Ordinarily, the shaded front porch was the coolest place to spend a July afternoon, but the sweat trickling down Loretta Riehl’s back had nothing to do with Missouri’s heat and humidity. Will Gingerich, her former fiancé, sat on the other end of the porch swing from her, and his back-and-forth motion was becoming so quick and jerky that she could barely guide her toothbrush needle through the loose knots of the rag rug she was making.
“The biggest mistake I ever made was to let your dat end our engagement, Loretta,” Will said urgently. “I should’ve stood my ground. I should’ve believed that our love was strong enough to withstand my losing the farm to my brothers.”
Loretta swallowed hard, fearful of where this conversation was leading. She’d been devastated when Dat had come between her and Will a couple of years ago, but she’d accepted it as her father’s will—which was second only to God’s will. “Who among us has ever stood up to Dat and won?” she asked in a tight voice. Her hands were trembling as she drew the strip of sage green fabric through the next rug knot with her needle. “I cried my eyes out and pleaded with him again and again, but he was convinced you weren’t gut enough—that you could never provide me a home.”
“He was wrong!” Will declared. “I should’ve insisted that you and I could live at your place—back when we were in Rosewood—the way a lot of newlyweds do until they have the money for a home of their own.”
Loretta stifled a sigh. Why was Will thinking this way, when they both knew they would’ve been miserable living under Dat’s roof after Mamm had died? Even with her sisters, Edith and Rosalyn, to support them, their marriage would’ve gotten off to a rocky start.
“And the other monumental mistake I made,” Will continued fervently, “was latching on to Molly Ropp too quickly after your dat severed my relationship with you. Why didn’t I realize Molly’s parents were too eager to get us married?”
“How could you have known Molly was pregnant?” Loretta pointed out. “We don’t like to believe that young Amish women would succumb to temptation—or keep such secrets—”
“And how was Molly supposed to know that it was Drew Detweiler who fathered her twins rather than Asa?” Will demanded. As he raked his light brown hair back with his fingers, he appeared lost in his own world—not really hearing anything Loretta said. “Molly was deceived. I was deceived—”
“You paid dearly for that, Will. And that episode’s behind us now—although I sense you’re still mourning Molly’s passing,” Loretta put in quietly. She rested her hands in her lap, no longer able to concentrate on her rug. “But God saw to it that some gut came of your trials and tribulations, ain’t so? Little Leroy and Louisa are a joy to us all—the light of Edith and Asa’s marriage. And once Drew confessed and apologized to everyone for masquerading as Asa, he’s become an accepted, forgiven member of our church district and the Willow Ridge business community. That’s real progress, to my way of thinking.”
When Loretta looked across the road, she noticed that one of the Detweiler brothers was coming out of the stable in an open buggy pulled by a tall black Percheron. Asa and Drew, identical twins, owned matching horses, so it was impossible to tell which one of them was heading down the long lane toward the road.
She held her breath. Was it her imagination, or was the driver of that buggy looking right at her?
“I—I’ve never forgiven myself for turning my back on the love we shared, Loretta,” Will said again. He stopped the swing so suddenly that Loretta’s long, loose strips of rug fabric fluttered to the porch floor. “We both knew we had a love that would see us through a lifetime together. I was so upset about your Dad splitting us up that I didn’t realize Molly was coming on to me too fast, too soon,” he lamented, gazing at her with the soft brown eyes of a begging dog. “I am so sorry, Loretta.”
Loretta was feeling more unsettled by the second, because Will’s soul baring was leading her down a path she no longer wanted to follow. How could she tell him she wasn’t interested in rekindling their relationship? It would break his heart and depress him further while he still mourned the death of his wife and their misguided marriage.
Sighing, she chose her words carefully. “God has a reason for everything He does—every stumbling block He places in our paths—”
“But I see the world so clearly now!” Will blurted out. “I’ve prayed over these things night and day since Molly died and left me with her six-month-old twins. And while I never wished such a horrible death from cancer would take her, it gave me hope that you and I could—”
Loretta stood up, dropping her unfinished rug onto the swing between them. As the Detweiler buggy approached the road, coming toward her, she realized that Drew surely must be driving because Asa and Edith were inseparable—they went everywhere together and took the twins with them, in their baskets. Her pulse quickened. Drew was gazing right at her, pulling out of the Detweilers’ lane and stopping the buggy on the roadside in front of her.
