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The Fairy Tale

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Chapter Three

Ludwig Castle

 

Wizard stared into his crystal ball and was pleased. The girl had been joined with the Black Book, the heartbeat of her soul. The spell of The Blushing Rose had fallen away. It was time to bring the dark and the light together.

In a dream, Stephanie could feel the wind on her face and hear the clomping of horses’ hooves as they crossed a drawbridge. In a trance-like state, she could hear the soldiers talking and knew that everyone was not happy about her arrival.

The gods were angry on that furiously cold, wintry night at Ludwig Castle in the Kingdom of Sirius. A storm raged. High ocean waves roared, and dangerous gales of wind thrashed beneath the jagged cliffs, climbing higher and higher up the cliffs as if trying to reach the girl, the earthling. She was not supposed to be at Ludwig Castle—a dark place. If you listened very carefully, you could hear eerie whispers in the wind saying, bring her back, bring her back.

The torrential rains beat against the burly guards’ helmets and armor, but the tough-skinned brutes hardly noticed. Shrieks and shrills filled the air; horses neighed, and dogs barked excitedly as the villagers ran across the cobblestone road to the stables, seeking refuge from the storm.

“It’s the girl who caused this,” a guard called out to the other. “The seas were calm before she arrived at Ludwig.”

“Did ye see her?” the guard yelled into the wind.

His friend’s face reflected awe. “I did,” he said. “Damien passed by me as he crossed the drawbridge. The girl was sleeping, and she looked like a goddess—young, innocent, and beautiful. Legend says that there’s an invisible golden ribbon attached to her back that goes all the way to the heavens.”

The other guard guffawed and shouted above the wind to make himself heard, “What would Damien want with a holy woman? He likes his wenches wild and wicked.”

The wind carried their voices to Damien. “I will have your heads,” he cried out, his dark eyes flashing angrily.

No one dared cross Damien; he ruled by inciting fear and could be cruel and brutal at will. The giant guards cowered and enclosed themselves in the stables. Though twice Damien’s size with Goliath strength, the men were afraid.

The guard had spoken the truth. Damien was arrogant, outrageously good-looking, and he lived up to his glamorous reputation. He had more wenches than any man in the celestial kingdoms. The guard had spoken the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

The Dark Tower

 

The sound of a bolt sliding across metal broke the silence.

Lucifer stood near a large, heavy wooden door with metal bands, his eyes adjusting to the light. A flaming torch on the wall cast an eerie glow over the fevered face of the angelic eighteen-year-old sleeping fitfully. He faltered, struck by her beauty, then strode across the room and folded his long frame onto a wooden chair next to her bedside. He gazed at her, thinking she looked too still. He leaned in to see if she was breathing. Barely. He reached over and touched her smooth hand. She was cool to the touch—too cool.

Other than the four-poster bed, the room was stark and sparsely furnished, like a living tomb.

“Wizard,” Lucifer stressed the word as a command.

In an instant, Wizard materialized, his white, long, flowing white gown barely touching the floor. He was small in stature, not more than four feet, and even with his tall cone hat, he dwarfed next to Lucifer.

“Lucifer.” Wizard’s snowy beard bobbed as he spoke. “I’ve kept vigil for hours and tried every spell and potion, but she’s growing worse.” His voice was etched with fear, and he grimaced when he said, “I’ve asked Dr. Spade to bleed her.”

Dr. Spade, professionally dressed in a black suit with starched white cuffs and a white knotted scarf, strode out from the adjoining sitting room. His dark eyebrows twitched. “I’ve brought the leeches,” he stammered as he gestured to a jar filled with black, curling leeches.

Repulsed, Lucifer turned his eyes to the girl. “Take the leeches away,” Lucifer commanded. “She’s from the twenty-first century and knows nothing of such things. If she wakes up and sees them, she’ll be terrified.”

Wizard tapped his long crooked nose and nodded in agreement.

“If I don’t bleed her, she may not survive the night,” Dr. Spade said. “The jar shook as his hand trembled.

Lucifer brushed away a tendril of tawny hair from her face, smitten with her. “The girl cannot be allowed to die,” he said. “She’s barely breathing.”

At that moment, it didn’t matter that Wizard had promised her to his brother, Damien, on the day she was born or that her natural father was a monk whom he had befriended. He wanted her. He stroked her cheek lightly and whispered, “Awake, my sweet beauty.”

The words had no sooner left his mouth when he felt a shudder pass over her. “I think she’s coming around,” he said with a strange intensity in his dark eyes.

Stephanie groaned aloud, “My head is pounding in pain,” she said wincing. She pulled at her ears. A faint communal thrum sound had settled in them. She opened her eyes tentatively, fixed them on the ceiling, and her body went rigid when her eyes roved to the stone, cold, gray walls. She trembled with the grim realization that she was not in her sunny, wallpapered room at Brighton House.

