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Celery Fields, Florida, Autumn 1932
Pleasant Obermeier dropped small dollops of batter into the oil sizzling over the wood-fired stove and expertly rolled each doughnut around in the oil until it was golden-brown before rescuing each and laying it on a towel to drain. Over the years that she had been the baker in her father's bakery in the tiny Amish community of Celery Fields, she must have made thousands of these small sweet confections. Like the loaves of egg and rye bread that she had already baked that morning, her apple cider doughnuts had remained a staple of the business in spite of the hard times that had spread across the country.
It occurred to her that little had changed about her daily routine in spite of the major changes that had taken place in her life these past three years. She still rose every morning at four and was at her work by five. Even so, her father, Gunther, still arrived before she did and had the fires stoked and ready to receive the morning's wares. The two of them had followed a similar routine since Pleasant was no more than a girl of fifteen. Now a woman of thirty-twomiddle-aged by some standardsshe had already been married and widowed and had taken on responsibilities she could never have imagined a few years earlier.
Three years earlier she had married Merle Ober-meier, a man ten years her senior. Then after Merle had died in a tragic accident two summers ago she had taken on responsibility for raising four children from his first marriage as well as responsibility for the large house and farm that he had left behind. But in spite of all of that, she had refused to give up her role as the local baker. There was something very comforting in the routine of the bakery. It was the one place where she could be alone with her thoughts. Even the few customers she was called upon to serve when her father was off making a delivery, or otherwise engaged as he was this morning, did not interrupt her revelry for long.
The bell over the shop door jangled and Pleasant hurried to dip up the last of the doughnuts and drop them onto the towel. "Coming," she called out in the Dutch-German dialect common to the community as she quickly rolled the still-warm doughnuts in sugar and set them on a cake plate. Before carrying the plate with her to the front of the shop, she automatically reached up to straighten the traditional starched white prayer kapp that covered her hair and smooth the front of her black bibbed apron.
But when she reached the swinging half door that separated the kitchen from the shop, she stopped. Her customer was a manAmish by his dressbut someone she had not seen before. Celery Fields did not see many strangers. Their customers were mostly the local village residents and the farmers who raised celery in the fields that stretched out beyond the community. Occasionally, someone from the outside worldthe En-glisch world as the Amish called itwould stop as they passed through on their way to nearby Sarasota. But this was no outsider. This man was Amish.
She pasted on a smile. "Guten morgen."
He turned and she found herself looking straight up and into a pair of deep-set hazel eyes accented at the corners by the creases of a thousand smiles. Her earlier feeling of contentment was gone in an instant. Pleasant was wary of strangersespecially handsome male strangers. She had fought a lifelong battle against a streak of romanticism that for a woman like her was sheer folly. Tall, good-looking men like this one were not for her, regardless of how engaging their smile might be. She had long ago faced the fact that she was not only a member of a plain societythe Amishbut also that the face that looked back at her in her brief encounters with her reflection in a storefront glass was plain as well.
The cake plate teetered dangerously as the pyramid of doughnuts shifted and a few of the confections tumbled from the plate to the top of the counter. To make matters worse, both she and the stranger reached to rescue them at the exact same moment. His smile turned to laughter as their fingers brushed. But then their eyes met and his smile faded. He withdrew his hand as if it had been scalded. Certain that it was her expression of horror that had sobered him, Pleasant hurried to restore order. He was, after all, a customer.
"Clumsy," she murmured as she rescued two doughnuts that had made it to the floor and discarded them. When she stood up again, he had picked up the single doughnut still on the counter and seemed unsure of what to do with it. She held out a trash bin and after a moment's consideration he popped it into his mouth. Then he closed his eyes and savored the warm sweetness of it. "So you are the baker," he said.
Unnerved, she set the plate on top of the counter and covered it with a glass cake cover. "How may I help you, Herr "
"Troyer," he said. "Jeremiah Troyer. I am Bishop Troyer's great-nephew." He smiled at her as if he expected this to be welcome news. He did have a most engaging smile.
"Are you and Frau Troyer visiting the bishop then?" she asked politely, refusing to permit his charming smile to disarm her while she gathered background information and was clear about what he wanted.
"I've just moved here," he replied. "And I am not married, Fraulein Goodloe."
"I am Frau Obermeier," she corrected. "My husband passed away two summers ago." She forced herself to meet his gaze. "Welcome to our community, Herr Troyer."
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said. "Is your father here?"
"Not at the moment. May I be of some help?" He seemed to consider this and then plunged in to tell her his story. "Perhaps your father mentioned that I intend to open an ice cream shop," he explained. "I've also taken a position with the Sarasota Ice Company and bought the property next door." He waited for her to speak and when she said nothing, he continued, "I might have use for some of his wares in my ice cream shop, and when I spoke with your father last night."
"You want to sell our baked goods right next door to us?" Pleasant's polite smile faded. In many ways Pleasant was a far better business manager than Gun-ther Goodloe had ever been. Gunther tended to be softhearted when it came to delayed payments or supplies not delivered as promised. Pleasant had no such problems. And when it came to the prospect of a competitor moving in on them, she.
The smile flashed again. "Actually, Frau Obermeier, I need cones for my ice cream and I was hoping that your father might help me concoct a recipe that would make my cones different from those of any potential competitors. But he assures me that you are the expert when it comes to baking."
"Ice cream cones," she murmured, fully understanding his interest now. This was business. Well, it would certainly be a change from the basic breads and rolls she turned out day after day. "How many were you thinking of ordering?"
Jeremiah laughed and the sound was like music in the otherwise subdued surroundings. Oh, he was a charmer, this one.
"Why, Frau Obermeier, we are not talking of a single order here. Once we come upon the perfect recipe, I shall need a steady supply of them."
