Hidden in the heart of the Home Valley, a secret danger takes root
Quiet, cautious Ella Lantz has spent her entire life in the close-knit Amish community of the Home Valley. Tending her lavender fields, she finds calm and serenity in purple blooms, heavenly scents and a simple life. But the sudden arrival of a strange visitor to her parents' home heralds a host of new complications.
Alex Caldwell is unlike any man Ella has ever metclearly, he's no "Pennsylvania cousin," whatever the elders may say. In fact, Alex is a Wall Street whistle-blower under witness protection and he's brought a world of trouble to the Lantz doorstep.
As Ella comes to trusteven lovea man so utterly worldly, she realizes her life has already changed forever. When it becomes violently clear that even the Home Valley is no refuge, Ella and Alex are driven into the wider world to hide. And with such a high price placed on their silence, they may not survive to share their love .
About the Author
Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of romantic suspense. A former Ohio State University English instructor, she now writes full time. Harper is the winner of The Mary Higgins Clark Award for her novel, DARK ANGEL. She also writes historical novels set in Tudor England. Please visit or write her at her website at www.KarenHarperAuthor.com
Read an Excerpt
June 20, 2011
Ella Lantz's field of lavender, edging toward full bloom, stretched as far as her eyes could see. But, she admitted, peering out from under her bonnet brim, that was only because the humped, wide-set rows of the fragrant purple plants went up the hill and disappeared from sight. She had almost an acre of the sweet stuff and, as Grossmamm Ruth put it, with no man or marriage coming down the pike, her little garden of Eden here in Eden County was her future.
With her curved hand sickle, Ella cut an armful of the earliest, hardy English lavender, then rushed down to where her widowed brother, Seth, was loading the wagon with his household goods. Beside him in the wagon sat Hannah Esh, Ella's good friend, whom he was going to marry this Friday, in just four days.
Even though Amish weddings usually avoided the farming months, everyone agreed they'd waited a long time. Their borrowed wagon was filled with the rest of Seth's furniture, which was going into storage in the Troyer barn until his and Hannah's house was done. Meanwhile, the newlyweds were going to live in the big Troyer house while Seth would build first his and Hannah's home, then one for the youngest Troyer son, Josh, and his wife, Naomi. So many weddings, Ella thought, but none of them hers. Both Naomi and Hannah were her friends, and she wanted to send enough lavender with Seth to scent the Troyers' house, then later the wedding itself at Hannah's family home.
Ella was grateful to the Troyers for hiring her oldest brother in these tight times. And, she was getting a house of her own in the bargain. Seth was giving her his two-story home on this property. She planned to live upstairs and make the downstairs into a lavender workshop and store where she could oversee a small staff to make potpourri, candles and soap.
"Here, for Mrs. Troyer," Ella said, and lifted the big bundle of blooms up to Hannah, who cradled them across her knees. On the wagon seat between her and Seth perched three-year-old Marlena, Seth's little girl, who adored her new mother-to-be. The child smiled and waved down at her aunt Ella, who had helped to care for her since her mother died two years ago.
One of the four big Belgians hitched to the wagon snorted and stamped a huge hoof. They were anxious to be off. Ella knew Seth and Marlena were only going four miles away, but she would miss them. Suddenly, the small home she was inheriting here seemed miles from the big Lantz farmhouse where her parents and two younger siblings lived.
"Oh, they smell so good!" Hannah said, sniffing the spiky blooms with their purple tips. "Remember, I'll help you when I can at your new store."
"When you can won't be much," Ella told her with a playful punch on her leg. "Not with taking care of Marlena. Besides, you have a lot of catching up to do since you've been helping Ray-Lynn manage her restaurant."
Ray-Lynn Logan was their Englische friend who owned and operated the Dutch Farm Table Restaurant in the nearby little town of Homestead. The kindly woman, who was recovering from an accident and a coma, shared ownership of the popular eating and meeting spot with Jack Freeman, the county sheriff and Ray-Lynn's close friend. Hannah had been living with Ray-Lynn for a while, after Ray-Lynn's accident, and would stay with her until her wedding.
"Gotta go now, Ella," Seth called down to her. "Enjoy the house. If you need help building the shelves, just let me know."
"Oh, ya, I'll just get on your waiting list, you mean!" she kidded him. She smiled through her tears and bit her lower lip as he giddyapped the horses. To lose little Marlena from her care made her so sad Before that last wagonful of Seth's household goods rattled down the gravel driveway, the rest of the Lantz family, who had helped him load, came out into the front yard to wave goodbye. Ella wondered where they'd disappeared to while she'd picked the lavender.
