As Rosalyn Riehl walked alongside the county highway pulling a cartload of Christmas wreaths, she gazed up at the sky in surprise. When she’d left home a few minutes earlier, the sun was shining but now low, gray clouds were rolling in and the wind picked up—and for a brief moment tiny pellets of hail pelted her.
It’s going to be a tricky winter, she thought. The weather seems as crazy and mixed up as I feel.
Rosalyn adored the holidays—Thanksgiving was only a week away—yet the thought of the approaching winter made her sigh. Her youngest sister Edith lived across the road with her husband, Asa, and their twins, and her younger sister Loretta was sharing the bedroom down the hall with her new husband, Drew, so Rosalyn felt like the odd woman out. All her life she’d longed for a husband and a family, yet at twenty-eight she saw no probability of fulfilling that dream.
Her cheeks tingled when the season’s first snowflakes met her cheeks. It’s a gut thing I have my new job at Simple Gifts to look forward to, Rosalyn thought as she made her way up the hill toward the store housed in a huge red barn. Working for Nora on Wednesdays and Saturdays sure beats dealing with Loretta and Edith’s moony-eyed gazes and happy chatter about being married to the Detweiler twins whenever we’re all together.
It wasn’t that she begrudged her sisters their happiness. She just wanted some of her own.
When Rosalyn opened the door to enter Nora Hooley’s shop, however, the merry tinkle of the bell above the door and the rich scents of bayberry and vanilla candles drove away her gloomy thoughts. It was impossible to feel grumpy as she carefully pulled her wagon between the beautiful displays of glossy walnut furniture, sets of pottery dishes, unique three-dimensional quilts, and the other lovely merchandise that had been handcrafted by Plain folks from around central Missouri.
Nora called out to her from the loft, where she was arranging an evergreen garland along the railing. “Gut morning, Rosalyn! I can’t wait to see your wreaths and hang them around the store—not that we’ll have them for long!”
Rosalyn couldn’t help smiling. What a joy it was to work for Nora, whose encouraging words and freckle-faced smile lifted her spirits. “I’ve got eight of them here,” she replied as she stopped beside the office door. “We sisters had a work frolic on Monday, so Loretta will have another rug or two and Edith will have some baskets ready to sell in time for the open house on Saturday.”
“You girls are amazing,” Nora remarked happily. She fastened the end of the greenery garland to the railing and then started downstairs, her feet tapping a happy rhythm on the wide wooden stairway. Her deep orange corduroy dress was set off with a paisley apron of earth tones, perfect for autumn and Thanksgiving. “And how’s Cornelius? Is he accepting the way you and Loretta are trading off days that you work for me?”
Rosalyn nipped her lip. What good would it do to spoil Nora’s cheerful mood by repeating the lecture Dat had delivered at the breakfast table . . . or to mention that yesterday’s mail had brought them two more mysterious envelopes marked Past Due?
“He’s still cranky about us working for you, and I suspect that’ll never change,” she hedged. “Dat’s a man who hangs onto the past and the Old Order ways, after all.”
Nora stopped a few feet away, her auburn eyebrows rising. “Puh! The trouble he’s gotten himself into has nothing to do with proper Amish living,” she said. “And I thought he was to begin some grief counseling with Bishop Tom this week.”
“Oh, the two of them talked at Tom’s place yesterday,” Rosalyn murmured, “but I suspect the bishop’s got a long row to hoe—uphill—before Dat lets go of his feelings for Mamm.”
“It’s one thing for him to love your mother, and another thing entirely for him to use memories of her to make you girls feel guilty,” Nora put in quickly. “I’m really sorry he’s thrown your family into such a tailspin with his deceptive activities, too. He’d be so much better off if he gave a full confession and makes whatever amends Bishop Tom requires.”
“Well, he hasn’t made any more trips to Kansas City to buy clock parts,” Rosalyn pointed out. As she held Nora’s gaze, her curiosity flared like a piece of paper set aflame to kindle a fire. “Exactly what did he do—where did he go—that’s gotten him into such trouble?”
Nora smiled sadly, grasping Rosalyn’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I brought the subject up,” she murmured. “Bishop Tom and Preacher Ben have asked Drew and me not to reveal all the details because they want your dat to come clean of his own free will, without folks around Willow Ridge pressuring him.”
“That’s not fair! We have to live with him,” Rosalyn blurted out.
“You’re right, it’s not,” Nora agreed. “The truth will come out in its own gut time, and right now we’re leaving the matter in God’s hands—and your dat’s. Now what’ve we got in this wagon? These bright red ribbons and greenery wreaths are just the ticket for our holiday open house, Rosalyn!”
With the blink of Nora’s mischievous green eyes the conversation had been redirected. Rosalyn sensed it would do no good to ask any more questions about Dat’s secretive wrongdoing, so she carefully picked up the wreath on the top of her pile. “I made a few of these fresh wreaths from evergreen clippings—and they should probably hang outside so they’ll stay fresh until Christmas,” she added.
“We’ll tag them and put one on the front door,” Nora said as she lightly ran her finger over a pinecone. “And the others can hang along the side of door—or on the building where folks will see them first thing when they pull in to park.” She inhaled deeply. “Wow, nothing smells nicer than a live wreath.”
Rosalyn’s spirits lifted. Nora’s compliments bolstered her confidence and made the hours she’d spent making her wreaths feel worthwhile. “Here are two with silk holly and natural pine cones, and two made entirely of pine cones—”
“Oh, I love the way you tipped the pine cones with a little white paint and glitter,” Nora put in with a smile. “Most English women like a little sparkle on their Christmas decorations.”
