Authors: Nancy Mehl
Tags: #Romance, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Christian, #Kansas, #Fiction, #Christian Fiction, #Suspense, #General, #Religious, #Mennonites
“I’m asking you nicely to leave,” Sam said again, his voice steady. “If you refuse, we can take this a step further.”
I guess the sheriff had finally had enough, because he hauled himself out of his chair and stood between the enraged man and Sam. “I believe this man invited you to vacate the premises,” he said to Rand. “Isn’t that correct?”
I couldn’t see his face, but whatever Rand saw in the sheriff’s expression made him take a step back. After glaring at him for several seconds, Rand finally grabbed his coat and scurried toward the door. It slammed loudly behind him.
I hurried over and stood next to Sam. His face was tight with
anger. I was shocked to see the fury in Pat Taylor’s expression. No wonder Rand had run out the door. I put my hand on Sam’s arm.
Eric stood up and shook Sam’s hand and thanked him profusely, his relief evident. He turned toward the sheriff and stuck out his hand, but Sheriff Taylor abruptly turned on his heel and walked back to his table, completely ignoring all of us. Eric watched him for a moment then shrugged.
“I have no idea what got into Rand,” he said to Sam. “We were talking about closing our deal, and he suddenly doubled the price we’d agreed on.” His wide eyes shifted back and forth between Sam and me. Then he ran a hand through his hair and stared at the door Rand had slammed shut when he left. Eric was obviously shaken by the strange little man’s outburst. “We’ve already offered him much more than it’s worth. It’s a fair deal. Honestly.”
Several people had left their tables and were watching us with interest. Dan and Dale Scheidler, two brothers who owned the farm implements store, stood peering over the top of their booth. A family I didn’t know had also turned around to observe the proceedings.
Mary stepped up to the table then turned to look at her surprised customers. “You folks go on back to your food. There’s nothing more to see.”
Harold Price, an elderly man who ate most of his meals in the diner, called out from a table where he sat alone. “Another satisfied customer, Mary?”
His comment broke the tension and several people laughed, including Mary. “I guess that’s it, Harold. Funny thing is, he ordered the same thing you’re eatin’.”
Laughter broke out once again, and all the diners went back to minding their own business. Sheriff Taylor seemed content to drink his coffee and ignore everyone.
“What happened here?” Mary asked Sam quietly. “I don’t
allow fighting in my restaurant.”
“It was Rand,” he said, trying to keep his voice down. “Seems he tried to improve his deal with Eric.”
Mary grimaced. “He’s not gonna blow this deal for the whole town, is he? Truth is, I would love to get some new customers. We get by here, but sometimes it’s just by the skin of our teeth. Bringing in some of these well-to-do retirees and their families could really help. I might actually be able to buy some new equipment. My grill is on its last legs, and the refrigerator is making noises no appliance should ever make.”
Eric sighed. His encounter with Rand seemed to have shaken him up. His usual ruddy complexion had paled somewhat. “I think it’s a last-minute attempt to blackmail me. I’ll just have to let him know it won’t work.”
“Maybe you’d better wait awhile,” Sam said. “Don’t confront him now. Let him cool down. I don’t trust him.”
“Thanks, you’re probably right. I’m going to finish this delicious cheeseburger and these fabulous fries before I go looking for him.” He slapped Sam on the back. “Thanks again for coming to my rescue. Guess I just froze. His reaction completely took me by surprise. He’s been real easy to work with up until today.”
Mary chuckled. “Rand McAllister? Easy to work with? He must have a twin, then. That man never has a kind word for anyone.” She smiled at Eric. “He was nice to you because you offered him money. Now he’s figured out he might be able to milk you for a little more.”
Eric sat down slowly. “Well, he can’t. I have investors, but between this and another project we’re involved in, the group is spread pretty thin. To be honest, if Rand acts up too much, I’m afraid they’ll walk away.”
“I sure hope that doesn’t happen,” Mary said. “People in this town are really counting on this boost to our economy. Lots o
small towns dry up and blow away without the kind of help you’re offering. Not only will your retirees want to shop and buy here, but what better place to send the grandkids for some swimming or fishing?”
Eric bobbed his head toward the table where the sheriff sat. “What’s his deal? I appreciate his help, but he acts like I did something to offend him.”
