Aiden and Daniel have forged a life together in the rugged Montana foothills, but when a letter arrives inviting them to the Christmas wedding of Daniel's brother, Mark, back in Illinois, Daniel must face the dreaded Amish shunning--and the fear that whoever tried to harm Aiden might be waiting for his return.
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Between Two Promises
Daniel Schrock and Aiden Cermak have forged a life in the rural Montana foothills, but a shadow still lingers, made stronger when a letter arrives from Daniel's brother Mark inviting him to his Christmas wedding. Daniel fears returning home might force what he wants to avoid: telling his family about Aiden and facing the dreaded Amish shunning.
Despite the uncertainties, Daniel and Aiden head to Illinois, where frustration will not only endanger Daniel’s relationship with his family and the church community, but his bond with his boyfriend, who leaves Daniel with a choice: him or the Amish. Before Daniel can stop Aiden, he’s gone… and threats from the past resurface, crystallizing Daniel’s fears about a murderer still at large.
As he desperately searches for Aiden and the identity of the suspected killer, Daniel will have to decide if love is important enough to risk losing everything he knows. Will Daniel choose to keep his commitment to the Amish church or will he stand by the promise he made to Aiden that first night they made love?
DANIEL SCHROCK stepped out of his garage-converted woodshop and pulled the overhead door shut with a rusty screech. He adjusted his wide-brimmed straw hat to prevent the sun, hovering above the crowns of the hemlocks and cottonwoods, from scratching his eyes. Gravel crunched under his heavy boots as he made his way down the driveway. He caught the whiff of spaghetti and meatballs drifting from the rustic cabin he shared with his boyfriend. Supper would be ready by the time he returned from collecting the mail at the bottom of the lane.
Lofty trees leaned into the steep lane and allowed only a slim view of the Swan and Flathead Mountain Ranges. The first dusting of snow had already fallen on the higher elevations. Although hot and muggy in the Flathead River Valley, mid-August above ten thousand feet meant early winter. He headed down the steep lane carefully, mindful of the loose gravel. In winter, he figured trekking to the mailbox would be easier with the snow. He wondered how his brand new Chevy Suburban would handle the snowy terrain. A reliable horse pulling a buggy might have an easier time. He hadn’t driven a buggy since he’d lived in Illinois. That was about two months ago. An entire lifetime seemed to have passed since.
Most of that Amish world he’d left behind, ever since he and his boyfriend, Aiden Cermak, had set up housekeeping together in northwestern Montana. They rented the cabin from a middle-aged Missoula couple who had used it as a vacation home. Aiden had wanted to be truly rugged, to live in the woods without any public utilities. But Daniel knew his modern-raised boyfriend would have a harsh time surviving the winters without at least gas heat. In some ways, the plucky Englisher embodied the plain life more than he.
He realized Aiden was frustrated Daniel had yet to—what was the term Aiden always used?—“come out” to his family and explain that they were a couple. Things were far too complicated in the Amish world to toss tradition aside, like oat sheaves into a threshing machine. Daniel’s family knew he was living in Montana, but Daniel never mentioned to them anything about Aiden Cermak living with him.
Aiden’s parents, visiting from Maryland for a week during the Fourth of July, had only stoked Aiden’s desire for openness. Easier for him, having grown up in the modern East Coast suburbs. Aiden had been out to his parents since college. Daniel, unaccustomed to anyone knowing the intimate details of his life, had counted the days until Mr. and Mrs. Cermak’s departure. If they had found their only son living with a man improper, they had done a wunderbar goot job concealing their uneasiness.
Daniel could never invite his own family for a visit. Not in a million years. Couldn’t imagine any of them being accepting of his lifestyle. He did miss them though. His large family was on the verge of expanding, with his mother expecting her eighth child any day. Maybe there would be a letter informing him of the baby’s entrance into the world. He picked up his pace to the mailbox in anticipation of good news.
