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She was beginning to fear that the prodigal daughter wouldn't make it home after all. Anna Beiler pressed on the gas pedal. "Come on, you can do it." The old car responded with nothing more than a shudder.
Daad would probably say that this was what she got for depending on something so English as a car to get her home, and maybe he'd be right. Just the thought of seeing her father made her stomach queasy. How would he, how would any of the family, react to Anna's turning up at her Amish home three years after she'd given up all they believed in to disappear into the English world?
The car gave an ominous sputter. It might be her prized possession, but she didn't know much about its inner workings. Still, that noise and the shaking couldn't be good signs.
She gripped the steering wheel tighter, biting her lip, and faced the truth. She wasn't going to make it to the Beiler farm, the place where she'd been born, the place she'd left in rebellion and disgrace. She'd been almost nineteen then, sure she knew all about the world. Now, at twenty-two, she felt a decade older than the girl she'd been.
But there, just ahead, she spotted the turnoff to Mill Race Road. Two miles down Mill Race was the home of her brother and sister-in-law. Joseph and Myra would welcome her, wouldn't they?
Forced into a decision, she'd have to take that chance. She turned onto the narrow road, earning another protesting groan from the car. Her fingers tensed so much that she'd have to peel them from the steering wheel. Worse, now that she was so close, all the arguments for and against coming here pummeled her mind.
Was this the right choice? Her stomach clenched again. She didn't know. She just knew returning was her only option.
It was strange that things looked the same after three years. Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania, didn't change, or at least not quickly. Maybe there'd been a little more traffic on the main road, but now that she was off that, not a car was in sight.
The fields on either side of the road overflowed with pumpkins, cabbage, and field corn that had yet to be cut. Neat barns and silos, farmhouse gardens filled with chrysanthemums, sumac topped with the dark red plumes that made them look like flaming torches-this was September in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and she was coming home.
Maybe she should have written, but when had there been time? There'd been no time for anything but to get out of Chicago as quickly as possible. And there was no way she could explain the unexplainable.
She glanced into the backseat, and her heart expanded with love. Gracie slept in her car seat, good as gold, just as she'd been throughout the long trip. At not quite a year old, she could hardly have understood her mother's fear, but she'd cooperated.
The neat white sign for Joseph's machine shop stood where it always had. Anna turned into the narrow gravel lane, determination settling over her. It was far too late to worry if her decision would work. She had to make it work, for Gracie's sake.
Joseph and Myra's place was a hundred-year-old white frame farmhouse, identifiable as Amish only by the fact that no electric lines ran to the house. They owned only a few acres, not enough to farm but plenty for the machine shop that her mechanically minded brother ran.
In the pasture to the right of the lane a bay horse lifted his head, eyeing her curiously, probably wondering what a car was doing here. Tossing his mane, he trotted a few feet beside her along the fence.
If Gracie were awake, she would point out the horsey, something that up until now Gracie had seen only in her picture books. Everything about this place would be strange and new to her.
Not to Anna. For her, it all had an almost heartless familiarity. The very sameness made it seem to her that Pleasant Valley had gotten along quite nicely without her, thank you very much, and could continue to do so.
Joseph's shop was in the large outbuilding at the end of the lane, while off to the left beyond it stood the horse barn. Surely there'd be room in one of them to store the car.
Get it out of sight-that was all she could think. Get the car out of sight, and then they'd be safe.
Maybe she ought to drive straight to the shop. She could park behind it, if nothing else. As if it had read her mind, the car gave one last sputter, a cough, and died, just short of the house.
"No, don't do this," she muttered. She switched the key off and then turned it on again, touching the gas pedal gently.
Nothing. The car seemed to sink down on its wheels, like a horse sagging into clean straw after a hard day's work.
She pounded the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. Still, at least she was here. Joseph would help her, wouldn't he? He'd always had a tender spot for his baby sister.
Mindful that Gracie still slept, Anna slid out of the car, leaving the door open for air, and straightened, groaning a little. Her muscles protested after all those hours in the car, to say nothing of the tension that had ridden with her.
She glanced down at the faded blue jeans, sneakers, and wrinkled shirt she wore. It might be less harrowing for Joseph and Myra if she'd arrived in conventional Amish clothes, but she'd certainly have drawn attention to herself driving a car that way.
Not giving herself time to think about their reaction, she walked quickly to the back door.
She knocked on the screen door, paused, and then knocked again, louder. Nothing. The inner door was closed-odd on a pleasant September day. She opened the screen door, tried the knob, and the realization seeped into her. The luck that had gotten her all the way here from Chicago had run out. No one was home.
She stood on the back step, biting her lip, frowning at the car. The dark blue compact, liberally streaked with rust, had been her friend Jannie's, and now it was hers, the only car she'd ever owned. Pete knew it well, too well. If he'd followed her-
That was ridiculous. Pete couldn't possibly have known where she was going. She had to stop jumping at shadows.
But her common sense seemed to have fled. All she could think was to get the car out of sight and submerge herself and Gracie in the protective camouflage of the Amish community as quickly as possible.
Joseph and Myra were away, but one of their horses might still be in the barn. If she could hitch it to the car, she could tow the vehicle out of sight. Hurrying, she checked the sleeping baby. Gracie still slept soundly, her head turned to one side in the car seat, a small hand unfurling like a leaf next to her face.
Gracie was all right. She just had to keep her that way. Anna turned and jogged toward the barn, urged on by the fear that had pursued her all the way from Chicago.
