“You’ll do just fine, Annie Mae. This bein’ January—the first Monday after we’ve been closed so Ben and I could get hitched—most of our crowd’ll be fellas from around Willow Ridge,” Miriam Hooley assured her. “And if the younger ones give ya any sass about workin’ here, they’ll be dealin’ with me. We’re mighty glad to have ya helpin’ us out.”
As Annie Mae Knepp gazed at the tables set up for breakfast in the Sweet Seasons Café, her heart thudded. Never in a million years had she figured on waiting tables to support her family—but then, she’d never believed her dat, their former bishop, Hiram Knepp, would scheme up a new Plain settlement under such dubious circumstances and get himself excommunicated, either. And for sure, she’d never dreamed she’d have the nerve to announce that she wouldn’t be going to Higher Ground with him. Defying their father was the scariest thing she and her sister Nellie had ever, ever done . . . and now they were looking over their shoulders, waiting for Dat to get back at them.
“It’s you who’s been helping, Miriam,” Annie Mae murmured. “I sure hope Dat won’t cause you and Ben any trouble because you’ve taken Nellie and me in.”
“Puh! We’ve handled your dat before, child,” Miriam replied. “We’re real sorry Hiram’s lost his way and his place in our church district, knowin’ how it tore your family apart. But God loves us still, and He’s countin’ on us all to love one another as we deal with life’s trials and tribulations. Let’s look at this cash register, before anybody comes in.”
Ever so patiently, Miriam showed Annie Mae how to enter numbers . . . how to cancel an incorrect entry . . . how to change the paper roll when a pink line appeared down the side. “Shall we try a practice round?” Miriam asked. “Let’s say Bishop Tom gets the breakfast buffet.”
Annie Mae squinted at the menu on the check-out counter and then tapped in $5.95.
“And let’s say Tom also picks up the tab for Preacher Gabe, who ordered a number two breakfast—”
She jabbed the keys for $3.75.
“—along with a side of cheesy hash browns and two sticky buns from the bakery counter to take home.”
Annie Mae willed her fingers to find the right keys for those items. “Twelve dollars and seventy cents?”
“You’re a natural, Annie Mae!” Miriam sang out. “Don’t forget to put all your receipts on the spindle so the money matches up, come the end of the day. You’ll have Rhoda workin’ with ya in the mornings and Rebecca will be here, too,” she added with a warm smile. “And with Naomi and me in the kitchen—and Naomi’s Hannah helpin’ us cook—why, you’ll be servin’ up your orders with a big smile before ya know it. Where there’s a woman, there’s a way!”
Miriam beamed at her with eyes as warm as a mug of cocoa. “We’re all in this together,” she said softly. “Every one of us started workin’ here so’s we could keep our families fed, Annie Mae. And now there’s no stoppin’ us.”
We’re all in this together . . . there’s no stoppin’ us. Such a comforting thought couldn’t have come at a better time, considering how Annie Mae’s heart was beating so fast. Working at the Sweet Seasons would be a far cry from running the house for her dat, tending her little brothers and sister all day until Nellie got home from school. When their precious faces flashed through her mind, she had to blink back tears. What were Joey, Josh, Sara, and Timmy doing these days? Who was caring for them while Dat started up his new colony?
Miriam gently rubbed Annie Mae’s shoulders. “I know this is a big change for ya,” she murmured. “But you’re stronger—and smarter—than ya know, Annie Mae. God’ll see that the right things come out of this situation for you and Nellie, and for all of your family, as well.”
Annie Mae swallowed hard. “Jah, that’s what we have to believe.”
“You’re a gut girl. And I hear our other cooks comin’ in the back door.”
As Miriam strode into the kitchen to greet her partner, Naomi Brenneman, and Naomi’s teenage daughter Hannah—who had worked here only a few weeks—Annie Mae decided to quit sniffling and get busy. She pushed the button on the big coffeemaker and set napkin-wrapped silverware bundles on each of the tables the way Miriam had showed her. Soon the aromas of sausage, sweet rolls, and fried apples filled the café, and when Rhoda and Rebecca came in to begin their day, Annie Mae felt a lot better about the new job she was taking on. After all, these sisters had each caused her own stir in Willow Ridge: Rhoda had fallen in love with a divorced Englishman, and Rebecca had returned to the Lantz family after being raised by an English couple who’d rescued her from flood waters when she’d been a toddler. If these girls could win the acceptance of everyone in Willow Ridge, then surely folks would come to understand how she and Nellie still needed to fit in here, as well.
