After her sweetheart's betrayal, Ruthy Mummert leaves behind the small-town gossip of her Amish community for the first opportunity she can find: a housekeeper position in faraway LaGrange County, Indiana. Ruthy didn't realize the job meant caring for ten childrenand for their handsome widowed father.
To Levi Zook's mind, Ruthy is too young and too pretty to be anyone's housekeeper. A marriage of convenience will protect her reputation and give his children the security they dearly need. But it could also give them the courage to grasp a new chance at happinessif Ruthy is willing to risk her wounded heart once more.
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"She's old. Dat said so."
"Ja. Old and mean."
"Old and mean, and she has a big nose."
Levi Zook gave his four younger boys a meaningful glare before David could add to the list. "We don't know what she looks like, but she sounded nice enough in her letters."
The notes Levi had exchanged with his new housekeeper from Lancaster County had been all business, but the letter of recommendation he received from the bishop in Bird-in-Hand had held the description he hoped for. The bishop had used words like competent, faithful and dedicated, all qualities he welcomed in a housekeeper. He could picture her in his mind: slightly plump, eager to please, gray hair and a face lined with comfortable wrinkles. A grandmotherly type who could teach his daughters the way to keep house.
His youngest son, five-year-old Sam, bounced on his toes in anticipation when he heard the train blow its whistle at the edge of town. Clouds of steam rose in the air above the stark, black tree limbs as the train slowed. All four boys pressed forward to be the first to see the engine as it rounded the last curve before arriving at the Shipshewana depot.
A good half foot taller than the crowd of people on the platform, Levi watched the train rumble over the crossing at Morton Street. Three passenger cars followed the tender. Behind them, freight car doors slid open as furtive figures jumped from the train to disappear between the grain elevator and Smith's machine shop. Hobos. Tramps. Even on such a frozen day as this. Levi hunched his shoulders at the thought of how cold those men must be as they searched for food and shelter for the night. He doubted if any of them would make it as far as his farm. In weather like this, the men looked for handouts or jobs closer to town.
The squeal of metal grinding on metal brought him back to the passenger cars. He ducked to see into the windows, but all he could see were Englischer faces. No Amish bonnet.
Jesse tugged at Levi's sleeve as he pointed a mittened hand toward the last of the passenger cars.
"Is that her, Dat?"
A tall Amish woman appeared in the doorway of the far train car. Levi watched as she scanned the crowded platform. Could this be her? Ne, she was much too young. She couldn't be very far into her twenties. Her blue eyes met his, then passed him by before she stepped off the train and onto the platform.
Levi continued watching each person alight from the train until no more appeared. There were no other Amish women, certainly not the middle-aged spinster he was expecting.
"She's the only one left, Dat. Could she be the one?"
The lone Amish woman stood in the middle of the platform with a suitcase at her feet as the people around her made their way to waiting automobiles, trucks and wagons.
"I don't think so, Sam." Levi looked at the young woman again. She glanced their way once, her face uncertain. She looked a bit lost, as if she had been expecting someone to meet her. Meanwhile, Ruth Mummert, the housekeeper he was expecting, had never shown up. Had they miscommunicated? Did he have the date of her arrival wrong?
"That isn't her." James turned his back on the train and the lone figure on the platform. "She's too pretty."
"Well, boys, we can't stand here all day. We'll have to come back tomorrow."
David nodded his head at the young woman. "Should we give her a ride?"
"Ja, son." Levi herded the boys in the direction of the woman, now standing with her back to them, her eyes on his big family buggy with Champ tied to the rail. "We can't leave her here by herself."
The woman turned to watch him as they approached, her blue eyes deep within the shadows of her black bonnet flashing with hope before dismissing him by turning her head away again.
"Can we help you?" Levi's question brought those eyes back to his. "Can we give you a ride somewhere?"
"I was expecting someone to meet me at the train ." Her accent betrayed her eastern home.
"We were meeting someone, too," Sam said.
Levi laid his hand on the boy's shoulder to remind him to let his elders speak. "Who were you meeting? I probably know where they live and can take you there."
The young woman's cheeks were red with the cold. Levi wanted to hurry her into his buggy, where the foot warmer was waiting for them. "I was supposed to meet Levi Zook, but he hasn't shown up. Do you know him?"
"I should know him. I'm Levi Zook. You aren't Ruth Mummert, are you?" This young, beautiful woman couldn't be the spinster he had been writing to.