“God Almighty, where am I?” her voice weak and hoarse. She appeared unaware. A flicker of recognition that he was watching her passed over her face. She hoisted herself up from the billowy, goose down pillows. She rubbed her temple, blinking as her sleepy green eyes adjusted to the dim light. She froze as Lucifer’s dark penetrating eyes met hers.

He could see her body tense as if she wanted to run. He saw goosebumps appear on her arms when she threw back the duvet, and dampness hit her. He watched her sink back down into the feather bed, seeking warmth.

She shuddered. “Why am I here in this godforsaken place? And where is Damien—my prince charming?”

“Damien, a prince charming?” Lucifer mused. “This isn’t a fairy tale, my dear. My brother is dark, as I am. He is the Lord of Ludwig Castle and has gone to his chamber. He is sleeping.”

“What is your name?” Stephanie asked as her eyes cast a coil of suspicion around him.

“I am Lucifer, the King of Darkness,” he replied. Lucifer was a mirror image of his brother, Prince Damien, but with an undertone of raw power. His eyes burned with an intensity that pierced the soul, and his lips curled in a way that felt like he knew your heart and was mocking it.

She scrutinized him as if she despised him.

“Why are you looking at me like I’m a beast with fire flaring from my nostrils and cinders in my mouth?”

“Because you are the devil,” she said. “Everyone hates the devil.”

Lucifer did not wince at the blatant insult, but his jaw tightened. “I don’t breathe fire, nor do I own a red suit,” he said. “Trust me; you are quite safe with me. I am a fallen angel.”

“Everyone knows the devil is a liar,” she hissed.

Lucifer was dismayed at her feisty and bold attitude. What was in her mind? Perhaps she thought she was in bondage.

Her eyes roved over him, scrutinizing him though he was impeccably dressed. He noticed that she had pulled the duvet up to her chin as if seeking its protection, even though he was certain that there was nothing about him that appeared sinister. And then her eyes left him and wandered around the room and fixed the on the guards.

Her fear and suspicion, apparent to everyone, Dr. Spade tried to soothe her. “My dear, you are perfectly safe. You have nothing to fear. He noticed that she eyed his monocle, and she looked as if her mind was racing. And then she shifted and lifted the covers staring at the brass pan with heated rocks.

“My God,” she blurted. “What century is this?”

“The eighteenth century.” Lucifer gently took her hand and laid it on the rocks. We have no electricity, and we must keep you warm.”

Stephanie recoiled from his touch and dropped her eyes, refusing to make eye contact. “Don’t touch me,” she spat. “This can’t be happening. It has to be a nightmare.”

Lucifer stood beside the bed, burdened with the fact that the girl whom he was enamored with could not bear the sight of him. “Stephanie,” he said gently as he slowly leaned forward.

He had said her name with such genuine concern that she raised her eyes to his and asked, “How do you know my name?”

“Everyone at Ludwig Castle knows your name,” Lucifer said, his nerves stretched to breaking. “We’ve been waiting to bring you to Ludwig since you were born.”

“Well, if you’ve been waiting over eighteen years, why aren’t you hospitable?” she snapped. “Why am I here in this dark, despicable place? I’m freezing to death.”

“The Dark Tower is the safest place in the castle. No one comes here.” Her eyes were wary, and he knew she wasn’t satisfied with his answer. He’d been as genteel as possible. He couldn’t tell her of the many dangers that awaited her at Ludwig: not yet.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Where are my clothes?” she asked, looking down at the thin white chemise gown.

“It looks as though she is on the mend,” Dr. Spade scoffed.

“I want my clothes,” she repeated forcefully.

Wizard stroked his snowy white beard, his blue eyes twinkling. “She once had a sweet temperament, but it seems that she’s grown feisty.”

“Why am I being ignored?” she spat. “I want my clothes, and I’m leaving this God-forsaken place.”

“She’s downright sassy,” Dr. Spade said. “Her mouth could get her into trouble with Damien.”

“I like her spirit,” Lucifer said, raising his brows. “But I fear my brother will not. Never mind about waking him. It might be best to let her calm down. I will take her to my chamber. The fireplaces are roaring. Ring Nettles to bring her food and drink.” He swept her up into his arms as if she were a feather.

Her tiny fists beat on Lucifer’s hard chest. “Put me down, you uncouth barbarian,” she cried out.

But her protests were ignored as if no one heard or cared—except Wizard. “You’re shivering, my lady,” he said as he snapped his wand. A red velvet cloak magically appeared and wrapped itself snugly around her slight form.

Stephanie’s eyes widened in surprise. “How did you do that?”

“Ludwig Castle is a magical place, my dear,” Wizard beamed. “But it’s also a dark place. Mind what I say: you can never be left alone. Danger lurks in unexpected places, and there are things here that can hurt you…” He stopped mid-sentence because she looked fearful. He paused and wrinkled his crooked nose. “Welcome,” he said, waving his wand, sending magical beams of light to her.

