Dorcas Beiler's reckless teenage years are far behind her. She's serious and responsible now, and the good people of Promise Glen trust her with the education of their children. But when her first love returns after years of exile from the community, her past comes rushing back. Thomas is the only one who knows her secret, and despite his careless charm and teasing manner, she refuses to let her guard down.
Thomas Fisher has plans. Plans to start a construction company and prove himself a success to all those who doubted him, and plans to find the woman he left behind. His chance comes when he lands the opportunity to rebuild the stable and shed at the community school. He won't be paid for his time, but he'll be able to showcase his abilities...and spend time with Dorcas.
Scenting love in the air, Dorcas's young pupils make excuses to bring them together. As old feelings stir, Dorcas and Thomas wonder whether their first love might also be their last.
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A glance at the schoolroom clock told Dorcas Beiler that her scholars' recess was almost over. She stepped back outside, where the schoolyard seemed overwhelmed with the sights and smells of springtime in Promise Glen, Pennsylvania. The land around her woke with the spirit of new life, with the bulbs they'd planted along the porch bursting open. Certainly her scholars felt the change. They'd been rambunctious all day, and she could only hope that recess had worn off a little of their excess energy.
Dorcas reminded herself that she was too old to experience spring as the children did. But even with her schooldays long behind her, a sense of restlessness stirred, lifted its head, and had to be pushed back down again.
It had been one thing to give in to that longing when she'd been a heedless teenager looking for something beyond the confines of Amish life. It had been dangerous enough then. Now it would be a disaster. She was an adult now, an old maid at twenty-five, and the respected teacher of the Orchard Hill Amish school. This was her life, and it suited her just fine.
Reaching up, she caught the bell rope and pulled. The sound brought a quick glance from Anna Stoltzfus, her teenage helper, who flagged down the boys she'd been pitching to in a pickup softball game. Anna was quick to respond-the boys not so eager.
Of course, Anna was probably dreaming of having a school of her own one day, while the boys' thoughts were on their game. Dorcas smiled, noticing the older girls watching as the boys jogged in from the field, pushing and jostling one another. No doubt the girls were reacting to spring in a very different way, if their sidelong glances at the boys were any indication.
Her younger scholars were the first to reach the door, their faces touched by the sun as they smiled up at her, eyes bright, hair clinging damply to their foreheads. Then came some of the older ones. Esther Fisher bounced to a stop in front of her, smile flashing, her blue eyes lit with excitement.
"Teacher Dorcas, have you heard?" Her voice lifted on the words, but she didn't wait for a response. "My brother Thomas is home at last!"
Dorcas stood very still, not letting herself think. Fortunately Esther rushed on to corner someone else with her good news. She couldn't know, thank the good Lord, that it wasn't exactly good news for her teacher. Upsetting, even frightening, yes. Good, no.
The habits of the past seven years as a teacher asserted themselves. Whatever her personal problems, she didn't bring them into the classroom. Fixing what she hoped was a pleasant smile on her face, Dorcas focused on getting her scholars settled, returning to her desk, and setting them to work on their spelling words.
"Spelling bee starts in fifteen minutes," she warned at a faint buzz of sound. "You'd best concentrate now, ain't so?"
Silence fell. Dorcas exchanged a smile with Anna, and they started at opposite sides of the schoolroom to walk up and down the rows of desks, alert for anyone having problems or giving in to the temptation to pester his or her neighbor.
Dorcas had started with the youngest children, and she paused between the six-year-old Raber twins, Matthew and Mark, the stepchildren of her dear friend Sarah Yoder, now Raber. If anyone was likely to have trouble settling to work, it would probably be Matthew. In fact, as she stepped past him, Matthew looked up, his mouth forming an Oh of surprise.
"Teacher," he whispered. "I forgot."
Suppressing a smile, she whispered in return, "What did you forget, Matthew?"
"Mammi says will you stop on your way home if you have time? She has a surprise for you. It's-"
"Shhh." His brother nudged him. "It's a secret. Remember?"
"You mustn't tell me then," she said quickly. "Get working on your words, now."
Dorcas moved on, wondering. Could Sarah have heard that Thomas Fisher was back from the relatives in Ohio, where he'd been sent when they were teenagers? Sarah knew something about the relationship between Dorcas and Thomas, but thankfully not everything. No one knew that, except for her. And Thomas, of course.
