Horse Cove, Kentucky
He was watching her again.
As she handed her customer change across the counter of the Blooms and Berries nursery, Waneta Cain did her best to pretend that their newest employee was not inordinately interested in everything she did. He was simply observant.
Surely, it was just her imagination playing tricks on her anyway. Mark Fisher was probably trying to see how she handled the checkout counter. She used to watch Mr. Lehmann all the time when she’d first started at the nursery.
That had to be the reason.
“Thanks for your help, Neeta,” Mr. Killian said, interrupting her thoughts. “I’d be lost without you.”
“I’m simply glad I could help ya,” she told the Englisher with a bright smile as he lifted his box of seedlings from the wide well-worn countertop. “See ya soon.”
The man tipped his ball cap. “You sure will if I can’t get these to bear fruit. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck and good blessings, too.” After helping him with the door, she let it close behind her with a satisfying thunk.
She chuckled to herself. That Mr. Killian was a terrible gardener but a frequent customer. She sincerely hoped that one day he would develop that green thumb he wanted so badly.
“Do you always act that way?”
A shiver coursed through her as she turned.
Meeting Mark’s dark-brown eyes, which seemed to be studying her intently, she struggled to appear calm. “Like what?”
Mark stepped away from the row of metal shelves located in the back of the store. He’d been unpacking boxes and restocking shelves for the last hour. Methodically sorting and organizing merchandise while she helped customers. “Like they’re your friends,” he replied. “Like you’re so happy to see them.” Stepping closer, he lifted his shoulder. “Is that how you really are… or is that just an act?”
She didn’t care for the way he seemed to be insinuating that she wasn’t genuine. “It’s not an act. Mr. Killian is in her a lot. He’s nice. We are friends.”
“He’s English and must be fifty years old.”
“I don’t see how that matters. I can like people who are different than me.”
“Maybe you can. But you were sure smiling at him a lot. Or do you do that on purpose? To make sure that he will return?”
His question made her uncomfortable, but his sarcastic tone made her angry. “I don’t know why you are asking such things. I really don’t like what you are suggesting. I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary or smiling at customers in any special way. I’m just being my regular self.”
“Huh. So you treat everyone with smiles and kindness. You are friends with all sorts of people. Even people who are different from you. Except me.”
“I’ve been perfectly amiable to you,” she retorted. Except, of course, that was a lie.
“I don’t think so,” Mark murmured. “I’ve been her seven hours, four of them barely six feet away from you.”
She knew that. She’d known exactly where he was every moment they’d been together. “And?”
“And during all that time you’ve hardly said ten words to me. You sure aren’t smiling at me.”
She opened her mouth, closed it again. What could she say? He wasn’t wrong.
Mark stepped closer, invading her space. She could see the fine brown hairs on his forearms now. Noticed that he hadn’t shaved in a day or two.
“Is it because I was taken in for questioning?” he asked quietly, his dark-brown eyes watching her, as if he feared she would run. “Or, is it just me? Do you not want anything to do with me, Waneta?”
Her palms were sweating. She fisted both as she tried to come up with an answer. He was right on all accounts. She was uneasy around him.
Fact was, Mark Fisher was a large man. Tall and well-muscled. He had a rough way about him, too. It was disconcerting.
Of course, she’d always felt uneasy around him. He’d been an angry teenager, always glaring and short-tempered with most everyone. After he finished school, he’d worked for a few people around town. Rumor had it that his brother, Calvin, had taken off as soon as their mother did. Mark had even lived in Mr. Lehmann’s home for a time, until he was taken in for questioning about Bethany’s assault.
And after he was questioned, then let go for insufficient evidence, he disappeared for two years.
Now he was back.
Mr. Lehmann assured her that Mark hadn’t done anything wrong, but a lot of people in the community still believed that he was the masked man who’d beaten Bethany Williams. It wasn’t much of a stretch. Bethany had told lots of people that her assailant was over six feet tall and was very strong. But she also said she wasn’t able to identify the man.
