Joy drove north along I-81, her thoughts set resolutely toward a new start and a new home. At a rest area just outside a small Mennonite community, she reflected on the drive from Charlotte. She had pushed hard, driving non-stop through heavily populated areas, but now she took in the farmlands surrounding her, smiling.
She hadn’t been sure she could make this trip, but she had to try. Alone. This was her new life and she needed to start living it. Her smile faded as she thought about making the heart-rending discovery that the man she thought was her soul mate for the last two years was actually leading a double life. A life that included a wife and children. That was humiliating enough, but discovering that all her associates at the station knew… she couldn’t continue to work in that environment. She had worked hard to become a syndicated reporter and could work from anywhere. She needed to focus on the future, leave the old life behind, find new associates to work with. Start over. Today was the beginning of a New Year in a new place with new friends. The first day of the rest of her life. New opportunities and new surroundings.
Stepping out of the car, the cold air almost took her breath away. She wasn’t a southern girl anymore. She had noticed the bare tree limbs and now that she thought about it, snow had been banked around buildings in the towns she had driven through. Her mind had been preoccupied with the past, and she hadn’t paid attention to the landscape. It was beautiful in its starkness, snow drifting against buildings and trees. She shivered, climbed back into the car and turned the heat up a couple of notches. After checking into the Inn she had booked for a couple days, her first order of business would be to look for work. Philadelphia was the nearest major market, but she had no desire to enter that world again. She wondered if the stations there even had human interest reporters working in this quiet, lovely place. It was so different from Charlotte but was steeped in national history and Amish treasures. It should prove a rich source of work.
No road signs announced the town or the Inn. There hadn’t been a McDonald’s or Subway, or even a Starbucks since just outside Baltimore. She checked the GPS and followed it to the Inn. At least she could rely on that modern convenience. Since she took the stretch break mid-afternoon and now pulling into the guest parking lot, it had become dark. Very dark. She looked at her watch and shook her head. Only five o’clock.
She left her luggage, hoping someone would be there to help bring it in. As she opened the front door, a bell tinkled lightly. She walked to the desk, but no one came, so she stood looking around the simply decorated sitting room. Even in the dead of winter, there was a homey, welcoming feel. The heavy, dark wood furnishings appeared handcrafted. The curtains also, neatly starched and lined with lace. A lot of time and work had been spent crafting the things in this room. Nothing about this place said hotel or commercial. Obviously done with pride and loving care.
She jumped as a man’s voice broke into her thoughts. “How can I help you, ma’am?”
She turned around. “Oh, hi. My name is Joy Clayborn and I have a reservation.”
The young man opened a large ledger book and scanned the page. “Clayborn. Yes, your room is ready. Just at the top of the stairs, first door on the left. You will be facing…” He paused, turning a light shade of red. “I’m sorry ma’am, I tend to talk a little too much. Do you have luggage I might help with?”
She smiled, nodding. “I’m sorry, I missed your name?”
“Oh. Joseph Berger, ma’am. I apologize.”
“Do you mind if I call you Joseph? It sounds sturdy and honest.”
He blushed again. “Of course, Ms. Clayborn.”
“Then yes, Joseph, I do have some luggage and I would appreciate it very much. I didn’t realize it would get dark so quickly.” She hugged herself, shivering. “I knew it would be colder than Charlotte, I just wasn’t prepared for how much colder.”
He reached out to take the keys but she insisted on going with him. He hesitated, as though it was his duty to go alone. He encouraged her to wait by the fire, then he would show her up the stairs to her room.
Joy relented and walked over, holding her hands toward the roaring fire. She studied the items on the simple mantle, all hand made and polished to a lustrous shine. The rug showed wear from the many feet that had stood there, warming at the glowing fire. A feeling of security and excitement came over her. She loved history and this Inn was steeped in it.
She didn’t hear the bell over the door tinkling, but a cold blast of air hit her from behind. She turned to see Joseph set her cases down and reach over the counter for the key. “Are you ready for me to show you to your room, Ms. Clayborn?”
Joy followed him up the stairs, waiting as he unlocked the door to a spacious, simply furnished room. She expected it to be cold, but a cozy fire was already set in the fireplace. Smaller than the one in the lobby, it still spread its welcoming warmth through the room. He handed her the key and walked toward the door. “One more thing, ma’am. The facilities are just down the hall. We have two on the floor, but that is the closest to you.” He turned to leave, then stopped. “Oh, we have a light supper in the kitchen if you’re interested. Just come down when you’re ready.” He closed the door leaving her alone in the room. She walked around, smiling at the rich beauty of the decor. Picking up a small handwritten sign, she read, “For your convenience, we provide free wifi.” She smiled. What a charming mixture of old and new.