But he slowed. Most likely someone would call him from the phone shack down the lane near the family farm. Such news warranted more than a sluggish post. Aiden had given him a much needed cell phone for his twenty-seventh birthday last week, and he’d made his first call to his parents’ Mennonite neighbors, where he had left them instructions to give the family his new number. No one had yet called him. Perhaps they were troubled he was embracing so many of the modern ways.
No, impossible for him to tell his family he was gay and living with Aiden Cermak like any married couple.
Twelve mailboxes formed a haphazard row in a turnoff by the junction with the paved county road. They rarely ran into their neighbors. Their cabins were spread out, about one hundred yards apiece, yet sometimes a chance encounter by the mailboxes would force a simple, uncertain greeting. Most of the people living up in the hills, away from the expanding city of Kalispell, were loners, aiming for a life apart from others. Just as good. Daniel sought refuge away from the prying eyes of society too.
He found four pieces of mail. Two were from his Uncle Eldridge, with more orders for furniture, he speculated. Things were picking up from the lackluster past few years. He already had five pending orders for his handcrafted furniture he sold through a website set up and administered by his uncle’s Englisher friend. Another was a water bill. He shook his head. Bills. No matter how semi-subsistent a person lived, few people could escape bills. The last piece of mail surprised him. There was no return address, but he recognized the sloppy handwriting. It was from his nineteen-year-old brother, Mark.
Mark had never written him before. Only his mother and twenty-four-year-old sister, Elisabeth, a teacher back in Illinois, wrote him regularly, sometimes twice a week. Surely one of them would have written him about his new sibling’s birth, not his brother. Curious, he opened the envelope with his thumb while he hiked back up the hill.
The heat rising from the hot white gravel of the sloping lane stung his eyes, but the letter’s contents smarted more. Worry and anxiety wrenched in his throat. He slipped a bit on the gravel, collected himself. He reread Mark’s letter twice more before stopping at the bottom of the driveway.
Tugging at his beard, he gazed at the log cabin, ironically built twenty years ago by the Amish from a nearby settlement. Made from the surrounding red cedar, the nine-hundred-square-foot cabin fit him and Aiden perfectly. Inside, Aiden was probably already setting the table, the spaghetti steaming on plates. Their lives were good. They had made a comfortable existence for themselves in the live-and-let-live culture, thirty miles south of Glacier National Park. No reason to invite any unnecessary trouble.
He refolded the letter, slipped it into the envelope, and shoved it deep into the front pocket of his broadfall pants. Best to keep the letter from Aiden. No point letting him know Mark had written at all. Yes, that was the proper decision. For everyone. He would dispose of Mark’s letter next chance.
“JUST in time,” Aiden said when Daniel stepped inside the cabin. He hung his hat on the rack by the door and plopped down the mail on the end table by their secondhand sofa. Aiden stood in their no-frills kitchen shredding chilled lettuce into a bowl and adding diced tomatoes and cucumbers. “Getting the salad ready now,” he said. “Spaghetti and drinks are already on the table.”
Watching Daniel sit at the white pine table he had made for Aiden three weeks after they had moved into their cabin, Aiden suppressed a groan. Daniel’s strapping build and striking looks never failed to seize him, especially in his Amish clothes, which he had refused to completely forgo. He wore them mostly around the cabin, and sometimes to the lumber yard in Kalispell. Aiden supposed his sturdy, plain dress had a practicality for their life in the rugged Montana hills.
A heavy sigh seemed to come from deep within Daniel’s breast. Anxiety weighed on his strong, broad shoulders, Aiden judged. Many changes had come to his life the past few months, more than to Aiden. He had abandoned much of his world for Aiden—his way of life, his family, his friends, his community. Sometimes Aiden feared he’d wake in his old bedroom at his parents’ mid-century rancher back in southern Maryland, and Daniel and the Rocky Mountains would be gone. Nothing but an illusion. Or worse, he’d come home from running errands down in the Valley to discover Daniel packing for Illinois, to return to his Amish roots—and leave him for good.
