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"You can tell me the truth, dear. How are you really?"
Sarah Wyse dropped her gaze to the pile of mending in front of her on the scrubbed pine kitchen table without answering her aunt. How was she? Frightened.
"Tell me," her aunt persisted. Emma Lapp didn't believe in beating around the bush. She had a sharp eye and a gift for two things, matchmaking and uncovering gossip. How had she found out so quickly?
Sarah had expected to have a few days before having this conversation, but that wasn't to be. "I'm fine, Aenti Emma. Why do you ask?"
"You put on such a brave face, child. I know how hard the holiday season is for you. To lose your job on top of everything, my heart goes out to you. You must remember the Lord never gives us more than we can bear. Put your trust in Him."
"All is as God wills, even when we cannot comprehend His ways."
Christmas brought Sarah more painful memories than joy. Too many of her holidays had been marked by funerals. She dreaded the arrival of winter each year with its long, dark, lonely nights. It was her job that kept her sane. Had kept her sane.
What would she do now? What if the crippling depression she struggled to overcome got the upper hand?
"How will you manage?" Emma asked.
Sarah raised her chin and answered with a conviction she didn't feel. "As best I can. Would you like some tea?"
"That would be lovely."
Her aunt's sudden arrival was a blessing in disguise. Sarah had been sitting alone in her kitchen, wallowing in self-pity. It solved nothing. She needed to be busy.
She rose and crossed to the cupboard. Taking down a pair of white mugs, she carried them to the stove and filled them with hot water from the kettle steaming on the back of the cooktop.
"I know how you depend on the income from your job, Sarah, being a widow and all. Your onkel and I will help if you need it."
"Don't fret for me. It's only for a few months. Janet is moving her mother to Florida and wants to make sure she is settled before coming back. She plans to reopen Pins and Needles after Easter." Surely, she could hang on that long.
Emma cocked an eyebrow. "Will she be back? I heard she might stay."
A flash of panic hit Sarah, but she suppressed it. Janet would be back. Then things would return to normal.
"I'm sure she'll be back. Her business is successful. She enjoys the shop and loves the town. I have ample savings and the income from the rent of the buggy shop. I'll be fine."
Things would be tight, but Sarah would manage financially. Emotionally, that was another story.
Emma said, "Pins and Needles is successful because of the long hours you put into it. Anyway, you can depend on your family and the church to provide for you."
"I know." Being the object of sympathy and charity again was something Sarah preferred to avoid. She knew her attitude was prideful. Perhaps that was why God had set this challenge before herto teach her humility.
Emma folded her arms over her ample chest. "You must find something to keep you busy."
"I was making a to-do list when you arrived." Sarah indicated a spiral notebook on the table.
"Goot. Have you thought of inviting your brother and his family for a visit? You haven't seen them in several years. The girls will be grown women before you know it."
After having been raised with only sisters, her brother, Vernon, had been blessed with two girls of his own and finally a boy. He and his wife were expecting another child in the spring. It would be good to see them. Having children in the house might help dispel the gloom that hung over her holidays.
"That's a fine idea. I'll write to Vernon first thing in the morning and invite them for a visit. There isn't much room here for the children to play. I hope they won't mind a stay in town." The family lived on a large dairy farm outside of Middlefield where the children had acres of woods and fields to roam.
Emma grinned. "You'll have to take Merle fishing if you want to keep that little boy happy. The last time we went to visit them, that was all he wanted to do and all he talked about. The girls entertain each other."
Sarah suffered a stab of grief. Her husband had liked to fish. It wasn't something she cared for. She should have tried harder to enjoy the things he liked, but how was she to know their time together would be so short?
Regrets were useless, but sometimes it seemed as if they were all she had.
She said, "I'll offer to take Merle on a fishing trip, weather permitting, if that will persuade his parents to come."
Emma chuckled. "He will nag them until they do."
Sarah placed a tea bag in each mug and carried them to the table along with the sugar bowl. As she sat down, a commotion in the street outside caught her attention.
A horse neighed loudly followed by raised voices. "I never want to see you again, Henry Zook! Do you hear me? Go ahead and marry Esta Barkman. See if I care. Sheshe can't even cook!"