Few other details had circulated after that. Then Bethany and her family moved up north, practically the moment she was released from the hospital.
Realizing Mark was still waiting, Waneta said, “I haven’t spoken to you much because we don’t’ know each other.”
His eyes narrowed. “But that’s not really true. We knew each other once. We did go to the same Amish school.”
“You were ahead of me in school. We hardly talked then.” He was only three years older than herself, but they were miles apart in terms of how they’d lived their lives. He’d also been the kind of boy she’d been a little scared of. He was rough and always seemed so angry.
For a second, he looked dumbfounded. “So, you do remember.”
“Of course I remember you and your brother, Calvin. Our school wasn’t that big, Mark.” Feeling pretty good about how self-assured she was sounding, Neeta folded her arms across her chest. “But that was a long time ago. Years have gone by.”
“Yeah. You’re right,” he said slowly. “Years have gone by. Practically a whole lifetime.”
He sounded so sad. She wondered what was going through his head. Did he regret hurting Bethany? And what had been doing for the two years since it all happened? Why had he even come back to Horse Cave? Surely, there were other, far better places to start over.
The door jangled as a couple came in. Like Mr. Killian, they were regular customers. James and Katie Eicher were Amish and lived on a large farm on the outskirts of town.
Glad for the reprieve, she smiled at them. “Hiya, Katie. James. How can I help you?”
Just as Katie was about to answer, her husband put a hand on her arm. “Go wait in the buggy, Kate.”
Katie looked at her husband in confusion, then blanched when she caught sight of Mark. Without a word, she turned and walked back out the door.
When it closed again, James glared at Mark. “What are you doing here?”
Mark lifted his chin. “I work here.”
“Is that true, Neeta?” James asked. “Did Henry actually hire him?”
“Jah. Today is Mark’s first day.” Unsure how to handle his anger, she cleared his throat. “Now, um, how may I help you?”
“Where is Henry?”
She looked around the room, which was a ridiculous exercise, seeing as it was perfectly obvious that Mr. Lehmann was not there.
“He’s out back,” Mark said, pointing to one of the four large greenhouses behind the retail store. “You want me to go get him for ya?”
“I don’t want you to do a thing for me,” James said. “I’ll go find him myself.”
Mark rocked back on his heels. “Suit yourself.”
Neeta winced at his flippant tone.
James, however, looked irate. Pointing a finger at him, James said, “I’m telling you now, Fisher. You stay far away from my wife. Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her.”
Instead of looking cowed, the corners of Mark’s lips lifted. “Or what?”
“Or I’ll do everything I can to ensure that you leave here for good.”
Mark narrowed his eyes. “Are you threatening me?”
Ignoring Mark again, James turned to her. “I can’t believe you are working in here with him. Do your parents even know?”
Before she could say that they did not, James strode out the door. It slammed in his wake.
For a good couple of seconds, Neeta stared at the door. She tried to calm herself, especially since she’d just realized that her hands were shaking.
Why was she so rattled? Was it because she was afraid of Mark Fisher?
Or because James’s anger had been so scorching?
“You never answered him,” Mark said from behind her, startling her out of her dark thoughts. “Do your parents know that you are working here with me?”
“Why not?” he asked. “Is it because you’re afraid that they’ll want you to stay far, far away from the dangerous Mark Fisher, too?”
Before she could answer, the door opened again. This time it brought in Mr. Lehmann.
He looked from Mark to her and signed. “I came to check on how you two are doing after James Eicher’s visit. It doesn’t look like you’re doing too gut.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Lehmann,” she said. “But, um, well, it’s four o’clock.”
“Which means it’s time for you to get on him,” he said with a kind smile. “Grab your things and get on your way. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
She smiled weakly as she turned toward the back storage room, where her belongings were stowed. For the first time since she’s started working at the nursery, returning to work filled her with dread.
She didn’t trust Mark. Worse, she didn’t trust herself when she was around him.
Excerpt from His Guilt by Shelley Shepard Gray. Copyright © 2017 by Shelley Shepard Gray. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins. All rights reserved.