Chapter One ONE
“So, it’s been a little over a year since Andy died,” Katie began to a large group of friends in the gathering room of her bed-and-breakfast. “I’m sorry I didn’t plan something last month, but to be honest, I just couldn’t do it.”
“I don’t ever want to gather on the day of Andy’s funeral,” Kendra said. “He would’ve hated that.”
TEN YEARS LATER
“What do you think, Miss Troyer? Will these improvements suit your needs, or would you like us to make some additional changes?”
Kendra walked farther into the recently painted and carpeted storefront and ran her hand along the countertop that had just been installed. It was refurbished wood and had been sanded and polished until it shone. It was the final component that she’d needed to complete her vision for Tried and True Furnishings. She intended to sell both vintage and new eclectic pieces of furniture, rugs, and accessories to make any house a home. Just looking at it all, she felt a burst of pride. This place was quite an accomplishment for a girl who’d grown up in a place that was barely two steps up from a shack.
“I don’t think anything else will need to be done, Mr. Grayson,” she replied as calmly as possible. She so wanted to sound like a lady. “It looks just as I had hoped. Thank you so much.”
Mr. Grayson, who was fond of wearing overalls and flannel shirts no matter what time of the year, stuffed his hands in his back pockets. “So, should I tell Jan to send you the contract?”
“Yes. I’m ready to sign a lease.”
He grinned. “That’s real good news. I know you’ve been back for a while now, but this feels official. Welcome back to Walnut Creek, Miss Troyer.”
“Thank you. I’m glad to be here.” And it really was almost the truth.
After they shook hands, Clyde Grayson gathered up his backpack and strode out of the building.
Leaving Kendra to stand alone for the first time in her very own shop.
It was the culmination of what felt like a lifetime of hard work. After struggling through school for most of her life, things had finally clicked well enough for her to get her GED and eventually apply to a small design school outside of Columbus. Miss Wilson, the volunteer who’d helped her with her coursework, had been her angel. She’d boosted up Kendra’s low self-esteem, encouraged her when everyone else hardly looked her way, and even found additional scholarships and grants for Kendra so she could have free room and board at school.
Remembering the day she’d left on the bus for college, Kendra shivered. She’d been so scared to venture out to the big city. Almost as scared as she’d been relieved to leave Walnut Creek.
After boarding the bus, she’d stared out the window, not thinking about anything other than the fact that she was about to change her life.
And she had.
She’d gone to design school but had lasted only two semesters until she’d let the pressure and insecurities get the best of her. She’d started drinking, sometimes even trying pills. Anything to help alleviate the guilt she’d felt for leaving her siblings—and to help block out the memories of what she’d endured in that house.
Feeling the familiar weight of remorse press on her chest, Kendra shook it off. It did no good to dwell on the bad. Especially since she’d gotten sober, found a good job, and had started a new life for herself. She’d been determined to stay in Columbus, too, until Andy Warner had died and her little sister Naomi had called her one evening crying, saying that she missed her.
As always, Kendra’s personal goals had been no match for her brothers’ and sisters’ needs. Soon after that phone call, she’d begun to make plans for her new life in Walnut Creek.
And it was a new life. She was now good friends with the remainder of the Eight, had a pretty little house she’d gotten for a song, and was about to open up her own business. She was just a few minutes away from her siblings, in case they needed her.
That was what was important.
She’d just begun a list for office supplies when the glass door opened and Nate Miller strode in. Just like it had been for the last decade, she felt a twinge of dismay at seeing him. And, maybe, a fierce rush to turn away and hide.
“Hey, it is really you,” he said. “I saw Clyde walking down the sidewalk, and he shared that ‘Pretty Miss Troyer’ had just decided to lease this building.”
His hazel eyes looked almost green in the morning light. They were just as sharp and perceptive, though. Every time he looked her way, she felt like he was searching for all her secrets.
She needed to keep a firm hold on her composure. To do anything less would let him see all the chinks and cracks in her armor. And if that happened? Well, he’d see that her insides were just as flawed as her outside was.
Turning her face away from him, she ran a finger along the countertop. “There’s a lot of Troyers around. I’m surprised you thought of me.”
He laughed. “Jah, there are a lot of Troyers, for sure. There’s not a lot of pretty ones, though.”
The comment was so irreverent and surprising, she looked back at him.
Meeting her gaze, his grin deepened.
What could she do? She smiled back in spite of her better judgment. “I suppose there’s a compliment in there somewhere.”
“Come now, Kendra. We both know it’s not hidden. I put that out there as bold as brass.” He walked closer, reminding her just how good he looked in his dark pants, boots, and white shirt. Yes, he was wearing the same clothes most any Amish man in the county wore. But somehow, he managed to wear them better.
He was practically daring her to look anywhere but into his eyes, and realizing that it was getting harder and harder not to let her eyes stray, Kendra coughed, then looked back down at her list. She reckoned it was an almost believable stance. Well, it might have been, if there were more than two items on the list.
Nate shifted. “Kendra, Clyde also told me something else that I found interesting.”
She picked up a pencil. “And what is that?”
“That you’ve been visiting this shopping center for a while now. Several weeks, in fact.”
Her chin popped back up. “It’s no secret that I moved back to Walnut Creek.” She’d been all over the area with her friends.
“What I’m getting at is that my hardware store is just two doors down. And since Walnut Creek Hardware was started by my grandfather and we have a lot of the same friends, you had to have known that I was running it now. Didn’t you?”
“I did.” She looked at him curiously.
“I thought you would’ve stopped by.”
“There was no reason for me to.” She picked up a hammer from a counter. “I already have enough tools.”
