When Secrets Strike

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HQN Books
House of Secrets Series
October 27, 2015

In Laurel Ridge, Pennsylvania, a community once united must suspect one of their own

Amish quilter Sarah Bitler's dreams no longer feature a husband and family. Instead, she searches for success in the quilt shop within Blackburn House, a place once tarnished with deadly secrets. She refuses to let the past influence her future…until an ominous fire forces them to collide.

Firefighter Aaron King was the first to touch Sarah's heart—and the first to break it. Now a widower and father of two small girls, his return to Sarah's life brings her buried feelings to the surface. As a string of horrific incidents tears apart their community, an arsonist's wrath threatens to destroy them all. With Aaron as the only suspect, Sarah must follow her instincts to find the truth. But to protect an innocent man, she might risk her heart to Aaron again…and risk her life to an unknown killer.

Chapter One

Be careful out there. Sarah Beiler smiled, thinking of her mother’s familiar goodbye as Sarah had climbed into her buggy this morning. Mammi always said the same thing when any of her family left her sight. She’d really rather they stay safely on the farm, even Sarah, who was nearing thirty and had long since been accepted as a maidal, an old maid, by their Pennsylvania Amish community.

What was there to be careful of on this peaceful back road that wound between Amish and Englisch farms on its way to the town of Laurel Ridge? The route took a bit longer to reach her quilt shop than if Sarah had gone by the main road, but worth it to keep her mother from worrying.

“Mamm is being a little silly, ain’t so, Molly?” She could talk to her buggy horse out here without fear of being overheard. “There’s not even a storm cloud in the sky today.”

Molly flickered her ears in response to Sarah’s voice and then broke stride. The mare tossed her head, snorting.

“What are you—“ Sarah stopped, seeing a few seconds later what Molly had sensed immediately. Smoke, snaking its way up between the trees ahead of her.

“Someone burning trash, that’s all.” But doubt threaded her words. There was too much smoke for that, surely. Hard on the thought she saw the sparks, shooting upward, landing among the trees. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Fire. The one thing that farmers feared most, especially in such a dry summer. She slapped the lines, sending the mare surging ahead. She’d have to see for herself what was burning.

Around the next curve in the winding road, the source was visible. Flames licked the back wall of a barn, and smoke billowed upward, fanned by the summer breeze. An unused barn, thank the gut Lord, part of the property belonging to an elderly widow who lived in town. No animals were in danger, at least, but if the fire spread—

Sarah froze for an instant, undecided. Race to the nearest phone to call for help? Or check first in case someone needed help? A glimpse of the small cottage near the barn decided her. The cottage wasn’t empty—Mrs. Everly let Gus Hill live there in exchange for keeping an eye on the property. Sarah had to be sure he wasn’t in danger.

Turning an unwilling Molly onto the lane, Sarah touched her with the buggy whip, and they bucketed up to the cottage. Sarah jumped down and raced to the door, her breath coming quickly. If Gus was there, surely he’d have smelled the fire by now, unless he’d somehow provided himself with a bottle, in which case he could well be passed out and unaware of the danger.

“Gus! Gus Hill! Are you in there?” Sarah pounded on the door, glancing toward the flames that licked at the barn roof. “Gus!” She twisted the knob, and the door swung open.

A quick glance around the two littered rooms told her that wherever Gus was, he wasn’t here. But the barn—

She ran back outside. The fire ate greedily at one corner of the roof, sending a shower of sparks toward the trees. He couldn’t be in there. He couldn’t be. She should hurry to the nearest phone. But she couldn’t, not without being sure.

Her breath catching, Sarah raced to the barn. The heat radiating from it terrified her, but she had to look—had to be sure. She grabbed the hem of her apron and held it over her mouth and nose. Eyes watering, she peered through the open doorway. Empty—not even any old hay bales to feed the fire. And no crumpled body lying unconscious, either.

A timber crashed, flaming, to the barn floor, sending a trail of fire heading toward her. Sarah spun, fleeing to the buggy, not needing to use the whip to persuade Molly into a gallop. They jolted back down the lane, back around the bend. The Stoltzfus farm, that would be closest, and they had a phone shanty near their barn.

Molly raced up the Stoltzfus’s lane, heading straight for their barn as if it were her own. Sarah halted the mare at the phone shanty, stumbled down, and grabbed the receiver, hitting 911. By the time she’d gasped out the information to the emergency dispatcher, Ben Stoltzfus was running toward her from the barn, followed by three of his sons, while his wife, Miriam, hurried from the house, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“Was ist letz, Sarah? What’s wrong?” Ben grasped her arm.

A fit of coughing seized her, and she could only point.

“Ach, how did we not smell it? Fire—the old Everly barn, ja?”

Sarah nodded, catching her breath. “I spotted it when I was passing. The sparks—“ She didn’t need to explain the danger to Ben. He was already turning to his sons.

“Buckets and shovels into the wagon, quick. We must keep it from spreading until the fire truck gets here.”

Wide-eyed, the boys ran to obey. Ben raced for the paddock and his buggy horse.

Miriam had reached Sarah by then and wrapped her arm around her. “You’re all right? Komm, let me see. You didn’t burn yourself?”

“No, no, I’m fine.” A cough interrupted the words. “Just need a drink of water, I think.”

“For sure. Into the house, now.” Miriam glanced to the oldest of her daughters. “Emma, go and call the neighbors. Tell them the Everly barn is burning. Quick!”

Ten-year-old Emma paled, but she bolted to the phone shanty.

Suddenly weak in the knees, Sarah was grateful for Miriam’s arm around her as they headed for the farmhouse. Miriam, like any Amish mammi, clucked and comforted and scolded all at once as she gently shoved Sarah onto a kitchen chair and then set a glass of water in front of her.

