Edith Riehl stepped out onto the front porch of her new home, bubbling with anticipation. On this beautiful spring morning everyone in Willow Ridge would be attending the wedding of Ira Hooley and Millie Glick, over at the big house on the hill where Nora and Luke Hooley—mother of the bride and brother of the groom—lived. Horse-drawn buggies were already pulling up the driveway and behind the Hooleys’ home as guests arrived, and Edith was excited that she and her two sisters would be among them. Loretta and Rosalyn agreed that helping serve the wedding dinner after the ceremony would be a wonderful way to get better acquainted with folks in their new neighborhood.
As Edith gazed out over the pasture where Bishop Tom Hostetler’s dairy cows grazed, beyond the homes and small farms that formed the patchwork of Willow Ridge, her sisters’ voices drifted through the windows. They were trying one last time to convince their father to stay for the wedding meal after the service, but weddings hadn’t been Dat’s cup of tea since Mamm had passed on. He would attend the service only because he was serving as the district’s deacon now that his cousin Reuben, the former deacon, had moved back to Roseville to help his widowed mother.
When she heard loud crying, Edith walked to the other end of the porch, wondering where the baby was and why it was fussing. She spotted an enclosed buggy on the side of the road, and behind it two men in Plain clothing and black straw hats were having an agitated conversation.
Don’t they realize how they’re upsetting that poor wee one? Edith wondered as she hurried down the porch steps. And where’s its mother?
As she approached the buggy, the men’s raised voices became disturbingly clearer.
“What was I supposed to think when I got a phone message from a total stranger, accusing me of—of impregnating his wife?” the taller fellow demanded tersely. He was standing in front of a saddled black horse, gripping its reins.
“And how do you think I felt when your name was the last thing Moly uttered before she died?” the other man shot back. “Tell Asa I’ll always love him. Do you know how those words tore my world to shreds?”
Edith’s eyes widened. Clearly this conversation was none of her business, yet the crying baby compelled her to walk faster. Perhaps she could suggest that these two men speak with Bishop Tom about their troubling situation—although he was probably already at the Hooley home, preparing for the church service that would precede the wedding.
“I’m telling you I’ve never so much as met your wife, let alone—”
“Shut up! This explains why Molly got so big so fast, and why the twins came two months early!” the man with his back to Edith lashed out. “Not only have I lost my wife to cancer, but I’ve learned that my marriage of thirteen months was a lie!”
Twins? And their mother’s name was Molly—and she died of cancer? Edith’s thoughts whirled as she stepped up through the buggy’s open door. Two little babies wiggled in towel-lined half-bushel gardening baskets on the back seat as their wails filled the vehicle.
“Oh, look at you,” Edith murmured. “Shhh… it’ll be all right now.” She gently scooped the nearest baby, which wore a crocheted yellow cap, into the crook of one arm before lifting its white-capped twin to her other shoulder. It seemed these wee ones had no mother and a very distraught father, and they’d been born into a confusing, distressing situation.
As the men’s discussion escalated, Edith stepped carefully down from the buggy. One fellow’s voice sounded familiar. She didn’t want to believe the scenario he’d been describing, but right now her main concern was for the babies.
“Would you please lower your voices?” she insisted as she came around the rig. “You’ve upset these little angels so badly that—Will Gingerich? Are these your twins?”
“Edith! Thank God I’ve found you.” The handsome young man to whom her sister Loretta had once been engaged removed his hat to rake his sandy brown hair with his fingers. “Jah, I believed they were mine until Molly named this—this other dog as their father—”
“I’m trying to get to the bottom of that story,” the taller man protested, “but—”
“Stop it, both of you!” Edith insisted in a low voice. “These babies are wet and hungry and upset. Your problems will have to wait until we’ve taken care of more important matters.”
Both men stared at Edith as though she was crazy, and maybe she was. What had possessed her to stick her nose into this business, which sounded more dubious by the moment? She had never seen the taller man with the black hair and riveting eyes, and the last she’d heard of Will Gingerich, he’d married another young woman rather quickly after Dat had called off the engagement between him and Loretta. Edith thought her family had left this heartache behind when they’d moved away from Roseville to start fresh in Willow Ridge, but it seemed a fresh batch of problems had popped up like dandelions after they’d left.
“I’ve come to ask you—your family—a huge favor,” Will pleaded. He looked pale and his eyes had dark circles around them. “I—I have no idea how I’m going to care for these kids, what with Molly dying. They’re only six months old, Edith. I was hoping you and your sisters would take them until I can get my life together and—”
Edith’s eyes widened. “Is there no one in Molly’s family, or—”
“That’s just it,” Will continued in a desperate tone. “Molly’s mamm and grandmother were there at her deathbed when she blurted out this guy’s name—”
“She was no doubt delirious and unaware of what she was saying,” Edith murmured.
“—and then when Molly passed on, her grandmother had a heart attack from all the stress and went to the hospital,” Will went on doggedly. “Molly’s mother isn’t speaking to me now. I’ve had a lot of stuff thrown at me these past several weeks, what with my wife being too sick to tend the babies. I trust you Riehl sisters to care for the twins until I get through Molly’s funeral and then figure out, well—what to do with them. Please, Edith?”
It was indeed a huge favor Will was asking, but how could she refuse? The babies had almost stopped crying. Edith gazed at their precious faces as she swayed from side to side, calming them. By the sound of Will’s incredibly sad story, these helpless little souls might not have anyone looking after them—for how long? “Of course we’ll take them,” she murmured, “but we don’t have any diapers or bottles or—”
“I brought all that stuff. I was looking for your house when this guy”—Will glowered, pointing at the other man— “caught up to me and claimed I’d accused him falsely.”
