There's nothing Huckleberry Hill, Wisconsin’s irrepressible eighty-somethings Anna and Felty Helmuth like better than a challenge. And the chance to matchmake their feisty granddaughter is their most delightful task yet…
Elsie Stutzman’s plain-spoken ways got her in trouble once before, so she needs to make a good impression at her new teaching job. But she's not about to let disabled student Wally Sensenig work below his potential. And she definitely won’t put up with his hot-headed older brother sabotaging her efforts, no matter how handsome he is. . .
Sam is nearly at the end of his rope caring for his ailing, widowed mother, working their farm, and raising his siblings. He'll admit Elsie’s ideas are bringing Wally out of his angry shell—but why does she have to be as stubborn as she is pretty? Yet as it turns out, Elsie has taught Sam something about himself as well. And he’ll do whatever it takes to make up for his mistakes—and win her heart forever.
Praise for Jennifer Beckstrand and her Matchmakers of Huckleberry Hill series
“Beckstrand continues to bring unexpected and heart-melting plotlines to this outstanding series.”
—RT Book Reviews
“Full of kind, sincere characters struggling with the best ways to stay true to themselves and their beliefs.” —Publishers Weekly
About the Author
C. S. E. Cooney launched her voice-acting career narrating short fiction for Podcastle, the world's first audio fantasy magazine. She is a performance poet, singer-songwriter, and fantasy author whose collection Bone Swans has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Locus Magazine.
Read an Excerpt
Elsie Stutzman forced a smile and took the last bite of asparagus potato raisin casserole on her plate. She swallowed decisively, and it slid down her throat like a cup of wet cement.
Ach. She'd been so excited to come to Huckleberry Hill to live with her grandparents that she'd forgotten about Mammi's little cooking disorder. Elsie loved asparagus. She adored potatoes and even liked raisins. But when all three of them swam around together in a lumpy cheese sauce made especially for her, Elsie found it difficult to be enthusiastic.
"How did you like the casserole, dear?" Mammi said, her eyes twinkling with all the affection of a seasoned Amish fraa.
Elsie didn't know what to say. She would never do anything to hurt Mammi's feelings, but if she praised the casserole too eagerly, Mammi would insist on scooping her another helping. She shuddered at the thought. "It was appeditlich, Mammi," Elsie said, leaning back and patting her stomach. "I couldn't eat another bite."
Dawdi — Grandpa — spooned another large helping of casserole onto his plate. Elsie was astounded. Dawdi had eaten Mammi's cooking for more than sixty years. How had he survived? "This is one of the best meals you've ever cooked, Annie-banannie. The king of Canada doesn't eat this gute."
Mammi giggled like a six-year-old. "Now, Felty. The king of Canada probably has two or three chefs to cook for him. I've never even been to cooking school."
Elsie caught her bottom lip between her teeth. Had anybody ever suggested cooking school to Mammi? If the whole family pooled their money, they might be able to send her away for a whole month. Elsie squinted in Mammi's direction. Asparagus potato raisin casserole with sides of creamed cabbage and banana cornbread muffins. Nae. Mammi was the dearest, most lovable soul in the world, but a month of Sundays at cooking school wouldn't make a dent in her odd culinary imagination.
"It's a very good thing the king doesn't know about you," Dawdi said. "He'd ask you to go to Canada to cook for him."
Mammi went to the fridge. "Now why would I want to do that when all I've ever wanted is to cook for my family? Everyone is always so appreciative."
"Of course they are," Dawdi said.
Well, at least they were appreciative in front of Mammi, but Elsie could think of no one but cousin Reuben of all the grandchildren who actually enjoyed their grandmother's cooking. Still, it gave Mammi so much happiness to bring joy to her family through food. She never needed to know that there was a lot more indigestion than joy going around.
Mammi clapped her hands. "Who wants cake?"
Ach, du lieva. If Elsie fell into the bathtub tonight, the lump in her stomach would pull her to the bottom. She'd drown for sure and certain. "I couldn't eat another bite, Mammi."
