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From her first glimpse of his big-city suit, Ellie Miller knows Bram Lapp is trouble. The handsome Englischer says he wants to reclaim the life he left long ago. Even if his smile disarms her, all of Ellie's energy must go to her children and their struggling farm and to atoning for her mistakes.
A criminal's trail has brought FBI informant Bram to Ellie's warm and welcoming Indiana community. Now he's posing as the kind of man he once hoped to be. Someone steadfast and upright. Someone who might be worthy of Ellie. Because no matter how much she claims she doesn't want a second chance at love, he knows he's found the home they were meant to share.
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LaGrange County, Indiana
A high-pitched scream forced Bram Lapp's feet into a run even before his mind could identify the source. He raced up the dusty farm lane between a garden and a plain white house at the top of the sloping yard, and when the next scream sounded, ending in a terrified child's voice yelling, "Ne ne!", adrenaline rushed in, pushing him faster. He knew that sound all too wella child was in danger, terrified. Grim possibilities flashed through his mind.
Rounding the corner of the barn, Bram's slick leather soles skidded sideways in the gravel. His feet found purchase, and he focused on the little girl crouched in front of him. A chicken flapped at the end of her outstretched arm, but her eyes were on the four draft horses looming over her. He dived toward her, letting his momentum carry him beyond the horses. Grabbing the girl in his arms, he rolled them both past the dinner-plate-size hooves and slid to a halt at the edge of the grassy backyard.
Bram shoved the child off his chest onto the grass, spitting feathers from his mouth, trying to see past the squawking red hen in his face. Where was she hurt? She screamed even louder as he wrenched the protesting chicken out of her hands and tossed it behind him.
Wide brown eyes cut from the horses to his face and then back again, her screams turning to ragged crying. She tried to pull away, but he kept her close with a firm grip on her arm. If she was hurt, or bleeding, the worst thing she could do would be to run and hide somewhere. He'd seen enough of that with kids on the Chicago streets.
He brushed at the feathers caught in her disheveled brown braids. She no longer looked like a copy of the chicken that still scolded him from a distance, but the tears running down her face clenched at his stomach. He turned her to one side and then the other. No blood that he could see. She ignored his touch; her eyes were fixed on the horses behind his shoulder.
The rattle of the harness told him the horses were moving. Her eyes widened even more as she tried to pull out of his grasp, sucking in a deep breath. Before she could let loose with another scream that might panic the horses further, Bram did the only thing he could think of to prevent it. He clapped his hand over the girl's mouth.
"What are you doing?"
The fury in the young woman's voice registered at the same time as the pain in his hand as the little girl sank her teeth into him. He bit back a curse and released her. With a flurry of skirts, a slim Amish woman descended on them from nowhere and snatched the girl up in her arms. Holding the child close, she fixed her blue eyes on Bram, flashing a warning as she watched him scramble to his feet.
He'd rather face the wrong end of a tommy gun than this Wildcat seemed to be the only word for her.
A wildcat who had no business being angry with him.
His answer barked out in Deitsch before he thought about it. "I was just saving that girl from being trampled by these horses, that's all. What did you think I was doing?"
Was that a smile that twitched at the corners of her mouth?
Bram turned to look at the draft horses and noticed for the first time they were tied to a hitching rail. The near horse flicked a lazy ear at a fly, a movement that did nothing to quell his rising irritation. He spun back to the young woman and the little girl, who stared at him with one finger in her mouth.
"Ja, those horses. No matter how docile they seem, she could be hurt playing around them like that. She was screaming so loudly I assumed she had been."
The woman caught the edge of her lower lip between her teeth and hitched the little girl around to her hip. The self-righteous soothing of Bram's prickled temper stopped short at her nod.
"Ja, you're right. She shouldn't be near the horses at all. She panics like this every time she gets near them, but you didn't know that." She drew a deep breath that shuddered at the end. "Denki for helping."
That shaky breath got him. Bram straightened his jacket and dusted off his gabardine trousers to give his eyes something to focus on. Her steady gaze demanded his apology, but he wasn't about to admit he was sorry for saving the girl, was he?
When he looked up, her gaze was still on him, expectant, her blue eyes a sharp contrast to her brown dress. Even standing on a slight rise above him, her kapp barely reached the level of his chin, but he was defenseless.
"I'm sorry. I probably scared her as much as the horses did."
This time he was sure her mouth twitched. "Ja, probably."