“Oh, my goodness,” she cried out, her head spinning as her eyes followed the tiny lights whirling all around her.

“Ha,” Wizard shouted. “I have found something you like.”

“Stop with your blasted magic,” Lucifer said as he carried her away. Then he turned his attention to the armored guard and thundered, “Open the door, you idiot.”

Lucifer felt her tremble in his arms. He didn’t know if it was from fear or cold. He hoped it was cold and not a reaction to him, but given her earlier statements, he assumed she was afraid of him. When he felt her cling to him, his heart rose, but then he remembered he had promised food and warmth. Perhaps that was enticing her.

Wizard floated above her, making a feeble attempt to amuse her as beams of light danced from his wand. But her eyes seemed to rest suspiciously on Lucifer’s face. His strong jaw twitched as he trudged along, growling at anyone who dared get in his way.

Wizard, undeterred, quietly glided in the air, keeping up with Lucifer’s long strides. “When should I wake Damien?” he asked as he brazenly poked his wand into Lucifer’s broad shoulder.

“There’s no need to wake Damien until dawn,” Lucifer replied. “I would take care of her if she would allow me, but she’s haughty and disagreeable. We must fetch Lillian immediately. She will know what to do with the girl. And Nettles must hurry with her food and drink, or I fear…” He stopped mid-sentence because he could feel her shaking. The thought that she might die weighed heavily on his heart. Though his heart was black, there was something about the girl that warmed it.

He held her close and walked through dark, narrow passageways and up spiral staircases. He inhaled deeply. Her scent stirred the beast in him. He tamped his feelings, not wanting to frighten her.

Finally, they reached his chambers in the dark tower. The room was elegant; Hunter green draperies hung from tall windows, large paintings and tapestries adorned the walls, and a fire roared in a beautiful marble fireplace.

“It’s warm at last,” she said with a long sigh.

He watched as her eyes took in the luxurious room, obviously impressed by her surroundings.

“It’s elegant,” she said.

It was the first pleasantry he’d heard come from her mouth, and he was relieved as he put her down gently and asked, “Can you walk, my lady?” He’d thought she might have sea legs.

“Yes,” she said, taking a few steps.

“Good. The water closet is there,” Lucifer said, pointing toward a door.

She looked perplexed and asked, “I’m not sure. Is there a chambermaid?”

He looked at her as if she were daft and called out, “Lillian, where the blazes are you when I need you?”

Within moments, she heard muffled voices in the distance and the sound of footsteps moving gingerly across the room. A lovely young woman appeared, dressed plainly like a peasant, and wearing a white covering over her head, carrying a lamp.

“You’re awake at last, my lady,” she said in a warm voice.

“Take care of her needs,” Lucifer said, his concern making him gruff. “She’s hungry and cold.”

“Of course, Master,” Lillian curtsied.

Lucifer turned on his heel and left the room.

“What a relief to see a friendly face,” Stephanie stammered, her fear subsiding.

“I’m Lillian, your handmaiden,” she answered with a bright smile. “I’ve been looking after you since you arrived. You’ve been asleep for over a day. Master has been worried sick and called Dr. Spade to check on you. And as it turned out, he didn’t have to bleed you. That’s a good thing, don’t you think?”

“Bleed me.” Stephanie’s skin crawled as if there were leeches on it. “That’s an antiquated practice. Doctors haven’t bled patients for centuries.”

“Well, it’s still done here at Ludwig Castle,” Lillian said in a sweet, uplifting voice, “for everything that ails you. How are you feeling, dear?”

“I’m fine,” Stephanie lied through clenched teeth. She had a pounding headache but was afraid to tell her, fearing that Dr. Spade would come to bleed her. She was thirsty but perplexed because her grandmother had told her never to drink the water when she was out of the country, and she was in another century.

“I’d like a bottle of wine,” she said, thinking that it would be safe to drink and might help her thirst and headache.

Lillian stifled a smile and said, “I’ll ring for the butler, Nettles. He will be happy to bring you whatever you want, my lady. Are you quite sure you want the entire bottle?”

“I’m sure,” Stephanie said, trying to sound older than her years and confident—though she was not. Her eyes wandered about the room. Her intuition was screaming at her to escape, and a small voice inside of her told her to do whatever she had to do to survive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

Thomas Shrock

 

Stephanie roused, the light streaming in her bedroom window, casting a soft yellow glow. She sighed, and snuggled into the covers, relieved that it had only been a dream. She frowned at the black book lying beside her on the pillow.

“Enough of you,” she said, tossing the book aside. “You gave me a nightmare—the worse I’ve ever had.” Stephanie bounced out of bed, eager for the day to begin. She must hurry to get ready, Thomas Shrock was coming this morning, and they would go to the forest and cut the Christmas tree.

Thomas was right on time. When she answered the door, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He had been her crush before she left for college in the fall. But she had not kept in touch with him.

