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A flicker of movement from the lane beyond the kitchen window of the old farmhouse caught Rachel Brand's eye as she leaned against the sink, washing up the bowl she'd used to make a batch of snickerdoodles. A buggy-ja, it must be Leah Glick, already bringing home Rachel's two older kinder from the birthday party for their teacher.
Quickly she set the bowl down and splashed cold water on her eyes. It wouldn't do to let her young ones suspect that their mamm had been crying while she baked. Smoothing her hair back under her kapp and arranging a smile on her lips, she went to the back door.
But the visitor was not Leah. It was a man, alone, driving the buggy.
Shock shattered her curiosity when she recognized the strong face under the brim of the black Amish hat. Gideon Zook. Her fingers clenched, wrinkling the fabric of her dark apron. What did he want from her?
She stood motionless for a moment, her left hand tight on the door frame. Then she grabbed the black wool shawl that hung by the door, threw it around her shoulders, and stepped outside.
The cold air sent a shiver through her. It was mid-March already, but winter had not released its grip on Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania. The snowdrops she had planted last fall quivered against the back step, their white cups a mute testimony that spring would come eventually. Everything else was as brown and barren as her heart felt these days.
A fierce longing for spring swept through her as she crossed the still-hard ground. If she could be in the midst of growing things, planting and nurturing her beloved garden-ach, there she might find the peace she longed for.
Everything was too quiet on the farm now. Even the barn was empty, the dairy cows already moved to the far field, taken care of by her young brother-in-law William in the early morning hours.
The Belgian draft horses Ezra had been so pleased to be able to buy were spending the winter at the farm of his oldest brother, Isaac. Only Dolly, six-year-old Joseph's pet goat, bleated forlornly from her pen, protesting his absence.
Gideon had tethered his horse to the hitching post. Removing something from his buggy, he began pacing across the lawn, as if he measured something.
Then he saw her. He stopped, waiting. His hat was pushed back, and he lifted his face slightly, as if in appreciation of the watery sunshine. But Gideon's broad shoulders were stiff under his black jacket, his eyes wary, and his mouth set above his beard.
Reluctance slowed her steps. Perhaps Gideon felt that same reluctance. Aside from the formal words of condolence he'd spoken to her once he was well enough to be out again after the accident, she and Gideon had managed to avoid talking to each other for months. That was no easy thing in a tight-knit Amish community.
She forced a smile. "Gideon, wilkom. I didn't expect to be seeing you today."
What are you doing here? That was what she really wanted to say.
"Rachel." He inclined his head slightly, studying her face as if trying to read her feelings.
His own face gave little away-all strong planes and straight lines, like the wood he worked with in his carpentry business. Lines of tension radiated from his brown eyes, making him look older than the thirty-two she knew him to be. His work-hardened hands tightened on the objects he grasped-small wooden stakes, sharpened to points.
He cleared his throat, as if not sure what to say to her now that they were face-to-face. "How are you? And the young ones?"
"I'm well." Except that her heart twisted with pain at the sight of him, at the reminder he brought of all she had lost. "The kinder also. Mary is napping, and Leah Glick took Joseph and Becky to a birthday luncheon the scholars are having for Mary Yoder."
He moved a step closer to her, and she realized that his left leg was still stiff-a daily reminder for him, probably, of the accident.
For an instant the scene she'd imagined so many times flashed yet again through her mind, stealing her breath away. She seemed to see Ezra, high in the rafters of a barn, Gideon below him, the old timbers creaking, then breaking, Ezra falling as the barn collapsed like a house of cards . . .
She gasped a strangled breath, like a fish struggling on the bank of the pond. Revulsion wrung her stomach, and she slammed the door shut on her imagination.
She could not let herself think about that, not now. It was not Gideon's fault that she couldn't see him without imagining the accident that had taken Ezra away from them. She had to talk to him sensibly, had to find out what had brought him here. And how she could get him to go away again.
She clutched the shawl tighter around her. "Is there something I can do for you, Gideon?"
