After years in a disappointing childless marriage, and now widowed at only twenty-six, Amish midwife Sarah Mast moves to Pleasant Valley for a fresh start. But unpleasant surprises beset Sarah when she joins her aging aunt’s dwindling midwife practice. Signs of her aunt’s decline suggest that she may no longer be capable of the rigorous demands of her work. With Sarah’s last dollar now invested in the birthing center, can she help her aunt face the truth and run the center alone?
Aaron Miller, Sarah’s neighbor, counts himself among the skeptics until he witnesses the dedication and love she has for her patients. But when an English doctor files a complaint against Sarah, Aaron’s misgivings resurface—just as his own sister faces a birthing crisis.
In the midst of such tribulations, Sarah prays for the strength to defend her practice, care for her patients, and win the hearts of the community she has grown to love.
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T he first step in Sarah Mast's new life didn't seem to be going quite the way she'd expected. She stood at the bus station in the village of Pleasant Valley, her plain dark suitcases by her feet, and pulled her black coat around her against the chilly November wind.
She could sense the curious glances of passersby, even though the brim of her bonnet cut them from view. Folks were probably used to seeing the Amish in this central Pennsylvania valley, but maybe not an Amish woman standing alone in so Englisch a place as a bus station.
She could see the clock above the counter through the plate glass window. Nearly a half hour past the time she'd told Aunt Emma the bus would arrive. Why was there no one here to meet her?
Doubt crept in, as it did so easily these days. Maybe this move had been a mistake. Maybe . . .
She pushed the weakening thoughts away. Aunt Emma's letter had offered her a chance she hadn't expected . . . a chance to start over in a new place where she was Sarah Mast, midwife, a useful member of the community; not Sarah Mast, childless widow, an object of pity.
The creak of a buggy alerted her, and she turned to see an Amishman climb down. She let out a breath of relief and headed toward him, but when the man turned, Sarah saw he wasn't one of her cousins. She stopped, flushing when his startled gaze met hers.
Recognition seemed to grow in a strong-featured face that was vaguely familiar, even though she couldn't put a name to the man. He stopped, inclining his head slightly.
"You are Emma Stoltzfus's niece, ain't so?"
"Ja." She let out her breath in a sigh of relief. "Sarah Mast. I was afraid Aunt Emma had forgotten I was arriving today."
His dark eyebrows drew down over brown eyes as he seemed to assess her words. "You were expecting her to send someone to pick you up already?"
"I thought you-"
"I'm afraid not." He seemed to realize she wasn't sure who he was. "I'm Aaron Miller. My home and shop are just down the road from your aunt's."
"Of course. I should have remembered." She'd have met him the last time she was here, probably.
"I think it must be a good six or seven years since you visited Pleasant Valley. Long enough to forget a few names, ain't so?"
She nodded, but the memories had begun to come back now that she had a name to hang them on. Aaron was taller and broader than the boy he'd been then, but he hadn't changed all that much. He was clean-shaven, showing a strong, square jaw, which meant he wasn't married yet, and he had to be a year or two older than she was. That was unusual among the Amish, who married and started their families earlier than their Englisch neighbors.
The wind whipped around the corner of the building, and Sarah couldn't stop a shiver.
Aaron frowned, glancing up and down the street that was lined with a mix of businesses, some Amish, some Englisch. "How long have you been waiting?"
"Half an hour. Maybe a bit more. I'm sure someone will be along soon . . ."
"There's been some mix-up-that's certain sure." Aaron bent and picked up her suitcases. "Let me stow these in the buggy and see if the part I expected came in on the bus. Then I'll take you to your aunt's place."
"I don't want to put you out." Though anything would be better than standing here in the cold.
"It makes no trouble. I'll be headed home anyway." He hefted her bags in easily and then took her arm to help her up to the high seat, closing the buggy door to cut off the wind. In a moment he had vanished into the bus station.
She settled on the seat of the closed buggy, tight muscles relaxing. Foolish, to be so stressed by the trip from Ohio, but what had been an adventure when she was an enthusiastic eighteen, out to spend the summer with a favorite aunt, had been a tiring ordeal this time. She looked back at the girl she'd been with a sense of amazement.
She'd been so sure then of the course her life would take. She'd be a midwife like Aunt Emma, delivering lots of babies. She'd marry the man she loved and have babies of her own.