A slamming door from the house beside Sarah's punctuated the end of the outburst.
"Goodness, was that Grace Beachy shouting in the street? Has she no demut?"
Oh, dear, her neighbor and friend Grace would soon find her quarrel public knowledge unless Sarah could stanch it. What on earth had Henry done to upset her so? Sarah cast a rueful smile at her aunt. "Grace has humility, Aenti. She is normally a quiet, reserved young woman."
"You couldn't tell it from her behavior just now. I understand the twins, Moses and Atlee, are the ones most often in trouble." Emma held her head cocked to hear any additional outbursts.
"They have been a trial to live beside," Sarah admitted as a frequent recipient of the teenage pair's numerous pranks.
The boys had turned seventeen in October. They were in their rumspringa, the "running around" years enjoyed by Amish youth from age sixteen up to their mid-twenties prior to taking the vows of the faith. Like many, the twins were making the most of their freedom, but they had always been on the wild side.
Sarah had grown up with an identical twin sister who rivaled the boys for getting into mischief. She missed her sister dearly. Bethany had left the faith to follow her English husband to the other side of the world. They died together in a car accident in New Zealand. In a way, Grace had become a substitute for Sarah's lost sister. She loved the girl.
Emma's eyes were alight with curiosity. "It sounded as if Grace is sorely put out with Henry. It would be a shame if the courtship ended this way. The bishop's son would be a fine match for the Beachy girl. I know Henry's mother is pleased as punch that her wayward son appears to be settling down."
If Grace married and left home, Sarah shuddered to think what the twins would be up to without her intervention. Levi, the eldest of the family, chose to ignore their less than perfect behaviors.
Emma couldn't resist the urge to learn more. "I want to see how Henry is handling this. I can't imagine he's happy to have his girlfriend shouting at him. His mother will want to hear of this."
Rising, she went to the kitchen window that overlooked the street and used her sleeve to rub an area free of frost. Winter had a firm grip on the town of Hope Springs, Ohio, although it was only the first week of December. Peering through the frosty glass didn't give Emma a clear enough view so she moved to open the door.
Sarah quickly stepped between her aunt and the chilly night. Emma's nosy nature knew few bounds. "Leave the young people to sort out their own problems, Aenti."
Emma relented but she was clearly miffed at being denied more food for gossip. "How can I tell Esther Zook what happened if I can't see how her son is taking this rejection?"
"I'm sure if Henry Zook wants to discuss it with his mother, he'll find a way."
"She should know how his girlfriend is treating him."
Sarah pressed a hand to her chest and widened her eyes in disbelief. "You don't mean you'll mention this to the bishop's wife."
"I might, if the opportunity presents itself."
"You are a brave soul. I could never bring myself to tell Esther Zook that I heard her son was playing fast and loose with Grace and Esta Barkman."
Her aunt nibbled at the corner of her lip, then said, "It did sound that way, didn't it?"
"Grace is a sweet girl and would never raise her voice without serious provocation. I know Esther dotes on Henry and won't hear a bad word against him. I can only imagine how upset Esther would be with someone who spread word of his poor behavior. You know how much sway she holds over the bishop."
Her aunt's frown deepened. "I see your point. We don't actually know what happened, do we?"
"Nee, we don't. A lover's spate is all I heard. Not worth mentioning."
"You could be right."
"I know I am." Sarah waited until her aunt gave up trying to see over her and returned to the window. Sarah grinned as she started to close the door. Across the street, she caught sight of Levi Beachy standing motionless at the door to his shop. He'd obviously heard his sister's commotion, too.
His breath rose as white puffs in the cold night air. Their eyes met across the snow-covered street. Sarah couldn't see the color of them from this distance, but she knew they were as blue as a cloudless summer's day. They contrasted sharply with his dark hair and deeply tanned skin.
She rarely saw his eyes, for Levi kept them trained on his feet unless he was working. He was painfully shy, and she wished there was something she could do to help him overcome it. He had been a wonderful help to her when her husband was sick.
A quick frown formed on Levi's face before he turned away with a shake of his head.