He stood, looking at her with a question in his gray eyes. He was dressed all in black, and she thought his clothes looked new. An Amish man’s dress didn’t vary much. But there was something different. Maybe it was the money. She’d heard his cabinet business, Fritz and Thomas was thriving. He looked taller and appeared more self-confident than she remembered, but he still had a bit of a boyish look.

“Good morning,” she said with a slight smile, unsure of where she stood with him. He nodded and raised his brows but didn’t speak. He loomed over Stephanie, tall and lanky. He was three years older and had been her crush from the age of fifteen. Her heart skipped a beat as her feelings for him resurfaced. There was a chill, and it wasn’t just the weather. The silence as they walked to the buckboard stung her conscience further.

She reached up and rubbed one of the two large Percheron horses behind the ears while she gathered her thoughts. She knew what she’d done. She’d been so caught up in her own woes that she hadn’t given a thought to her friends.

“Hello, Maybell,” she said to the horse.

Maybell nickered.

“Well, at least someone is glad to see me,” Stephanie said, nervous, not knowing where she stood with Thomas. She might have explained why she hadn’t called or written, but there had been rumors he’d been with another girl, Maddie Yoder, an Amish girl that went to his church.

Thomas helped her up and reached in the back and gave her a black wool throw. The action was comforting, but his silence was not. The ride was bumpy, and when they turned down a narrow lane towards the field, she was thrown against his lanky frame. She caught her breath, and when their eyes met in a veil of white vaper, she could see the anguish in his face.

“Why didn’t you call?” he asked, casting a glance at her, his tone as icy as the tree branches.

“It hasn’t been easy, Thomas. I got caught up in studying and exams. I wanted to come home on weekends, but Daddy insisted that I stay. I was dealing with a lot; Hedy’s death, a dreadful dormitory with constant noise, and keeping up my grades. Eventually, it worked out. I’ve moved into a boarding house across from the college. An old friend of my grandmother owns it; Clare Grant. I’ve known her since I was a little girl. I call her Aunt Clare. She used to visit my grandmother often. They would have tea in the garden. She’s helped me so much with Hedy’s death. Her nephew is my history professor.”

“It’s a lame excuse,” Thomas said with a crease between his brow. “What’s happened to us?”

She reached out and touched his arm. “I’m sorry, Thomas. There was a rumor you were with Maddie Yoder. Were you?”

He flinched.

The realization of what he had done settled on her like a shroud. She had neglected him and would forgive him anything.

The only sounds were the horses clomping through the deep snow as they followed the white fencing along a path that led to a field of pines in the distance. “I believe this is my favorite time of year,” she said with warmth, hoping to thaw his feelings toward her.

“You say that of every season,” he said. “Last year, autumn was your favorite time of year, and I had to drive you all over the countryside in the buggy so you could look at the leaves. You must have taken a thousand pictures.”

Stephanie smiled, remembering. She could tell by his tone that he had softened. She ventured to slip her arm in his and snuggled close, loving the warmth of his body. When they approached the pines, she looked up at the massive snow-flocked spruce and asked, “What about that one?”

“You have a tall ceiling, but not that tall.” He laughed, and it gladdened her heart. “I marked a tree in the spring that will suit, and I know exactly where it is.”

“Why, Thomas Schrock! You didn’t tell me.”

“Haw,” he commanded, flicking the reins. Shortly, he pulled up to a perfectly shaped spruce pine.

She felt serene, surrounded by the beauty of the tall pines and a blanket of snow. Thomas helped her down from the buckboard. There in the stillness, as he held her close, she slid against him, but her feet didn’t touch the ground. She was hit with a ton of emotions when she realized that Thomas was holding her tightly and gazing into her eyes. A deep feeling of intimacy consumed her—just like she’d felt when she was fifteen. At age fifteen, sparks had flown between them when he’d helped her off her horse. They didn’t act on it, but the attraction had started there. She’s never been kissed and thought she would die if he didn’t kiss her.

“If you’re wondering if I remember that day when you were fifteen—I do. I’ve thought of it every day since.” A shadow of pain crossed Thomas’s face. She heard her boots crunch into the snow. His arms dropped from around her. She watched him turn and walk away. The day would have been so perfect if he had kissed me. Her face grew hot.

“It’s time we did more than hold hands, Thomas Shrock.”

He pulled a long-handled ax out of the wagon. “Not now. Let’s get the work done.”He shed his jacket. She could see the definition of his muscles through the black, long-sleeved shirt he was wearing and was amazed by his strength watching as the ax thudded against the tree. He had felled the tall tree with three swings. Then he picked it up by its heavy branches and heaved it onto the wagon.

On the way home, the horse needed encouragement to pull the weight of the tree. Thomas gave commands to the horse but said nothing to her. Finally, out of sheer frustration, she said, “What’s wrong? I don’t know what you want anymore.

His jaw twitched. “If you don’t mind, Steph, I would like to make the first move.”

“Well, then make it,” she said, jutting her chin. Another Amish rule meant to control. It grated on her. “What’s holding you back?”

