The Christmas Craddle


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The Christmas Cradle

Seasons of the Heart, Book 6

For the peaceful town of Willow Ridge, November presents an early holiday surprise. Stranded in the snow, 18-year-old Lena Esh and her boyfriend Josiah Witmer need more than a place to stay for the night. Lena defied her strict family and their judgmental beliefs to run away with Josiah and have his baby. But she’s starting to wonder if he can prove as responsible as he is passionate. And she isn’t sure how—or if—they can ever find a place to truly call home.

Expecting their own miracle baby, Miriam and Ben Hooley rally the town to help the young couple, and Lena draws strength from their unexpected support. Though trouble may come calling, in this season of joyous rebirth, a little child will lead them. And two couples will see their dreams of forever family come true…

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Ben Hooley sprayed lemon furniture polish on a rag and wiped his fingerprints from the wooden cradle he’d just completed. His pulse thrummed steadily as he gazed at his work, a Christmas gift for his dear wife Miriam, who was round and rosy-cheeked as they anticipated the birth of their first child. For weeks he’d been crafting and sanding and staining this special cradle in his spare time, so the wood would be smooth and glossy—as beautiful as the love he’d shared with Miriam for nearly a year. He’d welded a hummingbird in pewter to adorn the headboard because she loved to watch those amazing little birds flit from flower to flower in her summertime garden.

As the snow and wind howled around his cozy smithy on this November night, however, Ben’s conflicting thoughts were anything but warm and sunny. His dilemma felt as sharp and pointed as the hummingbird’s beak, and he couldn’t seem to resolve the conflict that weighed heavily on his mind.

How could he uphold the tenets of the Old Order if he allowed his pregnant wife to keep working? Their bishop, Tom Hostetler, had been gently reminding Ben that it was a husband’s job to keep his wife at home, caring for her family—just as it was Ben’s duty as a preacher to insist that Miriam follow the ways of their Plain faith.

But how could he convince Miriam to leave her beloved Sweet Seasons café without crushing her spirit? Feeding people fulfilled her personal mission—gave her a way to reach out to people, just as Jesus had preached that his disciples should feed His sheep. Ben could simply order her to stay home, but he didn’t have it in him to remove the smile from her lovely face. Miriam was everything to him—and that, too, posed a problem because his love for God was supposed to be his first priority.

Ben put away his tools, craving the company of his wife as he pondered this important issue. He asked God for guidance, for the right words to win Miriam’s compliance—

A beam of headlights pulled him from his deep thoughts. Ben was amazed to see how much snow had clung to his window since he’d come to the smithy after supper, and the longer the lights shone into his shop the more concerned he became. He slipped into his coat and hat, wondering why anyone would be traveling in a snowstorm so late in the evening. He pushed hard against the door, sweeping three or four inches of fresh snow aside with it as he stepped out into the nasty weather.

The bay mare hitched to the buggy in front of his shop hung her head tiredly as the white snow collected on her back. Ben had walked only a few yards before he heard two loud voices coming from the rig. He sensed a conflict far greater than his own as a young woman raised desperate questions while her driver lashed out in frustrated exhaustion. He had no desire to get involved in this couple’s argument—yearned to rejoin Miriam in their cozy kitchen—but he couldn’t leave two stranded travelers to fend for themselves on such a dangerous night.

Magdalena Esh wrapped the worn blanket more snugly around her shoulders, groaning from exhaustion. Fat, icy flakes were pelting the buggy, threatening to overwhelm the windshield wipers. She had no idea where the side of the snow-packed road ended and the ditch began. She was so tired of riding—so stiff from clutching the bulge of her unborn child—she wanted to scream.

“Why are we pulling over, Josiah?” she demanded. “This can’t be Higher Ground.

There’s supposed to be a big stone sign out by the road, and—”

“We took a wrong turn, got it?” the young man beside her snapped. He yanked on the lines to halt the horse. “You haven’t stopped whining since we left this morning. I can’t think straight—can’t see a blasted thing because of this snowstorm—and your yammering is driving me nuts!”

Lena sat taller despite her aching back. “I suppose it’s also my fault that Dolly threw a shoe?”

“If you want to take the blame for that, be my guest.” Josiah glared at her, his dark eyes narrowing beneath the brim of his black hat. “I should never have told you I had a new job in Higher Ground. Should’ve just—”

“Taken off without me?” Lena finished hotly. “What a lovely thing to say, just a month before your baby’s to be born! You liked me well enough when we were—”

“You didn’t exactly push me away, Lena!” he countered. “Now shut up! There’s a light in that building, so I’m going inside to see—”

A sharp rapping on the side of the buggy made them both suck in their breath. Through the fogged window Lena could make out the shape of a man’s head. She hoped by some far-flung miracle it would be the Hiram Knepp who’d hired Josiah rather than someone bent on taking advantage of their desperate situation.

Why did you ever think Josiah Witmer would look after you? Your parents warned you and you didn’t listen.

The baby shifted restlessly, kicking her insides. Lena knew she’d start crying again if she didn’t get out of this rig soon.