“Annie Mae, we’re really glad you’re here,” Rebecca said as she tucked an order pad into the back pocket of her jeans. “Mamma’s been getting lots of new customers who’ve seen the Sweet Seasons website, and what with Rachel staying home to start her family—”
“And me lookin’ after Andy’s mamm and kids in the afternoons,” Rhoda chimed in, “we were mighty short-handed in December. But it’s a new year, and we’ve all got a whole new outlook. Especially Mamma, now that she’s hitched to Ben,” she added in a conspiratorial whisper.
“She’s like a first-time bride again,” Rebecca agreed as they all glanced at Miriam through the serving window of the kitchen. “Don’t tell her I said so, but I’m betting those two lovebirds’ll be feathering their nest soon, just like Rachel and Micah are.”
As Rhoda and Rebecca giggled at this thought, Annie Mae was once again amazed at how similar these sisters were even though they’d been raised apart . . . even though Rhoda had long ago joined the church and Rebecca, in her collar-length hair and plaid shirt, had no intention of giving up her computer business to become Amish.
“Don’t say that too loud,” Rhoda murmured. “Mamma has told us she couldn’t have any more babies—”
The jingling of the bell above the door ended their conversation. As though the café’s regulars had all agreed to arrive at the stroke of six, here came Seth and Aaron Brenneman—Naomi’s boys—and Miriam’s nephews, Nate and Bram Kanagy. Tom Hostetler and Miriam’s Ben were holding the door for Preacher Gabe, who seemed more hunched over than usual this morning.
“Gut mornin’ to ya, fellas!” Miriam called out as she bustled toward the steam table with a big pan of sausage gravy. Hannah was behind her, bearing a basket of biscuits, and Naomi followed with fried apples that swam in buttery sauce and cinnamon. “We’ll be gettin’ the rest of the buffet out in two shakes of a tail. The girls’ll take gut care of ya—and Bishop Tom, your meal’s on me today, in honor of your new callin’ amongst us.”
“Hear, hear!” Ben called out and everyone applauded. Chairs scraped against the floor as the men draped their winter coats over the backs of them.
Tom Hostetler looked flustered as he pulled out a chair for Preacher Gabe. “You’ve got no call to treat me special, Miriam,” he protested. “I planned to spring for Ben’s meal this morning, on account of you two bein’ the new mister and missus amongst us.”
“Jah, it’s a busy new year in Willow Ridge,” Ben replied as he sat down with the two church elders. “And if January’s already been this eventful, just think what the comin’ months might bring.”
Annie Mae approached their table, praying she didn’t pour scalding coffee on Preacher Gabe’s hand as he scooted his mug toward her. “And looky who’s here this morning,” he said as a smile deepened his wrinkles. “It’s gut to see you’ve landed in a safe haven, Annie Mae, after all the fuss your dat has kicked up.”
“And I was pleased to see you and Nellie sittin’ tight when he interrupted Ben and Miriam’s wedding,” Bishop Tom joined in. “I suspect your dat’s not finished with us, though. Count on me if ya need any sort of help—”
“Oh, Preacher Tom—I mean, Bishop—” Annie Mae’s face burned with embarrassment. It was all she could do to hang on to the coffee carafe as gratitude welled up inside her.
“Don’t fret over it. It’ll take me some time to get used to that new name, too,” Tom assured her gently. “Let’s remember that we’re all God’s children—even your dat, after the shenanigans he’s pulled. But Jesus stood up for the weak and the oppressed while He chastised those who took undue advantage of them.”
“Hiram Knepp will always be your dat,” Ben added quietly. “But we’ll all look out for you and Nellie if he retaliates for your not goin’ to Higher Ground with him, like obedient daughters.”
“Amen to that,” Naomi stated.
