“And what shall I bring for your dinner, Micah?” Rachel Lantz grinned at the broad-shouldered blonde seated at the back table of the Good Seasons Bakery Café. “We’ve got an order or two of Naomi’s meat loaf left, and Mamma’s chicken and noodles—and jah, those stuffed peppers ya like so well.”
Although he knew their daily menu by heart, he pretended to study the specials she’d written on the dry-erase board this morning. His hair showed a slight ridge from his straw hat, now hung on the nearby wall peg, and she felt the heat of his sturdy body after his morning of building cabinets with the other Brenneman boys in their shop. It was his steadfast strength that appealed to her, even if he took his sweet time deliberating over decisions. “I’m thinkin’ I had the hash browns Tuesday at lunch and Thursday for breakfast . . . hmmmm . . . kinda warm for those heavy slabs of meatloaf . . .”
Rachel stood as close to him as she dared, watching her twin sister Rhoda set two plates of the meat loaf in front of Bram and Nate Kanagy at a table across the way. “The stuffed peppers, then? Leah picked us a basket of red ones, fresh this morning. They look mighty gut, smothered in all that cheese.”
Micah glanced at his brothers, Seth and Aaron, who piled their plates high at the salad bar. “Jah, but I’d rather have a double order of hugs with a side of your kisses, Rachel. When can you dish me up some of those?” he murmured.
When his deep green eyes sparkled up at her, Rachel’s cheeks tingled. He’d finally proposed to her last week! Would they hint at their plans to marry at next weekend’s ice cream social, or maintain tradition and keep it a secret? No doubt the rest of the summer would pass by mighty fast if she had dresses and household linens to make—quicker than this carpenter decided on his lunch, it would seem! Yet how could she fault Micah for pondering his menu choices each day, when it gave him a few extra minutes to gaze up at her with such fondness lighting his handsome face?
His older brother Seth sat down across the table and forked up a mouthful of cucumber and onion salad. “We’ve gotta get back to the shop sometime today, ya know,” he teased.
“Ah, but time means nothin’ to a fella stuck on the likes of Rachel,” Aaron, the youngest Brenneman, chimed in. “Sweeter than this wonderful-gut frog-eye fruit salad, she is. Like havin’ your dessert first.”
Rachel wound a string of her kapp around her finger, grinning despite the heat in her cheeks. That cold, creamy salad, made with tiny pasta BBs, was her favorite on a warm summer day, too—not that sharing this opinion would make Aaron stop teasing her. These brothers kept her on her toes, but they were as solid as the lustrous tables and chairs they’d built for the café, which served as a showcase for their custom craftsmanship. She nodded at the lady at table two, who tapped her empty iced tea glass. “Back in a minute, Micah. By then you’d oughtta know—”
“Bring me whatever ya think looks best, Rache,” he said as she started toward the counter of filled pitchers. “With a side of green beans and a big slice of your lemon icebox pie!”
“Bring me some of that pie, too!”
“Me three!” his brothers called after her.
“Jah, jah,” Rachel murmured as she refilled all the glasses at table two. She smiled politely at this trio of older English ladies, who had sacks from the adjoining quilt shop beside their feet. “Will ya be havin’ anything else today?”
“Is that a rhubarb pie in your bakery case?”
“Yes, ma’am. Mamma baked it fresh this mornin’.” Rachel flipped through her ticket tablet to figure their tab, noting the van full of customers pulling up outside. This summer’s tourist business would be brisk, if today’s lunch crowd was any indication.
“Wrap that pie, then! I’ll take it home to my husband—as his reward for not coming along with us today!”
Her friends giggled and continued chattering as Rachel strode toward the front counter. While she put the pie in a carry-out box, she called her order through the serving window. “A plate of the peppers for Micah, side of green beans. Three pieces of the lemon icebox—and ya got any more rhubarb pies, Mamma? I’m boxin’ your last one here.”
Her mother glanced up from the work island in the middle of the kitchen, where she was slicing an assortment of fruit pies for a customer’s family reunion this evening. She’d rolled her black sleeves above her elbows and her face was flushed from working in the heat of the ovens since three this morning. “I’ll have to look, honey-bug. Rhoda just took down an order for ten dozen zucchini corn muffins, plus sandwich buns, goin’ to a barbeque. And Naomi’s been scurryin’ to make more meat loaf and the fillin’ for another pan of peppers.”
Naomi Brenneman, her mother’s partner in the café—and Micah’s mamm—flashed her a brown-eyed smile. “What a day it’s been! Busier than Leah’s bees, we are!”
“Des gut, ain’t so?” Rachel fetched a lemon pie from the refrigerator and quickly plated the three biggest wedges. “Better than your wonderin’ if we’d make a go of it, when we opened this time last year, Mamma.”