"Ja, Ruth Mummert." She nodded, eyeing him. "But you're not the Levi Zook who has hired me to be his housekeeper. He's a much older man than you."
The boys stifled giggles while Levi pulled his glove off and dug in his pocket for her latest letter.
"I am Levi Zook." He held the paper out to her. "Here's your letter accepting the job as my housekeeper and telling me which train you'd be on."
She took the letter from his hand and unfolded it, nodding quickly when she saw the handwriting.
"It looks like I assumed wrong, Levi Zook." She smiled at him as she folded the paper again and gave it to him. "But now that's cleared up and I'm sure we won't have any other misunderstandings."
Levi's return smile faded as she turned to greet the boys. What would she say when she met the rest of his children? In all their correspondence, he had never mentioned how many children he had, and she had never asked. He scratched his beard. He had never asked about her age or circumstances, either. Wasn't she too young for this job? She couldn't have the experience he had hoped for. They had both made assumptions, but she was here now, and he might as well give her a try.
"We should start for home. Our buggy is over here." Levi leaned down to take her bag and led the way, the boys following. Before giving her a hand into the seat, Levi felt the warming pan on the floor. He'd need to replenish it before starting the trip home.
"I'll just take this into the station and get some fresh coals. Make yourself comfortable and I'll be right back."
Ruth Mummert made a quick nod at his words, but the glance she gave him was unsure, as if she already regretted her decision to take the job. And then the uncertainty was gone, replaced by a quick smile. When she discovered the extent of the job he had hired her for, would she smile and call that a "misunderstanding," too?
Ruthy climbed into the front seat of the strange-looking black buggy. The ones at home had gray coversjust one of many differences she would have to adjust to, she decided. Gathering her shawl closely around her, she buried her chin in its folds. Indiana was colder than the winter weather she had left at home in Bird-in-Hand.
She peered out the front window of the buggy at the man walking into the train station with the warming pan. Levi Zook wasn't what she had been expecting. When he described himself as a widower and said his daughter had been caring for him since her mother died, she had assumed he would be nearly her father's age, but this man looked closer to thirty than sixty.
The boys were a surprise. Her mind skirted around the glaring omission in Levi Zook's letter. He had mentioned that he expected her to care for his children, but he never said how many children he had. What did it matter? How many could he have? Five, maybe six? After growing up with three brothers, Ruthy knew how to handle boys. Washing muddy trousers and feeding hungry, growing young men was nothing new to her. And then there was his daughter, Waneta. So one girl to help out, at least.
The back door of the buggy opened and the biggest boy jumped into the middle seat, and then two of his brothers followed. They all wore identical dark coats and navy blue knit caps.
"I got here first, David. Let me sit by James."
"Ne, I want to sit in the middle."
"Sam, you sit up front with her."
"Ne, ne, I don't want to!" This last cry came from the smallest of the boys, still standing on the buggy step.
Ruthy turned her face toward the front of the buggy, trying to stay out of the squabble. They made the buggy sway as they pushed at each other, like a bunch of half-grown puppies.
So these were Levi Zook's children. Mam had urged her to learn more about her position before traveling all this distance, but staying another day in Bird-in-Hand was out of the question. How could she stay there after what Elam and Laurette had done?
"Boys, you know where to sit." Levi's deep voice broke through the noise. "Stop this arguing, now. Jesse, move over so David can sit in his own place."
Levi slid the warming pan across the floor of the buggy and Ruthy tucked her feet up to it. The January air had a bite to it, even in the shelter of the buggy, and she craved the heat that seeped through the leather shoes to her toes.
"But Dat, I don't want to sit by her." The littlest boy still stood on the buggy step, his face glaring at Ruthy as she turned to smile at him.
"If you sit between your daed and me, you'll be able to share the warming pan."
Ruthy knew her words had struck gold when she heard the envious groan from one of the boys behind her. The young boy heard it, too, and his face lit up.
"Can I really?"
"Ja, for sure." Ruthy tucked her skirt in close as he scrambled onto the seat next to her. She glanced up to see Levi Zook giving her a grateful look. It seemed her job was starting out well so far.
As the buggy jolted over the railroad tracks, Ruthy smiled at the boy next to her.