"Great, now I'm the one who looks like the nosy neighbor," Sarah muttered. She sometimes had the feeling that Levi disapproved of her, although it wasn't anything she could put her finger on.
"What was that?" Emma asked.
Sarah pasted a smile on her face as she closed the door and returned to the kitchen table to resume her mending. "I saw Levi across the street. He's working late again."
"The poor fellow. He was saddled with raising his younger sister and those unruly brothers at much too early an age. He should have had the good sense to send them to his father's sister or even let his grandfather raise them. Reuben Beachy would have been glad to take care of the children."
Since Reuben was well past seventy, Sarah wasn't sure he would have been able to handle the twins any better than Levi did. "I'm sure Levi loves his family and wants to take care of them himself."
"I don't know how anyone could tell. The man hasn't spoken more than a dozen words to me in all his life. I think he is a bit simple."
Sarah leveled a hard gaze at her aunt. "Levi is shy, not simple."
Emma lifted the tea bag from her mug and added two spoonfuls of sugar. Stirring briskly, she said, "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding. Proverbs 17:28."
Coming to her neighbor's defense, Sarah said, "Levi works very hard. He builds fine buggies, and he always pays the rent for the shop on time. He is a good man. I don't like to see him maligned."
"Gracious, child. I'm not maligning the man. I know several women who think he would make a good match, but I've had to tell them all that he is a waste of time. Levi Beachy will never find the courage to court a woman, much less propose. I've rarely met a fellow destined to remain an old boy, but Levi is one."
An old boy was the Amish term for a confirmed bachelor. Since only Amish men who married grew beards, a clean-shaven face marked a man as single no matter what his age. Like her, Levi was nearing thirty. She knew because they had attended school together until the eighth grade. She'd known Levi her entire life. He'd been the first boy to kiss her.
That long-forgotten memory brought a blush to her cheeks. Why had it surfaced after all these years? She bent over her mending.
"What about you, dear? It's been nearly five years since Jonas's passing. Are you ready to think about marriage again? I can't tell you the number of men who have asked me that question. One in particular." Emma eyed her intently.
Sarah should have known this wasn't the simple social visit her aunt claimed. She met her aunt's gaze as sadness welled up inside her. For once, she couldn't stop it. Tears stung her eyes. "No, Aenti. I've made my feelings on the subject clear. I won't marry again."
Sarah was laughing at him. She and her aunt were having a chuckle at the expense of his odd family. Levi knew it the way he knew the fire was hotbecause he'd been burned by both.
It was wrong to dwell on the past, childish even, but the embarrassing incident came to mind when he least expected it. He'd long ago forgiven Sarah, but he hadn't been able to forget her part in his humiliation.
He had been fourteen at the time and the least athletic boy at school. His shyness made it easy for others to make fun of him, but Sarah had seemed kinder than his other classmates. She sat one row up and across the aisle from him.
How many hours had he spent dreaming about what it would be like to simply hold her hand? Too many.
Then one day, he found a note on his desk saying to meet her down by the creek after school if he wanted a kiss. He'd been ecstatic and frightened all at the same time. Of course he wanted to kiss her. What boy didn't? It took all the courage he could muster to make the short trek to the meeting spot.
She was waiting on the creek bank with her eyes closed just as the note said, but when he caught her by the shoulders and kissed her, she pushed him away. He never knew if it was by design or by accident that the fallen tree limb was right behind him. He tumbled backwards, tripped and landed in the water with a muddy splash.
On the other side of the creek, a dozen of his schoolmates began laughing and hooting, including Sarah's twin sister, Bethany. Mortified, Levi had trudged home in wet clothes and refused to go back to school. Working beside his father in his carpenter shop was the only thing that felt normal to Levi.
Less than a year later, both his parents were killed in a buggy accident. Levi was forced to sell his father's business. No one believed a fifteen-year-old boy could run it alone. Jonas Wyse bought the property and started a harness shop and buggy-making business in Hope Springs. He hired Levi, who desperately wanted to earn enough to support his sister and little brothers. The two men quickly became friends. Within five years, they had a thriving business going making fine buggies. They stopped repairing harnesses and focused on what they did best. It was a wonderful time in Levi's life.
Then Jonas decided to marry Sarah and everything changed.