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Two years later Mid-November
Annie and Leah strolled along the sidewalk, peeking in the windows of the shops, enjoying the afternoon sunshine.
"When was the last time we had a day that didn't include freezing temperatures and snow dusting the doorstep?" Leah stopped suddenly as two young boys playing a game of tag ran around her.
"Maybe Saturday was the wrong day to come to town though. A weekday might have been better." Annie stepped closer and scowled after the boys. "Less traffic. Less kinner."
"It's not their fault I'm as big as Adam's workhorse."
"You are not."
"I am! Look at me ..." Leah rested her hands on her stomach, which was quite large. She'd recently begun her seventh month of pregnancy, but a stranger might think she was in her final week.
"Belinda told you—"
"Twins take up more room. Ya, I know. But, Annie, I can't even put on my own shoes. Adam has to do it for me." Leah stuck out her bottom lip and lines formed across her forehead.
Annie knew that look—pure misery.
"I should have stayed home."
"You should have done no such thing. Let's go on to the general store, then stop by mamm's shop for some tea. Being out is gut for you and the babies."
"Says Nurse Annie—"
"Yes, she does."
"Who is four months pregnant and still not showing?"
The smile spread across Annie's face until she was giggling. Then they were both laughing, behaving like schoolgirls. Two pregnant women, standing in the middle of the sidewalk and causing traffic to stream around them.
"Four and a half months," Annie corrected Leah. "And she moved last night. Samuel and I both felt her."
"She? Of all people, you should know better than to predict whether your baby is a girl or boy."
"You're right, but Samuel seems so certain. After listening to him for four months, I've fallen into the habit of saying she." Annie hooked her arm through Leah's and pulled her along the sidewalk. "I need to purchase the lavender fabric for the nine-patch crib quilt I'm making you, and I happen to know Rachel received a shipment earlier this week."
"Oh, do we have to? I'm not sure what I need today is an encounter with Samuel's sister-in-law."
"I think she's mellowing." Annie whispered as they pushed their way into the general store, causing the small bell above the door to announce their arrival.
Instead of answering, Leah gave her the look. It was enough. After nearly three years back at home, back in Mifflin County, Annie had learned to read most of the unspoken cues from her sister-in-law. Packed with all of their previous conversations about Rachel, it said you know she hasn't changed at all and we'll do our best to love her anyway at the same time.
Annie didn't talk to many people about Rachel—her mother, Leah, and, of course, Samuel. No one had the answer, but they all knew prayer was the one thing capable of healing the wounded places in Rachel's heart. Until those places mended, chances were she would remain difficult and even occasionally somewhat nasty.
When they entered the store, a thousand memories surrounded Annie. Her family had shopped at the general store for as long as she could remember, but her recollection and what her eyes saw told two different stories.
The store she had visited as a child was crowded with delightful items in every available spot. Like most Plain folk, Annie had learned not to covet and to appreciate what she had rather than focus on what she didn't. Growing up, the general store had been owned by Efram Bontrager. She remembered it clearly—it didn't prick her desires as much as it sparked her imagination. When she walked over the doorstep, she'd always imagined herself stepping into an Englisch fairy tale. He carried supplies for Amish and Englisch alike, so all manner of things were on his shelves. Annie's favorite spot for years had been Efram's book nook in the front corner near the window. Her brother Adam had loved the old-fashioned candy counter with its jars of delicious penny candy.
Most of those items had vanished.
Two years ago Rachel Zook, Samuel's sister-in-law, had moved from Ohio—after her husband died. Annie knew from comments Samuel made it had not been a happy marriage. Rachel never talked about her life before moving—so Annie had no way of knowing if she was still mourning her husband or regretting that her two boys were being raised without the help of a father. There was a third possibility. Perhaps Rachel had fallen into a habit of discontent. She had simply shown up in Mifflin County one day. Efram had decided to put thegeneral store up for sale so he could move closer to his family. Families in the community were hardly aware of Efram's plans, when Rachel bought the store and settled into the upstairs apartment with her boys.
The store had changed.
Rachel's store was clean and orderly and was stocked with items she was certain would appeal to the maximum number of customers. In other words, there were no surprises. The charm was gone.
Annie had to admit the place was cleaner.
"Leah, I'm surprised to see you out today." Rachel sniffed from her place behind the counter. Tall, thin, with a beautiful complexion only the scowl on her face could ruin, Rachel was dressed in her usual gray dress and black apron.
Why the sniff? Did she have a perpetual cold? Or was she suggesting they smelled bad? Annie knew they didn't, but she was tempted to check. Her mind went back to a psychology class she'd taken while pursuing her nursing certification, during the time she'd lived with her aenti, among the Englisch. The psychology instructor would have had a good time with some of Rachel's mannerisms.