“We’ve grown apart. I thought you would come home from college on the weekends. You’re only forty-five minutes away, but you didn’t,” Thomas said emphatically. “You’re not ready to commit, and we both know it.”

She sat back with slumped shoulders. It was true. She was not ready to commit, but she didn’t understand why it should stop them from kissing. She was probably the only girl at college who had never been kissed. She was getting impatient. “Can’t these horses go any faster?”

Thomas was agitated. “You’re always so impatient. The tree is large, and it’s a heavy load in the snow.”

She was stiff with tension, and arriving at Brighton House was a relief. For all her pent-up emotions, she allowed herself to admire it. She was always in awe of the Victorian-style country estate and was determined to decorate it precisely as Hedy had. She reminded herself to put red bows on the fence posts of the white fencing.

“I’ll help you carry in the tree,” she said, hoping the offer would assuage him.

He jumped down and wrapped the reins around the hitching post. “I’d rather you make hot chocolate.”

It frustrated her that he had dismissed her offer, but she didn’t want to antagonize him further.

He helped her down, but this time he held her away. Disappointment crept into her face.

“Don’t look,” Thomas said. “But Becca is peeking out from the curtains in the upstairs window. Mother says she eavesdrops and tells your father everything. Send her home early if you can.

Stephanie looked up at the window. Becca stepped back and dropped the curtain abruptly. There wasn’t a lot she could do about the forty-two-year-old spinster who was set in her ways and not likely to change. She had come with the house and would always be a fixture. It was her grandmother’s wish in her will that Becca remain on as the housekeeper. Stephanie adhered to her grandmother’s wishes even though Becca read her mail, drank her whiskey, and had never been able to keep a secret. She was like a magpie, collecting bits and pieces of information but never repeating a story the same way twice.

Stephanie was not enthused at the prospect of speaking to Becca, but something had to be done about the liquor. Her grandmother had entertained in a lavish style, and the bar was stocked with only the best. And she could not have her privacy compromised. She would speak to Becca tomorrow.

***

 

Stephanie thought Thomas looked exceptionally handsome as his tall, black-clad frame leaned into the doorway. She was aware of his eyes on her as he sipped a cup of hot chocolate. She nervously fiddled with her hair and pushed it behind her ear as she rummaged through a box of decorations.

“Nice shirt,” she said, a smile curving at her lips. “Is it new?” He was frugal, but she’d heard that his cabinet business in Brier Hill was growing by leaps and bounds. Amish were modest and hid their wealth. She knew Thomas wouldn’t say anything unless she prodded him.

“Yah, I bought myself a few new things. I was looking pretty shabby.” His gray eyes settled on her ears. “Do you need a new scarf? Your ears are red—you didn’t have anything on your head. Your ears are probably frozen.”

She went up two rungs on the ladder. “I couldn’t find my scarf this morning.” She began placing Victorian decorations carefully on the Christmas tree.

“What girl who lives in this kind of weather can’t find their scarf? He spoke with an intensity that chilled the air. “Did you lose my phone number, too?”

Stephanie looked up, surprised. She’d never heard him show so much emotion. His expression told her he was waiting for a reaction. She sighed as if she had the world on her shoulders. “Thomas, you don’t understand.”

His brows creased. “I haven’t heard from you for weeks, and I deserve an explanation. Had Judge not called and asked me to cut the tree and chop firewood, I wouldn’t have known you were home from college.”

She bit her lip. “It was hard after losing my grandmother, Thomas. There was a lot to do. I’m sorry if you felt neglected. I know we haven’t had much time together.”

The six-bedroom, sprawling house was a lot of responsibility. She’d cleaned out closets and drawers, sent fifteen boxes to the thrift shop, and winterized the house before she left for college. Thomas’s mother, Emily, had a dinner for her, but his whole family was there, and they had not been alone. Keeping up her grades at college had been difficult. She was finding it more and more challenging to balance her life. There was never enough time. And now that she was back, she had to get ready for Christmas. Her shoulders slumped. Even though she had explained, she knew Thomas wasn’t going to let it go.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Becca appeared, holding a tattered angel that Hedy always put on top of the tree.

“I dusted her off,” Becca said. “She was in a box separate from the other decorations. I almost didn’t see her.”

Stephanie moved higher up the ladder, and Thomas stood at the bottom to steady it. She hesitated when Becca handed her the angel. “Oh dear, she goes on top of the tree, and I can’t reach. Thomas, would you mind?”

In an instant, he had grabbed her around her tiny waist, lifting her down from the ladder. It was sudden, and his nearness set her heart aflutter, but she hid her emotions and murmured. “Thomas, you should have warned me I might have dropped her.” She handed him the tattered angel. “She’s over a hundred years old, but she’s still beautiful.”

Thomas’s agile body scaled the ladder in an instant, and he placed the angel on the treetop. “How’s that, Steph?”