“Can ya catch table three, Rachel?” her twin called from the crowded doorway. “I’ll be pullin’ four tables together for all these folks comin’ in from the senior center’s van.”
The Kanagy brothers jumped up from their lunch to assist her sister as Rachel delivered Micah’s meal and the slices of lemon pie. “Back in a few, boys,” she murmured. “Help yourselves to tea and lemonade refills, will ya?”
Inhaling deeply to catch her breath, Rachel wondered if they should hire another girl for the summer . . . Naomi’s daughter Hannah, perhaps. She stopped beside table three and quickly reminded herself not to judge a book by its cover: the young woman who focused on the laminated menu sported short, spiky hair dyed witch-black. She wore tight black jeans with a matching tank top that revealed two tattoos on her back. And was that a little barbell piercing her eyebrow?
“Oh, gimme the meat loaf, I guess,” she muttered.
“I’d recommend the stuffed peppers or the smothered hash browns. If ya can wait, though, we’ll have more meatloaf in maybe fifteen minutes. Sorry,” Rachel replied. Thank goodness not many of their English guests looked like something the cat dragged in. Or something left over from a Halloween party gone to the devil, judging from those black fingernails and the heavy silver rings linked by chains to a leather band around her wrist.
“Fifteen minutes? You gotta be—”
The girl’s curse word made Rachel grip her tablet to keep from dropping it. But when this guest raised her face to stare rudely, with blue eyes lined in coal-black eyeliner and heavy mascara, Rachel’s mouth dropped open: was it her imagination, or was that Rhoda beneath all that makeup? Why, scrubbed clean and framed in a fresh kapp, that could well be the face she saw in her own mirror each morning! Her breath left her in a rush, as though her mare had kicked her in the chest. Rachel backed away, stammering. “Excuse me, but I—I’ll be back to take your order in—”
The bottom dropped from her stomach as she rushed toward the kitchen. Didn’t matter that Micah and her friends might be wondering about the girl’s outburst, or about the way Rachel ignored two guests who called for their checks. She hurried through the Dutch door, seeking sanctuary—from what, she wasn’t sure. She fanned herself with her tablet, too ferhoodled to help Naomi take a big pan of sizzling meat loaves from the oven.
“Rachel? Ya look like you’ve seen a ghost!” Her mother’s knife paused halfway across the cherry pie she was cutting.
What could she say? Rachel felt silly for that little flash of imagination, thinking the girl in black looked like . . . yet her stomach had tied itself in a knot and her pulse pounded as though warning her of something ominous. “I—I don’t know what to—” She shook her head to clear it. “The girl at table three, by the window, well—she looks exactly like Rhoda. Or me, if ya don’t count her ghouly clothes and hair.”
Naomi’s eyebrows rose as she glanced at Rachel’s mother. Mamma stepped sideways to gaze into the café’s crowded dining room, and then she walked slowly toward the serving window for a better view. The color left her face. Her knife hit the floor. “How on God’s good earth—? Can it be?” Her expression vacillated between confusion and disbelief and . . . fear. But what would her mother have to be afraid of? Mamma wrung her apron in her hands, and with a whimper like a startled pup’s, she headed into the main room of the café.
Rachel looked at Naomi, feeling stupid and inconsiderate. “I shoulda stayed out there. Didn’t mean to come in here upsettin’ Mamma, what with her finally recoverin’ from Dat’s passin’.”
“Let’s go with her, then,” her mother’s best friend said. “Even if Miriam doesn’t need our help, I’m thinkin’ your sister could use a hand with that group that just came in.”
* * *
Dear God, give me the strength to handle this scary situation. My toes feel ready to curl right through my shoes.
Miriam Lantz approached the girl in black slowly, feeling trapped inside a bubble that kept out the café’s loud chatter and the aromas of cooked beef and onions. Were her mind and eyes playing tricks on her? Rachel had described the face beneath that spiky black hair to a tee, and while Miriam knew she was staring, she couldn’t help herself. She had no words for the whirlwind of emotions that raged in her heart and soul, just as the river had raged in a flash flood, back in 1993 . . .
Once again her leg muscles clenched with the effort of clambering up that slick, muddy riverbank during a sudden downpour, as adrenalin and terror raced through her—but not as swiftly as that swollen river had risen up its banks. Her arms ached with the memory of clutching her frightened toddlers, Rachel and Rhoda, as she cried out to Rebecca, who had wiggled out of her grasp. Nothing could match the horror—the abject helplessness—she’d felt when the wild water snatched her baby girl and carried her downstream. Her little body, in a pink dress, was never found. Friends going door-to-door in the towns downriver returned without her precious child. Most in Willow Ridge had filed this incident far back in their memories, and her two remaining girls had been too young at the time to recall that fateful day.
But a mother never forgets. And she never forgives herself . . . forever wonders if God took her baby as a sign that she was too inept or unworthy to be raising His children.