She never dreamed this new start in life could be so dissimilar to her life in Charlotte. No heat other than a fireplace. She paused, looking nervously toward the door. Sharing a bathroom with other guests? How would that work? She shrugged. She would just have to make the best it, at least for now. Taking her clothes from her suitcase, she turned to look for a closet. No closet? A tall armoire stood on the wall opposite the bed. She opened it and found hangers on one side and drawers on the other, with room for her cases beneath. Not that she had that many. She ran her hand across the smooth grain of the wood, wondering who had made the chest, and how long it might have stood here welcoming guests.
Her stomach growled. It had been a long time since the fast food she gobbled for lunch. She stepped into the hall and locked her door, turning toward the stairs. She paused and looked toward the bathroom door. She wanted to freshen up, but she would have to go to the shared bathroom. The door was closed, causing her to hesitate. She supposed it might always be closed. She reached out and turned the knob slowly, then breathed a sigh of relief. It was empty.
As she came into the kitchen, she hoped she wasn’t too late to eat. The aroma filled her senses as she saw a long table with a bench on one side. Looking around, she didn’t see anyone to seat her, so she stood, glancing around awkwardly. A woman’s voice came from somewhere deeper in the room. “The plates are on the warmer and the food is hot. Help yourself.”
Joy looked toward the sound but saw no one. She spotted a bowl on the counter and filled it with a boiling stew. Taking a biscuit from a platter, she sat on the bench. A young woman in a long skirt came around the corner wiping her hands on a white apron. “Hello, my name is Ivy Berger, I’m Joseph’s wife. Would you like water or coffee with your meal?” Not waiting for Joy to answer, she added, “There’s butter and homemade preserves there before you.”
“Coffee, if it isn’t too much trouble. This smells amazing, and thank you for your hospitality. Joseph said it was okay to eat here in the kitchen?”
“It’s the only place. There is no dining room.” She continued talking as she poured coffee. “Especially in the winter there is so much work to be done with the livestock and keeping the Inn warm and operating, there’s no time for frills. You are free to come and go as you please. I prepare three meals a day. Admittedly, supper is the lightest. There is a note in your room about serving times. If you aren’t going to be in for a meal, please leave a note at the desk.” She asked her about sugar and cream, stirring it in. “We only have one other guest at the time. He’s around the corner and down a couple of doors. He isn’t around much. You will probably only see him at meals, so you should both have plenty of privacy.” Suddenly, she turned and started toward the back of the kitchen. “Oh, my, I almost forgot to bring in the laundry.” She disappeared. Joy finished her supper and rinsed her plate in the sink, not wanting to add more to Ivy’s workload.
As she gathered her things to prepare for bed, she took her phone and walked down the hall to the bathroom. She was focused on a video of a Charlotte newscast done by her former understudy and didn’t hear footsteps approaching. She touched the doorknob, then felt a hand touch hers. Catching her breath, she looked up into the dark brown eyes of a tall, self-assured man, looking down at her with no hint of a smile. She didn’t know him, but there was something familiar. She blushed slightly, realizing they were going to the same place. “Excuse me. I was um…I was just going in to wash up before turning in.”
His voice was gruff and confident. “Well, I got here first, so if you don’t mind I’ll only be a few minutes. There’s a small bench, just the other side of the door. You can wait there, or I can tap on your door when I’m done if you’d prefer.”
She stared at him, scowling. “NO! I would not! Where I come from, manners say ladies go first and besides,” She pointed at her hand under his on the doorknob. “I was here first. Now, if you don’t mind removing your hand I’ll only be a few minutes.” She smiled, her eyes twinkling. “Oh and there, just the other side of the door, is a bench, if…”
Robert Binning stood looking down at the small, impertinent woman whose hand was indeed beneath his. He drew his hand away, looking at it as if it had been burned. Taken aback by this unexpected rebuke, he looked down into her flashing eyes, hating to concede defeat. He shook his head, pursing his lips. He supposed he had lost this battle. He glanced at the bench, then turned to sit. She still watched him, so he waved his hand toward the door, and turned away.
