Meg Anne Brighton Books

 

            

The Girl with the Golden Ribbon

Eighteen year old, Stephanie Stratford, cursed at birth, is cast into the eighteenth century through a black book she discovered after inheriting her grandmother's country estate.  She lives in two worlds:  One in Brier Hill County, Ohio; and the other, a castle in the eighteenth century.  Unbeknownst to her, monks had placed protective spells upon her at birth. She would remain perfect--as white as the new fallen snow-- until the age of eighteen. At eighteen, she would find the book that would reveal her fate.

It Happened Last Winter

 

Eighteen year old Stephanie Stratford gazed out her bedroom window, reflectively. The snow had been falling all day, and the gas light at the end of the drive gave an ethereal appearance to a gnarled old oak tree in the lawn making it appear monstrous. In the distance she could see the rolling hills and the spruce pines flocked with white snow.  White and silent.  As silent as the house since her grandmother had died. She remembered that day as if it were yesterday. She had been fighting the morbid thoughts since she’d arrived home from college that morning, but they all came back to her.

Hedy Brighton had died on a beautiful, warm, spring day the birds were singing, and the tulips and lilies were in full bloom. Stephanie had been out walking with her Golden Retriever, Brooks, and was just coming up the hill when she heard her grandmother’s Amish housekeeper, Becca, scream a shrill, blood-curdling scream, shattering the peacefulness of the day. It had come from Brighton House and resounded throughout the lavish grounds of the estate, echoing into the valley. And after the scream came the dreaded earth-shattering words that would send Stephanie’s fairy tale world into a spin.

“Hedy is ded!  Hedy is ded!"  I Becca cried out in Amish brogue as she ran across the expansive green lawn with her black dress hiked up. "I could not wake her.  Someone come quickly!”

Stephanie had turned and ran, tearing down the hill and into Brighton House with Becca following behind screaming and making unintelligible sounds as she held up her long black dress, trying to keep up with Stephanie. Stephanie’s large yellow lab, Brooks, overtook Stephanie, as if he knew that something horrible had happened. Stephanie froze when she gazed upon her frail body-- pale and lifeless. She looked as if she were sleeping. Stephanie had taken the pulse of her lifeless body, but she was gone. She had died peacefully in her sleep. Stephanie had collapsed in a chair next to her grandmother’s bedside, holding her grandmother’s hand to her cheek. Her father, Judge Daniel Stratford, had arrived minutes later and was unable to pull Stephanie away.  It had been her Amish nanny’s son, Thomas Shrock who had persuaded her to release her grip on her grandmother.

Stephanie's cat, Boots, jumped up onto the wide window sill, bringing her back to the present moment. She smoothed the cat’s fur thankful for the company her animals gave her. And thankful for Brighton House. She loved the with tall ceilings, oak floors, exquisite moldings, and fireplaces in every room. Her grandmother had always told her that the house would be hers one day, but the day had come too soon. She wasn’t ready at the young age of eighteen to lose the person who had given her a fairy tale life, and loved her unconditionally. She’d never been alone in the house before, and wondered if she would be able to sleep tonight. She shivered and turned away.  

It was then that her eye caught a glint of something shiny. The baroque key lay stark against the cherry wood of the dresser. It hadn't been there this morning when she'd arrived home from college, unpacked her bags, and put her clothes in the dresser. She would have remembered if the key had been there. As she picked it up, she felt the chill of premonition. There was only one piece of furniture in the rambling house that she hadn't been able to open—her grandmother’s desk.

 Flames in the fireplace cast shadows that skittered on the walls as she crossed the room and crept downstairs to the library. As Stephanie opened the door, an image of her grandmother seated at the desk tending her correspondence flashed into her mind. The stab of pain her death had brought hadn't lessened.