“—and this last one’s covered in nuts, outlined with bay leaves,” Rosalyn said, watching Nora’s face. “It’s not as colorful, so I only made one as an experiment—”
“A kitchen wreath! And look at the way the dark shells of the Brazil nuts contrast with the English walnuts and the pale almonds,” Nora exclaimed as she studied the piece. “And I love that it’s a star shape, too. I can tell you right now that you should load up on whole nuts next time you’re at the bulk store, so you can make more of these, Rosalyn. My customers love items that are different from what they’ll find at the other places where they shop.”
Rosalyn’s heart beat faster. “I bought a big bagful of those nuts last week, figuring we could always eat them if I didn’t make any more wreaths with them,” she admitted with a chuckle. “And I’m going to make a couple of wreaths from ribbon candies, too, because I love all the shiny colors—”
The bell jangled raucously as the front door flew open and hit the wall. “Hey—does anybody work here?” a young man called out. “You can’t tell me this town doesn’t even have a gas station.”
Nora turned quickly toward him, her eyes widening in recognition as she carefully handed Rosalyn the star-shaped wreath. “This could get interesting,” she murmured.
Rosalyn watched as Nora took her time passing between the displays of handmade table linens and racks of hanging jackets, toward the fellow who’d entered with a gust of wind that had apparently blown the door out of his hand.
Or did he throw it open? Rosalyn wondered as she took in the man’s black leather jacket and the rakish way his dark hair dipped over one side of his face. Most English are at least courteous and they don’t come in before the store opens. This fellow looks like walking, talking trouble—with a capital T.
Rosalyn started slowly toward the front door, in case their unexpected guest caused Nora problems. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if this brash young man behaved improperly, but she knew Nora would be coming to her assistance in this situation. She wasn’t sure what to think, however, when the redheaded storekeeper walked quickly around him to shut the door against the wind. Nora faced their visitor, confidently crossed her arms, and gazed directly at him, unfazed by the fact that he stood head and shoulders taller than she did.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Cousin Marcus from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,” Nora said as she looked him up and down. “Did you finally show up to check out Wyatt McKenzie’s job offer? Or did another girlfriend get smart and kick you to the curb for using her credit cards on the sly?”
Rosalyn gasped. Was this Marcus Hooley, the horse trainer Wyatt had called in October, hoping to hire an Amish man to manage the draft horse farm he’d recently established? Everyone in Willow Ridge was wondering why the cousin Luke, Ira, and Ben had recommended hadn’t bothered to provide the references Wyatt had requested. As Rosalyn looked more closely, she saw the resemblance this young man bore to Luke—and she couldn’t miss the rebellious flare of his pale green eyes as he stared at Nora.
“And just how would you know who I am?” he challenged. “I’ve never met you or—”
“I’m married to your cousin Luke,” Nora replied without missing a beat. “And so you’ll know, I’d recognize the Hooley attitude from a mile away, Marcus. The first thing you’ll learn about living in Willow Ridge is that news travels fast. Your reputation has preceded you.”
Marcus tilted his head, his eyes narrowed. “Oh, yeah? Folks here already know I’m the best horse trainer on the face of the earth? Or at least in America?” he challenged with a chuckle.
Nora shook her head, unimpressed. “Lots of men from around town were in the room when Luke and Wyatt talked to you on the phone a few weeks ago,” she replied. “They know all about the references you haven’t provided, and they know that Wyatt graciously offered to hire you on probation as well as to help you clear up the credit card debt you’ve run up. You’re already off to such a bad start, maybe you should just gas up your car in Morning Star or New Haven and keep on driving, Marcus. I certainly wouldn’t hire you.”
Marcus let out an incredulous laugh. “That makes us even, because I wouldn’t work for you,” he retorted. “When I see Luke, I’ll have to quiz him about why he ever hitched up with such a mouthy woman. Sheesh. Must’ve been desperate.”
Spots of color rose into Nora’s cheeks. “I suggest you talk to Luke at the mill store next door rather than showing up unannounced at Wyatt McKenzie’s farm,” she said in a voice tight with irritation. “But then, why should you listen to me?”
Marcus laughed, flashing even white teeth. He dismissed Rosalyn with a brief glance and turned toward the door. “I’ll see myself out. I’ve had enough advice for one conversation.”
The bell jangled loudly and Marcus shut the door behind him with more force than was necessary. Rosalyn let out the breath she didn’t realized she’d been holding. “That was the rudest person I’ve ever met—even though I really didn’t meet him, as such.”
Nora shook her head. “Full of himself,” she muttered. “Luke had an attitude when I met him, too, but he knew better than to shoot off his mouth and act like a spoiled brat—especially when he wanted things to go his way.” When a car engine backfired next to the building, she glanced toward the window. “I predict we won’t be seeing hide nor hair of Mr. Smart-Mouth after this morning. Wyatt won’t give Marcus the time of day, much less hire him.”
Rosalyn brushed off the front of her apron, as though wiping away any residue from Marcus’s presence. As a member of the Old Order Amish church, she had absolutely no interest in a man who, according to his cousins, had jumped the fence—and who’d apparently used his English girlfriends’ credit cards and hadn’t paid his bills.
But did you see those dimples? And the way he filled out the back of his tight jeans?
Appalled at such thoughts, Rosalyn resolutely followed Nora back toward the office. After they tagged her wreaths and displayed them, she needed to dust and be sure the store was as tidy as Nora liked it before customers arrived. She was a twenty-eight-year-old maidel, but she wasn’t nearly desperate enough to give Marcus Hooley another thought.
What would it matter if you thought about him just a little, to pass the time? To Marcus, you’re invisible, so nothing will come of it.