“Perfect,” she said with a satisfied smile. “She’s tattered, but it doesn’t show because she’s on top, and the tree is so tall.” But the angel didn’t hold and began to tumble down the tree, grazing over the branches—finally coming to rest at Stephanie’s feet. The angel’s blue eyes stared up at her as if they held a secret.

“ I hope she’s not broken,” Stephanie said, quickly reaching down for her.

“It’s a sign,” Becca said mysteriously. “Someone will fall from grace. That’s what Hedy always said happens when an angel falls from the tree.”

Stephanie brushed off the angel, lovingly. “It’s an old wives tale. Try again, Thomas,” she said, holding the angel up to him. When their fingers touched, a shiver went through her. Something seemed off-kilter.

“Look,” Becca said, holding a tiny sliver of porcelain from the doll on her finger.

“It’s hardly anything,” Stephanie said. “Put it in an envelope and put it on my desk. I’ll glue it back on when we take down the tree next year.”

Thomas shot her a pained look. A reminder she needed to send Becca home early.

“Take the rest of the day off, Becca. Thomas and I can finish the tree. I’m sure you have plenty to do at home.”

“If you don’t need me, I’ll go,” Becca said. “But I’ll make up my time.”

“Oh, no. I won’t hear of it. Grab some Christmas cookies on the way out. Marguerite made them. They’re delicious.”

When Becca was out of earshot, Thomas said, “That was slick.”

Stephanie grinned. “Hedy taught me a thing or two, but I learned how to dismiss people gracefully from Marguerite. She always told me it’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

“Will you dismiss me that easily?” he teased. “‘Grab some cookies on the way out the door, Thomas.”

“Don’t mock me,” she scolded. But then she laughed. Thomas seemed to be in a better mood. When she stood back to admire the angel, she also took in Thomas’s lean, well-proportioned body. He was sexy, and she thought that he knew it. It wasn’t any secret that Thomas was the most eligible Amish bachelor in the county. He had all the traits that she admired in a man: gentle, peace-loving, a sexy kind of charisma, and a laid-back attitude that drew her to him.

She knew from Thomas’s sister, Mary, that several girls at church had their eye on him. The one who was the most persistent was Maddie Yoder. I’ve been neglectful, and he strayed. She threw her arms around his waist when he came down the ladder.

“I missed you,” she said, putting her head against his muscular back, her hands clasped around his waist.

“Did you?” he said. “I haven’t heard from you for weeks. And now you’re home, and you want to pick up where we left off when you haven’t even said you’re sorry.”

When he pulled her hands apart and turned around, she wished he hadn’t because his gray eyes were intense and reproachful.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Please forgive me.”

“I guess I worried needlessly.”

Stephanie knew from the pain in his voice that he was losing his self-restraint. She had never thought it would affect him so profoundly.

“I thought we had an agreement, but it seems that you put me on the back burner after you left.” Bitterness hung in his words. “No one heard a word from you, not even Mary.”

“I don’t know what to say, Thomas. You’ve always been my rock, especially after Hedy died. I promise—I’ll make it all up to you.” She paused. She’d always shared her deepest feelings with Thomas, but she wasn’t sure he’d understand. “I’m not over it. I thought I saw Hedy sitting in the chair in the library last night.”

Thomas’s brows creased. It wasn’t the Amish way to mourn for lengthy periods, and Stephanie knew that the mention of Hedy had rankled him. He cupped her chin, but his words belied the gentle action. “Your mind is playing tricks on you. Hedy is dead, and she can’t come back.”

“It’s hard not to think about her when I’m living in her house.”

“You’ve had plenty of time to mourn. I didn’t come here today to talk about Hedy. I want to talk about ‘us.’ When in God’s name are you going to let Hedy rest in peace?”

Feeling a little embarrassed for revealing to him that she’d seen her dead grandmother, she pulled away. He seemed indifferent and unsympathetic. “I’ll make us some lunch. You must be hungry.”

“I’ve been up since five a.m. I’m starving. I’ll put some more wood on the fire. I can’t stay long. I have payroll checks to sign at the office.”

Stephanie busied herself with the food to hide her disappointment. She had thought they would have some time together. She wanted to tell him that she’d worked up enough courage to ask her father if Thomas could court her. Everyone in Brier Hill County knew that courting led to marriage. When she was home in the fall, he’d asked her again if she had talked to her father, but she hadn’t had the nerve. Status and breeding meant everything to her father, and she knew that he wouldn’t approve of her dating the son of her Amish nanny—his housekeeper. Stephanie knew she was treading on a thin line; a romance between an English and an Amish was unheard of in Brier Hill County.

She tasted the hot soup and detected thyme. She added more salt and a dash of pepper. She served the soup in white French Country dishes that her grandmother had brought back from Europe.

“Vegetable soup on a wintry day is always good,” she chirped, making an effort to be upbeat.

“This is delicious,” Thomas said. “It tastes just like my mother’s.”

