what I can do." That came out sounding much less definite than Meredith had hoped. "Aaron drowned twenty years ago. There's probably nothing left to learn."
And a small-town accountant shouldn't be anyone's idea of a crusader. Her weekly coffee klatch with her Amish cousin had turned in a direction Meredith had never anticipated.
"But it was your looking into what happened that summer that brought about this talk of Aaron killing himself. Yours and Rachel's," Sarah added. "You've already found out so muchsurely you can discover the rest of it."
Meredith couldn't argue that she'd resurrected the talk about Aaron Mast's death, no matter how she might want to. When her childhood friend, Rachel Weaver Mason, had come back to Deer Run several months earlier, they'd started reminiscing about the events of that summer when they'd been ten and had shared a childish crush on the Amish teenager.
Aaron had been the hero of the imaginary world they'd created that summer. But the world had come crashing down when Aaron died in the pond below Parson's Dam. What started as harmless wondering about the events of that summer had also ended in uncovering the probability that Aaron had committed suicide.
"I'm sorry we ever started poking into it," Meredith said, guilt settling across her shoulders like a heavy blanket. "We certainly didn't intend to cause grief to his family."
"Please, Meredith. I can't go asking questions among the Englisch, but you can." Sarah gestured to her Amish dress as if in explanation.
True enough. An action that would be unthinkable for an Amish matron was possible for Meredith.
"Besides, you know as much as anybody about that summer, following Aaron around like you did." Sarah must have sensed her hesitation and pressed on. "I know you were just a girl, but you didn't forget our Aaron, ain't so?" The possessive way Sarah spoke suggested that Aaron had meant something special to her.
"Aaron was a friend of yours, then?" She should have realized that Sarah, ten years older than Meredith, would have been about Aaron's age.
"Friend, ja." Sarah's gaze seemed to lose focus, as if she looked into the past. "More than friends, once." She shook her head, becoming again the mature Amish wife and mother. "But this talk of suicide hurts so many people. The Aaron I knew would not do such a thing."
"Sometimes we don't know others as well as we think." For example, she'd never guessed that there had been any love in Sarah's life other than her husband, Jonah. "Even if I can think of a way to find out more, you might not be happy with the result."
"If Aaron really did this thing, I will bear it." Sarah's voice was firm. "We all will. But we must know for certain sure."
Meredith was silent for a moment, trying to find a way to refuse. She didn't want to bring still more heartache to people who'd already suffered so much.
But Sarah was the closest link she had to her father and the Amish side of her family. For their sake, she couldn't refuse to do as Sarah asked, could she?
"I'll try," she said at last. "I don't know if I can help, but I'll try."
"Denke, Meredith." Tears shone in Sarah's blue eyes as she clasped Meredith's hand. "Da Herr sie mit du."
The Lord be with you. She'd certainly need the help if she were to solve a twenty-year-old mystery.
"Meredith?" Anna Miller called from behind the counter of the combination grocery store/tourist stop/ coffee shop that had served the village of Deer Run as long as Meredith could remember. "Your mother has called, saying why are you so late and don't forget the goat's milk she wants. I have it ready for you."
"Thanks, Anna." She stood, wishing she could stay long enough to wipe the worry from Sarah's face, but knowing her mother was perfectly capable of calling every five minutes until Meredith showed up. That was why she'd muted the ringer on her phone.
"I'd better go." She touched Sarah's shoulder lightly as her cousin stood, gathering her purchases. "Give my love to Jonah and the children."
Sarah nodded. "I would say the same to your mamm, but I think it would not be wilkom, ja?" She gave a wry smile and turned toward the grocery section of the shop.
Since everyone in the valley knew of Margo King's antipathy to her late husband's Amish kin, there was little point in pretending it was otherwise. So Meredith just nodded and went to the counter to pick up the quart of goat's milk Anna had ready.