This is exactly why he chose such an isolated place to complete the final book of his Historical Thriller trilogy. He did not want interruptions and did not intend to miss his deadline. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes. Something about her seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Maybe someone he’d seen in town, a tourist on one of his fact-finding excursions. She had a radiant beauty that made her face hard to forget. He could hear her moving about in the bathroom. Turning on water, brushing her teeth, then… well, that was a little too personal, even for him. He smiled. Perhaps she would realize it wasn’t always prudent to win every battle. The war might be a more worthy goal. This just might work itself into his book somehow.
The door opened suddenly and there she stood, her face shiny and clean, her petite figure wrapped in a white cotton robe, dabbing her reddish hair that hung in long, damp strands to her shoulders. His brooding brown eyes locked with her fiery green ones. Something stirred inside him. His eyes followed her as she turned and walked to her door. Anyone would appreciate her beauty but there was something else he couldn’t quite place. He searched his mind for a connection but nothing came. Her closing door brought him back to the present and he walked slowly into the steamy bathroom, quickly going through his bedtime rituals. He lay awake that night, their chance meeting playing through his thoughts. Sleep came late and the night was short.
When he opened his door, the aroma of breakfast cooking wafted up the stairs, calling to him. He’d just wash up first and then after breakfast, he would get ready and leave for the town market to gather local color. It gave him time to think as he browsed, anonymous, in the crowd of plain people.
Still thinking about the market, he reached to open the bathroom door. It was locked, a sign hanging from a hook. Occupied. “What?” He banged on the door but no one answered. Hearing the water running and singing coming from inside, he spat out, “Fine! I’ll just sit here and wait. You know I can hear every move you make, right?” After a few minutes, he gave up and went to his room, changed into warm-ups, and went for a cold jog around the fields. The bathroom was empty when he came back, so he took a quick shower, and dressed.
He reached the kitchen just as Joseph was starting the prayer, and there she sat, in the place that had been his since his arrival, her red hair hanging in one long plait down her back. She smiled, looking for all the world like the innocent, charming guest. The only other place setting was straight across from her, meaning he would face her through the whole meal. Joseph and Ivy sat in the other two seats. Joseph glanced from one to the other, ready to say the daily prayers, so he sat down quietly, and bowed his head, not wanting to make a scene.
As they passed the platters of food, she kept a steady flow of conversation going with their hosts. She was good at drawing people out, making them feel comfortable talking with her. Something about her seemed so familiar, he found it consuming his thoughts. It wasn’t until he heard Ivy say, “…and Mr. Binning is our resident author,” that he became aware of the conversation around him. Startled, he looked up, noting the recognition dawn in her eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came.
Joy glanced at Ivy as Robert Binning walked from the kitchen, leaving a plate full of food on the table. Ivy’s hand covered her mouth, her eyes wide and her face red. Joy shook her head. “I don’t mean to speak out of turn, but rudeness is all I’ve seen from him. Last night he tried to forcefully pry the knob to the bathroom from my hand. Who does he think he is? Even common courtesy seems to be beneath him.”
Her hosts exchanged embarrassed glances. She kept on, “Look, I’m sorry for speaking so rashly. It’s just that, well he’s rude.”
Ivy cleared her throat, glancing at Joy. “Maybe he would just prefer to be alone. I spoke out of turn when I mentioned his name. He did not, so I shouldn’t have.” Looking at Joseph she lowered her head. “I am sorry. Will you offer my apologies to Mr. Binning, dear?”
It irritated Joy that Ivy not only took the blame but also deferred to her husband to apologize. What should have been the start of a beautiful day had become a huge ordeal. The three of them finished their breakfast in silence. Joseph was the first to leave the table, taking both his and Robert Binning’s plate to the sink. He turned at the door, nodding to Ivy, took his black hat from the peg, and left quietly.
“Look, Ivy, I’m sorry for the outburst. It’s just that it isn’t acceptable for a guy to be so rude and inconsiderate. Please don’t be upset, I will talk to him and set him straight.” A frown crossed the other woman’s face as Joy rose to put her dishes away. As she reached the doorway, Ivy’s chair scooted from the table.
“No, please don’t approach him about it. Joseph will take care of it and I will think before I speak out again. I’m sorry I spoiled the meal.”
Joy turned toward her, not knowing what to say. Clearly, Ivy was going to take the blame and felt strongly about her husband correcting what she felt was her indiscretion. “I’m sorry, Ivy, this is not your fault. But if it will make you feel better, I’ll leave it to Joseph. I think I’ve made things worse.”