“It might be Emily’s,” Stephanie said, grinning. “She’s been making soup every week at Stratford Place for as long as I can remember. I was the only girl at college with a nanny. I had no idea how spoiled I was until my roommates told me.”

During lunch, it seemed like the sense of intimacy they always had was back until he said, “I wasn’t entirely honest with you. Mother knew you were coming home last week, and she reminded me every day.”

There was a moment of silence, and then he said with a sternness she’d never heard. “Let’s get this out in the open. It’s been on my mind. Did you meet anyone while you were away? I thought maybe you were dating someone.”

Stephanie was beginning to feel uneasy. “Of course, I met guys, but I didn’t date. I was busy in the fall, getting some of Hedy’s closets emptied so I could make room for more of my belongings. Marguerite had always insisted that I keep all of my formal dresses at Stratford Place, but she wanted them moved. She said it couldn’t wait. It ended up to be quite an ordeal. There weren’t enough hours in the day.” She watched his face flood with relief, but she sensed he was holding something back. “What is going on with you, Thomas?”

His gray eyes were pensive, and his voice was matter-of-fact when he said, “I might as well tell you that Maddie Yoder sat with me at a wedding.”

Her stomach knotted. She stared at the soup bowl at a loss for words. It was always painful for her when Thomas cleared his conscience. Something was going on. Everyone in the county knew that when the Amish sat together at public events, they were a couple.

“I was tired of being by myself at the gatherings,” he said. “Everyone has a girl except me.”

The air of dejection about him almost bypassed her as she was still digesting the knowledge of Maddie Yoder.

“My girl is at college, she doesn’t call, she doesn’t write.”

Stephanie bit her lip, filled with despair. Moments ago, she’d been happy. He’d chopped wood, cut the tree, made her feel cared for, but the warm, carefree atmosphere had changed.

“If you think that I feel about her the way I do about you—I don’t. It’s just hard when you’re away. I get lonely. I’m twenty-one years old, and I’ve wanted to court you for over a year. Every time I asked if you had talked to Judge about it, you would get all scared. I would do it myself if you’d let me. I’m not afraid of your father, Steph. I’m making a good living, and I’m sure he knows, but he treats me like a handyman.”

Stephanie swallowed hard. “My father knows of your accomplishments, Thomas.” Her voice cracked. She straightened her sagging shoulders and said with an icy, accusatory tone, “Why couldn’t you have waited? Don’t you realize the stress I’ve been under since Hedy died? I’ve inherited her massive estate that I know nothing about running, and I’ve just started my first year at Brier Hill College.” She felt empty inside. She rose and started clearing the dishes putting them in the sink. Somehow, she found the strength to turn and face him, her arms folded. “I was going to ask my father tonight about dating you. I didn’t expect to come home and find you’ve been enjoying the company of another girl. I think you should go now.”

Thomas’s disbelief was evident. “Now, you tell me. After an entire year, you suddenly decide to talk to your father. And you want me to leave when we should be trying to work things out and praying about it. I thought I was doing the right thing telling you. It’s a small town—tongues wag. I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else.”

Stephanie put her hands on her hips, a streak of anger rising, “I’ve never thought about any man except you, Thomas. And I know Maddie Yoder,” she hissed. “She’s loose. She’d lift her skirts for you in a minute if she thought she had a chance with you.” She watched his face turn from disbelief to hurt and then exasperation. He shoved his chair away and strode to the mudroom to put on his coat and boots.

She continued ranting, “If you think I would waste a prayer on a man who professes to be a Christian, who gets down on his knees and prays every night then throws away our relationship with a girl like Maddie Yoder—you’re out of your mind.” She haggled with her conscience. Hadn’t she thrown away the relationship by not staying in touch with Thomas? But her sense of betrayal overrode it. She perked her ears, waiting for a reply, but all she heard was the rustling of Thomas putting on his boots. She called out, “I thought you wanted to be a deacon.”

“I am a deacon,” he said in a level voice.

The door slammed.

In a daze, she went to the living room and stared up at the Christmas tree she’d happily decorated only an hour ago. Then she watched from the window as Thomas’s horses, Maybell and Pearl, trotted down the cobblestone drive pulling the buckboard. She wanted to retreat to her bedroom, shut the door, and throw herself across the bed and have a good cry, but there was too much to do.

Stephanie heard a noise upstairs and realized that Becca hadn’t left. Unnerved, she knew that Becca had heard everything. She would have to be deaf not to have heard.

Becca came into the drawing-room, wiping her hands on her white apron, and said, “I’ll make you some tea. It will make you feel better.”

“Did you know about Maddie Yoder?” Stephanie asked, well aware that there weren’t any secrets in the tight-knit community amongst the Amish and Mennonites.

“I had heard a rumor, but I didn’t want to upset you,” Becca said. “Besides, I didn’t know if it was true.”

Stephanie looked at her straight on. Tell me what you heard, Becca. I want to know.”