Her parents, Eben and Anna, waved goodbye as did her sprightly grandmother Ruth, age 80, who lived with them. Mamm and Daad shouted advice in their Deutsche dialect as if Seth and Hannahand their only grandchild, Marlenawere leaving for the ends of the earth.
Abel, age twenty-six, Ella's second-oldest brother, not wed yet, who farmed the fields with Daad, looked sad. He would miss their oldest brother too. Barbara, sixteen, and Aaron, fourteen, the youngest, who was aching for his running around rumspringa time to begin, both turned quickly away and headed back toward the big farmhouse. Ella, at twenty-four, was the middle child of the five of them. She'd felt that way toostuck in the middle, not quite companions of the two oldest boys or her two much younger siblings. That was probably why she'd made two close friends over the yearsHannah and Sarah, who had gone to the world and been shunned.
Ella was surprised to see an outsider watching from the porch as everyone hurried back inside. So when had he arrived, and where was his car? Who was he? Maybe that's why everyone had disappeared inside for a while.
Yet she hesitated to follow her family back inside the house. Despite living with so many people, she often chose to be alone, especially when she felt the drowning darkness swirling toward her. No good to have someone see her that way, especially since an Amish girl, who trusted in her faith to pull her through, couldn't escape its clutches. Going off on her own when that inner darkness came, she'd managed to keep her terrible secret from even those closest to her. Ever since she'd almost died ten years ago, she'd felt not only blessed but cursed____
"Ella, come here!" Her father's voice pulled her from her agonizing. "Something for the whole family to hear!" Holding the porch door open, he windmilled his arm. As she hurried toward the house, she saw her mother's white face in the window, peering out at heror else watching the road, even though Seth's wagon was out of sight. What was going on? It surely had something to do with that stranger.
Taking a shortcut down the row with her late-blooming French lavender, she broke into a run.
Alexander Caldwell was really a wreck. This area reminded him of an old Clint Eastwood Western rerun. He saw horses and buggies, people in hats and bonnets, big barns and farmhouses with no phone or electric wires, no satellite TV dishes. And he was to be a part of all this, he marveled, as the black buggy clip-clopped along at such a slow speed he could actually see what usually blurred past beside the road. Hopefully, somewhere up ahead, Gerald Branin, his link to the outside world, was laying the groundwork for this huge deception that could mean life or death to him, especially since the shooter in his attempted Atlanta assassination had not been caught.
Gerald, his WITSEC manager, had sounded so certain that the heart of Amish country was the best place for him to hide out until the trial. This was a one-eighty from his own life in Manhattan. This was Podunk, the boondocks, the sticks, aka Homestead, Ohio, in Eden County. Soon enough his testimony at the trial would splash his name across the country and the world. But since the attempt on his life and at the urging of his lawyer, Logan Reese, he had finally admitted he needed to hide out. The feds had convinced him to try Amish anonymity.
He could, he thought perversely, envision the headlines now: Former NYC Exec Exposes Corporate Espionage by CEO of Tech Firm Skybound, Inc . Investors Left Devastated and Furious Chinese Businesses Involved Atlanta Assassination Attempt Financed byWhy, You Name It: Alexander Caldwell's rich and powerful former boss? The Chinese who want to shut Caldwell up to avoid sanctions? Irate investors? Place your bets on who would most like to shut the whistle-blowing witness up for good.
"Best put that hat back on," Bishop Joseph Esh, who was driving the buggy, told him. "It's to wear, not bend in your hands. Make you harder to pick out among our people, ya, it will."
"Oh, right," Alex said, smoothing and replacing it on his head. He couldn't get used to his Amish hairstyle, either, or the lack of zippers on his broadfall-style pants, the suspenders, or the five hundred dollars Branin had given him in small bills, when he was used to credit cards. No smartphone, which he missed horribly. Like an idiot he kept lifting his wrist to check his Rolex for the time when he didn't and couldn't wear a watchand did time even matter in this place? At least he was playing a younger, unwed man, so he didn't have to grow a beard. This elderly man had a long, white one.
"I do appreciate everything, sir," he told his host.
"Sir is too worldly. Bishop or just Joseph is good for me. Be careful not to talk much in front of strangers and just nod when we speak the Deutsche but for those few words I told you. Too bad you got to use lies to protect the truth. Learned it the hard way myself, but the ends sometimes justify the means. You got your story straight?"