“Loretta, I’ve got a gut steady job now, farming for Luke and Ira Hooley,” Will was saying, oblivious to the buggy. “Soon I’ll be planting a vineyard for them—can you imagine that? And I’ll be asking the Brenneman brothers to build us a house—”
“Hey there, Miss Loretta!” Drew called out from the buggy. “I have an errand to run. Want to come along?”
For a moment, Loretta felt lower than a worm, but she couldn’t allow Will to believe he could take up where they’d left off. He hadn’t heard a word she’d said as she’d gently countered his suggestions. Loretta nipped her lip, glancing apologetically at the handsome young man who’d gone through such an ordeal these past several months. Without a word, she hurried down the porch steps and across the front yard toward Drew Detweiler.
Grinning, Drew dropped down from the buggy. As he clasped Loretta’s hand and escorted her to the other side of his open vehicle, she wondered if he was leading her down a path riskier than Will’s and far more dangerous. A path more daring . . . and passionate. When Drew placed his hands on either side of her waist, he paused before lifting her up.
Loretta’s heart went wild. Drew’s sapphire eyes held secrets and intentions she couldn’t decipher, and he brought to mind a fox in the henhouse cornering his tasty prey. Effortlessly he lifted her into his buggy and then hopped in on the other side. “Hope I wasn’t interrupting anything important,” he said as he took up the lines. “If I’m not mistaken, Gingerich looked like a man come courting.”
Feeling downright wicked—yet too flummoxed to look over at Will on the porch—Loretta let out the breath she’d been holding. “You saved me from a really embarrassing scene,” she murmured as the buggy lurched into motion. “Once upon a time I loved Will with all my heart, but after Dat broke us up and he latched onto Molly so fast—well, I had second thoughts about his . . . sincerity. His true feelings for me. And now, well—”
Loretta faltered. The man beside her had lied to Molly about who he was when he’d gotten her in the family way, before poor deluded Will had married her. Everyone in town had officially forgiven Drew for deceiving Molly, and also for drugging his brother Asa with sleeping pills before he’d tried to marry Edith, but Drew was still a mysterious newcomer who played his cards close to his vest.
If Dat saw whom you were riding off with, he’d be even more upset than when he made you break up with Will.
It was true, yet Loretta didn’t regret what she was doing. For the first in a long time, she felt breathlessly alive.
“You and I have a lot in common, Loretta.” Drew scooted so close to her that their thighs brushed with the rhythm of the buggy. “I was head over heels for Molly, the way you were for Will. I admit that it was wrong to tell her I was Asa,” he went on with a shake of his head. “But she ripped my heart out and stomped on it, as though bearing my children meant nothing to her—as though she wanted nothing more to do with me. She up and married Gingerich without even telling me she was pregnant. That still stinks!”
Waves of Drew’s regret and hurt carried Loretta along on the tide of his emotions. She felt really bad for him. His brother and Edith were now adopting little Leroy and Louisa, but Drew hadn’t had a chance to make good with Molly because she’d died from cancer before he’d learned her twins were his. Loretta admired Drew for assisting with the twins’ expenses—and for agreeing that they were better off growing up with a mother and a father who had married and put their welfare first.
Drew halted the wagon near the big windbreak of evergreens just down the road from the house. He turned to face her, drinking her in with his midnight gaze. “What say you and I put the past behind us, Loretta?” he whispered. “I’m betting I can make you forget all about Gingerich, and I think you’re the kind of girl who can put Molly’s memory to rest for me. Know what I’m saying?”
Before she could answer, Drew framed her face with his large, pleasantly callused hands. His kiss, earnest and probing, took Loretta to a place she’d never been. She poured all of her being into making the kiss go on and on, reveling in the feel of Drew’s embrace even as she felt Will watching them from her front porch. She hadn’t intended to snub her former fiancé quite so brazenly . . .
But Drew made her feel so daring—so free—that she wasn’t sorry.
* * * * *
Will choked on a sob, wishing he could stop staring at Loretta. He’d loved her for so long, it nearly killed him to see the way she was responding to Detweiler’s kiss . . . as though she’d shared his affections many times before.
Could this be true? Has she been sneaking around with that con artist, only pretending to listen to me? Am I the biggest fool on the face of the earth?
