Upon A Winter's NightKaren Harper
A cold night’s silent majesty hides a bitter secret…
Though she is deeply loved by her parents, the fact that Lydia Brand is adopted has always made her different from her close-knit Amish community. But as Christmas approaches and she begins to search for answers about her biological parents, more questions surface.
Soon it seems that the deaths of two women in her small town may not be coincidences, after all. And her pursuit of the truth has left her only with hints of a dark secret—and threats from an unseen adversary.
While she does her best to stave off advances from her parents’ preferred suitor, Lydia discovers that her heart truly belongs to the man who’s been there all along: her friend Josh Yoder. It’s only with his help that Lydia can ensure that the stillness of a winter’s night means peace…and not danger.
Praise for the novels of New York Times
bestselling author Karen Harper
“Harper, a master of suspense, keeps readers guessing about crime and love until the very end, while detailed descriptions of the Amish community and the Ohio countryside add to the enjoyment of this thrilling tale.”
—Booklist on Fall from Pride (starred review)
“Danger and romance find their way into Ohio
Amish country in a lively and endearing first installment of the Amish Home Valley series.”
—Publishers Weekly on Fall from Pride
“The author’s likable, engaging characters and a
strong plot lend additional strength to her ever-amazing descriptions of Amish life.”
—RT Book Reviews on Return to Grace
“Harper’s description of Lisa and Mitch fighting the river and braving the elements are so realistic the reader can almost feel the icy winds. A tale guaranteed to bring shivers to the spine, Down River will delight Harper’s current fans and earn her many more.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Haunting suspense, tender romance
and an evocative look at the complexities of Amish life—Dark Angel is simply riveting!”
—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author
“A compelling story…
intricate and fascinating details of Amish life.”
—Tami Hoag, New York Times bestselling author,
on Dark Road Home
“Well-researched and rich in detail…. With its tantalizing buildup and well-developed characters, this offering
is certain to earn Harper high marks.”
—Publishers Weekly on Dark Angel,
winner of the 2005 Mary Higgins Clark Award
Upon a Winter’s Night
To the great readers who have enjoyed and written to me about my previous seven Amish romantic suspense novels. And as ever, to my #1 fan, Don.
The Home Valley, Ohio
November 24, 2012
Melly was lost in the storm, and Lydia was determined to find her. But it was hard going since huge flakes of snow fell thick and fast on top of the six inches already on the ground.
Josh had corralled the rest of his manger scene animals, but Melly, an eight-foot-tall female camel, loved to wander. Josh had told Lydia to stay put in the barn and Melly would find her way back, but while he was feeding his sheep, Lydia had gone out, anyway. Though she was annoyed with the big beast right now, Melly’s waywardness made Lydia love the camel even more. She sympathized with the animal’s stubborn nature.
“Melly! Melly!” she called. The bitter wind bit deep into her throat and seemed to puff back out in each cloud of breath she exhaled. Swirling flakes made her feel she was inside a shaken snow globe—one like her mother had owned years ago, now hidden under Lydia’s bed. “Melly, you bad girl, where are you?”
Lydia was grateful for her deep bonnet brim and warm cape, but her long skirt and apron were a problem as she lifted booted feet to plod toward the tall woven wire fence that kept the animals in Josh’s large enclosure. Josh Yoder considered her just another of his helpers. He thought she should take care of the docile sheep and cows he rented out to communities and churches for Christmas tableauxs. But it was the camels and donkeys she cared about. And secretly, she cared about Josh, too, and her joy in working near him was worth more than he could ever pay her.
She nearly slipped but managed to right herself. This was no time for daydreaming, but Josh Yoder often intruded on her thoughts, even when he wasn’t near. Despite going into the wind, Lydia quickened her steps. Josh would be angry if he had to come looking for her. Though he tried to stay calm and trusting in all trials, he did have a bit of a temper.
She tried not to picture him angry. Broad cheeks, square chin—he was still clean shaven. The men in their Amish church had the choice of beginning a beard either when they joined the church or when they wed, which he’d never done. Josh was a member in good standing, but as yet had no wife or maidal he courted—maybe because he’d lived in the world for several years. So handsome with his green-blue eyes and gold-as-wheat hair, he was tall for an Amish man. Ya, she looked up to him in more ways than one. If only she could say that about her come-calling friend, Gid Reich, whom her daad kept inviting to dinner, even though she saw him each day at work. She didn’t want to let her daad and mamm down, but she’d tried to tell them Gid wasn’t for her. Still, on paper, as they say, he seemed the perfect match.
Lydia stopped for a moment to get her bearings. Surely, she wasn’t walking in circles. Her parents would scold her for going out in a storm, because they were very protective. She understood that. They had lost their only other child in a tragic accident. Just beyond the fence was Creek Pond, where her five-year-old brother, Sammy, had drowned years ago. Her mother, who blamed herself for the boy’s death, didn’t want her daughter anywhere near the pond, summer or winter.