She ran her fingers over the rosewood inlay on the antique desk. The house was filled with antiques her grandmother and her second husband, John Brighton had collected. She remembered when Hedy had bought it. She was twelve years old, and they had been in France. Stephanie’s hands shook as she inserted the key in the lock. It clicked as her heart gave a thump. She lowered the lid. Neatly stacked monogrammed stationary graced the leather insert and a fountain pen and inkwell nestled in the corner. Apart from that, it was empty. Stephanie slumped in the chair disappointed. She had hoped for a letter, something written in her grandmother’s lovely handwriting that would ease her pain.

 Stephanie put her head down on the desk, her fingers tapping the back of the desk abstractly. When the wood gave way, she thought she had broken the desk and sat back sickened that she had damaged something her grandmother cherished.  Upon closer investigation, she realized there was a secret compartment, and when she reached inside, she was surprised to find a black book. She examined the cover carefully baffled as to why her grandmother would hide a book. There was no title, but on the spine where the author's name should have been was written, The Feathered Pen.  The handwriting was exquisite. She’d never seen a book penned by a quilled pen.  The paper was yellowed, and it looked very old. She was tired, but she had see what the book was about.

She went into the drawing room, curled up in an overstuffed chair, opened the book, and began to read:

 

Ludwig Castle - 1867

Wizard was in his den at Ludwig Castle conjuring up a potent when his messenger, Celeste, arrived. The celestial hummingbird fluttered about chirping rapidly. “The babe has arrived.  You must hurry to place the spells. The monks have begun to chant over her. Already they have given her many gifts.”

The cavernous chapel at the monastery—charged with spiritual power—seemed darker than usual on that dreary evening. The sweet fragrance of incense filled the air as two monks circled the room; the thuribles on chains swinging from their hands brushed their brown robes. It was a rite used to keep demons away. Twenty-three monks huddled together near the alter chanting over the babe.

With a tap of his staff and an uttered invocation, Wizard flashed into the sanctum of the monastery—blinding the monks.

The faces of the older monks were drawn for they knew what the appriation before them meant. A few dared to look at him: Wizard.

“God save her,” they cried out.

As they struggled to find their vision, Wizard snatched the babe away from the head monk, and brazenly held the infant above him, turning to the four points of the compass.  His eyes changed from blue to fiery red.  At each point, he repeated, “I claim this babe born with The Golden Ribbon.   I hereby place the spell of The Promise on this child to become the bride of Prince Damien, the Lord of Ludwig Castle. After drinking from the Golden Chalice, she will lose her memory, and forget her past life, her family, her friends, and live for the sole purpose of serving Prince Damien. The spell of The Promise has been cast and cannot be broken.”

Wizard stood cradling the tiny babe in the crook of his arm. Against the backdrop of a magnificent Baroque altar, centuries old, she looked so innocent. He seemed oblivious to the holy objects surrounding him. The medieval stained-glass windows with their scenes of angels did not deterred him. The scent of the incense meant to banish him had no effect and the eyes of the crucified Christ boring into him made no impact. His blue eyes, fixed on the babe, appeared mesmerized. A slight smile curved his lips, and for a brief moment, his sharp features softened.

Candles flickered causing of light to dance on the golden crucifix as Joseph stepped forward. “Did you not hear me, Wizard? We have placed the Seal of the Blushed Rose on my daughter. Not a kiss may glance her lips for eighteen years and six months.”

Wizard shrugged. “I’ve heard of the Seal of the Blushed Rose. I could easily break the spell, but I won’t. She will remain pure and untouched as new-fallen snow. And when she is nineteen and nine days old, Prince Damien will take her to Ludwig Castle. The babe’s destiny cannot be changed.”

“I beg of you, have mercy on my daughter, Wizard. I have accepted my punishment and understand that I must give my daughter up as penance for my sins, but she is of the light, and Prince Damien is dark. The light and the dark should not be joined together.”

Wizard stabbed his finger at Joseph’s chest. “You are a monk who delves in the dark. Granted, you have powers, but they are weak and come at a price. Your power led you to the babe’s mother. You think that that was of your own making, but it was destiny. You could not resist the temptation set before you. It was thus to conceive the girl with the golden ribbon--- born perfect in every way.  An invisible thread-like ribbon follows her all the way to the heavens.  Only those with magical powers or the most holy can see it." He paused and pointed his finger at Joseph.“There are rumors in the universe that you are consorting with Lucifer to save the babe from her fate. My advice to you is to accept her destiny. I warn you that if you deal with Lucifer, you’re sure to lose more than the child.” 

