As Leah untied the gelding and climbed into the buggy, she caught the heady scent of honeysuckle --- her favorite fl ower and one of the few that didn’t cause a fi t of sneezing. She inhaled deeply to savor the fragrance of the perfect spring day. Th e cloudless blue sky, plenty of sunshine, and not even a trace of humidity added to her good mood. Eighteen-year-old Leah Miller was a successful businesswoman --- people came from all around the county to buy her pies.
They could purchase a slice in the basement cafeteria of the auction barn or a whole pie in the ground fl oor grocery store. For the past four years she had tweaked her recipes until every one of them was a crowd-pleaser. Th e cafeteria manager had her baking popular standbys such as Dutch Apple, peach, and coconut cream while still inventing new concoctions to try out on the clientele. Maybe the red current pie and the pineapple cream didn’t exactly have folk begging for seconds, but Leah knew she had found her calling in life. Her sister, Emma, and Aunt Hannah had their smelly, wool-producing sheep, and mamm enjoyed sewing on her good days, but Leah’s place was in the kitchen. Ten bushels of beets to blanch and can, along with twenty baskets of apples to peel, core, and mince into applesauce? No problem. She would make short work of the task, no matter how large.
And the farther she stayed away from dander-ridden critters or pollen-laden meadows the better. Now that her mother took new medications for her arthritis, the two of them could handle the household tasks --- which was a good thing, as Emma had married James more than two years ago and moved to his family’s farm in Charm. With her love of baking and the drive to succeed, it hadn’t taken long for Leah to replace her coffee can of cash with an account at the bank. With her own savings passbook, commercial-grade baking pans, and a reputation for the best-tasting pies in the Mount Hope auction barn, life was good. It was so satisfying she often had to remind herself not to grow too proud or bigheaded.
As Leah left the cafeteria with her payment tucked in her purse, she noticed that a “road closed” detour sign had been put up on the route she usually took home. The highway patrol often closed stretches of road when oversized farming machinery was being moved to new locations. But with weather as nice as this, she didn’t even lift an eyebrow.
Slapping the reins against the horse’s back, she turned down the township road running diagonally from town that would eventually take her the roundabout way home. Leah was mentally listing the chores she needed to do before supper when the sound of heavy construction grabbed her attention.
“Whoa,” she called to Jack. As she focused on the commotion she began to cough and sneeze. Bulldozers had raised a thick cloud of dust in a partially paved parking lot. Backhoes were loading debris into dump trucks, while workers in hard hats scurried around picking up tools and loading sawhorses into pickups. They appeared to have finished for the day and were cleaning up the site.
“The old train cars,” she murmured to the family buggy horse. The gelding picked up his ears but offered no comment. Leah was also struck speechless. She stared at the once ramshackle passenger car and rusty caboose she’d admired nearly four years ago. Leah had entertained such lofty dreams back then but had soon forgotten her impractical notions. She had been so busy with household chores and pie baking that she’d forgotten about the abandoned train cars at the edge of town.
But someone else had recognized potential among the knee-high weeds and broken bottles. A person with vision --- and deep pockets --- had turned the rundown relic into a vision of bright enamel paint, new wooden shutters, and flower boxes of red geraniums and white petunias. The window glass had been replaced and lacy curtains fluttered in the breeze. A trellis of climbing morning glories flanked the entryway, while a neon-lit sign proclaimed the obvious: Diner.
It was as though they had read my mind…but I certainly would’ve picked a more imaginative name.
A snort from Jack broke her concentration. He wanted the bucket of oats waiting at home, but Leah needed to see more of the work in progress. She parked at the edge of the property and tied the reins to a fencepost. As she stared at the restaurant, anticipation coursed through her veins as if the establishment were hers. After the last workers left the lot, honking horns and hollering goodbyes, Leah inched closer until she stood in front of the shiny front door. Unfortunately, the train cars had been elevated with concrete piers, making peeking into windows impossible.
She noticed only two vehicles remained in the parking lot as she crept around to the back of the train. No fancy shutters or pretty flowers decorated this side, but a large shipping container had been left underneath one window. Without a moment’s hesitation, Leah climbed onto the crate and peered into the passenger car, willing herself not to sneeze from the dust.
Two women in long pastel dresses and small white prayer kapps stood facing each other. Leah knew from their style of dress that theywere Mennonite. Both looked to be in their early thirties and neither woman was smiling.
“No, April,” said the taller of the two. “I told you yesterday I couldn’t stay late today. Paul wants his supper on time for a change, and I won’t have him watching the kids after school. That’s my job.” She lifted her chin defiantly.
“But, May, we’re supposed to open in three days. I can’t unpack and wash everything by myself. I still need to write up my food order and start shopping. How can I bring supplies into such chaos?” Her hand gestured at the overflowing boxes of dishes and glassware on the floor. Desperation to the point of hysteria edged her words. “You promised to help me when I signed the lease.”
May released a sigh commensurate with bearing the weight of the world. “I have helped you every single day but the Lord’s day. My house is a mess, the laundry sits in piles, I still don’t have all my garden seeds planted, and Paul is tired of his dinner being late.”
