A gnawing sense of guilt defines my life, yet I am too obstinate to fess up to the sin which so easily besets me. What I want to do and what I ought to do get ferhoodled in my head and in my heart. This is especially trying when it comes to my twice-weekly visits to Cousin Julia Ranck's, where I am hired to help with her two young children and do some light housekeeping ... and where I spend time working alone in the little attic room created just for me, my undisclosed haven. There, I take a measure of joy in the world of forbidden color --- paint, canvas, and brushes --- this secret place known only to my Mennonite kinfolk, and to the Lord God himself.
Deep on the inside, though, where it matters most, my heart is torn. I have striven to follow in the Old Ways since childhood, to match the expectations of my parents and the church, only to fail.
It annoys me no end that some Amish bishops allow for artistic expression, permitting their people to create and sell art, while our bishop does not.
I was just six when my preacher-father's probing brown eyes did all the reprimanding necessary to stir up shame in my soul when I was caught wistfully drawing a sleek black kitty, high in the haymow. From then on, I learned to hide my art from prying eyes, even though I wished for a way to put a stop to it altogether.
Usually Daed had only to read out loud the Fifty-first Psalm for me to see the folly of my ways: Have mercy upon me, O God ... blot out my transgressions.... King David's words rang ceaselessly in my ears until the next "holy scolding" for other acts of childish immaturity, though not again related to my pencil drawings ... till I was caught again at age fourteen.
Have mercy, indeed.
There were times as a girl when I would sooner have welcomed a lickin' than the righteous gaze of my lanky, bearded father. It seemed he could see straight through to my heart. He had an uncanny way about him when it came to that, as well as the way his sermons stuck in my head for months on end. More times than I can count, I endured his deliberate silence, followed by his deeply drawn sigh and then a belabored reading from the Scriptures.
Unlike my six brothers --- three older and already married, and three younger and looking to get hitched --- I have never had the switch applied to my "seat of learning." Seeing as how some mules round these parts are less stubborn, it sure says a lot for the patience of my father, at least toward me.
Here lately, I have been urged to join the communion of earthly saints --- our local Amish district. And since I marked my twentieth birthday back the end of April, I am keenly aware of concerned faces at nearly every gathering. Daed is doubly responsible under God on my behalf, Mamm says frequently, beseeching me to heed the warning. If I keep putting off my decision, well, that alone will become a choice, and in due time, I will have to leave the community of the People. I don't see how I could ever up and leave behind my family and all that I know and love.
But what gets my goat is the intense expectation regarding my upcoming decision. Joining church won't make me a good person. I know that. I live in this community; I know what makes most of these folk tick. Some live double lives, just as I'm living now --- teen boys who take advantage of tipsy girls behind the bushes at corn-husking bees, and young women who parade around in pious cape dresses but whose hearts do not measure up to the Holy Scriptures. Most of this comes from our unbaptized youth, during rumschpringe. Still there is plenty of two-facedness. We're all human after all.
Alas, another sin has embedded itself within my soul: loving Rudy Esh and leading him to think I would marry him one day. Rudy formerly held the number one spot in my heart, even ahead of the Good Lord. But now, after three solid years of courting me, he has found a new sweetheart-girl. I'm obliged to show kindness where they're concerned, the utmost tolerance, too ... things expected of me but increasingly difficult to demonstrate with any amount of sincerity. Handsome Rudy is soon to become a baptized church member and, no doubt, husband to his new sweetheart. Although I cared deeply for him, and he for me, I never shared with him my obsession with fine art. And since I wasn't ready to put any of that aside to join church, which is required before a wedding can take place, I am largely at fault for our breakup. He must surely be relieved, having pulled his hair out, so to speak, because of my resistance. "Heaven sakes, Annie," Rudy would say time and again, "why can't you just make the church vow and be done with it?" My answer always exasperated him: "I'm not ready." But I couldn't say why.
So I've lost my first and only love, which saddens me no end. Not that I should be bold enough to plead for his affection again, even though I was steady in my fondness for him from age seventeen till he decided he preferred Susie Yoder's company. All this adds up to three wasted years of faithfulness, to be sure ... and now I am as lonely as ever a girl could be. A few years ago I would have shared this sorrow with my best friend, Essie, but lately my former playmate seems weighed down with her own set of grown-up problems.
Truth be told, only one other person knows about my fractured heart. My secret thoughts are safe with Louisa Stratford, an English girl who lives far away in Colorado. At twenty-two, she is engaged to be married, and for that I am most happy, seeing as how we're wonderful-good friends. Even though Louisa is fancy and I'm Plain, she's been reading my letters and writing back since she was nearly eleven years old. And if she hadn't sent that first drawing in her little letter --- those delicate blossoms of forget-me-nots --- so long ago, I might never have wondered if I, too, possessed any real talent.