“I do not believe it is my daughter’s destiny to serve an evil prince,” Joseph said. “I’ll never accept that. You’re right; I do delve in the dark. I have placed The Seven Seals of Protection around her.”

Wizard shot Joseph a sharp glance. "There was no need to place the seals. Damien is worthy of her and will not harm her. Seven Seals are very powerful. I expected that from a monk who delves in the dark. But you underestimate my powers again, Joseph. I will break your spirit, and the seals too.” He stroked the babe’s smooth head gently with his weathered hand, and his expression softened. “It is best for everyone that you leave her to her fate. I assure you she will have a good life.”

“We must think of the babe now. It is cold in the chapel. We must warm and feed her; she is in rags. I will cut my blanket and give it to her. Hand the child to me now.” Joseph said as he held out his arms, but not in supplication, in command. “If she becomes chilled, she may die.”

Wizard drew back and held the babe tighter. He looked lovingly at her. “I cannot leave her in these swaddling rags. I don’t know that I can leave her at all. I beg you to allow me to take her to Ludwig Castle. Our head handmaiden, Lily, will take good care of her,” Wizard pleaded. “The castle has fireplaces in every room. It is cold and unfit for a babe in this monastery.”

“Your heart seems pure, Wizard, but we cannot allow her to leave our kingdom. The babe is mine until destiny proves otherwise. You’ve placed the curse. Your work here is done.  Hand her over.”

Wizard touched the rag with his wand, and the cloth turned to a soft white fleece blanket. With a look of triumph, he said, “There, there, my sweet. This blanket will keep you warm, and I will leave you a plentiful supply of the Nectar of the Gods so that you will not be hungry.” Then he reluctantly handed her over to Joseph. “What are you going to do with her? You cannot keep her. Who will raise her?”

“It is none of your concern, Wizard,” Joseph said as the monks made a protective circle around Joseph and the babe and began to chant.

Wizard’s face darkened. “My magic is stronger than anyone in the universe,” he hissed. “I can find her by her golden ribbon wherever she goes.”

“Be gone, Wizard,” Joseph said, thrusting his hand out at Wizard. “You will have nothing to do with her until the appointed time and not even then if I have my way.”

“The Feathered Pen writes,” Wizard said. “Where ever she goes, and whatever she does, I will know. My magic will keep her safe. And the Feathered Pen will write her life story in my den at Ludwig Castle.” He seemed to pull a black book out of nowhere. “This book, written by The Feathered Pen must go with her. One day, at the appointed time, she will find the book and read it. It tells of the prince’s coming.”

Wizard dropped the book on the altar and disappeared as if swallowed by the night.

Stephanie started when the phone rang breaking the silence.  She was mesmerized by the book, and almost let the answering machine pick up.  She loved fairy tales, but this one seemed dark.  Her strict, disciplined upbringing kicked in, and she put the book down. She knew before answering it; it would be her father.  He called at this time every night. She pictured him in at his bedroom window looking down at Brighton House from the mansion that loomed over the countryside—Stratford Place—her family home.  Her hand spread protectively over the book as if she were trying to keep it from his sight. She wanted to keep it secret. Whatever was written in the book must have been important to her grandmother, and because it was hidden, it was also private.

“Your lights are still on. What are you doing up so late, honey?” he asked. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”

 “No, nothing like that, Daddy.  I lost track of time.  I’m just heading up to bed.”

“I almost forgot to tell you that I asked Thomas Shrock to come tomorrow to cut some wood and cut the tree. He’ll be there early.”