Lydia traced her way along the fence. If worse came to worst, it would guide her back to the big Yoder barn where Josh housed and tended his menagerie. But—oh, no—the back gate was open several feet! It had a latch, so could that crazy camel have escaped through the gap and be wandering back toward the pond? Would Melly’s weight crack right through the ice? Sammy’s screams clawed at Lydia’s memory again, but it was just the shrill shriek of the wind. A tear froze on her cheek, but she kept going.
She reached out and dragged the narrow gate closed and latched it. She’d have to head straight back to tell Josh now. Who could have left the gate ajar, let alone opened it? Surely, not the wind. All Josh’s other workers, some hired, some volunteers like her, knew to keep the animals in this big field and they’d gone home hours ago—Saturday night, time for courting.
Josh had kidded once about how Melly “liked to swing for the fences.” The camel loved to scratch her sides on the woven wire. Lydia could picture the big baby, along with her cohorts, Gaspar and Balty, poking their furr
y-lipped muzzles through the fence in good weather while they watched buggies and vehicles go by on the road. Talk about stopping traffic! The sight of camels in the heart of Ohio Amish country had caused more than one fender bender.
As Lydia trudged back toward the barn, praying she’d find her favorite camel, she stumbled over something low, sprawled under the white shroud of snow. She let out a little scream. Thank the Lord, it was too small to be Melly. She backed away. When the person—it was a person—didn’t move, she bent over it—her—then fell to her knees.
The woman lay facedown. Lydia started to speak to her in Amish Deutsche, then saw by her short, curly hair—blond hair iced with snow—that she was Englische.
“Wake up. Hello? Are you all right? My name is Lydia Brand. I want to help you, ya, I do.”
No answer, no movement. Unconscious? Dead? Had she opened the gate and come in? But from where? A narrow dirt lane, woodlot, fields and hills lay behind.
Lydia dusted off the woman’s face as best she could and put her own nearly on the ground to get a better look at her. She didn’t recognize the woman, wasn’t even sure how old she was—sixties? Older? Ripping off a mitten, Lydia touched the white, icy face with two fingers, then fumbled for a neck pulse. Couldn’t tell. She had to get help soon—now. She’d never be able to carry her. And if she dragged her through the snow, she might hurt her more.
The woman was not even wearing a scarf, hat or gloves, so was she off her bean? Clutched in her hand was a small, square piece of paper, like those sticky notes. Maybe it had her name on it or a message for someone. Lydia took it and held it close to her face. Words written in blue ink smeared the sodden paper. Not able to read it through the scrim of flakes, Lydia thrust it into the mitten she’d pulled back on, so the paper lay damp against her palm.
Panic pulsed through her as she took off her warm woolen cape and draped it over the woman, as if tucking her into bed. Josh would have to go for help in his buggy to the Stark family down the road, since they were Englische and had cars and phones. They could call the volunteer emergency squad and Sheriff Freeman.
Despite sweating in her frenzy, Lydia felt the gnawing cold even more without her cape. Could that woman have frozen to death? Fearing the flakes were turning to ice pellets, Lydia skimmed her hand along the wire fence, and calling out, “Melly! Melly!” stumbled through the deepening snow toward the barn.
* * *
Josh Yoder breathed a sigh of relief when the last camel, Melly, ambled into the barn, blinking ice crystals from her two-inch lashes and shaking the snow off her shaggy fur. He put her in her stall on camel row, then realized Lydia had not followed the big beast into the barn.
He ran back to the single tall door the camels used and pulled it back open. The wind howled at him, and snow fell like wool at shearing time. He had partly inherited this big, old milking barn from his father and had bought his brothers out. But it was no longer the Yoder Dairy. He’d kept four of the cows and acquired other animals to breed, but mostly he hired them out for living Christmas tableaux or holiday pageants in December. Spring through autumn, he ran a petting zoo, and a wagon pulled by his big Belgian horses took tourists on a ride so they could see and feed, and, of course, pet, the tamer animals in the back fields. But in wintertime he kept them inside.
Still no sign of Lydia. Surely, she’d have come in with Melly if she’d brought her back here. The barn was a shelter from the storm, a lofty, wide place with one long wing that held the old milking stanchions and rows of cattle stalls he planned to replace soon. The main building boasted two spacious haymows above the barn floor, one for fodder and straw and one to store other food supplies. He and his workers tried hard to keep the place clean. It actually managed to smell sweetly of straw, hay and warm bodies most of the winter. He only wished he’d known this sudden storm was coming.
Squinting against the spin of stinging snow—ice pellets now—and cupping his hands around his mouth, he bellowed out the door, “Lydia! Get in here! Don’t you walk home in this! I’ll take you in the sleigh or your parents will have my head. Lydia, get back here!”
Ach, that woman was willful, always had been. But she was sure-footed and bright, too. At age twenty, she was a maidal who had blossomed into a beauty from the pesky, skinny tomboy she used to be. She was a distraction sometimes, bending over to feed the animals, humming, shooting those quick smiles at him. In the four years he’d been away from the Home Valley, she’d become a desirable woman, though one who would be a lot of trouble for the man she married. She was being courted by Gideon Reich, who worked for her father, so there was probably a wedding in the offing. Gideon was a widower, so maybe he knew a thing or two about women, but good luck to him taming Lydia Brand.