"Yesya. My manager rehearsed it with me, so I won't rattle my biobiographyoff again. I guess this has never happened before, that your people have sheltered a kind of fugitive."
"Nope. Did it because we owe FBI Agent Lincoln Armstrong a favor for helping solve a crime in these parts and your man Branin is a friend of his. And because Armstrong canceled a money debt my daughter Hannah owed him. I would take you in myself but too many people in and out of a bishop's home. We allyou too, I knowhope this won't last long."
"That's for sure. I'd like to get this over, sanely and safely."
"Life is precious, each one. You got a lot to live for. Enjoy and treasure each day. We all do."
Bishop Esh turned the buggy onto another curving, hilly road with a metal signpost that read Oakridge, and a hand-lettered one under it with an arrow. Lavender Plain Products, No Sunday Sales.
"We what?" Ella heard her brother Abel ask Daad as she hurried into the kitchen where her family and the stranger were gathered around the big table. She took off her bonnet, draped the tied strings over the back of her usual chair and sat. Pieces of shoofly pie and raspberry iced tea were at each place. Abel went on, "Take in an Englischer and say he's our cousin? But why, Daad?"
Daad shot Abel a sharp look. Ella could tell their worldly visitor wanted to answer but deferred to their father.
"Partly in thanks," Daad answered, "for what Agent Armstrong did for the Eshes. The bishop asked us to house this man we will call our cousin Andrew Lantz from Intercourse, Pennsylvania, though he is really an Auslander from a big Eastern American city. Andrew will work with us, work the fields. He will be with us until at least late summer, maybe longer. We will not question him about his true identity or his past. He is a good man. Now Mr. Branin here will say a bit more before our guest arrives."
Ella noted Daad frowned at Aaron for rolling his eyes at the mention of Intercourse. She'd heard Aaron and a couple of guys from his buddy group snickering over the name of that town before. Ah, those almost-ready-for-rumspringa years, when Amish teens enjoyed running around and trying worldly things. She should have cut loose more, but after her accident, she was so afraid of doing anything wrong, of setting off the darkness again.
She studied the Auslander. Mr. Branin was a short, wiry man whose red hair was fading to gray and creeping up pretty high on his forehead. He had sunglasses sticking out of his pocket, both the pockets and glasses sure signs he was an Englischer. He was dressed half fancy, half country in a white-sleeved shirt with jeans and running shoes. He wore a gold watch and wedding ring, which stood out here. He leaned forward with his elbows on the kitchen table as he talked, gesturing so much he almost punched Barbara in the face and she scooted back in her chair.
"I know it won't be easy to pretend a stranger is part of the family," Mr. Branin said. "But when the bishop brought me here a while ago in his buggy, he assured me that you and your people will take good care of this man. I must admit this is a radical placement for a witness, and I want to assure you that Andrew Lantz has done nothing wrong. Sometimes this program is forced to protect criminals who are informing on worse criminals, but that is not the case here. Andrew is helping our country at great risk to himselfa risk we will eliminate by hiding him here in a world so different from his own. Among your people, we appreciate that even the photographing of faces is not permitted."
"And," Daad said, "the new owner who bought the county newspaper, so far at least, is not like those big newspaper people, always poking into our privacy."
"Good," Mr. Branin went on. "And I assure you, I'll make a visit every once in a while." He looked from face to face and, evidently, since he hadn't been introduced to Ella before, nodded at her. "Sometimes you may be aware of my presence, but sometimes not."
Ella thought that sounded funny. Was this man going to hide in haystacks or up on the hill above her field? She sure didn't need someone spying on her, especially if she had to go off alone. She took a drink of iced tea and tucked into her piece of pie. For a moment, silence descended, but for the clink of forks on plates and Aaron's fidgeting and shuffling his big feet under the table.
"Someone's going to have to tell Seth," Ella said, her pie halfway to her mouth.
"I told him and Hannah first," Daad said. "They will keep Andrew's secret too."
"But the others," she plunged on, ignoring Mr. Branin's frown, "the neighbors, the church "
"We have been helped, and we will help in turn," Daad said. "We will be the Good Samaritan to this wounded man."
This wounded man? Ella thought. She'd sure like to know more about what had happened to the outsider they were taking in.
Bishop Esh's words seemed to cut to the core of things, something Alex had always admired in mentors and bosses, even Marv, whom he was going to betrayas his boss had betrayed everyone who'd trusted him and SkyBound.