 “Oh…” Stephanie said taken by surprise. “I’ll make sure I’m up early.”  She had planned on organizing her closet tomorrow. Besides, she wasn’t sure she was ready to see Thomas Shrock—just yet.  But it was too late to change the plans. She had mixed emotions as she turned off the light’s downstairs: grateful that her parents were close by, but also feeling that her privacy was compromised.

At times felt like she lived in a fish bowl. Her housekeeper, Becca, spied on her, and read her mail. Her grandmother had entertained in a lavish style, and the bar was stocked with only the best. She was certain Becca was drinking her whiskey.  She knew, because her father was the only one who drank whiskey, and he had mentioned two bottles had disappeared from the bar. It was in her grandmother’s will, that Becca be kept on, and she’d left Becca a sizable inheritance.  It wasn’t the liquor, occasionally, she would have an aperitif of sherry, but she would never drink hard liquor.  But the bar was stocked with only the best, because her grandmother had entertained in a lavish style.  It was on her mind that she would have to speak to Becca tomorrow. 

She trudged upstairs, with the black book, and her dog Brooks at her heels. She was enchanted by the fairy tale, although she wondered why her grandmother had kept a fairy tale hidden under lock and key. She had thought she would read a little more, but when she climbed between the fresh sheets and her head sank down into the billowy pillow, she was overcome by drowsiness. She fell into a deep sleep with the book hugged to her chest.  It was as if the book itself had lulled her to sleep, shrouding her from the noises that big houses make; she was oblivious to the sounds of the heavy winds and the branches tapping at the window.

Thomas Shrock

 

Thomas Shrock 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 or any of her friends in Brier Hill County.

 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 that gas had been found on his land, and his cabinet business, Fritz and Thomas was thriving. He stood straighter, and looked more self confident than she remembered, but he still had a bit of the boyish look. 

 “Good morning,” she said with a slight smile, unsure of where she stood with him.  He was tall and lanky, and his face was smooth. He’d been her crush from the age of fifteen.  He was three years older, and her skipped a beat, as her feelings for him resurfaced. 

 He nodded and raised his brows, but didn’t speak.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. Maybe she owed Thomas an explanation. The truth was—she wasn’t sure where she stood with him.  There had been rumors he’d been with another girl.  An Amish girl, Anna Yoder.

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, keeping up my grades. Eventually, it worked out. I’ve moved into a boarding house across from the college. Clare Grant owns it. She’s an old friend of my grandmother’s. I’ve known her since I was a little girl. She used to visit my grandmother often. I call her Aunt Clare. She had a room open, and I moved there. 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 Anna 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, and 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 a massive snow-flocked spruce, and said, “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 were here in the spring marking my tree and 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, 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.  She 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.”

 Stephanie watched as a shadow of pain crossed Thomas’s face.  She heard her boots crunch into the snow.   His arms dropped from around her.  She watched as he turned and walked 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.”

 “Not now. Let’s get the work done,” he said pulling a long-handled ax out of the wagon.

 She watched him 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, “For God’s sake, Thomas. What is wrong?”

 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?”

 “You’re not ready to commit, and we both know it,” he said emphatically. “Besides, you’ve been gone for months. We need to talk.”

 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. And she couldn’t imagine what they needed to talk about. He seemed deep in thought, and she was getting impatient. “Can’t these horses go any faster?”

 “You’re always so impatient,” he said. “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 some 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.”

 

The Tattered Angel

 

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.  My manager, Adam, thought 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. “Thomas, you don’t understand,” she sighed,  as if she had the world on her shoulders.

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 and sent fifteen boxes to the thrift shop. And the house had to be winterized before she left for college. His 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 difficult 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. 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 to the 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 emotion 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’ agile body scaled the ladder in an instant, and he placed the angel on the tree top. “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 skirting 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.  “Oh, 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 the angel off 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 in my desk.  I’ll glue it back on when we take down the tree next year.”

Thomas shot her a pained look, and Stephanie remembered he'd asked her 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 cookies on the way out. Marguerite made them, and I’ll never eat them all.”