Feeling as if she were sweeping crumbs from the floor, Dorcas whisked the pesky memories from her mind. She had to start the spelling bee.
The afternoon went on its usual course, and aside from an inability to concentrate, Dorcas flattered herself that no one would guess she felt as if she'd been butted by her brother's irritable billy goat.
By the time all the spellers had been congratulated, she felt as if she had become, if not settled, at least right-side-up again. She picked up the copy of Little House in the Big Woods, which lay on her desk, ensuring instant silence as her scholars anticipated the chapter she'd read to them today. Safe in the adventures of Mary and Laura, they would all, including her, forget everything else.
The hands of the clock reached three, and Dorcas finished the paragraph and closed the book. Her twenty-four scholars waited silently until she smiled at them and then gave the nod that meant they were dismissed.
That, she decided, was something young Anna had yet to master. When the girl had figured out how to control the classroom with a look, Dorcas would be convinced she had the makings of a teacher.
As usual, she and Anna fell in behind the children, who, grabbing lunch boxes and sweaters, headed for the door, chattering loudly.
"Did you hear?" Anna, her usually shy face filled with curiosity, repeated Esther's question. "Thomas Fisher is back in Promise Glen."
"Yah, Esther told me." She managed a smile that she hoped looked normal. "I'm sure his family is wonderful glad."
Anna nodded, but she still had a question in her pale blue eyes. "Yah. But folks are saying his daad won't be so happy. I guess it's extra hard for a minister of the church to have a son go wrong."
So that was what people thought of it, at least according to Anna, who was something like a third cousin to Thomas in the tangle of family relationships among the Amish. Not knowing what Minister Lucas Fisher might be thinking, she wouldn't comment. But it would be a sad thing if Thomas returned and didn't receive the welcome usually accorded to a prodigal son.
Not, of course, that Thomas had run away from the church. As far as anyone knew, he'd been faithful in attendance with his aunt and uncle out in Ohio.
Her mind still wrestling with the question, Dorcas stepped outside in the wake of the children, blinking for a moment in the bright sunlight. Then her vision cleared, and she saw the masculine figure leaning negligently against the porch post, the sunlight glinting on his auburn hair, his dark blue eyes lit by teasing laughter at the sight of her.
Not only was Thomas Fisher back in Promise Glen, but he was here, at her school. She took a deep breath, trying not to stare. He'd been a boy when he left, all gangly arms and legs that he didn't seem to know what to do with. But he was a man now, with a man's sturdy frame and hard muscles.
He pushed himself away from the post with a single, fluid movement and came toward her, somehow giving the impression that he was laughing at her. If he was, she could be sure that, in some ways, Thomas hadn't changed a bit.
The only question was what she was going to do about him.
Thomas moved toward Dorcas, wondering at the changes in her. He'd known when he'd offered to pick up his little sister that he would see Dorcas. Maybe that was even why he'd come, if he were honest with himself.
Curiosity, he thought firmly. Just curiosity. He'd found it hard to believe that the rebellious girl, up for any risk, taking any dare, had turned into something so staid as a teacher.
Come to think of it, she didn't look all that staid. True, her rich brown hair was confined under her kapp, not flowing down her back as it had been the last time he'd seen her. He couldn't see the dimples that used to flash in her cheeks. He'd have to make her smile at him for that, and something told him it might not be easy to win a smile from this grown-up Dorcas.
Some things hadn't changed. Her skin still had the warm, peachy glow that had always intrigued him. She was taller than she'd been in her teens, still slim, but filling out her simple blue dress nicely.
All in all, Teacher Dorcas was a far cry from the old maid teacher he'd had when he went to school here.
Reaching her, he was pleased to find he had to look down at her. Dorcas tilted her head and gave him an unconvincing smile that didn't reach her eyes.
"Thomas. I heard from Esther you were back."
"It's been a long time, Teacher Dorcas." He said the title with a question in his voice, wondering how she would react.
The instant flicker of anger in her eyes told him she knew he was making fun of her.
"You still have the same temper, I see." He quirked an eyebrow, teasing.
"And you still haven't given up tormenting the girls, I see," she retorted. For a moment they were back in the schoolyard, and he might have been chasing her around and tugging at the strings of her kapp.