"It makes no trouble," Anna said, although it had to be a bit of a chore to make a separate trip just to pick up the milk, especially when, like Anna, one drove a horse and buggy to do so.
"Well, I appreciate it." She handed over the money.
"You're a gut daughter," Anna said as Meredith turned toward the door. "Ain't so, Jeannette?" She appealed to the woman who'd just entered the shop.
Jeannette Walker's smile, as always, seemed to curdle a bit when she turned it on Meredith. "I'm sure she must be." Since Jeannette's bed-and-breakfast, the Willows, stood directly across the street from Meredith's house, she no doubt thought she had ample opportunity to judge.
"It's nice to see you, Jeannette." Meredith gave the expected greeting and attempted to reach the door, but Jeannette stood in her path, and she seemed in no hurry to move.
"Don't rush off yet," she said. "I haven't had a chance to tell you my news." Jeannette patted the tightly permed curls that made her look older than the fortysomething she probably was.
Funny, the difference between her and Sarah even though they were probably about the same age. Sarah, with no makeup, plain dress and her hair pulled back from a center part under her white kapp, still looked younger than Jeannette.
"Is something new in the bed-and-breakfast business?" she asked, even though she wasn't exactly panting to know.
"You might say that." Jeannette's gaze sharpened on Meredith's face. "I have a guest coming in today. An old friend of yours, I think."
"Really?" It seemed unlikely that one of her friends was coming to stay at the Willows, but she supposed stranger things had happened. "Who is it?"
"Well, you're just not going to believe it when I tell you." The faint look of triumph on Jeannette's face made Meredith vaguely uncomfortable. "I'm sure he was once a special friend of yours."
Meredith's fingers tightened around the milk bottle, and somehow she already knew whose name was coming out of Jeannette's mouth.
"Zachary Randal." Jeannette proclaimed the name loudly enough that everyone in Miller's Shop could hear it. "Now, tell me I'm not wrong. You two were an item once upon a time, weren't you?"
The smile on Meredith's face was probably frozen, but it had nothing on the icy hand that gripped her heart at the name. Zach Randal, returning to Deer Run after thirteen years? Surely not. He'd made it plain enough when he'd stormed away from her that he would never come back.
"Zach Randal?" Anna joined the conversation, diverting Jeannette's focus, thank goodness. "Well, that is interesting news. It'll be nice to see how that boy turned out after all these years."
Jeannette's expression suggested she smelled something nasty. "Not very well, I'm sure. If anyone had asked me, I'd have said he'd be in prison by this time."
Meredith discovered she was still capable of being roused to anger on Zach's behalf. "If that's so, why did you rent a room to him?"
Jeannette shrugged, spreading her hands wide. "I run a business, after all. What can I do? But I'm surprised you didn't suggest he stay at your friend Rachel's little inn."
Rachel ran Mason House, a thriving new B and B that was giving the Willows a run for its money. But never mind the barbJeannette was fishing for a response. She was probably torn between wanting to be the only person who knew of Zach's imminent arrival and her desire to find out if Meredith was still in touch with him.
The thought of exposing her feelings in public kept Meredith's spine straight and her face composed. "There's no reason for Zach to contact me about his plans."
"So sad." Jeannette shook her head as if in sympathy, but her gaze was that of a robin with its eyes on a succulent worm. "When you were once so very close."
"Just casual friends," she said, knowing full well that everyone in the store probably saw that for the lie it was. Knowing, too, that she couldn't keep this front up much longer. "Excuse me. I must get home."
She brushed past Jeannette and hurried out the door, trying not to look as if she were running away.
She didn't run away. She'd never been able to. Running away was what Zach had done. She had just provided the reason.
Zach had expected he'd have some time to adjust to being back in Deer Run before his inevitable first sight of Meredith King. He'd been wrong. As he pulled up in front of the Willows, Meredith was letting herself in the gate to her front yard, right across the street.
