In this evocative and heartrending novel, New York Times bestselling author Shelley Shepard Gray “has created an endearing cast of characters...that both delights and surprises—and will keep you thinking about the story long after you turned the last page” (Leslie Gould, #1 bestselling author).
Marie Hartman never thought she’d move back to Walnut Creek but, still reeling from a friend’s heartbreaking passing, she’s desperate for the comforts of home. And she’s determined to surround herself with people who care more about her heart than her striking looks. Vowing to reconnect with her childhood best friends and find a larger meaning in life, she’s also decided it’s finally time to summon the courage to see if there’s something more between her and longtime friend John Byler than just companionship.
Marie’s homecoming forces John to reassess his life and his hopes for the future. Though he still lives at home with the rest of his old order Amish family, lately he’s been feeling that God intends for him to go another direction. But does He really want John to go against his faith and finally do something about his longtime crush on Marie?
With her signature “taut writing” (RT Book Reviews), Shelley Shepard Gray delivers a lyrical and heartfelt tale of friendship and forgiveness.
“The first thing you all should remember about Andy was that he was afraid of snakes,” Katie said with a grin, her voice cracking slightly. “He was also really embarrassed by that. Which, of course, is why one afternoon, back when we were fourteen, all eight of us decided to go for a walk in the woods.”
THREE MONTHS LATER—OCTOBER
“This little house isn’t much, and I can’t say I’m real thrilled about its location, but I suppose it has a certain amount of charm,” Marie’s mother said as she ran one manicured nail along the granite kitchen countertops. “These are sure pretty.”
Marie smiled with pride. “Thanks, Mom. The kitchen is the reason I snapped the place up. That, and the amazing amount of closet space.”
“It really does look better on the inside than on the outside.” Mom looked out the window, frowning at the chain-link fence surrounding the yard. “Are you sure this area is perfectly safe?”
“Mom, it’s Walnut Creek. Of course it’s safe. This place is going to be just fine. I’ll be fine.”
“Well, you’re right, I suppose. Most of Walnut Creek is perfectly safe, almost like something out of Mayberry.” Still staring out the window, she added, “This street doesn’t have a real good look to it, though. Be sure you lock your doors at night.”
“I’ll do that.” Like she didn’t already.
After giving the weed-filled yard one last glance, her mother turned back to her. “I hate to bring it up again, but I still don’t understand why you transferred over to that branch out in New Philly and elected to drive there from Walnut Creek. You had a nice life in Cleveland.”
“You’re right. I did.” Her mother wasn’t wrong. After going to college and majoring in English, she’d had a hard time finding work. She’d finally landed a job as a teller at Champion Banks and discovered she loved it. One thing led to another, and by the end of her first year, she’d been promoted and was actually making pretty good money.
Good enough that she’d leased a lovely loft in picturesque Chagrin Falls, a well-to-do suburb east of Cleveland. She’d decorated it pretty and met a nice group of girlfriends. Just a couple of months ago, she’d started dating. Many of her customers were single, eligible men who her parents would have been thrilled to meet.
It was all good. All things she knew she should be happy about. Her parents were proud of her, too. Not only was she living on her own and supporting herself, but they were also sure she was eventually going to bring home a nice man who was a lot like them, i.e., wealthy and good-mannered. Then, in no time, she would settle down, get married, have her two children, and eventually raise her own homecoming queen.
Though all of that hadn’t been exactly her goals in life, Marie knew it was a possibility. Maybe she would have done all that, too, if she hadn’t begun to realize that everything she had wasn’t actually everything she’d ever wanted.
After Andy died, she’d decided to stop contemplating change and actually make one.
Three months ago, when John B. had asked them all to make a promise to reconnect, she had agreed immediately, knowing that both her heart and her soul needed these friends of hers. Needed them more than a fancy future or even making her mother’s dreams a reality.
And then, of course, there was John B.
After living most of her life in his periphery, wanting to be more than just his friend, but feeling sure that he would never want the same thing, she’d decided to give things between them one more try.
It might be a pipe dream. John might never look beyond their differences or want to put her in front of his family’s wishes. But Marie knew that if she didn’t finally make her desire known to him, to simply lay it all out there and hope for the best, she would always regret it.
Treating her to the intense look Marie was oh so familiar with, Mom said, “Are you ready to tell me the truth about why you moved back to Walnut Creek?” She suddenly frowned. “You aren’t having bad dreams again, are you?”
Her mother was referring to the same reoccurring dream she’d had since childhood. She used to wake her parents up at least once a week with her cries. “Some, but they haven’t been too bad.”