"And Annie. I thought you were helping Belinda deliver the infant to the family on the south end of our district, though why Samuel would allow you to go scurrying around the county in your condition—"
"Gudemariye, Rachel." Annie aimed to keep her voice low and calm, as if she were speaking to a child. An image of Kiptyn immediately jumped to her mind, but she pushed it away. Although she'd had letters from her former patient for three years, she hadn't seen him since she'd left Philadelphia. She still missed the children she once worked with, and today wasn't a good time to focus on that loss. Today she needed to concentrate on making Leah's outing a pleasant one.
"I'd hardly call it morning." Rachel stared at the clock above the register, its hands ticking toward noon. She tapped the counter with her pen, as if to suggest they were late, or perhaps they were keeping her from something.
Annie glanced at Leah, who rolled her eyes. The immature gesture reminded Annie of her youngest sister, Reba. She nearly started giggling again, because Reba had not learned to abide Rachel's sternness. Reba insisted Rachel reminded her of the old bull out in the pasture—bad-tempered and mean.
The bell over the door rang out again. This time three young boys entered the store, but Rachel was having none of it. "Back out you go."
"Not without your parents. Go and find them and then you may come back. I don't have time to keep my eye on you. I have work to do. Now out."
The boys—good boys who belonged to their church—tugged down on their hats and hurried back out the door. As they left, one murmured to the other two, "I told you she wouldn't let us come inside."
Annie plastered on her brightest smile. "I was hoping to pick up the lavender fabric for the quilt I'm working on for Leah's boppli."
"You haven't finished it yet?" Rachel tsk-tsked as she maneuvered behind the cutting table and pulled out the bolt of lavender cotton. It reminded Annie of the purple flowers which grew on the south side of her vegetable garden. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather use the off-white I carry?"
"Nein. This will be gut."
"I think I'll check and see what infant things you have. Maybe there's something I've forgotten." Leah waddled off down the aisle, her hand on top of her stomach as she went.
"You shouldn't have brought her to town." Rachel made no attempt to lower her voice as she unrolled the fabric with a thump, thump, thump that seemed to echo her disapproval.
"Do you honestly believe she'd be better off sitting at home? She has two months yet before the babies are due—"
"She won't make it two more months and both of us know it." Something resembling concern crossed Rachel's face, but when she glanced up at Annie, she blinked her eyes and whatever had been there, whatever she'd been feeling, had disappeared.
Possibly Annie had imagined it, or maybe for a moment Rachel had remembered what it was like to carry a child within her. Rachel's boys were older. Matthew had turned ten this year and Zeke was eight. The boys had adjusted to living in Mifflin County. They seemed to have adapted to life without a father—Rachel had moved to their town a year after her husband died. If there was a soft spot in Rachel's heart, it was for her boys, but she didn't show it often. Perhaps she was afraid of spoiling them. Where were Matthew and Zeke today? Samuel had reminded her to ask about them.
Certainly, a part of Rachel did remember the miracle of carrying a child inside for nine months and the hope life would turn out to be all you dreamed it could be.
"How much do you need?"
"Half a yard will be more than enough. I can use any extra on a patchwork quilt I plan to start after Christmas." Annie watched her measure and cut the fabric. "Probably you are right about Leah making it to term, but the bopplin will come when they're ready. It's gut for Leah to be out of the house and it helps her mood to—"
"Do not come in this store." Rachel paused in the middle of folding the fabric she had cut. For a moment, Annie wondered who she could be talking to—the bell over the door hadn'trung. In fact, the store was surprisingly empty for midday on a Saturday.
Annie angled her head to the right. When she did, she caught sight of her two nephews. The younger, Zeke, was halfway through the back door. Matthew stood behind him and had his hand on the door.
At the sound of their mother's voice, they both had frozen.CHAPTER 2
Leah had chosen a hanging bag for disposable diapers, decorated with farm animals and trimmed in lavender, blue, and green. She was walking back up the aisle when she heard Rachel's voice. It was a hard thing to miss, rather like the voice of a schoolteacher Leah had had in fifth grade. She'd been terrified of Sally Detweiler—a Mennonite woman who smelled like rubbing ointment and rarely smiled.
But she wasn't afraid of Rachel Zook.
Why were her two boys standing half-in and half-out of the back door?
They didn't seem frightened, exactly. Maybe disappointed.
"I know you are not done with your chores." Rachel didn't bother turning around, instead she directed her attention to the bolt of fabric she was finished with, a lovely lavender Annie would use on the crib quilt she was sewing. "Back outside until you're done."
"Yes, mamm." Both boys reversed direction, back toward the area behind the store.
Leah noticed that the older one, Matthew, was careful to catch the screen door so it wouldn't slam. What could their chores possibly be? What was there to do in the alley behind the store?