Aiden wished he didn’t have to push Daniel to be more open, but they had to face the issue sooner or later. He and Daniel were a couple, for what he assumed would be the rest of their lives, and he considered it foolish, even destructive, not to open up about their love for one another. He had wanted to convince Daniel that it might be easier to live candidly than to hide in a hermetic closet. But of course, coming out meant facing the notorious Amish shunning.
Aiden knew Daniel was not ready for that.
Daniel hadn’t officially left the church, and said he didn’t plan to, at least not for now. A wobbly bridge connected him to the small local Amish community in Rose Crossing, about five miles west of Kalispell. He never attended their church gmays but had gone to a few of the community’s social gatherings. Daniel hadn’t asked Aiden to go with him. Aiden feared the day the Rose Crossing bishop would show at their front door and ask Daniel to partake more in the community.
Would Daniel oblige? If so, what would happen to Aiden?
The little things he’d learned about Daniel during their short time living together—shaving his upper lip in the chrome of the toaster, showering in lickety-split two minutes, always needing to do something with his hands—he found adorable. But his taciturn nature often left Aiden speculating about what thoughts churned inside his head.
Daniel was a gift. Placed in his lap by unseen hands. Their discovery of each other in Glacier National Park two months ago had restored an awe for the world Aiden had thought he’d lost. Things were good, but secrets still lurked between them. Sometimes getting Daniel to open up was like prying open a pesky pistachio nut.
What was he thinking? Did he worry he had made the wrong choice when he had left Illinois and settled down with Aiden?
Brushing aside his worries, Aiden carried the salad to the dining area on a breath of a smile. Once he sat, Daniel lowered his head and shut his eyes.
Silent prayer. Daniel insisted on it before each meal. Although raised Baptist, Aiden and his family had never been big on family prayers, except at holiday meals. Agnostic most of his adult life, lately Aiden had become more open to the possibility God existed. He often wondered how his life in the Montana backcountry with Daniel could have come about without God’s helping hand. He still had a hard time believing how they had run into each other in the middle of Glacier National Park in June, six months after Aiden had fled Illinois. They could no longer deny their love for each other. Daniel had even said it was “God’s will” that they should come together.
“I’m good and hungry,” Daniel said once he lifted his head and opened his eyes. He reached for the parmesan cheese and sprinkled a healthy amount on top of his spaghetti.
“I put a little red wine in the sauce this time,” Aiden said. “Hope you like it.”
“Looks for sure tasty. I smelled it near to the bottom of the lane.”
“Did we get anything interesting in the mail?”
“Only the water bill,” Daniel said, twirling the noodles with his fork the way Aiden had taught him. “And got more orders from Uncle Eldridge.”
“You’re really starting to get your hands full with work.”
“Ya, I’m thinking of letting Mark do some of it back home. He probably needs the money. He’s gotten pretty good with his hands since helping build those houses that got destroyed by the storms down in Texas.”
“Oh, before I forget, the fridge doesn’t seem to be keeping things cool again,” Aiden said, setting down the salad bowl after serving himself. “You think you can tinker with it after supper?”
“Kitchen window’s stuck too,” Aiden said. “Can’t get it to go down.”
“Heat’s likely expanding the wood,” Daniel said. “I’ll put some wax on the stiles; that should work.”
Aiden valued having such a handyman around. He had a knack for understanding the anatomy of machines. Despite their eschewing modern conveniences, the Amish in general struck Aiden to be mechanical savants. During his parents’ visit, Daniel had even made Aiden a homemade soda-making machine. Aiden assumed the time spent making it was Daniel’s way to avoid his parents, but regardless, the contraption enthralled everyone. Daniel had fabricated the gadget from old plumbing pipes and plastic jugs. He’d bought CO2 cartridges from a home store in the Valley and even retrofitted bottles for the nozzle attachment. Aiden often added his favorite lemon-lime flavoring. The carbonated beverages tasted more refreshing than any of the store-bought brands.
“I guess we can expect a lot of fixing up around here,” Daniel said. “That’s what you get for wanting to live in a log cabin in the woods.”