“Paul’s tired?” April wailed. “I haven’t slept more than four hours a night since the remodeling began. My vegetable patch is still buried beneath a groundcover of weeds and last year’s leaves. And my husband barely speaks to me.” Her voice rose as shrill as a hawk’s cry. Leah knew better than to eavesdrop on their argument, but if she climbed down now she might be discovered. The women had moved closer to the open window as they faced off like circling barnyard roosters. She tried not to breathe deeply as dust settled in the parking lot.
“This was your bright idea, not mine!” May snapped. “I said I would lend a hand and I have, but I made no lifetime commitment to your pipe dream. I doubt very much that Amish and Mennonite people will be flocking here in droves. Most folk pack a cooler when they come to town on business to save money. And if you price your menu too cheaply, you’ll lose every cent of the money Dad loaned for start-up capital.”
The shorter woman crossed her arms over her wrinkled dress. “Then I would think you’d be more willing to protect his investment.”
“I have painted and caulked, scraped and sanded. I’ve sewn curtains and donated hours of my time. I helped you lift and carry in those heavy booths till my back nearly broke. And I’ve encouraged you, April, despite my opinion you were biting off more than you could chew.” A hint of sympathy crept into her voice.
Time seemed to suspend as Leah felt a wave of heat radiating from the diner’s interior.
“I know you have and I am truly grateful. If I live to be a hundred years old, I’ll still be in your debt, but can’t you stay a few more weeks till I’m up and running? Maybe until the word spreads that I’m open for business?” April placed a tentative hand on her sister’s arm. Even Leah, knowing nothing about these women beyond this conversation, knew asking for a few more “weeks” was a bad idea.
Any compassion in May’s face drained away. As though plucking a piece of lint from her skirt, she removed April’s hand. “You will never change, not as long as people keep enabling you. I will stay a couple more days to help you open, but that’s it. After that, you’ll not get another minute of my time. You must sink or swim on your own. And if you go belly-up, maybe Dad will stop bankrolling your hair-brained schemes and throwing away his money.” She looked as though she might say more, but at that moment Leah’s luck ran out. Without warning the slat-board packing crate gave way with a splintering crash. Leah tried to grab the windowsill but she toppled backward, landing on her backside in the weeds without an ounce of dignity.
“Oh, great.” May’s voice carried through the open window. “Sounds like a family of rats has moved in before your first customer arrives. I’m going home!” The sound of her words faded until the front door slammed with finality.
As Leah clumsily rose to her feet and brushed off her clothes, she heard a squeaky screen being raised above her head. “Are you okay? What are you doing out there?” A woman’s head appeared in the opening.
Two honest, direct questions, yet Leah was stymied. “Ah, well,” she stammered and then opted for the truth. “I spotted this rundown train years ago and noticed something going on today. I was curious so I decided to peek inside, not knowing anybody was still here.” She shook the remaining dead leaves from her skirt. “I thought everyone had gone home. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to spy on you.” Shame brought a rush of color into her face.
The woman’s perplexed expression changed into a grin. “No harm done. My sister and I argue all the time. Business as usual. Come inside and have a look. See if you like what I’ve done.” She glanced down at the broken crate. “Only don’t trip over anything. I’m not insured yet.” She lowered the screen and closed the window.
Leah had no choice but to walk around the train, feeling sheepish. In a moment the front door was flung open. “Come in. Don’t be shy. I’m April Lambright and this is my diner. Well, it’s mine along with the bank and my landlord, but the business is all mine.” Her dazzling smile turned her rather plain features pretty.
Leah stepped inside to cluttered disarray. Booths had been installed, but only half the tables had been set on their pedestals. Boxes, crates, and shopping bags were everywhere, while the light fixtures hung at odd angles on their electrical cords. An eight-burner commercial stove blocked the doorway to the caboose. Piles of construction debris made walking anywhere hazardous. But Leah Miller fell in love with the place. A new terra-cotta tile floor had been installed, the walls were painted sunny yellow, and an old-fashioned counter lined one side of the train car with bright red upholstered stools. When the restoration was complete, it would look modern and yet nostalgic at the same time.
“Oh, my goodness,” she whispered in awe.
“Is that a good ‘oh, my goodness’ or a bad?” April asked, studying her curiously. “And do you have a name, young lady?”
Leah snapped back from her perusal. “Definitely a good, ma’am. And I’m Leah Miller from Winesburg. Pleased to meet you.”
“Since I spotted your buggy parked outside, I didn’t suppose you were from Cincinnati.” She laughed with good humor. “Are you Old Order?”
Leah felt her cheeks flush. “Jah, I’m Old Order. My daed is a deacon in our district.” She bent down to stack some spilled canned goods.
“I always thought this place would make a great restaurant. When I was fourteen, I wanted to buy it myself.” She met April’s gaze, waiting to be laughed at. That was the reaction she’d usually received. However, the woman merely nodded. “Do you like to cook? And bake? Most Amish gals do. I’m Mennonite if you haven’t figured that out. And that woman who stormed out of here is my sister May.”