“You rest a minute. I’ll start coffee. Lucky I have a couple of jugs of lemonade I can take over, too. The firefighters will need a drink.”

Sarah nodded, accepting Miriam’s automatic assumption that they would provide what was needed. It was what neighbors did. “Maybe take drinking water, as well. I don’t know how the water source is over there.”

“Ja, that’s true.” Miriam bustled around, putting one daughter in charge of the baby and enlisting the other two in carrying jugs and cups to Sarah’s buggy.

“I looked for Gus Hill.” Sarah cleared her throat and took another gulp of water. “No sign of him.”

“He’s never one to hang around if there’s trouble,” Miriam said darkly. “I don’t know what Julia Everly pays him for looking after things, but he’s not worth it, that’s certain sure.”

Reluctant as she was to speak ill of anyone, Sarah had to admit that Miriam was most likely right. Gus was a fixture in the township, well known for his talent for getting by on the least possible effort.

By the time the buggy was loaded, Sarah could hear the wail of the siren. The fire truck roared by, followed by the usual cars and trucks carrying extra volunteers. Most of the able-bodied men in the area belonged to the volunteer fire company, both Amish and Englisch. Like Aaron King.

Sarah shoved the name to the back of her mind as she and Miriam drove in the wake of the volunteers. She had no right to be more concerned for Aaron than for any other of her Amish brethren. Now if she could only convince herself of that fact…

By the time they reached the Everly property, the barn was fully engulfed. Figures in yellow protective gear swarmed around it, but Sarah could see they were more intent on keeping the fire from spreading than on trying to save the structure. It was too late for that.

Mollie whinnied, shaking her head nervously, so Sarah led her a short distance away, tethering her to a tree. Miriam had shoved a folding table into the buggy behind the seat. They pulled it out and began setting thermoses and jugs on it.

Scanning the firefighters, all so alike in their gear, Sarah knew she was searching for Aaron. She caught a glimpse of chestnut-colored beard, and her breath went out in an involuntary sigh of relief. He was there, of course, and he was safe. That slighter figure next to him was probably his teenage brother, Jonah. He’d be keeping a close eye on the boy.

The barn roof collapsed with a roar and a shower of sparks, and for a few minutes the scene reminded Sarah of an angry beehive as the volunteers fought to extinguish the flying sparks.

Miriam caught her hand, and Sarah realized she was watching her husband. Ben leaned on his shovel, coughing, but in a moment he’d straightened and was back at work.

Finally the barn was nothing more than a sullen black heap, still sending smoke and fumes into the air. In twos and threes the firefighters began drifting over to the table, and Sarah and Miriam were suddenly busy pouring out drinks.

“Sarah?” The sound of her name had her turning.

Mac Whiting, Laurel Ridge’s police chief, stood behind her, pulling a notebook from his pocket. He looked very official in his blue uniform with a weapon at his hip, and only the fact that she’d known him since childhood kept her from retreating into the usual Amish reticence when confronted with Englisch officials.

“Some coffee, Mac?”

He shook his head. “Save it for the guys who did all the work.” He snapped his pen. “I understand you called in the fire.”

“I was on my way to town. To the shop,” she added, although Mac would know that well enough. “I saw the smoke before I came around the bend, and then I saw the flames. In the back, the fire was, then,” she said, pointing.

“So you went over to Ben and Miriam’s to call?” He jotted the information down, though what good it would do anyone, she didn’t know.

“Ja. But I checked, first, to see if Gus was here. I pounded on the cottage door. No answer, but I was afraid he was asleep, maybe.”

Mac grinned. “That’s a diplomatic way of putting it. I take it you didn’t see him.”

“The door wasn’t locked, so I checked inside, but the cottage was empty. Then I was afraid he might be in the barn.” She seemed to feel the heat on her face again. “I looked, but—“

“You never went near a burning building!” Aaron King was suddenly at her side, looking as if he’d like to shake her. “Ach, Sarah, whatever were you thinking?”

His obvious concern warmed Sarah’s heart despite the fact that he was looking at her as if she were an erring child.

“I was thinking same as you would have,” she said, her voice tart. “If someone was lying there in danger, I couldn’t just go away. And don’t go telling me I shouldn’t have, because I had to.”

Aaron’s hand closed around her wrist for an instant, and her breath caught. Then he let go, shaking his head, his brown eyes crinkling a bit at the corners. “You always were a stubborn one, Sarah Beiler. Quiet, but stubborn.”

Too quiet, she couldn’t help thinking. If she’d given him even a hint of what she felt, all those years ago, would it have made a difference?

“It’s just as well she looked, or we might have thought there was a body in there.” Mac sounded practical. “Might have known Gus wouldn’t be anywhere around when there was trouble.”

“Julia Everly is going to be so upset.” Sarah pictured the tart-tongued elderly woman. “She never would let go of this property, because her husband used to love coming out here. And now that she’s laid up herself with a broken leg, she’ll really be fretting.”

“You mean she’ll be calling me every five minutes to find out what progress I’m making,” Mac said.

Sarah looked at him blankly. “Calling you? Why?”

“I’m the local fire marshal, remember? I’m supposed to have answers.”

“Ja, but what could you do?” she asked. “The firefighters did their best. At least they kept blaze from spreading. As dry as it’s been, it’s lucky the woods didn’t catch.”

“Not that.” Mac frowned. “Look around you. There’s not a cloud in the sky. No lightning to set it off. Nothing combustible stored in the barn. No electricity even. So how did the barn catch fire to begin with?”

Arson. She felt Aaron stiffen next to her. The word didn’t have to be said aloud to chill the blood.