“Come on. You still could’ve come in to say hello. I mean, we’re friends, right?”
Suddenly, all of his words just made her feel awkward. He was acting too sure of himself. Too slick. “Nate, though we’ve known each other for a long time now, we’ve never really been friends.”
“Are you serious?”
As much as she wanted to act like nothing he ever said about her had bothered her, she couldn’t do it. “I wouldn’t lie about our past.”
All the humor faded from his expression. “Maybe we should talk about that,” he said slowly.
There he went again. Looking at her too intently. Seeing too much.
Feeling trapped, she stepped away from the countertop and stuffed her notebook back in her purse. “I don’t think so. I mean, there’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before. Now, I think I’d better get on my way home.”
“Hold on a sec, wouldja?” Looking troubled, he spoke again. “Kendra, I’m sorry, but I think there might be some things that need to be said.” He stepped closer, bringing with him the scent of soap and peppermints. “For years, you’ve acted like you want nothing to do with me, even though we have all the same friends. Every time you’ve come back to town, you’ve hardly ever said a word to me—even when I’ve tried to ask about your job or how your family was.”
“Nate, I’d rather not talk about you and me.”
“I really wish you would, though.” Looking at her directly in the eye, he said, “What did I ever do to ya?”
He’d embarrassed her. Made her feel like she was less than everyone else. And that had hurt so bad that she’d tried to avoid him at all costs. In short, Nate Miller was a constant reminder of how badly she’d wanted to fit in and how impossible that goal had seemed back when she was fourteen.
But to dwell on that made her feel churlish and petty. They’d all moved on. “I don’t think there’s any reason for us to start rehashing things that happened ten years ago.”
His eyes lit up with triumph. “So, I did do something. When? Ten years ago?”
Ugh. The conversation was not only awkward, but she was also somehow making things even worse. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not important anymore.”
He stepped closer. “Sure it is.” He lowered his voice. “Kendra, what exactly did I do? I honestly can’t recall when I hurt you so bad.”
“Nate, you used to laugh about me to your friends. You put me down. You would point out how I wasn’t smart and had to go to special classes.” When he opened his mouth, she talked over him. She couldn’t help herself. “You used to remind everyone that I didn’t have any money. That my family was poor. That I had to go to the food bank while you did your volunteer service there.” Though she knew she should simply shut up, she added in a choked voice, “Nate, I heard you make fun of… of my whole situation.” That was as much as she could say about her abusive father and her in-denial mother.
All the color had washed out from his face. “I… I don’t know what to say other than that I’m sorry.”
She felt herself breathing hard. All of her hard-earned poise had just disintegrated in a flat thirty seconds. Good job, Kendra. Now she was just a couple more seconds away from showing Nate that she was still awkward and unpolished. Just seconds away from losing everything she’d ever hoped to attain. “Look, I know it was a long time ago. I’m surely being too hard on you. Let’s just forget about it.”
“Kendra, I remember a lot of what you are talking about. I was a jerk and I really am sorry.” He waved a hand. “But you can’t seriously hold me to task for that now, can you? I mean, I was just a kid when I acted like that.”
She didn’t want to hold a grudge, but that explanation felt like a sharp jab into her side, because he was neglecting a very important point. He might have been just a kid when he’d done all of those things, but she’d been just a kid, too.
Just a fourteen-year-old abused girl with four younger siblings and not a lot of hope.
“I know, Nate,” she said. “But see, you acted for the world like you were better than me. You volunteered. You helped the poor and needy. You acted like you were friends with just about everyone, but it was all for show. Inside, you weren’t all that nice at all.” Though it was hard, she continued to look at him in the eye. “I’m sorry, Nate. I know you were just a kid and everyone makes mistakes. But as much as I try to give you excuses, there’s a part of me that thinks you were old enough to know better.”
A muscle worked in his jaw. “You’re right. I really am sorry.”
His easy agreement took her by surprise. “All right.”
“So, do you forgive me?”
She nodded. “I forgive you.”
“So, maybe we can be friends now?”
She hadn’t expected that. Caught off guard by the confusion she was feeling, she gripped a fold of her dress. “Let’s take things one step at a time, jah?”
“I hope you’ll at least try. I mean, every moment counts, true? Especially after Andy died.”
“This isn’t about Andy.”
“Of course it is. It’s about friendships and hurting and not doing enough to make things right. It’s about missing opportunities.”
His voice sounded brittle. Hurt. She exhaled, hating how upset she was by his words. How confused they made her feel.
“Nate, I… I don’t know what to say.”
“How about you say that you’ll try? Just say that you’ll try to trust me again. I promise, I’m worth it.”
While she gaped at him, he paused, looking like he was going to make a speech, but he seemed to reconsider. Seconds later, the door closed behind him with a satisfying click, leaving her alone again.
Standing there in the silence, Kendra thought about his words, about his promise that he could be trustworthy again. However, she knew that wasn’t going to be the problem.
The problem was that she’d never trusted Nate Miller. And how did one repair a relationship that hadn’t actually been there in the first place? She wasn’t sure if that was possible.
Of course, whenever she thought about her late teens in Columbus, she shivered. Kendra knew what it was like to be alone, and it was hard. There was also the memory of Andy. She’d always liked him and thought she’d have her whole life to one day renew their friendship.
But he was gone now, and she’d have to live with that. Regrets always tasted bitter, and she didn’t want to have any more of them if she could help it.
As if the Lord was nudging her forward, Kendra knew she had to discard her hurt where Nate was concerned. Though they might never patch things up completely, she owed it to herself, Nate, and maybe even Andy’s memory to try.