The stranger looked ready to protest again, but instead he crossed his arms and clenched his jaw. Behind him, his tall black horse nickered impatiently.
“We live in that two-story white house just down the road. The one with the dogwoods on either side of the porch,” Edith said, nodding in that direction.
“Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.”
Before Edith could reply, Will jogged around the buggy and stepped up into the rig. As she followed him, she realized just how scattered his thoughts must be, because there was no hopping in when she was holding a baby in each arm. Gazing into the back seat, Edith was about to ask for Will’s help when a strong arm curled around hers.
“Let me hold them. I’ll hand them up after you get in.”
Edith looked up into the stranger’s face. He had the deepest blue eyes she’d ever seen—as dark as the navy blue reeds she wove into her baskets. When she realized her arm was tingling as she gawked at him, Edith looked away. “Sorry,” she murmured.
“I’m not,” he whispered. He released her and stepped back to allow a more proper distance between them.
Edith had known Will Gingerich for most of her life, so she felt a bit traitorous appreciating help from the man who’d supposedly had relations with Molly before she’d married Will. He calmly took one baby and then the other, however, smiling at her as she climbed into the buggy. As Edith situated each of the twins in a basket, she felt his gaze on her—and she felt sorry that the babies had to ride in such ugly, unsuitable carriers.
The rig lurched and Will drove them down the road without closing the door. “I’m sorry to spring this on you girls,” he said with a sigh. “Sorry about—well, I just never saw any of this coming.”
“I can’t imagine,” Edith murmured.
“I hope you’ll understand if I’d rather not see Loretta—or your dat,” he added quickly.
Edith smiled sadly. Her sister and Will had been sweethearts all through school, and their broken engagement was still a sore subject. “It’s probably best that way, jah.”
He halted the horse at the end of their lane. When Edith grabbed the basket handles and started for the porch, Will followed her with a large cardboard box. “You’re a godsend, Edith—an angel—and I can’t thank you enough,” he murmured. “I’ll come back as soon as I can, after Molly’s funeral.”
She nodded mutely, wondering how on earth she would explain to her family about the monumental responsibility she’d just taken on. “So, what are the babies’ names? Are they boys or girls or—”
“One of each. Leroy and Louisa.” Will kept his eyes on her, as though he couldn’t bear to look at the children he apparently hadn’t fathered. “They were born October tenth, so they’ll be six months old tomorrow, and—well, you probably think I’m already a total failure as a father. Give Loretta my best.”
As Edith walked to the end of the porch to watch Will’s rig roll down the road, she sighed. She’d put on her best purple dress to attend the wedding, and now she’d accepted two babies and a box filled with whatever Will had tossed into it. What were you thinking? What sort of mess have you gotten yourself into? How long will it be before Will comes back—and what if he doesn’t?
Edith’s whirling thoughts were interrupted by the tattoo of boots on the porch steps. She turned to find the raven-haired stranger studying her intently. He removed his straw hat.
“My name’s Asa Detweiler and I live in Clifford—south of Roseville about twelve miles,” he said in a low voice. He ducked slightly so that his eyes were level with hers, mere inches away. “I swear to you that I never met Will’s wife—never saw him before today, when his phone message accused me of fathering these twins, so I tracked him down. Can you believe that, Edith?”
She blinked. Asa Detweiler told a compelling story and had the voice and eyes to back it up. But what did she know about any of the stories she’d heard this morning?
Asa smiled wryly. “I admire a woman who doesn’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind—and who has put the needs of these two babies first,” he added. “I promise you I’ll get to the bottom of this situation, and I’ll be back. Promise me that you’ll mother these kids—and that you’ll hear me out when I return, all right?”
Edith couldn’t help gazing into his eyes, as dark blue and mysterious as midnight. Even as she nodded, she sensed that Asa’s request, and her unspoken affirmation—such a simple vow—would change her life in ways she couldn’t possibly predict.
As Asa mounted his horse and headed down the road, his thoughts whirled like a tornado’s funnel cloud. When he’d first heard the phone message accusing him of fathering twins by some young woman named Molly, he’d found the situation outrageous—but now that he’d met Will Gingerich and heard more of the story, he was even more upset. And confused.
He could understand why Will was acting half crazy, because dealing with cancer and grief did that to a man. But how had Will gotten his phone number? If Will’s wife had hollered only a first name what if she’d declared her love for a different man altogether? The whole situation seemed bizarre, and Asa sensed that he could mull it over all the way home and still not have any answers by the time he reached Clifford.
On instinct Asa turned and saw that Edith Riehl was still standing on her porch, watching him. When he waved, she waved back before stooping to pick up the two babies in their baskets. Now that young woman was a saint, taking responsibility for twins on the promise that Will Gingerich would return for them. Asa wasn’t a betting man, but he figured the odds were about fifty-fifty that Will would come back—and about nil that he’d try to raise the babies on his own. Parenting would be a daunting task for a man alone even under more normal circumstances, and even with help from Molly’s family.
Asa shook his head as he imagined the trials and tribulations of tending two helpless babies. But Edith will handle it. She’s a can-do sort of woman whose heart and priorities are in the right place.
“Let’s go, Midnight,” he murmured, urging his gelding into an easy canter as they reached the curve where the road left town. His ride home would be much more enjoyable if he thought about Edith Reihl … imagined her waiting for him on the porch of a tidy house as his work day came to an end…
Asa heard rapid hoofbeats coming up behind him, but he was awash in his pleasant thoughts—and he never dreamed a buggy driver would race past him so fast on the narrow road that Midnight would spook and lose his footing in the gravel. Asa cried out as a small rock struck his forehead. He had the sensation of flying through the air—leaving the saddle—
And then he hit the ground and felt nothing at all.