Then she did smile, lighting up her face in a way that would make those painted girls back in Chicago green with envy. Bram drew a deep breath. Who would have thought he'd find a beauty like this among these Plain people?
"Memmi," the little girl said, "can I go find Gross-mutti? "
"Ja, for sure." The woman set the girl on the grass and watched her run to the back of the house.
Memmi? Bram's thoughts did an about-face. She was married, a mother, and he had let himself get distracted by a pretty face, and an Amish one at that. He was here to buy a horse, nothing more.
"Is your husband around? I heard he had a horse for sale."
The woman paused, the smile gone in a shadow. "I think you're looking for my father. You'll find him in the barn."
Bram glanced toward the barn cellar door as she nodded toward it, but by the time he had turned to her again, she was halfway to the house. "Denki," he called after her. She didn't look back.
Ellie Miller fought the urge to run to the safety of the Dawdi Haus with four-year-old Susan, keeping her walk steady until she joined Mam at the clothesline behind the big house.
She had forgotten. An Englischer gave her a crooked grin, and she had forgotten about Daniel. How could something so innocent make her forget her own husband?
Something about that Englischer didn't make sense
Ach, he had spoken Deitsch. His suit and hat were Englisch for sure, with that bright yellow necktie, but where had he learned to speak Deitsch?
And that grin! Her breath caught at the whispery ache that wrapped around her chest. Daniel had smiled at her often, but without a mischievous dimple that winked at her. What was she doing even letting her mind remember that grin? He was just another Englischer.
Ellie pulled a shirt from the basket to hang on the line.
Ja, just another Englischer who spoke Deitsch and made her rebellious heart flip when he smiled.
"Who was that man you were talking to? If it was another tramp, there's a piece of pie in the kitchen." Mam's voice drifted to her from the other side of the clothesline, where she was hanging the girls' dresses.
"He wasn't looking for food. He wanted to talk to Dat!" Ellie glanced at the barn, glad for Dat's ease when it came to talking to outsiders. "There was something strange about him. He was wearing Englisch clothes, but he spoke Deitsch "
Mam's voice was calm, as if she heard Englischers speaking their language all the time. "Maybe he has some Amish friends and learned the language from them. Did he want to buy the gelding Dat has for sale?"
"What would he want with a horse?"
"I expect an Englischer might want a horse once in a while." Mam pulled another dress out of the basket at her feet. "When I see them tear along the roads in those automobiles, I wonder why anyone would hurry that fast just to end up in a ditch."
"Lovina's neighbor only did that once."
"Once is enough, isn't it?" Mam pulled the loaded clothesline lower to look at Ellie. "A person can be in too much of a hurry at times. When do you have time to pray, or even think?"
"For sure, I'm glad the church decided to keep them verboten. Not only are they noisy, but they smell terrible. Next thing you know, all the Englisch will be buying them."
"Ach, not until these hard times are over."
Ellie sighed as she pinned one of her brother's shirts on the line. Would these hard times ever be over?
"I like automobiles." Susan's voice was soft, hesitant.
Ellie looked down at her young daughter. Automobiles? What would she say next?
"Why do you say that?" Ellie shook out the next shirt with a snap.
Susan leaned closer to Ellie from where she squatted next to one-year-old Danny in the grass under the clothesline, her brown eyes wide in her heart-shaped face. "Because they aren't horses." Her words were a whisper as she glanced toward the Belgians waiting to be hitched to the manure spreader.
Ellie pushed the clothespins down firmly. When would Susan get over this fear? Daniel's accident had changed everything.
At this thought, Ellie paused, grasping at the line to control the sudden shaking of her hands. Her mind filled again with the horses' grunting whinnies, the stomping hooves, the smell of fear and blood, Daniel trapped against the barn wall and then falling under those huge hooves Ellie's stomach churned. That day had left an impression in Susan's mind that affected her even now, months later. It still affected all of them.
Ellie shook her head to brush away the memories and shoved the final clothespin onto the last shirt. What was done was done. She might wish things were different, but her husband was dead. That was a truth she faced every day. She refused to succumb to the stifling blanket of grief that pushed at the edge of her mind, tempting her to sink into its seductive folds.
"All done, Mam. Do you want me to help take the clothes in this afternoon?"
"Ne, don't bother. I'll have the girls tend to it when they get home from school."