"Now, Elsie," Mammi scolded cheerfully, "this is your Welcome-to-Huckleberry -Hill-and-Happy-First-Day-of-School party. We had Welcome-to-Huckleberry -Hill punch, and now you need the Happy-First-Day-of-School cake. It won't be a party unless you eat some."
Elsie sighed. She would do anything to make Mammi happy, even brave a daily stomachache — which was probably her lot in life for the next year. "Of course I must have some Happy-First-Day-of-School cake." The first day of school was still a week away, but Elsie didn't think they should let anything Mammi had baked sit that long. It might sprout feet and crawl away.
Mammi reached into the fridge and pulled out a beautiful layer cake with creamy dark chocolate frosting. The frosting swirled around the cake like a sky full of wispy clouds. It was truly a work of art.
Elsie glanced behind her. Was someone she hadn't met living in the house or had Mammi made that cake herself? "It's beautiful."
Mammi's eyes lit up like a propane lantern. "Denki, dear. I'm very gute with pastries." She set the cake on the table. "It's my mother's German chocolate cake recipe."
Elsie's mouth watered. She adored German chocolate cake. Maybe Mammi didn't need cooking school after all.
"I made some changes to make it low fat," Mammi said. She furrowed her brow. "Which, when you come to think of it, makes no sense at all. I gave up losing weight when my mamm passed on forty years ago, and you, Elsie, are thin enough to fit through a keyhole."
Elsie was almost afraid to ask. "What changes did you make to the recipe?"
"I used white beans instead of oil. Esther told me not to, but she is always trying to give me advice about my cooking, as if I didn't teach her everything she knows."
Aendi Esther, Mammi's oldest daughter, was famous for her cinnamon rolls. Elsie had a feeling Esther had learned to cook in spite of Mammi.
Elsie watched with trepidation as Mammi cut the cake and served her a generous slice. It looked like regular chocolate cake, except for the small bits of beans that dotted the inside layers. Elsie swallowed hard. She liked beans, and everything tasted better mixed with a gute dose of chocolate.
Mammi served Felty and herself a slice and sat down next to Elsie at the table. "Now, Elsie, dear, your dawdi and I invited you here because our school needed a new teacher. We are overjoyed you got the job."
Elsie nodded. She was overjoyed too. Considering how the Amish gossip mill operated, it was a miracle she had been hired anywhere, and she wouldn't mess it up this time. She'd hold her tongue, no matter how much the parents or the stodgy old school board provoked her. Elsie scooted a piece of the bean-and- chocolate cake around with her fork. The children would like her — at least, she hoped so — and she had no doubt she would love the children. It was the adults Elsie had a harder time with. She firmly believed that school was for the children, not the parents, and had unfortunately shared that opinion on one too many occasions. The school board didn't especially appreciate a schoolteacher who spoke her mind.
"I am wonderful grateful to you for helping me to a job, Mammi." She'd been living in Charm with Onkel Peter and Aendi Clara for three years teaching school. Without a job, she probably would be forced back home to Greenwood, which was even smaller than Bonduel, Wisconsin, where Mammi and Dawdi lived.
Mammi waved her hand in the air. "Never mind about that. The teaching position wasn't the real reason we wanted you to come, but for sure and certain, it came at a convenient time."
Elsie nibbled on her bottom lip. "You didn't want me to come here to teach?"
"Jah," Mammi said. "I mean, nae. We know how badly you want to be married. We asked you to come to Huckleberry Hill so that we could get you a husband." Mammi practically glowed. "Felty and I have just the boy for you."
Elsie's mouthful of thick, gooey, beany chocolate cake got stuck halfway down her throat. Mammi thought she wanted a husband?
So did Wyman Wagler. Despite her blunt refusal, Wyman had persisted in pursuing her all over Charm. He had chased her clear out of Ohio. She had hoped that if she left town, Wyman would take the hint that she wasn't interested. Her declaration "I refuse to marry you" hadn't stopped him. Surely her moving to another state would cool his passion. She could only hope.