"Teasing, not tormenting." He couldn't help but grin. "And you always did rise to the bait, ain't so?"
"I thought I'd outgrown that weakness." Despite an obvious effort to contain it, she gave him a genuine smile.
He'd wanted to see those dimples again after all this time, just to see if they were as pretty as he remembered. They were; that was certain sure.
"I'm glad you didn't," he said lightly. "It brings back memories."
She sobered fast enough at that, her lips growing tight, and he wondered if she thought he'd meant something he didn't. But before he could come up with a way to assure her that the circumstances of his leaving were long since forgiven and forgotten, she'd gained control of herself.
"So what have you been doing now that you're all grown up?" she asked, sounding like an elderly great-aunt talking to a fourteen-year-old fresh out of school.
Teasing wasn't getting him anywhere, so maybe he'd best try sticking to facts. "Learning the construction business from my uncle-my mamm's bruder out in Ohio. Best thing I could have done," he added, hoping that would show he didn't bear a grudge. "Onkel James is a master craftsman, and he let me work alongside him just as if I was one of his boys."
Before he could go on, Esther emerged from a crowd of girls and grabbed his arm. "Aren't you ready to go yet? Mamm said she'd have a special snack when we got home."
"I expect it'll last until we get there," he told her.
"Not if Jonas and Adam get there first," she muttered rebelliously, making him look at her in surprise. That sassiness wasn't how he remembered his baby sister.
He let a slight frown appear. "I'm talking with Teacher Dorcas right now."
To give her credit, Esther looked ashamed. "I'm sorry, Teacher Dorcas."
The dimples appeared in Dorcas's cheeks again. Maybe she wasn't sorry to have their talk interrupted. "That's all right, Esther. I know it's exciting to have your big bruder back again."
Esther sparkled at the understanding tone, looking more like the little girl he remembered. "I'll wait. You go on talking."
He'd like to do just that, but it wouldn't be easy to say what he wanted when Esther was hanging heavily on his arm. When had she gotten so big? Things had changed while he'd been gone. People had changed, like it or not.
"That's all right." Dorcas looked just as glad to make an end to their conversation. "I see Matthew and Mark are waiting. They're going to walk partway home with me."
She nodded to a pair of small boys who were hanging from the porch railing much as his sister was hanging on his arm. He looked, then gave a double take.
"Twins?" He scoured his memory, not coming up with anything.
Dorcas's laugh was a low chuckle that made him want to hear it again. "They are the Raber twins. Their daad has a furniture-making business. He recently remarried to my friend Sarah. Remember Sarah Yoder?"
"How could I forget? She used to give me a disapproving look every time I got too close to you."
He didn't want to talk about the twins, whether they were Sarah's or not. He wanted to talk about Dorcas, and what had brought about such a change in her.
But it seemed pretty clear that Dorcas was ready to leave, besides the fact that it would be next to impossible to detach Esther from his arm, so anything they said, she'd hear.
"They live not far from us," Dorcas went on, taking a step back. "It was nice to see you, Thomas. Enjoy your stay, though I'm sure your uncle is eager to have you back with the summer construction season coming."
"Didn't I tell you?" he asked, a little annoyed that she was so eager to be rid of him. "I'm not going back. I'm going to start my own construction business right here in Promise Glen, so you'll see me often. You're not getting rid of me that easily."
He delayed just long enough to see the mixture of consternation and anger on her face. Then he headed straight toward the buggy. Or at least, that was what he'd intended. Esther was obviously determined to lead him right through a bunch of her friends, and they tugged him into a circuitous route of her own. Showing him off, he supposed. Going past the gauntlet of giggling young girls was even worse than confronting his teenage crush.
By the time they'd reached the buggy, he was feeling ashamed of the way he'd talked to Dorcas. What was he doing, letting himself fall back into old habits just because he was home again? Dorcas was right-he'd gotten too old for such teasing.
He glanced back, thinking he should apologize, but Dorcas, with a twin on either side of her, had already started down the lane that led toward the Beiler place. Apologies would have to wait until he could get her alone again. Not that she was likely to give him much chance of that. Even in the close-knit Amish community, a girl intent on avoiding a guy could manage to make it happen.