“Ya said a mouthful, fellas,” Miriam affirmed. “The Knepp kids are our special blessing now. We look after our own.”
Annie Mae swallowed so hard she wondered if everyone heard the click of her dry, tight throat. The dining room rang with a silence that somehow felt sacred, and as Rhoda and Rebecca and the rest of them gazed at her with such love in their eyes, how could she not feel lifted up? The Knepp kids are our special blessing . . .
“Denki ever so much,” she murmured. “Nellie and I will do our best to deserve your—”
Once again the bell above the door jangled, and the Wagler brothers stepped in out of the cold. “Well, your day can officially start now, ladies,” Matthias teased as he shrugged out of his coat.
“Jah, but when we stopped by the mill to see if Ira and Luke wanted to ride in with us, they were chowing down on some breakfast Nazareth was serving up,” Adam, the younger one, announced. “What’s up with that?”
Annie Mae felt a rush of relief. She’d been dating Luke Hooley and wasn’t keen on how he and Ira might tease her about working at the café. Ben’s younger brothers had moved to Willow Ridge last fall and were quite a bit older than she . . . one more reason her dat had expected her to leave Willow Ridge with him. A fellow that age is only after one thing, her father had warned. So to Annie Mae, Luke had been a welcome distraction . . . a temptation that had made her feel like she must really be something, if he was interested in her.
“Well, Aunt Nazareth has her way of havin’ her way,” Ben remarked as he started toward the steam table.
“And this seems like a gut time to let you all know about another . . . development.” Bishop Tom looked around the dining room like a kid about to burst with a big secret. “Now that my ex-wife Lettie has passed on, I’m courtin’ Naz with the intention of marryin’ her real soon. And because Jerusalem’s spendin’ a few days with Vernon Gingerich—the Cedar Creek bishop ya met in church last week—it’s more proper for Naz to stay with her nephews instead of at my place. So there ya have it!”
“Oh, my stars, Tom! That’s wonderful-gut news,” Miriam gushed. “I’ve always thought you and Naz were made for each other.”
“And Aunt Jerusalem’s takin’ up with Vernon?” Ben asked. “They’ve never let on to me for a minute. But nothin’ those two gals do should surprise me.”
“Nor do they need your permission, at their age,” Preacher Gabe said with a chortle. He glanced up at Annie Mae. “How about you bring me one of Naomi’s omelets with lots of ham and cheese and onions? Side of hash browns. And a couple of Miriam’s sticky buns in a go box, for my Wilma and Millie. She’s come to stay with us now, ya know. To help with her grandmother.”
Annie Mae’s eyes widened. She and Millie Glick had become fast friends when they’d started seeing the Hooley brothers together . . . and caring for her elderly, bedfast grandmother would put a real pinch in sixteen-year-old Millie’s social life. “I—I hope that works out for ya,” she murmured as she scribbled the items on her pad. This was her very first order, and writing it down tickled her more than she’d anticipated. “We’ll get right on this.”
“I’m in no hurry. No place else to go today,” the old preacher remarked as he nodded toward someone behind her. “But those Wagler boys, I bet they’ve got jobs lined up. Adam looks ready to order off the menu rather than go to the buffet.”
When she turned, Adam was indeed seated at his table rather than joining the other fellows, who were ladling sausage gravy over biscuits while Rhoda and Rebecca filled more pans at the steam table. The Wagler place was just down the hill from where she lived—or had lived—so she’d known those fellows all her life. Their parents had passed on, their two older sisters had married and moved away, and Matthias had been widowed a couple years ago, so the two brothers lived there as bachelors. Matthias ran a harness shop in front of their house, while Adam’s home remodeling business kept him busy in all the nearby towns.
“Annie Mae! Wow, but it’s gut to see you!” Adam stood up, a smile lighting his face as she approached his table. “I was hoping you hadn’t gotten sucked into going along with—I mean—”
Annie Mae gripped her order pad, not sure what to think. Adam was a few years older and a few inches shorter than she was, and he’d always been the more outgoing of the two Wagler brothers. Was he really so glad to see her, or was he just eager for a hot breakfast like he wouldn’t get at home?