She'd become a midwife. She'd married Levi. But the longed-for babies hadn't come, and eventually that seemed to taint everything else.
Aaron returned, shoving a cardboard box under the seat before he climbed up. He settled on the seat next to her and gave her a smile that brought her memories of him into sharper focus. "All set?"
She slanted a glance at him as he picked up the lines and clucked to the horse. His face had always been strong, even as a teenager, with a gravity that seemed to say he took his responsibilities seriously. She waited until he'd moved into the stream of traffic before she spoke again.
"You had younger brothers, I remember. And a sister who was a bit younger than me."
"Molly." The gravity lightened at his sister's name. "She married last year. She's expecting a baby."
"That's wonderful news." Warmth filled her voice-the warmth she always felt at knowing a new life was coming into the world. She'd tried to never let her own childlessness affect that. "She must be so happy."
"Ja, and her husband, too. She married Jacob Peachey. He's a gut man."
"And your brothers?" They were on the edge of town in a matter of minutes. The traffic lessened, and his hands were relaxed on the lines.
"Nathan and Benjamin are still at home. They work with me doing carpentry and remodeling."
"That's gut, having them with you."
Aaron would be a fine older brother, she'd guess from the little she remembered of him. Patient, steady, soft-spoken, with a quick intelligence showing in even light conversation.
"I heard that your husband died. I am sorry for your loss."
She nodded in acknowledgment. "Denke, Aaron." She tried to stifle the pain that sympathy always brought on. Levi was gone, but his disappointment in her lingered. Maybe it always would.
Sarah. Barren, like Sarah in the Bible. The difference was that the Old Testament Sarah had eventually seen her dreams of a child come true. Of course that Sarah had waited until she was over eighty for God's gift. This one would rather have it a little sooner, if ever it should happen for her.
She took a deep breath, focusing on the road ahead. That wasn't part of her future, as she saw it now. Aunt Emma's need for help and Sarah's need for a new life came together in a way that had to be God's design for both of them, surely.
Aaron turned onto the narrow blacktop road that wound past farms and woodlots. The trees had lost their leaves already, and the corn had been cut for silage. Aunt Emma had written that autumn had turned cold quickly this year in Pleasant Valley. But the silos would be filled, and the Amish farmers ready for the quieter time of year-time to read, write letters, visit with family.
"Your aunt will be looking forward to your visit," Aaron said, as if he felt bound to make conversation with a visitor. "Especially now, since I hear her practice is closing."
Sarah swung toward him, shock ripping through her. "Closing?" For a moment she couldn't breathe. "No. The practice is not closing. That's why I am here, you see. I'm a midwife. I'll be helping her with the practice." All her hopes for the future seemed to fill the words.
She saw his face in the moment he processed her words. Saw it harden, turn tight with rejection of her, of her plans.
To Aaron Miller, at least, she wasn't welcome here.
Aaron didnÕt say much for the rest of the trip to Aunt EmmaÕs. Maybe that was just as well. His unguarded reaction to her presence was enough for Sarah to handle.
"There's my place," he said.
Aaron jerked a nod. A white frame house stood well back from the road, with a small barn and a few other outbuildings behind it. A hand-lettered sign simply read, Miller, Carpentry.
Identification enough, she supposed. In a community like Pleasant Valley, everyone would know who did what.
"Is there enough work to keep you and your brothers busy, then?"
"There's always work for a carpenter." His face tightened slightly. "That's what I tell Nathan and Benjamin."
His expression seemed to add that his brothers didn't always agree.
"How old are they now? I've lost track."
"Nathan's nineteen. Settled in his work, he is. Starting to think of courting."
So it must be the other brother who needed reminding of the value of steady work. "And Benjamin?"
"Benj will soon turn sixteen." His mouth clamped shut on the words.
Maybe it was best not to ask more about Benjamin, who was probably like most almost-sixteen-year-old boys, eager to experience a bit of life before settling down.
And Aaron? She did some mental calculations. He must be nearing twenty-eight or twenty-nine, she'd think, some two or three years older than she was. She thought again how odd it was to find an Amishman that age who wasn't married.
They rounded a curve in the road, and Aunt Emma's house came into view. Sarah's heart gave a leap of pleasure. The frame farmhouse, its front porch sagging a little, was as welcoming now as it had been years ago, even though the flower beds looked sere and brown without their welcoming blaze of color, with only the dusky purple of the fall sedum to add a spark.