"I am here to measure for the greenhouse."
She could only stare at him, her mind fumbling to process his words. The greenhouse-the greenhouse Ezra had promised her as a birthday present. That had to be what Gideon meant.
"How do you know about the greenhouse?"
The words came out unexpectedly harsh. Ezra was gone, and plans for the greenhouse had slipped away, too, swamped in the struggle just to get through the days.
He blinked, apparently surprised. "You didn't know? Ezra and I went together to buy the materials for your greenhouse. He asked me to build it for you. Now I'm here to start on the work."
The revulsion that swept through her was so strong she could barely prevent it from showing on her face.
Perhaps he knew anyway. The fine lines around his eyes deepened. "Is there a problem with that?"
"No-I mean, I didn't realize that he had asked you. Ezra never said so."
"Perhaps he thought there was no need. I always helped him with carpentry projects."
True enough. It wasn't that Ezra couldn't build things with his own hands, but he was far more interested in the crops and the animals. Since his childhood friend Gideon was a carpenter, specializing in building the windmills that had begun to dot the valley, Ezra had depended on him.
But that was before. Now . . .
Now the thought of having Gideon around for days while he built the greenhouse that was to have been a gift of love from her husband-
No, she couldn't handle that. She couldn't. It was, no doubt about it, a failure on her part, one that she should be taking to the Lord in prayer.
"Rachel?" She had been silent too long, and Gideon studied her face with concern. "Was ist letz? What's the matter?"
"Nothing," she said quickly. "Nothing at all. It's just that I hadn't thought about the greenhouse in months." Her voice thickened-she couldn't help that.
Gideon heard it, of course. A spasm of something that might have been pain crossed his face.
"It gave Ezra great pleasure to think about giving it to you." His deep voice seemed choked.
She blinked, focusing her gaze on the barn beyond him, willing herself to be calm. Think. What could she say that would not hurt Gideon, but would get him to go away?
"I haven't-I haven't decided what to do about the greenhouse." As she hadn't decided so many things in the past few months, lost as she'd been in grief. "Will you give me a little time to think?"
But his voice had cooled, as if he knew something of what she was feeling. His gaze was intent on her face, probing for the truth, and all she could think was that she wanted him to leave so that she didn't have to talk about the bittersweet nature of Ezra's last gift to her.
The creak of an approaching buggy broke the awkward silence between them. She glanced toward the lane.
"Here is Leah, back with the children." She probably sounded too relieved as she turned back to him. "Perhaps we could talk about this some other day."
His expression still grave, Gideon nodded. "Ja, another time, then." He turned away, but then glanced back over his shoulder. "I promised Ezra, ain't so? I have to keep that promise."
He walked toward his waiting buggy, his back stiff.
Leah shook her head, cradling between her hands the mug of tea Rachel had given her. "I don't understand. Why are you so ferhoodled at the idea of Gideon putting up the greenhouse for you? He'd do a good job, that's certain sure."
"Ja, he would." She couldn't argue with that. Everyone knew how skilled a carpenter Gideon was. "I just . . . it makes me feel . . . makes me remember . . ." Her voice trailed off.
Leah reached across the scrubbed pine kitchen table to cover Rachel's hand with her own. "It's hard, I know. I'm sorry."
"Ach, I'm being foolish." She shook her head, determined not to slide into burdening Leah with her sorrow and her worries. She'd done that enough lately. She freed her hand and stood. "I think I'd best take a look out at those children. I haven't heard any noise from them in a while."
Three-year-old Mary, building a house with her favorite blocks in the corner of the kitchen, chose that moment to knock it over, chortling when the blocks crashed to the floor. Leah laughed, and Rachel shook her head.
"Plenty of noise in here, though. Mary, pick those up, please. It'll be time to help with supper soon."
"I set the table," Mary announced, and began to pick up the blocks, putting them in her wagon.