"Come, sweeties." Ellie lifted Danny in her arms while Susan hopped on one foot next to her. "Time to get our dinner started."
Ellie crossed the drive to the worn path between the barn and the vegetable garden that led to the Dawdi Haus. The house her grandparents had lived in when she was a child had sheltered her little family during the months since Daniel's death. Susan ran ahead of her along the lane, her earlier fright forgotten.
"Plan on eating supper with us tonight," Mam called after her. "I'm fixing a chicken casserole, and there's plenty for all."
"Ja, for sure," Ellie called back, then turned her attention to Danny, who was squirming to get out of her arms. "Sit still there, young man." She laughed at the determined expression on his face as she followed Susan.
Ellie watched the little girl skipping ahead, but her mind was full of a queer anticipation. It was as if her birthday was coming or the wild freshness of the first warm air of spring, pushing back the dark clouds of winter
That Englischer's grin, that was what brought this on. It did something to her, and she frowned at this thought. It didn't matter what an Englischer did, no matter how blue his eyes were.
That grin held a secret. What was he thinking when he looked at her?
She hitched Danny up as the thought of what might have been going through his head came to her. Ach, why did an Englischer's wicked-looking grin give her such a delicious feeling at the memory of it?
Dat and the stranger stood on the threshing floor between the open barn doors, where the fresh air and light were plentiful, but Ellie kept her eyes on the edge of the garden as she hurried to follow Susan. If she glanced their way, would she see that dimple flash as he grinned at her again?
She had to stop thinking about him. He would talk to Dat and then be gone, and she'd never see him again, for sure.
In the backyard of the Dawdi Haus, Ellie paused to pass her hand along a pair of her oldest son's trousers. Dry already. She'd bring in the laundry before fixing the children's dinner. After she put the little ones down for their naps, she could iron in the quiet time before Johnny, her scholar, came home. She smiled, anticipating the quiet hour or so in the shaded house, alone with her thoughts.
Opening the screen door for Susan, Ellie chanced a look at the big white barn behind her. Ja, he was still there, talking with Dat. She followed Susan into the house, letting the door close behind them with a ringing slam.
Bram glanced at the man next to him. John Stoltzfus was stern, yet quiet and confident. More like the gross-datti he barely remembered than the father he had left behind so many years ago. From the clean, ordered barn to the little girl skipping along the lane at the bottom of the ramp, the Stoltzfus farm was a world away from the home he had remembered growing up.
And a world away from Chicago. In the three days since he'd stepped out of his life in the city and walked back into his past, those twelve years had slipped away until even the stench of the West Side was a half-remembered dream. Was he losing his edge already? It was too easy to fall into this simple, Plain life.
Bram's thoughts followed the young woman in the brown dress as she walked past the barn toward the Dawdi Haus. When she ran her hand along the boy's trousers on the clothesline, a door opened into a long-forgotten place in his mind. That simple, feminine action spoke of the home he had tried to forget. How many times had he seen his Mam do that same thing?
The breeze brought the scent of freshly plowed fields into the barn as the young woman opened the door of the Dawdi Haus and then glanced his way, meeting his eyes before disappearing with an echoing slap of the wooden screen door. Why did she live there? And why were there no men's clothes hanging with the laundry?
Movement next to him drew his attention.
"So you're coming home?"
John's unspoken finally lingered at the end of the question, hinting at the speculation Bram knew he would be facing as word of his return spread. He could imagine the stir his disappearance had caused, even here in Eden Township.
"Ja, I'm coming home." How much information would get him the entrance into this community that he needed without divulging too much? "When I left, I was young and I thought I could always come back, but time got away from me ." Bram sighed and stared across the road at the rich brown corduroy of soil. A flock of blackbirds scattered through the field, picking at exposed seed.
What would his life be like if he had never left? What did he have now, other than lost time and poor choices?
"You left before you joined the church?"
"Ja, I was in my Rumspringa." A Rumspringa that had never ended. Once he'd left home, Bram had never intended to return.
"What were you looking for out there?"
He glanced back at the older man's expectant face. From what his brother-in-law, Matthew, had said, John was one of the leaders in this district. Bram needed his support if he would ever be accepted into the community, but it wouldn't be easy. The Amish kept tight fences.
"I'm not sure now. Maybe excitement, freedom. I never found it, though." He cast his glance to the side, away from John, as if he was repentant and ashamed. No, he didn't need to do much acting to slip into this role. "I'm ready to come home."