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

 Stephanie grinned. “Hedy taught me a thing or two, but I actually 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. He 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. And the one who was the most persistent was Anna Yoder. With that in mind and the full realization that she’d been neglectful, she threw her arms around his waist when he came down the ladder. “I missed you,” she said putting her head against his strong 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. Nothing was wrong. You were too busy for me."

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

 “I thought we had an agreement, but it seems that Thomas was put 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 and said, “I’m still going through some stuff. 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,” he replied. “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 warming the soup 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 they could date. For Thomas that meant courting. And 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 his  Amish housekeeper. Romance between an English and an Amish  just wasn’t done in Brier Hill County.

 She tasted the hot soup and detected the thyme in it. 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 said cheerfully 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? In the fall, it seemed that you were too busy to be with me. I thought maybe you were dating someone.”

 Stephanie was beginning to feel uneasy. “Of course, I met guys, but I didn’t date,” she said. “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.  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 Anna Yoder sat with me at a wedding.”

 It hit Stephanie like a ton of bricks. The rumors had been true. Her stomach knotted. She stared at the bowl of soup at a loss for words. Everyone in the county knew that when the Amish sat together at public events, it meant there was something going on.

“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 Anna Yoder.

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

  Stephanie bit her lip, filled with despair. Moment’s 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 would talk 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? 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 now 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 Anna 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 for a minute 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 Anna Yoder—you’re out of your mind.” A small niggle worked at 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 was met with silence. She could hear the rustling of him putting on his boots, and 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.

 She heard a noise upstairs and realized that Becca hadn’t left. She knew immediately that Becca  had heard everything. She would have to be deaf not to have. She wasn’t surprised when 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 Anna 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.”

 “I don’t know how much you heard, Becca, 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 strengh 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.”

 Her words seemed to roll off Stephanie’s shoulders like water off a duck. “Well, don’t say a word, please. 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 heard you arguing with Thomas when I was putting my cleaning supplies away in the pantry, and I thought I should stay. If you don’t mind, I’ll stay ’til 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 anythng, 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. 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 Kidron, and I’ll get 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.  We’ll go shopping for things that you need. What do you need most?”

Becca shifted and bit her lip. She looked embarassed.  “Well…I need some new black ribbons for my hair.”

 Stephanie nodded. “Of course."Mennonites didn’t wear jewelry and the black ribbon was the only decorative thing Becca wore.  Hedy used to say that Becca was a spinster and unfortunately, and not blessed with good looks.  But 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, but she was compassionate. 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. She 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 Black Book

 

Stephanie felt refreshed after her long soak in her bath.  The fragrance of lavender emanated in the air making her feel relaxed.  She turned down the quilt and plumped her pillows eager for what she would read in the black book. She ran her fingers over the quill writing—the shading darkening with each dip in the ink well, and the letters sweeping and scrupulous.

 She began to read with rapt anticipation:

 After Wizard made his abrupt departure, Joseph, held the babe close and gazed into her cherub face praying over her. The rhythm of the chanting eased his burden. He knew he had no choice, but this decision weighed heavily on him. He started when the bell rang signaling the arrival of visitors.

“It is time, Joseph,” the head monk said placing a concerned hand on Joseph’s shoulder.

Joseph felt the pain of separation with each labored step he took up the wide aisle toward a dignified man and an older woman with flaming red hair. He presumed the woman to be the man’s mother—the one who had arranged the adoption. Joseph scanned the man’s tailored black overcoat and the woman’s designer blazer. They spoke of a comfortable lifestyle. The couple’s eyes were on the bundle Joseph carried; and their expressions reverent and expectant.

“We’ve been expecting you,” Joseph said extending his right hand to the woman and then to the man while cradling the babe. “I am Joseph, the babe’s father.”

“And the mother?” the woman queried.

“It has been difficult for her. She left shortly after the delivery,” Joseph said not offering further explanation.

“May I?” the man asked, his fingers reaching out to touch the white blanket draped over the babe’s tiny head.

“Yes, you may,” Joseph said though he still cradled her holding her close.

“She’s beautiful,” the

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