“It’s not just you,” Sam said. “It’s everyone. To be honest, I’m surprised he bothered to get involved at all.” He noticed Eric’s puzzled expression. “He has a problem with Harmony. Thinks it’s full of religious nuts.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Eric, you’re still planning to hold the meeting tonight, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Yes.” He shrugged. “I’ll get it straightened out by tonight. Like I said, when Rand figures out I won’t give in to his demands, he’ll cave. If that doesn’t work, I know someone I can call. He’ll pony up a little more. It’s not what Rand asked for, but maybe if he feels he got one over on me, he’ll sign the contract. He’d be stupid not to, since he stands to make a lot of money free and clear.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “I hope he does, Eric. If you need anything, please let us know. Sam and I will do whatever we can to help.”
He reached up and grabbed my hand. “Thanks, Gracie,” he said earnestly. “I really appreciate it.”
I let go of his hand and headed back toward our booth. Sam said something else to Eric that I couldn’t hear and then followed after me.
“Wow,” I said when he slid into the other side. “Rand put on quite a show. You don’t think he’s really dangerous, do you?”
“I honestly don’t know. I haven’t spent enough time around
him to have much of an opinion. I sincerely hope not, but that temper of his…”
“Should we be worried?”
“I told Eric I’d go with him to see Rand if he wanted me to. He thinks it will be okay, but he promised that if he felt uncomfortable about it, he’d call me.”
I smiled at him. “That was very nice of you. You know, you really can be a rather pleasant fellow.”
“Well, thank you, ma’am,” he drawled.
Mary suddenly appeared next to us, carrying two large platters, which she plopped down in front of us, a big grin on her face.
“I’m pretty sure I know what a chicken salad sandwich looks like,” I said. “And this isn’t it. It looks more like steak to me.”
She chuckled. “Look, you guys, I appreciate that you both ordered something cheap after I told you lunch was on me, but I really wanted to fix you a nice meal. I know you both love my rib eyes, so I took it upon myself to change your orders.” She whirled around on her heels. “I’ve got two large Caesar salads along with some buttery garlic bread in the kitchen. I’ll be right back.”
Two huge sizzling steaks sat in front of us, covered with mounds of sautéed mushrooms. On the edge of each plate, stuck into whatever room was left, was a gigantic baked potato slathered in butter, sour cream, and chives.
“Wow!” Sam said, his face glowing with the promise of enough food to feed a family of four. “That was such a nice thing for Mary to do.” He gave me a silly, sloppy, sideways smile. I recognized it. Sam had slipped into meat utopia, a place where men live in ecstasy and women live in fear of never fitting into their jeans again.
“I appreciate the sentiment,” I whispered, “but I’m not looking to welcome back that ten pounds I lost.”
“Whatever you can’t finish…”
I waved my fork at him. “No way. I don’t want to have to roll you out of here.”
Sam laughed and then prayed over our food. With a big smile, he speared his steak with his fork and cut off a big chunk with his knife. After stuffing it into his mouth, he closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath.
“You look ridiculous,” I told him in a tone that should have brought conviction. However, my first bite completely explained his reaction. Mary’s cook, Hector, sure knew how to grill a steak. I’d taken my third bite by the time Mary returned with our salads and hot garlic bread.
“Now you two enjoy yourselves,” she said, covering every open surface left on our tabletop with food. “And for dessert—”
“Whoa.” I shook my head. “I doubt I can get all this down. As generous as your offer is, nothing with sugar or chocolate will pass through these lips today.”
“What kind of dessert?” Sam asked, happily smacking his mouth.
I started to chastise him when I noticed that Eric was heading for the door.
“Hey,” I said softly, “he’s leaving. Should you ask him again if he wants you to tag along when he talks to Rand?”
Sam quickly wiped his face with his napkin and hurried over to catch Eric right before he pushed the front door open. Mary and I stared at them, but we couldn’t really make out what they were saying. The radio was playing the Marty Robbins song “El Paso.” All I could hear was something about “a handsome young stranger lying dead on the floor.” A chill ran through my body.
“Does Sam really think Rand might hurt Eric?” Mary asked.
“I don’t know. Most people don’t really know Rand, and they’re not sure just what he’s capable of.”
Mary nodded. “He’s eaten here quite a bit. Sometimes with
his family. Sometimes alone. I can’t get him to talk. I gave up a long time ago. I just take his order and bring him his food.” She leaned over close to me. “He doesn’t tip,” she said softly, shaking her head.