Rachel leaned against the sink to peer out the window over the plants that crowded the sill. Her daughter Becky and Leah's stepdaughter, Elizabeth, seemed to be in a deep conversation, side by side on the wide swing that hung from the willow tree. Her first-grader Joseph and Leah's Jonah, who was a year older, were romping with Dolly, the nanny goat.
"All seems well at the moment." She sat down again, pushing the plate of snickerdoodles toward Leah.
"That's usually when they're the most ready to get into mischief," Leah said. She took another cookie, sighing a little. "I shouldn't eat this, but it tastes like more. Since the morning sickness finally went away, I've been eating everything in sight."
Rachel studied Leah's glowing face. "Being pregnant agrees with you, for sure. I've never seen you look better."
Leah shook her head, smiling a little, and patted her rounded belly. "I look like a hippo."
"I'll bet Daniel doesn't think so."
Leah's cheeks grew pink, but instead of answering, she shoved the plate of cookies back toward Rachel. "You have another. You need all the energy you can get."
Leah undoubtedly thought she had grown too thin in the past months, just as her mamm did, but Leah was too kind to say so outright.
It was strange, how much their situations had changed. A year ago Leah had been the devoted teacher at the Amish school, single and content to remain so, while Rachel had been completely occupied as a wife and mother, helping Ezra to run the farm, far too busy to think about anything else.
Now they'd switched places, it seemed. Leah was happily married to Daniel Glick, instant mother to his three children, and glowing with the joy of her pregnancy.
As for her-Ezra was gone, and she struggled to raise their children without him, caught in a web of indecision about the future.
Leah must have guessed at her thoughts, because her green eyes darkened with concern as she leaned toward Rachel. "Are you all right? Are you getting enough help? Daniel would be glad to come over, or we could send Matthew to do chores."
"That's gut of you, but we are managing to get everything done. There's not so much this time of the year. William comes every day to deal with the milking, and he's so willing to do anything he can. I think it helps him with his grief, knowing that he's doing what Ezra would have wanted."
She didn't need to explain further. They both knew how Ezra's shy younger brother had loved him.
"He's probably glad to get out from under Isaac's thumb a couple of times a day," Leah said, her tone tart.
Rachel had to hesitate for a moment to think of something positive to say about Ezra's oldest brother. "Isaac means well, I'm sure. He just believes he's the head of the family now, and so everyone should heed what he says."
"I'm convinced William's stuttering wouldn't be nearly so bad if Isaac listened and encouraged him instead of snapping orders at him." Leah spoke like the teacher she had been for so many years.
"I try to do as you suggested, listening to him and making him feel comfortable, and I do think he speaks more when he's here with us."
"That's good. I'm glad it's helping. I used to get so frustrated when he was one of my scholars and I'd see his sisters speaking for him, instead of helping him try." For a moment she studied Rachel's face, as if she hadn't been distracted from her concern by the talk of William. "Still, you will let us pitch in, any way we can."
"I will." Rachel could feel her forehead wrinkling into the frown that came too often these days, and she tried to smooth it out. "The real problem is that I can't seem to make up my mind about anything. I was spoiled."
"Spoiled?" Leah's eyebrows lifted. "That's silly."
"I was. My life went so smoothly. You know that. I loved Ezra and he loved me, we were able to buy the farm from my aunt and uncle, the children came along easy and healthy-everything went the way I wanted it to. Until the day Ezra and Gideon went off to look at that barn." Her hands clenched so tightly that her knuckles were white.
Leah put her hand gently over Rachel's. "Is that why you don't want Gideon to build the greenhouse? Because you blame him for Ezra's accident?"
Rachel shook her head, tears choking her throat. "I don't know. Forgive, that's what God commands. Besides, it was an accident, no one's fault. Everyone knows that. But when I see him-"
She broke off. She couldn't explain to Leah. She couldn't even explain to herself.
"Forgiveness is only right, but our Father must know it is hard. But Ezra and Gideon were as close friends as you and I are," Leah said, her voice gentle. "You know he wouldn't want you to hold Gideon at fault."