Elsie cringed at the very idea of hurting Mammi's feelings, but the thought of being matched to some pale-faced, eager, sniveling young man was even more unbearable. She set her fork decisively on her plate, signaling to her grandparents that she had something wonderful important to say. She tempered her words with an affectionate smile. "Mammi and Dawdi, I came to Bonduel to teach school. I'm only twenty-two. I don't want a husband."
The wrinkles on Mammi's forehead bunched tighter together. "Ever?"
Of course she wanted to marry.
But if she gave her mammi even the slightest hope that she might budge, Mammi would not rest until she'd introduced her to every boy in the county. "The whole family knows how gute you are at matchmaking, but Aaron needs your help more than I ever could. He's almost twenty-nine and thinks girls are silly and stupid." Her brother would be annoyed if he knew that Elsie had stabbed him in the back, but she was desperate, and Aaron was the perfect distraction.
Mammi nodded, and her wrinkles grew wrinkles. "Aaron is a hard case. But I haven't found a girl yet who can put him in his place." She tilted her head to one side and drummed her fingers on her cheek. "It wonders me if Carolyn Yutzy might suit. She used to be in my knitting club."
"She's a wonderful-gute girl," Dawdi said, between hearty bites of cake.
Elsie nodded her encouragement. "Carolyn Yutzy? What kind of girl is she?"
Mammi smiled and patted Elsie's hand. "You're so unselfish, thinking of Aaron's needs before your own, but Carolyn can wait. You're here, and Aaron is trapped in Greenwood. He's not going anywhere. There will be plenty of time to work on him once you're engaged."
Elsie sighed, much louder than she intended, but at least she had Mammi and Dawdi's attention. Her resolve to hold her tongue died like a frog on the interstate. "Mammi and Dawdi, you are the best grandparents a girl could ever ask for. I love you to the moon and back, but I don't want you to match me with anyone. I want to concentrate on being the best teacher I can be. Boys are nothing but a distraction, and I'd rather not have to fend off any romantic notions while I'm here. There are plenty of boys back in Charm, or even Greenwood." Not that she'd consider dating any of them — especially Wyman Wagler — but it might make Mammi feel better about Elsie's marriage prospects.
"The boy I have in mind is truly your perfect match," Mammi said, cheerfully unmoved by Elsie's pleading.
"It wonders me if he isn't too tall," Dawdi said, obviously trying to throw Elsie a bone.
Elsie took it. "Jah. I'm only five foot one. I don't like tall boys."
Mammi frowned. "How tall is too tall?"
Elsie pulled a number from the air and hoped Mammi's intended boy was a giant. "Five foot four." Wyman Wagler was five-five.
Unfortunately, this didn't seem to deter Mammi in the least. Her laughter sounded like a bubbly brook tripping over the rocks. "Felty is six-three."
"I used to be six-three," Dawdi said. "I'm shrinking all the time."
"Well, dear, you used to be six-three, and I'm only five feet, and look what a gute match we are."
Dawdi scooped another piece of cake onto his plate, making sure to catch the errant beans. "The best match I ever could have asked for, Annie."
"It doesn't matter," Elsie said, trying not to lose her temper. How could she be cross about her mammi's stubbornness when Mammi had probably passed that trait on to Elsie? She stood and stacked the dishes.
"No need, Elsie, dear. You are the guest."
"I'm going to do the dishes every morning and every night while I stay here. It's the least I can do."
Mammi smiled, and the lines around her eyes congregated closer together. "But you'll be busy with your boyfriend."
Elsie started filling the sink with hot water. "Please don't match me up with anyone, Mammi. I don't think I could stand it."
"But, dear, you can't see how unhappy you are. Only a mammi truly knows, and I hate seeing my grandchildren miserable."
Elsie sighed again, even louder than before. She should have known better than to try to discourage Mammi. It was like trying to hold back the Ohio River with her arm. "Would you agree to a compromise?"
Mammi squinted in Elsie's direction. "What kind of compromise?"
"Let me be for four months. I need the time to improve my teaching. Then, in January, you can match me up with whomever you want." Elsie nibbled on her bottom lip. January was a long way away. Maybe Mammi would forget about the whole scheme by then.