"You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"I'm Sam. I'm five years old, and I like cows." The words burst out of him as if he had been holding them in all day. "And that's James. He's eleven and doesn't like girls. David is nine and likes school. And that's Jesse. He's seven." He nodded toward the backseat as he introduced his brothers. "And at home "
"How was the train ride?" Levi Zook interrupted, his face red as he concentrated on driving the horse through the town traffic.
"It was long, but comfortable." Ruthy glanced out the window. The roads were smooth with packed snow. "How far is your farm from here?"
"We're about six miles from Shipshewana, down in Eden Township."
"It's the biggest farm around," Sam said, and then his pink cheeks reddened even more and he ducked his head into the collar of his coat. "I mean, it's plenty large for our family."
Levi cleared his throat, drawing Ruthy's attention away from Sam's boasting words. "I hope the arrangements I mentioned in the letter are to your liking."
"Ach, ja," Ruthy said. "There's a Dawdi Haus I'll be living in?"
"Ja. It's attached to the main house, and there's a passageway in between. It's handy to the kitchen and cellar."
Ruthy shivered as the horse trotted swiftly down the snow-covered road. The farm fields were January bare, with flat expanses of snow between the fence rows. As the buggy grew colder, she drew her shawl closer to her neck. Even the boys in the back fell into silence in the frigid air.
By the time Levi turned onto a farm lane, the coals in the warming pan had lost all their heat. Sam pressed against his daed to keep warm, but Ruthy looked up the lane, anxious to get the first glimpse of her new home. The house was large, with additions made over the years like train cars, and the little Dawdi Haus a tacked-on caboose following behind. Smoke poured from a chimney at the end of the house closest to the Dawdi Haus, a sign someone was home. Levi pulled up to the back door.
"Sam, take Ruth in to the kitchen while the boys and I take care of the chores." Levi looked over Sam's head at her, with an apologetic look in his brown eyes. "We'll be in for supper."
Ruthy nodded, looking forward to getting into the warm kitchen. The look in her employer's eyes mystified her, though. Why would he feel bad for leaving her alone with little Sam?
She climbed down from the buggy and took her suitcase from the back, then followed Sam to the door. The back porch was enclosed, with a wash bench along the outer wall, hooks for coats on the wall next to the kitchen door and planks to hold muddy boots off the floor below. Warmth seeped into the porch through the closed kitchen door and Ruthy unwrapped her winter shawl as Sam hung his coat on a hook.
The door opened to welcome them in, and a young girl smiled shyly at Ruthy.
"Nellie, close the door!"
Ruthy stepped into the kitchen quickly as the girl, about eight years old, obeyed the voice of an older girl who stood with her back to Ruthy as she removed a loaf of bread from the oven. It must be Waneta, the oldest. Four boys and two girls? So, Levi Zook had six children she was to care for? She should have asked more about the children in her letters.
"Hallo," the older girl said as she closed the oven door. "You must be Ruth. I'm Waneta."
"It's good to meet you," Ruthy said, smiling at her. The heat of the oven had given Waneta's face a pretty flush.
"You've had a long journey, and I'm sure you want to get settled. Martha built a fire in the Dawdi Haus when she went to make up your bed, so it should be warm in there for you by now."
"Martha? I must have heard wrong. I thought I heard you call your sister 'Nellie.'"
Waneta laughed and hugged the little girl. "This is Nellie. Martha is the twelve-year-old sister."
Seven children? Ruthy grasped her satchel closer, her lips pressed together. Seven children would be a challenge, but she could do it. She had always enjoyed large families. She followed Sam through the kitchen door leading to the chilly passageway between the two houses. Windows on both sides made it feel large and open, but sheltered from the weather.
She followed Sam into the house, where a girl sat in a chair, a book open in her lap. She looked up with startled eyes as Sam opened the door.
He looked up at Ruthy with disgust. "Martha's always reading when she's supposed to be working."
Ruthy smiled at Sam and glanced at Martha. "I like to read, too. It's hard to put a book down when there are chores to be done, isn't it?"
"Ja, for sure." Martha's sweet smile warmed the room. "Dat said we should leave you be so you can settle in today." The girl looked at Ruthy's suitcase. "Or I could help you unpack."
"I'd love your company, but don't you think Waneta needs your help?"
Martha's face told her she had guessed right, and Sam tugged at his sister's hand. "Come on, Martha. 'Neta's going to be mad if you don't help her instead of mooning around."
"I'll see you later, all right?" Ruthy gave Martha a smile as the girl followed Sam back into the main house.