Ivy looked at her in silence, then said, “Thank you.”
They stood awkwardly for a few minutes, then Joy said, “I’ve been wanting to tour the village, so I think I’ll find lunch out today.”
Ivy turned away, looking down. “Of course, I will only set three plates for the noon meal.”
Wow, just wow! She climbed the stairs, and sat in the chair beside the fireplace in her room. She definitely wasn’t in the South anymore! It was going to take time to learn the ways of these plain Pennsylvania Dutch folks. But she would do it because she wanted to feel at home here. She might never understand, but she would accept their ways.
Pushing the scene to the back of her mind, she gathered her things and left for the market. Brrr, she thought as she stepped onto the sidewalk. A warm, woolen coat with a soft lining would be her first purchase.
She walked slowly, then, taking in the activity of the town square. Locals shopped for the daily needs of their families, mingling with the tourists, which she supposed would include her. She spotted a bench under a tree that would be beautiful come spring, but for now, it would give her a place to sit and study the shops. There was a stationary shop, a small pharmacy, a bookstore, and a clothing store at the end of the first block. They were all small, the variety of choices inside no doubt just as small. Walking briskly to the clothing store she browsed leisurely through the displays. There wasn’t much in the line of designer jeans or trendy sweaters. Everything was very sensible, not at all like shopping in Charlotte. She chose a couple pair of slacks and several shirts to match. She spent more than she would have normally, but she enjoyed the experience much more than the large department stores back home.
She locked her purchases in the trunk of her car and continued to browse the square. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of entertainment around, so she went into the book store to see what was available by her favorite authors. There were a couple she hadn’t read, and she considered them. Sitting next to the register, she saw the first two books in the series Robert Binning had written. The covers alone drew her in, but the desire to read something by the author she had just met was almost overwhelming. On impulse, she handed them to the clerk. On her way out, standing by the front window she noticed a large cardboard cut out of her nemesis, Mr. Robert Binning. It appeared he would be doing a book signing the next afternoon. Yes, she just might have to attend. She smiled mischievously.
A small cafe adjoining the bookstore provided a warm and tasty lunch. While she waited for her food, she scanned the introduction and then his bio. Why did this man interest her so much? After lunch, she rented a ride in a traditional Old Order Mennonite buggy from a young man dressed in plain garb. She learned quickly that he wasn’t really Old Order, but tried to dress the part for the tourists. He was talkative, though, and provided a wealth of background information about the area. At the end of the tour, he handed her a brochure almost the size of a small booklet that talked about their way of life and why they chose their beliefs. She would read it tonight. She needed to understand these people if she were to settle here.
When she drove into the parking space at the Inn, no one was there. The aroma of the evening meal filled the house. Glancing at her watch she was surprised how quickly time had flown. She hurried upstairs for a quick shower, then dressed in one of her new outfits. Glancing in the small mirror on the armoire, she was pleased with the light colored sweater and black slacks. Thankful for the addition of WiFi to the simple farmhouse Inn, she went down to the lobby and sat by the fire, phone and note pad in hand. Tonight she would start reading the first of Robert Binning’s novels, but for now she wanted to do some research.
The first thing she searched was the name, Robert Binning. There was some mystery about him, but she couldn’t remember what she had heard. After following a few links, she found it. He was not only a famous author, but over the last couple of years he had become a recluse, an aura of suspicion surrounding him since the young woman he married had not been seen in public since their wedding. She was never reported as missing, and there had been no evidence of foul play. Just a wife who seemed to no longer exist. The tabloids worked every angle, but Robert Binning said nothing. She jotted his name on her pad, intending to check the library for any additional information. She watched the fire, lost in thought. In her opinion, he had the personality to do most anything sinister, but she would never make such a claim without thorough investigation. That was, after all, what she was — or had been.
His image graced the front of the tabloid she held in her hands, his name in bold letters at the top of her pad. The bell over the door rang, and she felt him standing behind her, looking over her shoulder. She jumped, turning to face him, hiding the phone and pad against her body, the tabloid drifting to the floor. “You scared the daylights out of me! Sneaking up on someone like a…” The image of the cutout in the bookstore flashed through her mind. The sinister look, the haunting eyes, came rushing back.
He sneered. “Like what… a murderer?”
Just like Joy is starting something new, I am, also. This is the first episode of several for this story. I will post a new episode each week. Please comment and share. It would mean so much to me!