She rubbed her stomach, more to feel the connection with her bopplin than because they were causing her any discomfort at the moment.
What was it like for the boys to live in the apartment above the store? Did they miss having a yard to run and play in?
How did Rachel manage, raising them alone?
"I don't think you'll be needing the diaper holder, since you'll be using cloth. I've had Plain women try to use it for cloth diapers and they don't fit in it well, no matter how you fold them." Rachel moved to the register to ring up Annie's fabric purchase. "Though I do not enjoy discouraging you from purchasing something. I can use every sale I scrape together in this town."
Annie stopped at Leah's side as she studied the diaper holder. "Perfect colors. Matches the quilt I'm sewing."
"And the other your mamm is doing." Leah smiled and released the worries being around Rachel always brought to mind. "I still have some money left over from my vegetable booth."
"Ya. Your garden did much better than mine. I had that rabbit problem."
They started laughing again, but stopped when they realized Rachel was staring at them.
"Oh. I'm sorry. We're keeping you." Annie quickly counted out the amount showing on the register display. "Samuel wanted me to remind you about the luncheon at our house tomorrow."
"I couldn't possibly drive out—"
"Onkel Eli will be coming. He has to drive through town on his way to our place. He'll be happy to give you and the boys a ride."
Rachel's face scrunched up and she began shaking her head. "Oh, I don't know."
"My parents would so love a chance to see the boys. I believe dat has been working with Matthew on his checker skills."
Leah watched the interplay with interest. She understood all too well the stress that existed between Annie, who was now her sister-in-law, and Rachel, who was Samuel's sister-in-law. The fact that Rachel had tried to persuade Samuel to move to Ohio and marry her should have caused an insurmountable wall of jealousy between the two, but Annie had assured her it didn't.
Annie had said she and Samuel talked about everything—including the situation with Rachel.
It seemed to Leah that she hardly talked to Adam at all these days. He tumbled into bed exhausted, when he came to bed at all, and rose before daylight.
Glancing down at her stomach, which blocked the view of her feet, Leah couldn't help wondering if it was because of her size. She knew her husband loved her, but perhaps he didn't like her very much right now. Maybe things would be better between them in a few months.
"I suppose we could come if I didn't have to drive. I'd rather not use the mare and buggy more than necessary."
"Wunderbaar. It's settled then."
Leah made her purchase, without anymore commentary from Rachel, and was happy to see two more families enter the store as they were leaving. The last thing Annie needed was for Samuel to bear the financial responsibility of Rachel Zook and her two sons. The emotional baggage the woman had brought to town was enough of a burden.
Stepping outside into the November sunshine reminded Leah of being released from a long day at school. She stopped on the sidewalk, held her stomach in both her hands and pulled in a long, deep breath.
"Was iss letz?" Annie moved in front of her, reached forward and placed her palm against Leah's forehead. Then she moved her fingertips to Leah's wrist.
Leah knew Annie was counting her pulse.
Always the nurse, always checking on her.
Leah opened her eyes and smiled. "Rachel's store is a little oppressive."
"Ya. Outside feels gut."
"It does, but you scared me."
"You frighten easily, maybe because you are worried my babies will come early."
"Early, yes, but not today, Leah. Now let's go and have a cup of tea."
* * *
Five minutes later, they sat down in the shop where Annie's mother worked. Leah had always been close to her own parents. Six months after she married Adam they made the decision to move to Wisconsin. She'd been completely shocked. It was something they had talked about for several years—because the cost of land was less there, but she hadn't thought they were serious.
Since then Leah's feelings toward Rebekah and Jacob had changed. Perhaps it was because her family had moved.
Maybe it was the fact that Annie was expecting her own first child, or because hers were twins.
Whatever the reason, in the last two years, she'd grown incredibly close to Annie and Adam's parents.
Rebekah moved toward them, calmness and joy on her face. "I was hoping you two would come in today. Let me help Charity see to the other tables, then I'll come and sit with you." Round, motherly, with gray hair peeking out from under her kapp, Rebekah Weaver was a balm to Leah's soul. They ordered and soon Rebekah was back, setting two mugs of tea in front of them and a plate filled with three kinds of cheese, crackers, and fruit.
"Mamm, we only ordered the tea—decaffeinated."
"No caffeine. I remember, and the lunch is on me. I have three grandkinner at this table. Can't start feeding them gut things too soon. I'll be back in a snap."
She was gone before they could argue.
Excerpted from Free Quilts of Love Fiction Sampler by Christa Allan, Jennifer AlLee, Angela Breidenbach, Sandra D. Bricker, Bonnie S. Calhoun, Vannetta Chapman, Carla Olson Gade, Loree Lough, S. Dionne Moore, Jennifer Hudson Taylor, Carolyn Zane. Copyright © 2013 Vannetta Chapman. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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