Mammi brightened considerably. "Let's hang a big calendar by the door and mark off the days until January. That will give you something to look forward to during the long winter." She practically leaped from her chair and pulled the small calendar from the wall above her sofa. "This will never do. I'll have to go buy a bigger one." She took a sheet of paper from the drawer and did some counting in her head. She wrote on the paper, rolled some tape behind it, and stuck it on the wall. It said 134 days to January 1.
Felty nodded. "A countdown. You're wonderful clever, Banannie."
Elsie gave Mammi what passed for a smile. Her grandparents were both in their eighties — a time when old people started forgetting things. They'd probably forget the whole thing before Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, Elsie had a creeping dread that when it came to love, Mammi's memory was as sharp as a tack. Elsie would be foolish to hold out even a sliver of hope.
Sam Sensenig was so mad, his hat would have caught fire had it been a hotter day. He didn't have time for this. He barely had time for the work he needed to do on the farm. He certainly didn't have time to put a teacher in her place. Wasn't it the school board's job to learn everything about a new teacher before they hired her? How hard would it have been to find out that the new teacher had a mean streak, that she liked to pick on little crippled boys who couldn't fight back? How dare she? How could the school board have been so negligent? And how would Sam ever make things right for Wally?
One thing was for sure. That new teacher was going to get a talking-to she would never, ever forget. If he reduced her to a quivering blob of tears, all the better. She'd get a taste of what she'd done to his bruder — and it was mighty bitter.
Sam jumped off his horse, Rowdy, and stormed toward the schoolhouse. He hadn't taken the time to hitch up the buggy, because his wrath needed to be swift and severe. He opened the schoolhouse door and stomped up the stairs, making sure the smack of his boots against the steps was loud and intimidating. The teacher would know someone was here who wouldn't be bullied or belittled.
At first he didn't see her amid the bright posters and stacks of books. Nearly every inch of wall space was covered with pictures and words, as if a children's book had exploded and its contents had stuck to the walls. A hand-drawn picture of a cowboy hung on the wall above one of the bookshelves. The cowboy played a guitar, and notes floated around him like gnats in the air. "Sing Unto the Lord a New Song, Psalms 96:1," it read, and at the cowboy's feet were empty hooks and block letters that said, "Perfect Attendance."
An overflowing basket of bright red paper apples graced the opposite wall with a sign that read, "Welcome." Each of the apples had a child's name written on it, Wally's included. Too bad Wally wasn't truly welcome in this classroom. The teacher had made that very clear.
The decorations were surprisingly bright and cheery for someone rotten to the core.
A head popped up from the other side of the teacher's desk. She must have been kneeling behind it when he came in. She stood, and he took an involuntary step back. The new teacher wasn't old or broad-shouldered or severe-looking, like Sam had pictured her when Wally had come home crying. She looked young, definitely younger than he, with shiny mahogany hair and shocking green eyes. And she couldn't have been much taller than five feet — just a slip of a thing. She didn't look capable of bullying anyone.
Sam squared his shoulders. He knew better than to judge someone by the way they looked. This new teacher might well be the prettiest girl in five counties, but if her heart was black as coal, her beauty was an illusion.
Her smile lit up the entire room, and Sam caught his breath and nearly forgot why he had come. "Hallo," she said.
Sam shook his head a couple of times to clear it. No pretty face would distract him from his brother's pain or from the fact that she had caused it. "Are you the teacher?" he said. He meant it to sound like an accusation.
She stiffened. "I am," she said, as if daring him to attack.
He didn't like that little show of defiance, as if she hadn't done anything wrong. He stepped around the desk and got closer so he could loom over her, glaring down at her like she was a bug he was about to squish. She tilted her head way back to look him in the eye, but didn't back away, didn't grab the desk behind her for support, didn't even flinch. Her composure irritated him to no end. "What gives you the right to pick on my little brother?"
She matched his glare with an icy one of her own. The room got twenty degrees colder. "May I ask what little bruder we are referring to?"
"Wally Sensenig — my little bruder. He came home crying. You should be ashamed of yourself."
Excerpted from "A Courtship on Huckleberry Hill"
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Beckstrand.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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