“I think I’ve just stepped in it and then put my foot in my mouth,” Adam lamented. “I’m sorry about all that business with your dat, and I’m glad to see you here, still amongst us. I was worried about you—and Nellie, too, of course,” he added quickly.
Could this morning get any more surprising? Never had she anticipated such an outpouring of support from everyone who entered the Sweet Seasons. “I got real lucky,” she murmured. “At least Nellie and I have a place to stay while we figure out what comes next. Can I bring ya something off the menu? Pour ya some coffee?”
Adam kept gazing at her. “How about a number four, with a pot of gut strong tea—two bags in it, please.”
Annie grabbed the menu on the table behind her so she wouldn’t have to reach around Adam. The laminated page looked smudged and she wished the print were a whole lot bigger. “Sorry,” she mumbled as she stared at it. “Might take me a day or two to learn what-all food goes with which numbers—”
She sucked in her breath. Adam had taken something out of his shirt pocket . . . was slipping a lightweight pair of glasses onto her nose. He positioned the sides over her ears carefully, so he wouldn’t mess up the hair that was pulled into a snug bun beneath her kapp.
“I carry several pairs of these in my wagon for my remodeling jobs,” he explained quietly. “They bring the details into focus.”
Annie Mae felt even taller and skinnier and uglier than usual. Her cheeks surely must be cherry red and her heart felt as though it was trying to pound its way out of her chest. But when she looked at the menu again, the words jumped right out at her. “Short stack of pancakes,” she rasped.
“Eggs over easy and ham with that, please,” Adam added. “Keep the specs, okay? I’ve got more.”
“Jah, I—I’ll be right back with your tea.” Annie Mae scurried into the kitchen, scribbling Adam’s order on her pad. What in the world had just happened? Of all the nerve, for Adam to put glasses on her, as though he could tell she was as blind as a bat—and wanted the rest of the world to know it, too.
Is that such a bad thing? Teacher Alberta told Dat years ago that your eyes needed checked but he thought ya could keep house and tend the kids without readin’ much . . .
“So Adam wants a short stack with over-easy eggs and ham, does he?”
Naomi’s words brought Annie Mae out of her befuddled state. “Jah, and he also ordered—”
“Hannah, the teapots are on that bottom shelf and the bags are beside them,” the cook instructed her daughter. “Adam always wants two bags in his. And if he doesn’t go to the steam table, he generally gets the number four.”
Annie Mae inhaled, hoping to pull herself together before she had to face Adam again. “Ya make this look so simple. I don’t mean to mess everything up while I’m figuring out—”
Naomi set down her spatula to grasp Annie Mae’s hand. Miriam’s partner looked calm and motherly, and after these past few years of having to act as her younger siblings’ mamm, it felt good to be looked after. Cared about.
“In a couple days you’ll know what these fellas usually eat, and you’ll feel like you’ve been workin’ here forever, dearie,” Naomi said warmly. “Always take your time. Folks appreciate it when ya get things right, even if it means they wait a few moments longer.”
“Those are awesome specs, too,” Hannah piped up. She handed over a little silver pot with two tags dangling out the side, which she’d put on a plate. “They’re like jewelry, but for your face!”
Annie Mae blinked. She had no idea what Adam’s glasses looked like—and wouldn’t she seem even more clueless if she took them off to find out? “I need all the help I can get, ain’t so?” A nervous laugh escaped her and she flipped back a page of her order pad. “And Preacher Gabe wants an omelet with lots of ham and cheese and onions, and a side of hash browns. And I’ll put two sticky buns in a go box for him.”
“I’ll get that omelet goin’. You’re doin’ just fine, Annie Mae.” Naomi nodded as though she’d just stated the most obvious of facts—as though she truly believed the morning was off to a perfect start.
So maybe you should believe it, too. After all, she’d kept her father and her five younger siblings fed and dressed after her step-mother had passed. She’d done what she had to do. And she could do it again, now that another crisis had changed her life.
Putting on a resolute smile, Annie Mae took the plate the teapot was on and glanced out the pass-through window. She knew every man in the dining room—not to mention Miriam, Rhoda, and Rebecca. She could do this. And she could do it right.
Look out, Short Stack. Ready or not, here I come.