“Are you sure? I bet I could call around and see if Miss Flemming is still in practice.”
Miss Flemming had been her therapist for two years back when she’d been in middle school. She was a nice lady, but she’d been old even then. “I hope she’s still not practicing, Mom. I saw her years ago. She needs to be sitting on a beach somewhere instead of listening to everyone else’s problems, don’t you think?” she joked.
Her mother didn’t crack a smile. “She helped you learn to relax, Marie.”
No, Miss Flemming had helped her learn how to cope when things happened that were out of her control. “I’ve been doing my breathing exercises. I’ll get better. It’s just been a really difficult time, Mom.”
“I know. I still worry about you. Dad and I love you.”
“I know. And I love you, too. That’s one of the reasons I’m glad I’ll be here in Walnut Creek. It will be nice to see you both more often. I also have a really good group of friends here. I want to live near them. The rest of the Eight feel the same way.”
Her mother’s expression softened. “They were good friends to you. Good kids, too.”
“We’re all adults now, Mom.”
“I know that. It’s just that when I think of the Eight, I can’t help but remember the way you all would run around together.” Her lips twitched. “My goodness. You all were so loud! Always laughing. Always in a hurry. Dad used to call you guys a pack of hounds. Practically inseparable.”
That comment should’ve made her feel better. Instead, it only served to remind her that they’d drifted apart . . . and they’d suffered for it, too. Especially Andy.
Not wanting to start crying again, she cleared her throat. “See? Relationships like that don’t come along more than once in a lifetime. They need to be nurtured, don’t you think?”
“Dear, you’re only twenty-four. You’ve got years and years to make more really good friends.”
“I made new friends in college and in Chagrin Falls, but they weren’t the same as the Eight.”
“Marie . . .”
Hating that her mother was likely to launch into a well-meaning but misguided lecture, Marie hardened her voice. “Mom, I don’t want to make more new, good friends. I want to work on keeping the ones that I have.”
Her mother’s expression softened. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t all still be friends, Marie. It’s just that sometimes you have to accept the fact that people change and they choose their own path. Just because they were a part of your childhood doesn’t mean they need to be a part of the rest of your life.”
Before she could interrupt, her mother continued. “Then, too, there’s the fact that while you might be grown up, none of you have married yet. Things change when you get married.”
“I know that.”
A pair of lines formed in between her mother’s brows. “Then there’s the fact that some of you simply don’t have anything in common anymore. You’ve each gone down your own paths.”
“We do, though. We talked a lot at Andy’s funeral.”
Her voice gentled. “Marie, I’m very sorry about Andy. He was a wonderful person. I know you’re heartbroken about his death. Dad and I have been keeping his parents and Tricia in our prayers. But I’m also talking about how some of those ah, adults, now live a completely different lifestyle from you.”
“Because some of the Eight are Amish?”
“Well, yes.” Her gaze hardened. “And don’t go acting like it doesn’t matter. It does. If your Amish friends haven’t been baptized yet, they soon will be. Then their paths will be set. I know it’s hard, but it’s a fact of life. Sometimes childhood friendships are best left as good memories.”
She shook her head. “Mom, as much as it makes me feel like I’m sixteen again, I’m going to have to tell you that you don’t understand.”
Her mom chuckled. “I actually do recall you telling me that a time or two, back in the day.”
“And, at the risk of repeating what I used to tell you, I’m going to have to say that I might understand more than you think.”
“I love you, Mom.” She reached out and gently squeezed her mother’s hand, hoping the words and the gesture would ease her obstinate tone.
After giving her a squeeze back, her mother dropped her hand. “I love you, too, Marie. And unlike when you were sixteen, you’re a grown woman now. I’ll try to keep my opinions to a minimum.”
Seeming to come to grips with herself, her mother said, “All right then. I told your father I wouldn’t be home until close to seven. That means we’ve got all afternoon to turn this place into a little home for you. What do you want to do first?”
“Can we work on my living room? I think I need something to store things in. And maybe a new lamp.”
“I saw some cute shelving units we can put together over at the Walmart in Millersburg. Want to head over there?”
Before her mother reached for her purse, Marie flung her arms around her. “Thanks, Mom.”
Her mom wrapped her arms around her, too. “For what?”
“For not arguing with me.”
After pressing her lips to her brow, her mother started chuckling. “You might know the Eight the best, but I know you pretty well, too. And you always were as stubborn as all get out.”
Thinking that her stubbornness might finally get John B. to notice her, Marie smiled. After all, that was what she was counting on.