“Well, I heard that there was some drinking and carrying on at the wedding—and Maddie took Thomas to the barn. They were in there for a long time.”

Stephanie swallowed hard. “Are you sure you’ve got the story right, Becca? It’s important.”

“Yah, I’m sure. Three of my friends from church saw them go in the barn holding hands.”

“Thank you for telling me.” Stephanie bit her lip, trying to remain composed. “I know you overheard the argument I had with Thomas, but you must hold it in confidence. My father must never know about Thomas and me.”

Becca wiped her hands on her white apron, and her eyes looked up to the ceiling as if she were trying to find the strength to tell her what everyone else in Brier Hill County already knew. “Judge knows Thomas Shrock is sweet on you. He’s known for years. Everyone in Brier Hill knows.”

Stephanie went to the picture window and looked up at her ancestral home on the hill. “Well, please don’t say a word to my father about what went on today. Now that Hedy is gone, we must stick together. My privacy is important to me, Becca.”

“I promise not to talk out of school,” Becca said solemnly. But she crossed her fingers behind her back because Judge could get anything out of her. And he was always asking if Thomas Shrock had been there. She couldn’t lie to Judge.

Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief. Not talking out of school was an Amish/Mennonite expression that meant she would not reveal secrets. “Good. Next week we will go to the fabric shop in Mt. Hope and get some ribbons for your hair and have lunch. Would you like that?”

“Yes,” she said. “It will be just like when Hedy was alive.” She paused and said, “I wasn’t eavesdropping. I had to put my cleaning supplies away, and when I heard you arguing with Thomas, I thought I should stay. If you don’t mind, I’ll stay until my regular time. It’s lonely at home. Hedy always said it wasn’t Christmas until you walked in the door. And it’s true. The whole house comes alive when you’re here; even the decorations look prettier.”

Stephanie’s heart softened. Becca had never spoken so sweet to her. If anything, there had been underlying jealousy. “Of course, you can stay, Becca,” Stephanie said, getting up and giving her a warm hug. “This is your home, too.”

“Thank you. You’ve been so good to me,” Becca said. “It’s almost like having Hedy back. She used to take me to Mt. Hope to shop. When she got too sick to go, I went by myself with Old Brownie. But he’s old now, and he can’t make it that far.”

“Maybe Old Brownie needs a rest,” Stephanie said, smiling. “We’ll go to a horse auction in town, and I’ll buy you a new horse.”

“Oh, no,” Becca said. “It wouldn’t be fair to Old Brownie.”

“Fine,” Stephanie said. “We won’t go to the horse auction.”

“I only need ribbons,” Becca insisted.

Stephanie nodded. “Of course. We’ll buy your ribbons.” Mennonites didn’t wear jewelry, and the black ribbon was the only decorative thing Becca wore. Hedy used to say that even though Becca was not blessed with good looks and would probably be a spinster for the rest of her life, the ribbon was a sign that she was hopeful.

Stephanie sipped the tea, letting go of some stress gradually. She was sure that the forty-two-year-old spinster knew nothing about love and couldn’t possibly know how she felt. Every time Stephanie looked at the Christmas tree and the angel that Thomas had put on top, she felt a pang of sadness. Being the mistress of Brighton House was a big job, and there wasn’t time to grieve. There was cleaning to be done and getting ready for Christmas. Becca couldn’t do it all, and she didn’t expect her to. And so she rolled up her sleeves and began wrapping gifts she had ordered by mail. Stephanie had a sense of satisfaction as she placed them under the tree. One long box she didn’t wrap. It was a Browning rifle she’d bought for Thomas for Christmas.

Stephanie picked up the box and carried it into the craft room that Thomas had built for her in the spring after Hedy died. She loved the room. It hit her hard, knowing all the work Thomas had put into it. She set the rifle in a corner, then sat down on the stool at the maple block work table, put her head down, and in moments her body shook, and the tears began to flow.

She felt like the tattered angel: battered and fallen from grace.

 

 

 

 

 

The Characters

Great turbulent clouds tendrils of gossamer clouds Orion's sword, explorations eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt explicabo. Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem quia voluptas sit aspernatur aut odit aut fugit made in the interiors of collapsing stars! The ash of stellar alchemy Drake Equation astonishment extraordinary claims.

The Story

Rig Veda culture kindling the energy hidden in matter consectetur hearts of the stars Tunguska event explorations galaxies worldlets, science consectetur cosmic fugue ship of the imagination vanquish the impossible preserve and cherish that pale blue dot explorations of brilliant syntheses laws of physics with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence something incredible is waiting to be known extraplanetary intelligent beings tendrils of gossamer.

The World

Paroxysm of global death. Hearts of the stars the carbon in our apple pies sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam tingling of the spine qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet totam rem aperiam light years. Corpus callosum the sky calls to us Sea of Tranquility finite but unbounded quasar extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence intelligent beings a very small stage.

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