Pleasant saw Merle's sister, Hilda, approaching the bakery. Her heavyset sister-in-law huffed her way up the three shallow steps that led from the street to the door and entered. "Pleasant," she said, addressing Pleasant but looking at the stranger. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure. I am Mrs. Obermeier's sister-in-law, Hilda Yoder."
"I am Jeremiah Troyer and I'm pleased to meet you, Frau Yoder. Your husband owns the dry goods store?"
"Yes, that's right." In spite of the fact that Hilda often made a point of reminding others that pride was viewed as a sin by people of their Amish faith, she couldn't help preening a bit to have her husband known.
"I was coming to call on him next," Jeremiah reported. "And since Herr Goodloe is not here at the moment, perhaps I should stop back later this afternoon."
"That might be best," Hilda said before Pleasant could answer.
Jeremiah put on his stiff-brimmed summer straw hat and tipped it slightly toward Hilda and then Pleasant. "Give my regards to your father, Frau Obermeier," he said. "And please accept my deepest sympathies to both you ladies for the loss of your husband and brother," he added before leaving the shop and heading across the way to Yoder's Dry Goods.
Pleasant did not realize how closely she was watching him until Hilda lightly touched her arm and cleared her throat. "What are those boys up to now?"
Through the open front door Pleasant could see Merle's five-year-old twinsWill and Henrywrestling with each other in the dusty street. "They'll spoil their clothes," Hilda chided, but Pleasant only laughed.
"Oh, they're just playing, Hilda. Clothes can be washed, you know."
"Of course, you would think that," Hilda replied stiffly, making it clear that in her view, Pleasant knew nothing about properly raising childrenespecially a pair of rambunctious five-year-olds. "It just seems to me with all you have to do at the bakery, you are certainly busy enough without adding extra loads of laundry to your chores." She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "I understand that Gunther intends to do business with the bishop's great-nephew and apparently it somehow involves yousome foolishness about needing you to make ice cream cones."
Before Pleasant could think of any appropriate response to her sister-in-law's comment, Hilda had left the shop, carefully skirting her way around the boys as she returned to the dry goods store.
"Boys, stop that," Pleasant called to the twins who rolled to a sitting position and blinked innocently up at her.
"Yes, Mama," they chorused.
Pleasant felt the familiar tug at her heart to hear any of Merle's children call her "Mama" without even thinking about it. That triumphespecially with Rolf and Bettina, the older twohad required a good deal of patience on her part and she treasured each and every use of the title. Always shy and withdrawn, even somewhat sickly while their father was alive, the two older children had blossomed under Pleasant's care. Rolf and Bettina never missed school and were often seen taking care of some chore or another around the large house. The twinsonly toddlers when their mother diedhad accepted her without question from the day she moved into the house.
Her heart melted as it always did in the presence of the identical boys. "Come here," she said, stooping down and holding out her arms to receive them. Giggling, they ran to her, colliding with her at the same moment so that they nearly knocked her off balance. "Look at the two of you," she fussed as she tucked their shirts into matching homespun trousers and slicked down identical cowlicks with fingers she wet on her tongue. "Now please try to stay clean," she pleaded as they scampered away.
It was at times like these that thoughts of Merle sprang to mind unbidden. He had had such a difficult youth as he often reminded her when he thought she was being too soft with the children. His own father had shamed the family by running away with his wife's sister when Merle was only a little older than Rolf was now. Merle had been forced to leave school and take a job in addition to managing the small family farm in order to support his mother and siblings. Knowing his painful past made the fact that Merle would never see how well his own children had turned out all the more poignant. And yet, she realized, that in the year she had been married to him, never had she witnessed a moment of such unconcealed love between Merle and any of his children as she had just enjoyed with the twins. Merle Obermeier had been a bitter man and in a year of marriage she had made little progress toward softening his ways.
She was about to close the shop's front door to prevent the dust from the street from blowing in when she saw Jeremiah Troyer exit the dry goods store and wave to her. She waited until he was in front of the bakery and then asked, "Did you need something more, Herr Troyer?"
"I came back to give you this," Jeremiah said, his tone easy and calm as he held out a folded piece of paper to Pleasant. "It's one of the recipes used by someone I knew back in Ohio. I'd like to consider something similar to this for the cones," he told her. "It's important to set one's product apart from that of the competition."
"You had an ice cream business in Ohio then?" she asked as she stepped onto the front stoop and accepted the recipe.
"Not exactly. You see, Frau Obermeier, as a boy I was ill with rheumatic fever, and my unclemy father's eldest brotherthought it best that I take a job in town since I was too weak to work in the fields. The only person hiring was Peter Osgood, the pharmacist. He bought the cream and eggs for making the ice cream he served in the soda shop in the front of his drugstore from our farm. One day he mentioned that he was looking for a young man to help make the ice cream." Jeremiah shrugged. "I was already making the delivery of eggs and cream. It stood to reason that I might as well stay to do the work, and so I was hired. I was there for ten years."
Pleasant fingered the rough thick paper he'd handed her for a moment. His childhood held some similarities to that of Merle's thin and awkward eldest son, Rolf. "Mr. Osgood knows you have his recipes?"
Jeremiah laughed. "I didn't steal them. He handed them to me himself at the train station when he came to see me off and wish me well. In fact, you may have the opportunity to meet him one day. He's promised to come for a visit."
"And your father did not mind that you "
A shadow of deep sadness flitted across his handsome features. "My father died when I was thirteen. My brothers and sisters and I were raised by our uncle."
"I see." Another thing that he and Rolf had in common. She looked up at him.
"And that's probably a good deal more than you need or want to know of my childhood," he said with a wry smile.