“I love cooking! I bake most of the pies and pastries for the cafeteria in Mount Hope. They order at least a dozen every week.” Leah hoped that didn’t sound too prideful, but it was the truth. April’s eyes grew round as saucers. “You bake those pies? Even the Chocolate Mousse Cream and the Dutch Apple-Walnut?” She stared at Leah as though waiting for a denial.
“Yes, ma’am. I made up both of those recipes. Have you tried them?”
“Many times, and my skirts fit tighter because of you, but stop calling me ma’am. I’m April. Ma’am makes me feel ancient, and I’m only twenty-eight. How old are you, Leah Miller?”
“Eighteen,” she answered as a dozen ideas darted through her head like minnows in a shallow stream. Even though the interior of the diner was growing oppressively hot and her scalp itched beneath her kapp, Leah stared at the restaurant owner with fascination. April seemed to be pondering a conundrum because her forehead scrunched into creases and folds. “As you probably overheard, May has been my reluctant assistant, and she’s putting in her resignation after opening day.” She shook her head sorrowfully. “Can’t say I blame her. If I had known how much work and how expensive it would be to turn this dump into a diner, I never would have signed the lease and borrowed so much money. She’s right --- I bit off more than I can chew.”
She lowered herself to a step stool and cradled her chin with her hands.
“I can’t get this place shipshape by myself, and I already paid for a newspaper ad advertising my grand opening.”
Leah spoke without hesitation. “I would be happy to help you set things up until you can find a replacement. I’ll check with my mother, but I’m sure she can spare me for a few days.”
April jumped to her feet. “That is wonderful! But what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Why don’t I hire you to replace my sister? I know lots of Amish girls work before they get married. Believe me, May’s pies can’t hold a candle to yours.” She blushed and then said,
“But please don’t ever repeat that.”
“Hire me to do what? Clean up the place at closing time?” Leah thought she might faint on the spot. Maybe because of the train’s stuffy interior or all the dusty boxes, but Leah suddenly felt dizzy and lightheaded. The room began to tilt to the left. “April, could we step outside? It’s hard to breathe with the windows closed.”
“Of course. You look white as snow.” April grabbed Leah’s arm and led her down the steps.
Outside, Leah inhaled and exhaled several deep breaths. “Oh, that’s better.”
“I’d like to hire you as my assistant,” April continued. “To do whatever needs doing --- cooking, manning the lunch counter, and cleaning up when we’re done. We would split duties down the middle.”
Her smile was so wide it revealed a gold-capped back molar. In the fresh air and sunshine, Leah’s head cleared as her excitement grew with leaps and bounds. “Jah, I’d love to work here very much! It would be my dream come true, but I can’t accept the offer until I talk to my parents.”
The owner shrugged. “No problem. If you decide to join me, let me know either tomorrow or the day after. Then we can set up a schedule for you.”
“I won’t work on the Sabbath,” Leah said.
“Of course not. We’re closed on Sundays.”
“And no Mondays, because my mamm can’t manage the laundry without me because of her arthritis.”
“We’ll be closed that day too, since not many people come to town on Mondays. Anyway, I have my own chores at home with a husband and kids to look after.” April rocked back on her heels, deep in thought. “How about you work Wednesdays through Saturdays here at the diner? Then you’ll be off on Sunday and Monday. I can manage Tuesdays here by myself --- all the action is in Farmerstown at the livestock sale. On Tuesdays, I’ll pay you to stay home baking the bread, pies, cakes, and cookies we’ll need for the week. We will open at seven for breakfast and close after lunch --- no supper. Our people usually start for home by three o’clock, and the Englischers can eat at the big tourist spot up the road.”
Leah felt as though she might levitate off the floor. Impetuously, she threw her arms around April and squeezed, not considering proper boss/employee behavior. “Danki, that sounds perfect! I’ll be back as soon as my parents give their permission.” She released the hug. April patted Leah’s shoulder, laughing. “My, goodness. You’re certainly more enthusiastic than my sister has been.”
“April and May? What happened to June?” Leah asked.
“She lives in Baltic with her husband and five children. We have a brother named August too. We assume Mom spent too much time staring at the wall calendar while carrying us.”
Leah wrapped her arms around herself. She knew she was going to like this woman. “We don’t have a phone, so if it’s all right with you, I’ll just show up if they say I can.” She took a step backward, eager to be on her way home.
April offered her hand to shake. “Just showing up sounds fine with me, Leah. I still remember that slice of Dutch Apple-Walnut pie I tasted, and that must have been more than a year ago. I’m glad you were nosy enough to peek in my window. Today is my lucky day.”
Blushing, Leah shook the outstretched hand and murmured a quick goodbye. She ran to her buggy and almost broke the reins trying to get them off the post. She couldn’t wait to put the task of asking her parents behind her. It was a good thing Jack knew all possible routes home because Leah’s mind was already swimming with favorite recipes, lists of ingredients, and how to approach her father with the opportunity of a lifetime.
Excerpted from THE WAY TO A MAN’S HEART: The Miller Family Series, Book 3 © Copyright 2011 by Mary Ellis. Reprinted with permission by Harvest House Publishers. All rights reserved.