Will turned and bounded down the porch steps. He cut around behind the house, jogging alongside the Riehls’ thriving vegetable garden and past the fenced section of yard where their chickens pecked at the ground. The rooster’s crow mocked him. As he picked up speed behind the Grill N Skillet and Zook’s Market, he was nearly blinded by anger. Loretta’s betrayal ranked right up there with Molly’s crying out her love for another man on her deathbed—the moment he’d learned that Leroy and Louisa were not his children. Even after Molly’s parents had kicked him off their farm, he hadn’t felt this destitute. This desperate.
Just ahead, the big wheel of the Hooleys’ gristmill slowly turned, splashing the Missouri River’s surface, but the scene’s beauty was lost on Will. Now that Ira was married and living in the new home behind the mill, Will was renting the bachelor apartment in the mill’s upper level. Unfortunately, the stairs to his new home were inside, so he had to pass through the mill store—and when he burst through its door, Luke and his redheaded wife Nora were lip-locked, sharing a clinch behind the checkout counter.
Luke had the presence of mind to ease away, cradling Nora to his chest as he smiled at Will. “Oops,” he teased. “Guess we should save this mushy stuff for after we get home, jah?”
Will’s breath escaped him in a rush. He looked doggedly around at the shelves of bagged flour and cereals, and the refrigerator case filled with local eggs, butter, and goat cheese—anything to avoid watching yet another couple pouring their hearts into a kiss.
“Will, what’s wrong?” Nora asked softly. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Jah, the ghost of my hopes and dreams for Loretta Riehl.
Will coughed nervously. Luke was his employer more than his friend, and he hesitated to reveal too much about his love life—or lack of it. But Nora’s concerned expression touched him. From what he’d heard, she had endured more than her share of rejection and upheaval when she’d moved back to Willow Ridge to be with the family who’d shunned her, so maybe she would understand. Maybe she could empathize with his degradation and shame.
“Loretta just left me for that lying cheat of a Detweiler,” he spat. “That dog had the nerve to kiss her, right there on the road, knowing I’d see him at it.”
Nora’s mouth dropped open as she came out from behind the counter. “Will, I’m so sorry,” she murmured.
“Jah, well, sorry doesn’t begin to cover it for me,” he blurted. “I was practically on my knees as she and I talked in their porch swing, saying I’d been wrong not to marry her back when her dat came between us—”
“Gut luck going against Cornelius,” Luke muttered as he joined them.
“—but I might as well have been talking to the wall,” Will continued miserably. “One look at Detweiler as he pulled his buggy across the road, and Loretta was his—hook, line, and sinker. No doubt in my mind that before the day’s out, he’ll ruin her reputation. Ruin her.”
Luke cleared his throat. “I can understand why you feel Loretta kicked you to the curb—kicked you where it hurts most,” he said, “but she’s fully aware of Drew’s earlier deceptions. And she’s old enough to know what she’s getting herself into.”
“Loretta has no idea what he’s capable of!” Will countered hotly. “She’s led a sheltered, quiet life with her sisters, keeping the household running since their mamm’s passing. Jah, Cornelius is a piece of work, but Drew Detweiler passed himself off as his twin brother with not one but two other women!”
Nora held his gaze with her tranquil green eyes. “Well, he came clean after you exposed him during Edith and Asa’s original wedding,” she pointed out. “None of us could imagine the nerve it took for Drew to give Asa all those sleeping pills and then stand in as Edith’s would-be husband, but Edith was the first to forgive him.”
“Edith’s a saint. Loretta—” Will looked away, hoping the Hooleys didn’t see the tears in his eyes. “Loretta is sweet and loving and—and unable to comprehend the concept of such evil temptation. She doesn’t stand a chance against the likes of Detweiler.”
Luke gave Will’s shoulder a brief squeeze. “I understand why Drew’s advances have upset you—and I understand this situation from Detweiler’s perspective, as well.”
Will scowled, backing away. “What do you mean by that? Are you taking his side?”
Luke shook his head good-naturedly, smiling at his wife. “Before Nora caught my eye and held me accountable for my actions, I took great pleasure in running the roads with Annie Mae Knepp—daughter of Bishop Hiram, before he was shunned and kicked out of Willow Ridge,” he replied. “Why was I sneaking her out of the house at night, making the tongues wag about how I, at thirty, was ruining a seventeen-year-old girl? I did it because I could—because I got a kick out of breaking the rules with the bishop’s daughter. And Annie Mae was rebel enough to enjoy it as much as I did.”