She slid the heavy door open and blinked at the dimness, inhaling the familiar scents of fresh straw, hay, and animals. From one of the stalls came a soft snort and the thud of hooves as the animal moved. Thank heaven. If the horse had been turned out in the field for the day, she might never have caught it.
The bay mare came willingly to her, nosing over the stall boards. It was Myra's buggy horse, most likely. Wherever they were today, they'd taken the one Joseph drove. Did he still have that big roan?
Lifting a lead line from the hook, Anna started to open the stall door.
A board creaked behind her, and she whirled toward the sound, her breath catching.
"What are you doing with that horse?"
A man stood in the open doorway, silhouetted against the light behind him. Not Joseph, for sure, but Amish, to judge by the outline of him and the cadence of the words he'd spoken in English.
Well, of course he'd spoken English. That was what he thought she was, standing there in her jeans and T-shirt-an English woman. A horse thief, maybe.
He moved toward her before she could find the words for an explanation, and she could see him better. Could recognize him.
"It's . . . Samuel Fisher, ain't so?" The Amish phrase she hadn't used in three years came readily to her lips. Samuel was her sister-in-law Myra's brother. Maybe Joseph and Myra had asked him to look after things while they were gone today.
He stopped a few feet from her, assessing her with a slow, steady gaze. Slow, she thought. Yes, that was Samuel. Maybe deliberate would be a kinder word. Samuel had never been one to rush into anything.
"So. Anna Beiler. You've come home, then."
He'd switched to Pennsylvania Dutch, and it took her a moment to make the mental change. After so much time away, she even thought in English.
"As you can see."
"It's been a long time."
"Three years." She shifted her weight impatiently from one foot to the other. She didn't have time to stand here chatting with Samuel. The baby could wake-someone could spot the car. "Do you know where Joseph and Myra are?"
He took his time about the answer, seeming to register every detail of her appearance as he did. "They've gone over to Fostertown for the day. Joseph didn't say anything to me about you coming."
"Why should he?" The words snapped out before she could moderate them.
Samuel's strong, stolid face didn't register much change-but then, it never had. His already-square jaw might have gotten a little squarer, his hazel eyes might have turned a bit cold, but that was all.
As for the rest-black suspenders crossed strong shoulders over a light blue work shirt, and a summer straw hat sat squarely on sun-streaked brown hair. He seemed taller and broader than he had when she'd last seen him. Well, they were both older. He'd be twenty-six, now, the same as Joseph.
"Joseph and I are partners in the business, besides him being my brother-in-law," Samuel said, voice mild. "Usually he tells me if he expects somebody, 'specially if he's going to be away."
"Sorry," she muttered. "I didn't mean to be rude. Joseph didn't know I was coming."
"Ja, I see. And you thought you'd take Betsy to go and look for them?"
"No, of course not." Her fingers tightened on the lead rope. "Look, Samuel, I need . . ." How to explain? There wasn't any way. "I need to put my car in the barn or the shop, but the engine died. I thought I could pull it with Betsy. Will you help me?"
He kept her waiting again, studying her with that unhurried stare. Her nerves twitched.
"Well?" she demanded.
Samuel's firm mouth softened in a slow grin. "I see you're as impatient as ever, Anna Beiler. Ja, I will help you." He took the rope from her, his callused fingers brushing hers. "But I wish I knew what you are up to, I do."
She stepped out of his way as he opened the stall door, talking softly to the animal. He didn't seem to expect any answer to his comment, and she couldn't give one.
What could she say? She could hardly tell him that she'd come home because she had no place else to go-and that she was only staying as long as she had to. Little though she wanted to deceive anyone, she had no choice. Gracie's future depended on it.
Samuel looped the lead rope through the ring in the upright and went to get the harness. The deliberate movements gave him a few moments to consider. Was he doing as Joseph would want?
Well, Joseph might not be happy to have a car stowed in his barn, but he would be wonderful glad to see his little sister home again. Samuel knew him well enough to be sure of that.
He lifted the harness from its rack and carried it to where the mare stood patiently waiting. Anna was not quite so patient, moving back and forth like a nervous animal pacing in its stall.
"I'll harness her up and use a chain to attach her to the car. That should be plenty gut enough to move it, long as we're not going uphill."
She caught the harness strap on the other side of the mare as Samuel tossed it over, pulling it into place. "Where should we take the car, do you think? The barn or the shop?"
He considered. "Joseph might not want it in the shop, where people are in and out every day. Let's put it in the back of the barn for now."
If she was home to stay, she'd be getting rid of the car first thing, he supposed, so what difference did it make? When he'd first spotted the car, and then seen the woman going into the barn, he'd thought it was someone looking for the English couple who lived down the road. Anna Beiler had never entered his mind.
Anna ran her hand down the mare's shoulder, crooning to her, and then reached underneath to fasten a strap.
"Seems like you remember how to do this," he said. "I thought you might have forgotten, after living as an Englischer so long."
"It's coming back to me." Her voice was dry and clipped, all her softness saved for the animal.
Anna had changed, no doubt about that. Those jeans and shirt didn't leave a lot to the imagination. She'd always been slim, but now she was almost skinny.
The blond hair he'd always seen braided neatly back under her prayer covering was now pulled into an untidy knot at the back of her neck. Her slim shoulders were stiff, as if she couldn't let herself relax.
The strain showed in her face, too, in small lines around her blue eyes and in the tight way she held her mouth. He remembered a rosy face always alive with feeling-either passionately happy or sad or angry. Anna had never done anything by halves. She'd always felt everything more intensely, it had seemed, than anyone else.
Now- Well, she looked as if the outside world had knocked all that youthful spirit out of her. The English world could do that. His own experience had taught him well.