“Why is it I don’t find that the least bit surprising?”
Harold’s loud voice interrupted Mary’s response. “Hey, Mary. Could I get another cup of coffee sometime in this century?”
“Just keep your shirt on, Harold,” she shot back. “I have some real customers here.”
The elderly man laughed loudly.
“Better get going,” Mary said with a smile. “Hey, after you’ve gotten settled in, why don’t we get together for dinner?” She waved her hand in a semicircle. “I’ll close early and we’ll have the whole place to ourselves. I’m a pretty good cook. While we eat, we can visit and get to know each other a little better.”
I smiled warmly at her. “I would love that, Mary.”
“You can call me in a couple of days and let me know what night would work for you.” The coffeeless Harold loudly cleared his throat. “Knock it off, Harold,” Mary hollered. “Or I’ll pour that coffee in a place you won’t appreciate.”
Her comment brought another guffaw from Harold. She winked at me and took off toward the kitchen. She’d just disappeared through the swinging door when Sam reappeared at the table.
“He says he’ll be fine, but I gave him my number and told him to call me anytime I can help.” He scooted back into the booth and picked up his fork again.
“I hope he’s right. There’s something about Rand that bothers me. His daughter doesn’t look well cared for. And she always seems a little…I don’t know, frightened. I hope he’s not abusing her.”
Sam stopped cutting his steak and frowned at me. “Believe me, Gracie, if something like that was going on, someone here would have noticed it. Jessica and Thelma attend Abel’s church.
And Jessica goes to school in Sunrise. If there were bruises or anything…”
“If they’re where they can be seen.” I noticed Sam’s startled look. “I had a friend in school once whose dad beat her. No one knew about it until one day in gym class. When she undressed for the showers… Well, it was obvious something was horribly wrong. The gym teacher immediately notified the principal, and he called in the authorities.”
“That must have been awful for that girl.”
I nodded. “It was. But things turned out for the best. After it was discovered that her mother knew about the beatings and did nothing to help, Caroline was put into foster care. She got placed with a wonderful family who loved her and eventually adopted her. She went to college and married a super Christian man. They just had a baby.”
“You stay in touch with her?”
“Yes. We call each other several times a year. She lives in Michigan.”
“That’s great, but I really don’t think Jessica’s being abused.”
“You know some abuse isn’t physical, right?” I said.
Sam chewed another bite of steak but didn’t say anything. He seemed focused on his food.
“I mean, someone like Rand could easily be verbally abusing his wife and daughter. That would explain Jessica’s demeanor. The only time I’ve seen her smile is when she’s around Hannah Mueller and their friend Leah.”
He nodded at me but appeared to be thinking more about his steak than about what I was saying.
“Sam, did you hear me? Maybe Rand is…”
The front door of the restaurant blew open. I’d been watching the skies darken and could tell the wind was picking up by the amount of dust swirling around in the street. Abel Mueller
struggled to close the door with one hand while holding on to his hat with the other. Harold jumped up to help him. Together they pushed the door shut.
I started to call out a greeting when I noticed Abel’s expression. In the seven months I’d known him, I’d never seen him look so upset. He glanced quickly around the room until his gaze settled on me. The way he looked at me sent a shiver down my spine. By now, Sam had also noticed Abel. He looked back and forth between us a couple of times. Finally, he waved Abel over to our booth. After hesitating a moment, the Mennonite pastor walked slowly toward us.
“Hey, Abel,” Sam said when the big man came up next to us, “what’s going on? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Is everyone all right?” I couldn’t control the way my voice trembled. “I just saw Ida…”
“No. No, Gracie. I’m sorry. As far as I know, everyone’s fine.” He took off his wide-brimmed black hat and held it in front of him. His eyebrows knit together in a frown. “I—I know this is going to sound odd, but I need to talk to you.” He glanced quickly at Sam. “Alone. I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s very important.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t begin to figure out what Abel would need to say to me that Sam couldn’t hear, but I could tell the kind pastor was truly upset.
“Why don’t you stay here and finish your lunch,” I said to Sam, who seemed as surprised as I was by Abel’s strange request. “Abel and I can move to another table.” I looked up at him to see if he agreed. He nodded silently, still grim-faced.