He could have stayed at a big, anonymous motel out on the interstate, but conducting this business had become a matter of pride to him. If he had to come back to Deer Run, he'd come, and nobody here could intimidate him again.
Including Meredith. He slammed the car door, making her face turn toward him, and started across the road. Sauntering, not hurrying. He'd greet her like any nearly forgotten acquaintance he hadn't seen in years. He'd show both her and himself that nothing remained of their long-vanished love.
That was easier said than done, given the fact that just the sight of her made him feel as if he'd been rammed full-on by a semi.
He came to a halt a few feet from her. Meredith stood still, just looking at him, her hand arrested with the gate half-open.
"Meredith." Luckily his voice came out as cool as he'd hoped. Undercover work had honed his acting skills. "It's been a long time."
He might have hoped to find that his first love had turned into a frazzled housewife carrying an extra twenty pounds and with a whining toddler in tow. She hadn't. If Meredith had added any weight since she was seventeen, it had certainly gone to the right places. The lovely girl she'd been had turned into a beautiful woman.
"Thirteen years," she said. She seemed to realize that she was gripping the gate tightly, and she let it swing closed, creating a barrier between them. "How are you, Zach?"
"Doing fine." He probably resembled the drug dealer he'd been posing as, with his tight, well-worn jeans, hair over his collar and stubble on his jaw. Fine. Let Deer Run think ill of him. It always had.
Meredith, on the other hand, looked like a polished professional woman with her shining brown hair worn in a sleek, just-below-the-chin cut, neat slacks and a soft coral sweater, with a touch of gold at ears and wrist.
Not on her hands, though. He'd seen that bare ring finger first thing.
"I just learned from Jeannette that you were coming." Those big brown doe eyes focused on his face. "I was surprised."
He managed a short laugh. "I'd say appalled was closer to the truth, right?" That came out sounding more bitter than he'd intended.
"Just surprised. Because I remember hearing you swear that Deer Run had seen the last of you." Those full lips might have trembled for an instant on the words.
"We talk a lot of nonsense when we're seventeen, right?" Things like I love you. I'll always love you.
He shrugged. "It was time I dealt with the property I own here. Had a few vacation days coming, so I figured I'd clear things up."
"I see." She glanced away, as if at a loss for something else to say.
He could remember when it seemed they'd never run out of things to say to each other. They'd walk around town in the summer twilight, sharing secrets and dreams as if they were two parts of a whole.
Meredith seemed to regain her poise after the momentary lapse. "I guess this visit won't be much of a vacation from work for you. What are you doing now?"
He raised an eyebrow, wondering how she'd react. "Police. Detective Zachary Randal, Pittsburgh P.D., believe it or not. I imagine most people in Deer Run expected me to end up on the other side of the bars."
"I'm sure that's not true." A faint flush touched her cheekbones, denying the words.
"Come on, Meredith." He put his hand on the gate, dangerously close to hers. "We both know what this town thinks of me."
"Deer Run has changed," she protested.
He took an obvious look down the street at the same lineup of century-old Victorian houses and small shops. A few cars were parked in front of the grocery store, an Amish horse and buggy was hitched at the side of the hardware store. The village snoozed under the shelter of the mountain ridge that seemed to cut it off from the rest of the world.
"Really? Looks the same to me." He raised an eyebrow and had the satisfaction of seeing a spark of anger in those brown eyes.
"You shouldn't judge what you don't know." Her chin came up, reminding him of the sensitive good girl who'd still had the courage to date the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
The front door of the house rattled, and a high, sweet voice called out, "Meredith? Come inside, please. I need you."
The door closed again. Apparently Margo King had her daughter so well trained that she didn't need to call twice.
Meredith half turned away from the gate. "I'm sorry. I have to go in."
"Yeah. Right." Bitterness welled up, raw in his throat. "I see one thing hasn't changed at all."
Before she could answer he turned and walked away, his fists clenching as he tried to stamp down feelings he'd been sure had died a long time ago.