“I don’t mind,” Aiden said.
Daniel twirled his spaghetti. “Anything else needing a look at?”
“Just one other thing.”
“Ya, what’s that?”
“How about letting me look at that piece of mail you’re hiding in your pants pocket.”
A noodle Daniel had been slurping left a sauce trail on his dark beard. Swallowing hard, he gaped at Aiden. “What piece of mail?”
Aiden held back a chuckle. “You think you can fool me? I’m a journalist, remember? Eyes like a hawk. I saw you from the kitchen window, stuffing an envelope in your pants pocket before coming up the driveway.”
Daniel shook his head. “It’s nothing to concern you. Now go ahead and eat.”
“Is it something so bad you don’t want me to see? What is it, an eviction notice?”
“No.” Daniel returned to his food. “Nothing like that.”
Grunting, Daniel laid aside his fork, wiped his mouth with his paper napkin, and took the mail from his pocket.
“Are you sure?” Aiden raised his eyebrows.
“You won’t stop pestering me until I show you,” Daniel said. “Might as well let you read it and get it over with. Won’t make much difference anyway.”
With unsteady hands, Aiden took the piece of mail from Daniel. He did not recognize the sloppy script on the envelope, but clearly it contained a letter of some kind, sent by someone who had little worries for formalities. He opened the letter and held it up enough to conceal the lower half of his face. He raised his eyebrows when he recognized the Pennsylvania German. Must be from someone back in Daniel’s hometown of Henry. He scanned down to the signoff. Scrunching his forehead, he pondered why Daniel would want to conceal a letter from his brother Mark.
Aiden understood sufficient textbook German to decipher most of the words and use common sense to fill in the gaps where he needed to.
How are you in Montana? I picture you there living like Davy Crocket. The mountains are beautiful, yes? I wish I could be there too sometimes, especially with the craziness here. What craziness, you probably ask? Well, in addition to Mom about to bear a child any minute, I am to be married in December. Heidi and I decided it is about time. We have known each other a good year, and I am sure she is the one. We will both be baptized together in a few weeks. I know I am young, but I will be twenty by the time the wedding comes around. Mom is excited. She is already planning much of it. Remember how she fussed over your weddings with Esther and Tara?
Heidi’s parents probably are learning of our marriage the same time as you. They will be coming up from Texas, along with dozens of other relatives, I am sure. I want you to be here too. I would like for you to sit next to me and be my best man. It will not be the same without you. Think about coming. Our wedding comes at a good time, near Christmas. There will be hardly any field work needing done, so we will be free. You can even stay on for the holiday with the family. Everyone will be happy you did.
One other thing, if you know the whereabouts of Aiden Cermak, please ask him to come too. I would be pleased to see him here. It would mean much to me and Heidi. I told her how he saved our family last year and how we would all be dead, if not for him. A person cannot forget something like that. She is eager to meet him. His cell number is no longer tacked to the phone shack. If you know where he is, please invite him for me and Heidi. Dad has given us his blessing.
Take care in Montana.
Your Brother, Mark
While Mark’s rough script registered in Aiden’s mind, he carefully refolded the letter in the envelope and placed it on the table beside his plate. “So that’s why you didn’t want me to read Mark’s letter?” he said, looking Daniel in his coffee-brown eyes. “You didn’t want me to know about him getting married?”
Daniel remained silent.
“There’s no point,” Daniel said. “We won’t be going.”
“Why, because you worry your family will figure out we’re living together? You’d miss your own brother’s wedding because of that?”
“It’s more than that. Too far. Too much trouble. I can send him a gift and a note from here. He’ll understand.”
“What if I said I didn’t want to go? Would you change your mind and go then?”
Quiet sheathed the supper table. Only the sound of Daniel’s dinnerware striking his plate filled the silence.
“None of that matters,” he said, eyes fixed on his supper. “Neither one of us are going. And that’s that. You read the letter like you wanted. Let’s leave it alone and say nothing more about the matter.”