"I hope Aunt Emma is all right." The question of why no one had been sent to meet her demanded an answer. If her aunt were sick . . .
Aaron's broad shoulders moved under his black coat. "Seems like Emma's been a bit forgetful lately."
She bit back a retort. Aunt Emma had always been sharp-witted, as well as the strongest woman Sarah had ever known. Surely she couldn't just forget that her niece was arriving today.
There was no point in getting into an argument with Aaron about it. Besides, she'd know for herself in a moment. The buggy rolled up to the hitching post at the back door, and Aaron jumped down.
He pulled her bags out. She slid down easily, not waiting for his proffered hand. In a few steps she was at the door, opening it as familiarly as if she were in her own house.
"Aunt Emma? Aunt Emma, are you here?" Concern lent an edge to her voice.
Aunt Emma emerged from the living room, brushing a strand of graying hair back under her kapp. "What . . . Sarah! What are you doing here today, child?" She rushed across the kitchen to envelop Sarah in a satisfying hug.
Sarah held on for a moment longer than necessary, blinking back tears. It was like hugging her mammi again, gone now nearly five years.
Aunt Emma pulled back, beaming, and patted Sarah's cheek. "Ser gut to see you. But you weren't coming until tomorrow."
"Today," she corrected gently.
Aunt Emma turned toward the calendar pinned to the kitchen wall, its photo of kittens in a basket the only picture in the room, of course. "Thursday, that's what you told me. See, I have it marked."
"Thursday." Her heart sank, and she would not look at Aaron to see his expression. "Today is Thursday."
"It is?" Aunt Emma's round cheeks paled. "Ach, I can't believe I made such a mistake. What will you think of me? Imagine you coming in on the bus and no one there to meet you."
"I'm fine." She hugged Aunt Emma again, wanting to wipe that expression from her face. "Aaron gave me a ride, so it all worked out."
"Aaron, that is ser gut of you." She seemed to notice Aaron for the first time, standing by the door with Sarah's bags in his hands. "Denke, denke."
"It makes no trouble." He set the bags down. "I'd best get along home." He nodded to Sarah. "Wilkom to Pleasant Valley, Sarah."
"Denke, Aaron." His words had sounded welcoming. But some shadow in his voice didn't.
Enough, she told herself as Aaron went out. What Aaron Miller thought of her presence didn't matter in the least. She was here now, ready to leave the past behind and begin her new life.
But even as she said the words to herself, she knew it wasn't her own reassurance she needed. It was Aunt Emma's.
"Komm, take your coat and bonnet off and warm up." Aunt Emma was already at the stove, putting a kettle on. "Sit, talk. You must be hungry after that long journey. It won't take a minute to hot up some vegetable beef soup."
"That sounds gut." And her stomach did seem to be flapping against her backbone about now. Maybe that was why she was letting doubts creep into her mind.
"How did you happen to find Aaron?"
Aunt Emma cut slices off a crusty loaf of bread, her movements sure. She sounded more like herself every moment, and the memory of the stricken look on her face when she'd realized she'd forgotten the day began to fade.
"He was picking up something for his business, I think, that had come in on the bus. He tells me the boys are working with him now. And that Molly is married and expecting a boppli."
"Ja." Aunt Emma turned, her face filled with the same joy Sarah felt at the news. "Imagine little Molly old enough to have kinder of her own."
"Not so little, surely. She's only a year or two younger than I am."
"That's so." Aunt Emma stirred the soup. "I didn't know how Aaron and the boys would get along without her when she married, especially since she's clear out in Indiana. But Aaron takes care of everything, just as he always did."
"What about his daad?" she inquired.
Aunt Emma shook her head. "Such a sad story. Poor man always did have a weakness for drink. Time and again the bishop and the ministers would try to get help for him, but . . ." She let that trail off. "He passed away two years ago. The young ones were fortunate to have a big brother like Aaron, that's certain sure. Their grandmother helped out as best she could, but she was never all that strong, so it fell on Aaron."
"It's odd Aaron never married. I'd think he'd want a woman's help with the younger ones."
Excerpted from "Sarah's Gift"
Copyright © 2011 Marta Perry.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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