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"Lady, you sure this is where you wanna get out?" The middle-aged bus driver tipped his hat back and regarded his passenger with worry-filled eyes.
"This is the place." Katie Lantz glanced from his concerned face to the desolate winter landscape beyond the windshield. A chill that owed nothing to the weather crawled over her skin.
It was her destination, but rural Ohio was the last place in the world she wanted to be. She had agonized over her decision for weeks. Now that she was here, the same worries that had robbed her of sleep for endless nights cartwheeled through her mind.
Would her brother take her in? What if Malachi turned her away? What would she do then? If he did allow her to return to his home would she ever find the strength to leave again?
"It don't feel right leaving a gal in your condition out here alone. You sure I can't take ya into town?"
"I'm sure." She pressed a protective hand to her mid-section. Her condition was the only reason she was here. She didn't want to get off the bus, but what choice did she have?
All her plans, her dreams and her hopes had turned to ashes. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. "I'd just have to walk back if I went into Hope Springs. Thank you for letting me off. I know you aren't supposed to make unscheduled stops."
The driver pulled the lever to open the doors with obvious reluctance. "I don't make a habit of it, but I figured it was best not to argue with a gal that's as pregnant as you are."
A gust of wintry wind swirled in, raking Katie's face with icy fingers. A tremor raced through her body. She turned up the collar of her red plaid coat, prolonging the moment she would have to actually step out of the bus and back into the life she dreaded.
The driver seemed to sense her unwillingness to leave. "Is someone meeting you?"
She hadn't bothered to write that she was coming. Her previous letters had all been returned unopened. Proof, if she needed any, that her family hadn't forgiven her for turning her back on her Amish heritage.
She lifted her chin.
I don't have to do this. I can stay on the bus and go to the next town.
And then what?
As quickly as her bravado appeared it evaporated. She closed her eyes. Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
All she had in her pocket was twelve dollars. All she owned was in the suitcase she clutched. It wasn't enough, not with her baby due in three weeks. For her child's sake, returning home was her only option.
Clinging to that faint echo of resolve, she drew a steadying breath, opened her eyes and faced her bleak future. "My brother's farm is just over the hill. It's not far. I'll be fine."
Oh, how she hoped her words would prove true.
She didn't belong in this Amish world. She had escaped it once before. She would do so again. It would be harder with a baby, but she would find a way.
With no money, without even a driver's license and nothing but an eighth-grade education, the English world was a hard place for an ex-Amish woman on her own.
Matt had taken her away and promised to take care of her and show her the wonders of the modern world, but his promises had been empty. He'd disappeared from her life three months ago, leaving her to struggle and fail alone.
The bus driver shrugged. "All right. You be careful."
"Danki. I mean… thank you." When she was upset the language of her childhood often slipped out. It was hard to remember to speak English when the words of her native Pennsylvania Dutch came to mind first.
Gripping her small case tightly, Katie descended the steps and walked toward the edge of the roadway. The doors slammed shut behind her. The engine roared as the driver pulled away, followed by a billowing cloud of diesel fumes.
There was no turning back—nowhere left to run.
Shivering as the frigid air found its way inside the coat she couldn't button over her bulging stomach, she pulled at the material to close the gap. Now she was truly alone. Except for the child she carried.
Standing here wasn' t helping. She needed to get moving. Switching her suitcase to her other hand, she arched her back to stretch out a persistent cramp. When it eased, she turned and glanced up the long lane leading over the hill. For her baby she would do anything. Endure anything.
With the late-March sky hanging low and gray overhead, Katie wished for the first time that she had kept some of her Amish clothing. If she at least looked the part of a repentant Plain woman, her family reunion might go better.
She had left before her baptism—before taking her vows to faithfully follow the Plain faith. She would be reprimanded for her errant behavior, but she might not be shunned if she came asking forgiveness.
Please, God, don't let them send me away.
To give her child a home she would endure the angry tirade she expected from her brother. His wife, Beatrice, wouldn't intercede for Katie. Beatrice would sit silent and sullen, never saying a word. Through it all Malachi wouldn't be able to hide the gloating in his voice. He had predicted Katie would come to a bad end out among the English.
How she hated that he had been right.
Still, she would soon have the one thing her brother and her sister-in-law had been denied in their lives—a baby. Was it possible the arrival of her child might heal old wounds? Or would it only make things worse?
An unexpected tightening across her stomach made her draw in a quick breath. She had been up since dawn, riding for hours on the jolting bus. It was no wonder her back ached almost constantly now. She started toward the lane that led north from the highway. There could be no rest until she reached her brother's house.
The dirt road running between twin fences made for rough and treacherous walking. Buggy wheels and horse's hooves had cut deep ruts in the mud that was now frozen. Tiny, hard flakes driven by the wind stung her cheeks and made it difficult to see. She shivered and hunched deeper into her too-small coat.
As much as she wanted to hurry toward the warm stove she knew was glowing in her brother's kitchen, she couldn't. She had to be careful of each step over the rough ground. The last thing she wanted to do was fall and hurt the child that meant everything to her. When her son or daughter arrived, Katie would have the one true thing she had always longed for—a family of her own.
Her stomach tightened again. She had to stop to catch her breath. Her pain deepened. Something wasn't right. This was more than fatigue. Had her long day of travel hurt the baby? She'd never forgive herself if something happened to her child.
After a few quick, panting breaths the discomfort passed. Katie straightened with relief. She switched her suitcase to her other hand, pushed her frozen fingers deep into her pocket and started walking again. She hadn't gone more than a hundred yards when the next pain made her double over and drop her case.