Josiah opened the buggy door, letting in a gust of snowy air as the man’s face became visible. Lena was relieved that his broad-brimmed hat and beard were signs he was Plain.

“How can I help ya?” he asked earnestly. “It’s not fit weather for man nor beast, and it’s gettin’ too dark to be out on these snowy roads.”

“We’ve veered off our route,” Josiah replied. “Where might I get my horse a new shoe, and maybe find a place to stay the night?”

The man’s face lit up. “You’re not as lost as ya thought. I’m a farrier and this is my smithy,” he replied, gesturing toward the building behind him. “Pull your rig over here. Let’s get you kids in out of the cold.”

Denki,” Josiah murmured. “Show me where to park, all right?”

The man grasped the harness to guide Dolly closer to the smithy. As the buggy lurched forward, Josiah closed the door with a tired sigh.

“What if he turns us away when he realizes we’re not married?” Lena asked with a hitch in her voice. “What if we’re not even close to Higher Ground and—”

“We’ll deal with it, okay?” he muttered. “If I’d known you were the type to worry over every little thing, I’d never have—”

“You’re calling this baby a little thing?” Lena countered. “When are you going to figure out that this little person will need food and clothes and—”

The buggy halted and once again a rapping on the window silenced them. Josiah flashed her a warning scowl before opening the door. Lena thought he might leave her to clamber out of the rig by herself—being short and eight months along made even the simplest maneuvering more difficult these days—so when Josiah offered his hand, Lena grabbed it before he could change his mind.

As they followed the man into the smithy, Lena was immediately grateful for the fire in the forge. She shook the snow from her old blanket, sensing their host was assessing her and Josiah. He removed his hat and offered his hand.

“Ben Hooley,” he said. “You’ve made it to Willow Ridge, but you intended to be somewhere else, I take it?”

Jah, we’re going to the new colony at Higher Ground,” Josiah replied as he grasped Ben’s sturdy hand. “I’m Josiah Witmer, and Hiram Knepp’s hired me to cook in his new supper club. This is Lena Esh. We’re mighty glad we found you because I don’t think either of us can take much more of that rig and the road today.”

“It’s gotten dangerous out,” Ben agreed. His hazel eyes had widened while Josiah was talking, and he seemed to be considering his reply carefully.

He noticed we have different last names, so he might not let us stay. Lena pressed her lips together to keep from crying. It’s been one disaster after another these past eight months.

“It’s awful late to shoe your mare,” Ben remarked. “How about if I stable her here for the night? I’ve got a place for ya to stay, and my wife’ll fix ya some supper, but—”

Lena held her breath when the Hooley fellow’s face stiffened.

“You’ll have to stop fightin’,” he stated firmly. “My Miriam is also expectin’ a child soon and I won’t have our home turned into a battleground. If I see her gettin’ upset because of your raised voices, you’ll be on your way. Understand?”

Lena’s face went hot. Had she and Josiah been squabbling so loudly that their words had carried outside the buggy? It seemed they were constantly pushing each another’s buttons—although it hadn’t been that way before she’d told Josiah she was pregnant.

Lena closed her eyes, exhausted. “I’m so tired of fighting,” she murmured, pressing her hand into the small of her back. “I’ll hold my tongue if you will, Josiah.”

Josiah’s eyebrows rose in resentment, but then he exhaled wearily. “All right, we’ll call a truce.”

“Glad to hear it. You’ll feel better for speakin’ more kindly to each other,” Ben said with a nod. “I’ll tend your horse and be back in a few.”

Lena watched their host head back outside into the flying snow. The walls of Ben Hooley’s shop were lined with tools hung on pegs and cabinets that were cleared of all extraneous items—a place for everything and everything in its place. On a worktable near the forge she spotted a cradle that glimmered in the firelight.

“Oh, Josiah, look,” she murmured. Like the old-fashioned cradles often passed down from generation to generation, this one sat on a table or the floor rather than on tall legs. Lena ran her finger along its glossy wooden sides, in awe of the headboard’s intricate metalwork. A pewter-colored hummingbird sipped from a morning glory bloom, with vines and tinier blooms flowing along the headboard’s curved edges. “Do you suppose Ben made this?”

“For his upcoming baby, most likely,” Josiah replied as he, too, admired the piece. With one finger, he made the cradle rock on the worktable—and then he backed away as though the hummingbird had stabbed him with its long, pointed beak.

See how spooked he is about this baby? Lena thought ruefully. No doubt Ben Hooley was devoted to his wife and was eagerly awaiting their child. How she yearned for that kind of love—a rock-solid relationship she feared Josiah Witmer wasn’t ready to give her. Her mother had begged her to return to Aunt Clara’s rather than leaving with this good-looking, impetuous young man. Her dat had told her not to bother coming home if she took up with such a no-account, restless dreamer. If their Missouri adventure went wrong, Lena couldn’t return to Bloomfield, Iowa. She’d have to face the consequences of loving a man who wouldn’t commit himself to her and their baby.

Lena swallowed the lump in her throat. Lord, every time I come to You I’m begging, but please, please get me through this ordeal. Help me raise this child right, she prayed. Even if I have to do it alone.

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