Rebecca Fisher hadn’t summoned her family to meals with the bell on the back porch since Paul died. Today wasn’t the day to start, she decided. Instead she stood at the railing and called.
“Katie! Joshua! Come to supper.”
She stayed on the porch until she saw her two kinder running toward the farmhouse. Katie came from the big barn, where she’d been “helping” Rebecca’s father and brother with the evening chores. Katie adored her grossdaadi and Onkel Simon, and Rebecca was grateful every day that Katie had them to turn to now that her own daadi was gone.
Joshua had clearly been up in the old apple tree by the stream that was his favorite perch. Paul had talked about building a tree house there for Joshua’s sixth birthday. That birthday would come soon, but Paul wasn’t here to see it. Rebecca’s throat tightened, and she forced the thought away.
“Mammi, Mammi.” Joshua flung himself at her, grabbing her apron with grubby hands. “Guess who I saw?”
“I don’t know, Josh. Who?” She hugged him with one arm and gathered Katie against her with the other. Katie let herself be hugged for a moment and then wiggled free.
“I helped put the horses in,” she reported. “Onkel Simon said I’m a gut helper.”
“Mammi, I’m talking.” Joshua glared at his sister. “Guess who I saw?”
“Hush, now.” Rebecca hated it when they quarreled, even though she remembered only too well how she and her brothers and sisters had plagued each other. She shooed them into the kitchen. “Katie, I’m wonderful glad you’re helping. Joshua, who did you see?”
It had probably been an owl or a chipmunk—at five, Joshua considered every creature he encountered as real as a person.
“Daadi!” Joshua grinned, unaware of the hole that had just opened up in his mother’s stomach.
“Joshua—“ She struggled to find the words.
“That’s stupid,” Katie declared from the superiority of her seven years. Her heart-shaped face, usually so lively and happy, tightened with anger, and her blue eyes sparkled with what might have been the tears she wouldn’t shed. “Daadi’s in heaven. He can’t come back, so you can’t see him, so don’t be stupid.”
“Katie, don’t call your brother stupid.” Rebecca managed the easier part of the correction first. She knelt in front of her son, feeling the worn linoleum under her knees as she prayed for the right words. “Joshua, you must understand that Daadi loves you always, but he can’t come back.”
“But I saw him, Mammi. I saw him right there in the new stable and—“
“No, Josh.” She had to stop this notion now, no matter how it pained both of them. “I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t Daadi.”
His small face clouded, his mouth drooping. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Her heart hurt as she spoke the words, but they had to be said. Paul was gone forever, and they must continue without him.
“Go and see, Mammi.” Josh pressed small hands on her cheeks, holding her face to ensure she paid attention. “Please go look in the stable.”
Obviously it was the only thing that would satisfy him. “All right. I’ll go and look. While I do that, you two wash up for supper.”
Josh nodded solemnly. Rebecca rose, giving her daughter a warning look.
“No more talking about this until I come back. You understand?”
Katie looked as if she’d like to argue, but she nodded as well.
Pausing to see them headed for the sink without further squabbling, Rebecca slipped out the back door.
A quick glance told her there was no further activity at the main barn now. Probably her daad and brother had finished and headed home for their own supper.
It wasn’t far across the field to the farmhouse where she’d grown up. That field would be planted with corn before too long. Daad had mentioned it only yesterday, and she’d thought how strange it seemed that Paul wasn’t here to make the decision.
Turning in the opposite direction, Rebecca skirted the vegetable garden. Her early onions were already up. In a few weeks the danger of frost would be over, and she could finish the planting.
Beyond the garden stood the posts from which the farm-stay welcome sign should hang. If she were going to open to visitors this summer, she’d have to put it up soon. If. She had to fight back panic at the thought of dealing with guests without Paul’s support.
The farm-stay had been Paul’s dream. He’d enjoyed every minute of their first season—chatting with the guests, showing them how to milk the cows or enlisting their help in cutting hay. It had seemed strange to Rebecca that Englischers would actually pay for the privilege of working on the farm, but it had been so.
She’d been content to stay in the background, cooking big breakfasts, keeping the bedrooms clean, doing all the things she’d be doing anyway if the strangers hadn’t been staying with them.
Last summer she’d been too devastated by his death to think of opening, but now…well, now what was she to do? Would Paul expect her to go on with having guests? She didn’t know, because she’d never imagined life without him.
The stable loomed ahead of her, still seeming raw and new even though it had been up for over a year. They’d gone ahead with the building even after Paul’s diagnosis, as a sign that they had faith he would be well again.
But he hadn’t been. He’d grown weaker and weaker, and eventually she had learned to hate the sight of the stable that had been intended for the purebred draft horses Paul had wanted to breed. She never went near the structure if she could help it.