Fear clogged her throat as she clutched her belly. Breathing hard, she peered through the blowing snow. She could just make out the light from a window up ahead. It wasn't much farther. Closing her eyes, she gathered her strength.
One foot in front of the other. The only way to finish a journey is to start it.
With grim determination, she pressed on. Another dozen yards brought her to the steps of the small front porch. She sagged with relief when her hand closed over the railing. She was home.
Home. The word echoed inside her mind, bringing with it grim memories from the past. Defeat weighed down her already-low spirits. She raised her fist and knocked at the front door. Then she bowed her head and closed her eyes, grasping the collar of her coat to keep the chill at bay.
When the door finally opened she looked up slowly past the dark trousers and suspenders, past the expanse of pale blue shirt to meet her brother's gaze.
Katie sucked in a breath and took a half step back. A tall, broad-shouldered Amish man stood in front of her with a kerosene lamp in his hand and a faint puzzled expression on his handsome face.
It wasn't Malachi.
Elam Sutter stared in surprise at the English woman on his doorstep clutching a suitcase in one hand and the collar of her coat with the other. Her pale face was framed by coal-black hair that ended just below her jawline. The way the ends of it swung forward to caress her cheeks reminded Elam of the wings of a small bird.
In his lamplight, snowflakes sparkled in her hair and on the tips of her thick eyelashes. Her eyes, dark as the night, brimmed with misery. She looked nearly frozen from her head… to her very pregnant belly.
He drew back in shock and raised the lamp higher, scanning the yard behind her for a car, but saw none. Perhaps it had broken down on the highway. That would explain her sudden appearance.
The English! They hadn't enough sense to stay by a warm fire on such a fierce night. Still, she was obviously in trouble. He asked politely, "Can I help you?"
"Would you…" Her voice faltered. She swallowed hard then began again. "I must speak with Malachi."
"Would you be meaning Malachi Lantz?"
She pressed her lips together and nodded.
"The Lantz family doesn't live here anymore."
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "What? But this is his home."
"Jah, it was. He and his wife moved to Kansas last spring after he sold the farm to me. I have his address inside if you need it."
"That can't be," she whispered as she pressed a hand to her forehead.
"Who is it, Elam?" his mother, Nettie, called from behind him.
He spoke over his shoulder, "Someone looking for Malachi Lantz."
A second later his mother was beside him. She looked as shocked as he at the sight of a very pregnant outsider on their stoop, but it took only an instant for her kind-heartedness to assert itself.
"Goodness, child, come in out of this terrible weather. You look chilled to the bone. Elam, pull a chair close to the fireplace." She nudged him aside and he hurried to do as she instructed.
Grasping the woman's elbow, Nettie guided her guest into the living room and helped her into a straight-backed seat, one of a pair that flanked the stone fireplace.
"Ach, your hands are like ice." Nettie began rubbing them between her own.
The young woman's gaze roved around the room and finally came to rest on Elam's mother's face. "Malachi doesn't live here anymore?"
Nettie's gaze softened. "No, dear. I'm sorry. He moved away."
Pulling her hands away from the older woman's, she raked them through her dark hair. "Why would he move? Was it because of me?"
Elam exchanged puzzled glances with his mother. What did the woman mean by that comment? Nettie shrugged, then took the girl's hands once more. "What's your name, child?"
The dazed look on his visitor's face was replaced by a blankness that troubled him. "My name is Katie."
"Katie, I'm Nettie Sutter, and this is my son, Elam."
Katie bent forward with a deep moan. "I don't know what to do."
"Don't cry." His mother patted the girl's shoulder as she shot Elam a worried glance.
After several deep breaths, Katie straightened and wiped her cheeks. "I have to go."
"You haven't thawed out yet. At least stay for a cup of tea. The kettle is still on. Elam, bring me a cup, too."
Nettie caught his eye and made shooing motions toward the kitchen with one hand.
He retreated, but he could still hear them talking as he fixed the requested drinks. His mother's tone was calm and reassuring as she said, "Why not stay and rest a bit longer? It's not good for your baby to have his mother turning into an icicle."
"I need to go. I have to find Malachi." Katie's voice wavered with uncertainty.
"Is he the father?" Nettie asked gently.
Elam didn't want to think ill of any man, but why else would a pregnant woman show up demanding to see Malachi months after he had moved away?
"No. He's my brother."
Elam stopped pouring the hot water and glanced toward the living room. He had heard the story of Malachi's willful sister from the man's own lips. So this was the woman that had left the Amish after bringing shame to her family. At least she had done so before her baptism.
Elam placed the tea bags in the mugs. Malachi had his sympathy. Elam knew what it was like to face such heartbreak—the talk, the pitying looks, the whispers behind a man's back.
He pushed aside those memories as he carried the cups into the other room. "I didn't see your car outside."
She looked up at him and once again the sadness in her luminous eyes caught him like a physical blow. Her lower lip quivered. "I came on the bus."
Elam felt his mother's eyes on him but he kept his gaze averted, focusing instead on handing over the hot drinks without spilling any.
Nettie took a cup from Elam and pressed it into Katie's hands. "Have a sip. This will warm you right up. You can't walk all the way to Hope Springs tonight. Elam will take you in the buggy when you're ready."
Katie shook her head. "I can't ask you to do that."
"It's no trouble." He tried hard to mean it. He'd already finished a long day of work and he was ready for his bed. He would have to be up again before dawn to milk the cows and feed the livestock.
Returning to the kitchen, he began donning his coat and his black felt hat. It was a mean night for a ride into town, but what else could he do? He certainly couldn't let her walk, in her condition.
Suddenly, he heard Katie cry out. Rushing back into the room, he saw her doubled over, the mug lying broken on the floor in a puddle at her feet.