Really worried now—could she have fallen or twisted an ankle out there?—Josh grabbed his heavy coat and flap-eared hat. Should he just run outside, yelling for her? Harness Blaze onto the sleigh and try to catch her before she went into the thick woodlot that lay between his place and the Brand house?
Then he saw her emerge from the curtain of snow, half stumbling, half running. He rushed out and put an arm around her shaking shoulders. “What happened? Where’s your cape?”
Her cheeks were pink with cold, her lips blue, her teeth chattering. At least she still wore mittens and boots. He picked her up and carried her toward the barn. Despite her trembling, she held tight to him.
“C-c-cape c-covered a woman, lying in the s-snow. By the back g-gate,” she stuttered through chapped lips. “It was open, but I closed it.”
He sat her at his worktable and put his coat around her. He poured hot chocolate from his thermos into a plastic cup and held it to her lips until she took a swallow and brought her mittened hands up to hold it. A woman out in the snow? And it upset him about the gate because he didn’t need more rumspringa kids sneaking in to ride or scare the animals. The animals could get hurt and the kids, too, but what had happened to the woman?
“Not sure whether to take the sleigh for her or go to the Starks to get help,” Josh muttered as he ran to harness his mare in the nearest corner of the barn.
“I’ll g-go with you either way,” she called after him.
“No, you stay here. Is she hurt? Alive?”
“Not sure. F-frozen, I think.”
“You didn’t recognize her?”
“No. Not Amish.”
“No one else lost out there?”
“Don’t know. I’ll help you harness B-Blaze, then—”
“Drink that. Stay put.”
It would be quickest to take the sleigh. He’d refused to rent it out recently for a Santa pageant. When he’d returned after four years of working at the Columbus Zoo and joined the church, he’d promised Bishop Esh that the animals would be rented out strictly for religious events. He could go find someone to help. But no, he’d go check on the woman first.
He heard knocking and a shout at the far end of the barn, closest to the road. If only it was someone with a car or a cell phone! He paid his Englische friend Hank to do his bookings on his cell, but Josh wished he had his own now.
He sprinted the width of the barn, past the donkeys braying at the intrusion, and swung the door open. Lydia’s father, Sol Brand, stood there. Snow etched his brimmed hat, narrow shoulders and graying beard. He was a head shorter than Josh. If any Amish man could be considered a loner in their friendly, tight church community, even though he worked with many people every day, it was Solomon Brand.
“Liddy here?” he asked, frowning, as he stepped inside. “Hope you didn’t let her walk home in this.” Beyond him Josh saw two horses hitched to a big buggy.
“She’s here, Mr. Brand. She was out in the snow, but she stumbled on an injured or dead woman on her way back, and we need to get help. Since you’re hitched up, could you go down the road to the Starks’ and have them phone for help? I’ll go out for the woman and, if she’s alive, bring her back to the barn.”
“Don’t like to bother the Starks mys
elf, but for this... How ’bout you take my buggy and go? Is it someone Amish?”
Sol frowned again at Josh as if that were his fault. “Liddy, you all right?” the older man bellowed so loud the donkeys began braying again.
“Ya, daad!” she called, walking toward them. “Glad you came so you can help!”
Sol shook his head when he saw Lydia wrapped in Josh’s coat. Josh knew the Brands didn’t like their daughter spending hours working with his animals, especially on weekends like this. But she’d stood firm on helping here. Her father often came after her since they didn’t want her out in her buggy after dark. No doubt her come-calling friend, Gideon Reich, didn’t want her here, either, “dirtying her hands,” as Josh had heard, but Lydia had a mind of her own. And, while her mother scolded her a lot, her father seemed to love her dearly.
“All right, I’ll go,” Sol told Josh. “Liddy, don’t you go back out in the storm! I’ll be right back—let Connor Stark do the calling for help.”
He lifted a quick hand to his daughter, turned and went back out. Josh had intentionally not mentioned where the woman lay, back by the gate to Creek Pond. Sol and Susan Brand’s five-year-old son, Samuel, had drowned there when Lydia was about ten and Josh was twenty. He understood that was one of the reasons the Brands sheltered their remaining child. They had Lydia working during the week as the receptionist in their family-owned Amish furniture store on the edge of town, and, otherwise, tried to keep her close to home.
Josh hurried to Lydia and steered her back toward the worktable where she’d been sitting. “I can’t believe Daad went to the Starks. He thinks they’re prideful, even though they’ve bought a lot of our furniture.”
“He’s going, and I’m going to try to find the woman near the gate, bring her here. You wait here for the sheriff or the squad. If I’m not back and they need to drive vehicles out there, they should take the dirt road outside the fence, if they can find it in this snow. I’ve got Blaze half-hitched. Sit down here by the front door and rest.”