Now she had to steel herself to swing open one side of the extra-large double doors. She stepped inside, taking a cautious look around. Dust motes danced in a shaft of sunlight, but otherwise it was silent and empty. The interior seemed to echo of broken dreams.
Sucking in a breath, Rebecca forced herself to walk all the way to the back wall, her footsteps hollow on the solid wooden floorboards. No one was here. Joshua’s longing for his daadi had led him to imagine what he hoped for.
A board creaked behind her and Rebecca whirled, heart leaping into her throat.
A man stood in the doorway. Big, broad, silhouetted against the light so that she couldn’t make out his face. But Amish, judging by his clothes and straw hat, so not a stranger. The man took a step forward, and she could see him.
For a long moment they simply stared at each other. Her brain seemed to be moving sluggishly, taking note of him. Tall, broad-shouldered, with golden-brown hair and eyes. He didn’t have a beard, so she could see the cleft in his chin, and the sight stirred vague memories. She knew him, and yet she didn’t. It wasn’t—
“Matt? Matthew Byler?”
A flicker of a smile crossed his face. “Got it right. And you’re little Becky Lapp, ain’t so?”
“Rebecca Fisher,” she corrected quickly. So Matt Byler had returned home to Brook Hill at last. Nothing had been seen of him among the central Pennsylvania Amish since his family migrated out west when he was a teenager.
Matt came a step closer, making her aware of the height and breadth of him. He’d grown quite a lot from the gangling boy he’d been when he left. “You married Paul Fisher, then. You two were holding hands when you were eight or nine, the way I remember it.”
“And you were…” She let that trail off. Matt had been a couple of years older than they were, and he’d been the kind of boy Amish parents held up as a bad example—always in trouble, always pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be Amish.
Now Matt’s smile lit his eyes, and a vagrant shaft of sunlight made them look almost gold. “You remember me. The trouble-maker.”
“I…I wasn’t thinking that,” she said. But of course she had been. It was the first thing anyone thought in connection with Matt Byler. “Are you here for a visit?”
Matt didn’t have a beard, so obviously he hadn’t married. That was more than unusual for an Amish male of thirty.
Surely his unmarried state wasn’t for lack of chances. A prudent set of parents might look warily at Matt as a prospective son-in-law, but the girls had always been charmed by his teasing smile.
“My uncle needs some help with the carpentry business, and he asked me to give him a hand.”
Everyone knew that Silas Byler had been struggling to keep his business going since his oldest son had so unexpectedly left the community. How strange life was that Isaiah, who’d never caused his parents a moment’s worry, should be the one to leave the Amish while bad boy Matthew returned to take his place.
“I’m sorry about Isaiah. It was a heavy blow to your aunt and uncle, ain’t so?”
Matt nodded with a wry twist to his mouth. “Funny, isn’t it? Everyone was so sure I was the one headed over the fence.”
It was an echo of what she’d been thinking. “You did a pretty good job of making folks think so, the way I remember it,” she said.
“Ouch.” Matt’s teasing grin appeared. “You’ve developed a sharp tongue, I see.”
“I’ve just grown up. I have two kinder of my own now.” Rebecca hesitated, but she couldn’t help but resent what he’d made Josh imagine, however inadvertently. “My little boy, Joshua, must have seen you here at the stable. He thought it was his daadi.”
Matt’s face sobered in an instant. “I’m sorry, Rebecca. Truly sorry. My uncle told me about Paul. You have my sympathy.”
“Denke.” Too abrupt, but she couldn’t seem to help it. “Was there something you wanted here, Matt?”
He looked a little taken aback by the blunt question, but he answered readily enough. “I’m looking for a building I can use for my furniture business. Onkel Silas told me about the stable and how Paul was going to…” He let that trail off. “Anyway, he said you weren’t using the stable and might be willing to lease it to me.”
Everything in Rebecca recoiled at the thought of putting another person’s business in Paul’s stable. “No.” Her tone was sharper than she intended. “I’m sorry. It’s not available.”
Matt’s eyebrows lifted. “It’s standing empty. I can pay you five hundred a month for the space.”
“It’s not available,” she said again, annoyed at him for putting her in this position and unable to keep from thinking about what she could do with an extra five hundred dollars a month.
Matt studied her face, his eyes intent and questioning. “You don’t like the idea of turning Paul’s stable over to someone else. I can understand that. But you have two little ones to raise. Can you afford to have it sitting empty when it could be earning money for Paul’s kinder?”
The fact that Matt was probably right didn’t make Rebecca feel any more kindly toward him. “I don’t think that’s your concern.”
“Maybe not. But it is yours, Rebecca.” He held her gaze for a moment longer, and she felt as if he looked right into all her grief and uncertainty. Then he took a step back. “I wouldn’t do any harm to the place, Rebecca. Think about it.”
Matt turned and walked away. He was silhouetted in the doorway for a moment, and then he was gone, leaving Rebecca unsettled and upset.