Will’s eye’s widened. “We’re talking about Adam Wagler’s wife, Annie Mae? The gal who’s had twins and brought all her younger siblings to live with them?”
Luke nodded, still smiling as though he enjoyed recollecting those wild times.
Before Will could stop himself, he blurted, “So you—you took advantage of her? You took her because you could?”
“Absolutely not.” Luke leveled his gaze at Will. “We appeared to be lovers, but appearances can be deceiving—”
“What he’s not telling you,” Nora put in, “is that his brother was along for most of those rides. Ira was seeing my daughter Millie—who, jah, was entirely too young to be dating a fellow nearly twelve years older than she was. But the four of them kept each other honorable, and now they’re all responsible married adults—”
“Happily married adults,” Luke insisted as he slung his arm around Nora’s shoulders. “What I’m saying, Will, is that maybe Drew’s coming on to Loretta to irritate you. Maybe he’s just rubbing your nose in it without any intention of leading Loretta astray.”
“You think it wasn’t enough that he got Molly pregnant?” Will demanded. “I’m saying history could repeat itself—sooner rather than later—”
“And what can you do about that?” Luke asked softly. “The more worked up you get, the more Drew will enjoy stepping out with Loretta—and the more control he’ll have over your mindset. Just sayin’.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “Spoken like a guy,” she remarked. Her sigh sounded apologetic. “Sorry to say this, but if you were talking about marriage again, maybe Loretta wasn’t ready to listen—”
“But she loves me! Back before Cornelius butted in and—”
“Things change, Will. People change.” Nora gazed at him glumly. “You’re not the same man she was courting before her dat stepped in. You’ve been married, and widowed by a terrible disease. Your life took a direction neither you nor Loretta wanted or could’ve predicted.”
Will sagged like a balloon losing its air. Would his short, ill-fated marriage with Molly color the rest of his life? What if Loretta—or any other young woman he met—found him unattractive because he was used goods . . . or because he’d caved in to need and desperation when he’d married Molly on the rebound?
“Denki for listening,” he muttered. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread this around, all right?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. We’ve all been dragged behind the wagon at one time or another,” Luke said. “I hope Loretta realizes what a fine, reliable man you are and comes to her senses. And if she doesn’t, I hope you’ll find a way to move beyond your hurt feelings.” Luke smiled at him. “Either way, Will, I’m mighty glad you’ve come to work for me. You’re an excellent farmer, and together we’ll make a go of that new vineyard.”
“If there’s anything we can do, just say the word,” Nora added kindly.
But what could anyone else do for him? He’d had Lauretta’s complete attention—or thought he had—until Detweiler drove up in front of the Riehl place with his dubious intentions and come-hither smile.
Will started for the stairway at the back of the store. “Denki for your kindness, but this is between me and Loretta.”
Except Loretta left. Without so much as a backwards glance.
His footsteps in the stairwell sounded as hollow as he felt. When Will opened the door to the upstairs apartment, he sighed loudly. The place was sunny and reasonably clean, but if the Hooley brothers hadn’t left their furniture, it would be almost empty—and that was a kick in the head. He’d lost out on the farm he’d grown up on when his two older brothers had taken it over—and then he’d been evicted from the farm Molly’s parents had let them rent, after she’d died. Will had come to Willow Ridge with nothing but some clothes and a few personal effects to show for being a widower of twenty-seven.
Not much to offer a bride, his thoughts taunted him.
Will leaned against the windowsill in the kitchenette, staring out over the narrow ribbon of the Missouri River. From this vantage point, he could see the back of Nora’s white house and the red barn that housed her Simple Gifts store . . . the orchard behind the Kanagy place . . . Bishop Tom’s herd of grazing Holsteins, and the chicken house behind the Reihl home—and beyond that, the new metal shop building where Detweiler kept an upstairs apartment because he didn’t want to live in the main house with Asa and Edith.
Detweiler’s no better off than I am. What does Loretta see in him?
Cursing under his breath, Will stepped away from the window. Until he had some answers, there was no sense in torturing himself with more painful questions.