Wouldn’t a good mother have had better control of her girls? Wouldn’t a competent wife have paid closer attention to the rapid rise of those flood waters? Her marriage to Jesse Lantz had never been quite the same afterwards, for even as he, too, grieved the disappearance of their daughter, a cloud had hovered over their home as the years went by and she’d been unable to conceive again.
Miriam swallowed hard. Her heart hammered in her chest as somehow one foot found its way in front of the other, past guests who asked for more coffee or their checks. While she found the young woman’s spiky dyed hair and heavy makeup distasteful—and why would anyone have a skull tattooed on her shoulder?—Miriam couldn’t look away from those pale blue eyes and the facial structure the girls had gotten from their dat.
How she wished Jesse were alive to help her now! This Englisher was a brazen one: she stared outright at Miriam’s sweaty black dress, her kapp, and the dark apron smeared with flour and filling from a day of baking pies. Her attitude announced itself as blatantly as that tight, skimpy shirt accentuated breasts the same size as her sisters’. This sort of confrontation wasn’t something her other girls had ever gloried in; wasn’t something most Plain folk tolerated or brought on.
But she had to find words. She was the adult here . . . and there was a chance she was mistaken. Caught up in wistful memories revived, now that this outsider had bumped the scar on her soul.
Vaguely aware that Naomi and the girls were seating a large group behind her, Miriam cleared her throat. She clasped her hands to keep from crumpling her apron. “I—I don’t mean to be nosy, but—”
The girl smirked. “Okay, look, I said I wanted meatloaf but forget it. I can’t wait that long—”
“—when my daughter Rachel remarked on how close ya resembled Rhoda—”
“—so lemme outta here, will ya?” the young woman demanded as she grabbed a Wal-Mart sack from the chair beside her. “This was a huge mistake. My bad.”
Miriam sidestepped quickly when the girl stood up so fast her chair struck the one behind her. Why was she so angry? And why had she come here in the first place? Willow Ridge was a quiet little community where Plain folk farmed and sold their handmade items to supplement their incomes. Tourists with piercings, wearing black leather wrist bands, rarely ate here.
When a wad of pink fabric fell from the sack, the young woman swore and grabbed for it but Miriam snatched it from the floor just that fast. Every fiber of her body vibrated with recognition of that little dress before this ungracious stranger could shove it back in the bag. She cried out, clutching this memento of the worst day of her life.
“Dear God, can it be? It’s nothin’ short of a—it’s a miracle!” Before Miriam realized it, she was laughing and crying hysterically while she embraced the young woman who was trying to leave.
The girl jerked away in disgust. “Hey, I didn’t come here to star in a big scene!”
“Mamma, are you all right? Whatever’s makin’ ya act so crazy-like?” Rhoda glared at the girl in black as she flung an arm around Miriam’s shoulders while Naomi stepped up beside her, as well. The entire café had gone quiet: the Kanagy boys and Naomi’s sons had stepped closer, and all the customers lingering over lunch had stopped eating. Rachel, too, watched her warily from that big table of customers who’d just sat down.
Swiping at her eyes and still shaking, Miriam studied the young woman more closely: if she were going to demand answers she had to ask the right questions, even if her mind was in such an excited muddle she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “Where’d ya get this little dress?” was all she could whisper, her throat had gone so dry.
Those black-lined eyes flashed, yet their crystal blue color softened for a moment. Then she glared around the dining room. “Okay, look—show’s over! Got it?” she announced loudly. Her gaze lingered on Naomi and Rhoda, but she didn’t tell them to leave. Once the Brenneman boys and their friends returned to their tables, the girl in black took her seat again. Pointed to the chair across the table.
Don’t forget about that help I asked for, God.
Miriam sat down, dazed. She smiled gratefully when Naomi poured her a glass of lemonade and then eased away, to wait on the folks who’d just come in. Nothing could possibly have prepared her for this moment: nearly nineteen years she’d dreamed of it, not daring to hope it would ever come to pass. But there was no denying the little dress she’d sewn with her own hands, as a young mother, and she couldn’t help herself: she buried her face in the faded, yellowed fabric. It smelled faintly of cedar, but what did that matter? The only other person on this earth with a connection to this dress was now seated across from her. Looking as flummoxed as she felt.
“I don’t believe what my old man told me.” The young woman leaned on the tabletop to nail Miriam with a doubtful gaze. “I was going through Mom’s stuff after . . . after her service last week. Found this at the very bottom of her cedar chest. That’s when Dad said I wasn’t their natural-born daughter—that he rescued me from a tree being washed down the Missouri river in the flood of Ninety-three.”
The young woman’s eyes misted over and she looked away. “I don’t know what to believe, now that I’m here. But it’s, like, obvious they’ve kept some really huge secrets from me.”