I wish I could honor her by attending the splendid wedding she and her mother are planning. The thought of a big-city wedding in a faraway place surrounded by flowers and candles and girls in colorful dresses entices me terribly ... things never, ever seen at an Amish wedding. Such things described in Louisa's letters have me completely intrigued, I daresay.
Naturally, I would stick out to kingdom come if I were brazen enough to go. Still I stare curiously at the pretty invitation with its raised gold lettering and wonder what it might be like.
Mamm would say it is out of the question to consider such a trip, even though I'm a grown woman. I can hear her going on and on about her fears. You might get lost or worse in the maze of the hustle-bustle. You've never left Lancaster County, for pity's sake! You might get yourself kidnapped, Annie Zook! Even so, I have yet to turn down my dear friend.
Honestly, my mother is wound tighter than a fiddle string when it comes to her children and grandchildren, often reminding my eldest brother, Jesse Jr., twenty-six, and his wife, Sarah Mae, to keep close watch on their two youngest, especially come dusk. "You can never be too careful," she has said for the ten-thousandth time. It's not her fault, only an indication that not a soul has ever forgotten how dreadful it was for one of our own little ones to be stolen away, right here in the middle of Paradise. A heavenly-sounding sort of place, but one that's seen its share of heartache and mystery.
Here lately I've been going and standing beside Pequea Creek, staring at the well-known thicket of trees where little Isaac was snatched from the People ... where I sometimes would swing double with him on the long tree swing. Where Isaac and I --- and our brothers --- often tossed twigs into the creek, watching them float away to who knows where.
Now I can't help wondering if I dare paint that setting in all its autumn beauty, as another side to the sad story. Perhaps by spreading the radiance of pastel gold on a canvas, I might somehow lessen the ominous side of the now-tranquil scene ... even though my hand will surely tremble as I do, recalling Mamm's telling of the terrifying ordeal. When a bad thing happens to one family, it happens to us all, my mother says.
If that is true, then Rudy breaking off our courtship will also cause a wrinkle on the page of my life and everyone else's, too. For one, my future children --- Daed's and Mamm's would-be grandchildren --- will not have his gentle eyes and auburn hair, nor his fun-loving disposition. But even worse, I may never have babies at all. Yet if I were to abandon my paints and brushes in order to join church and marry, would I ever be truly happy? And yet ... since I gave up the chance to wed a good Amish boy like Rudy, will I ever again know love? Oh, such a troublesome dilemma I face, and one that continually torments my soul.
A late October mist draped itself over fields beseeching the harvest as Annie Zook walked along the narrow road to her Ranck cousins' house. Waving at a half dozen Amish neighbors out raking leaves, she felt all wound up, hoping for at least a few minutes to slip away to Cousin Julia's attic to work on her latest painting. Once her chores were done.
A gray and dismal sort of day was quite perfect for artistic work. Something about the anticipation of eventual sunshine, its warming glow held back by the cheerless clouds, made her feel full, yet achingly empty ... and terribly creative, all at once. Even though the desire to express oneself artistically was considered by her particular district as wrongdoing, she saw no way out whatsoever.
She was still in her rumschpringe, the "in between" years --- that murky transition between juvenile immaturity and adulthood ... and church membership. Still, being the daughter of an ordained minister put an unwelcome clamp on her as she struggled to find her bearings. And yet, the thought of disappointing her parents went against the grain of her existence --- it was the primary motivation for concealing her love of art.
Annie turned her thoughts away from her life struggle to adorable two-year-old Molly Ranck, Julia's youngest, who had been scratching herself nearly raw with chicken pox two days ago. Dear thing. It had been all Annie could do to keep her occupied, what with the oatmeal bath and repeated dabs with calamine lotion. So there had not been a speck of time to work on the waiting canvas last visit.
She quickened her pace, somewhat surprised to see Deacon Byler's new house under roof already, and just when had that happened? Then, when she came upon the intersection, she became aware that the Lapps' corn was already going down and they must be filling silo, thus making it easier to see at the crossroads once again. How'd I miss that?
She realized she must have been walking in a fog of her own making since Rudy's parting words three months ago this coming Saturday. How had the changing landscape not registered in her brain?
This must be grief! When you hurt this bad, you push it way down inside. She remembered feeling this gloomy once before in her life, when, as a little girl, she'd stumbled upon Mamm in a mire of tears. But there was no sense in pondering to death that day.
She made a point to be more mindful of the details around her now --- shapes, shadows, and depths of color. She took in the hazy morning splendor as it arched freely over muted green stalks, the burgundy-red barn of their English neighbors --- the Danz family --- coming into view, and the dark roof of the red-sided covered bridge not far from the old gray-stone London Vale Mill.
I'm painting God's creation! she thought, justifying her ongoing transgression.
She thought of her pen pal in Colorado, wanting to squeeze in a few minutes to write a letter to Louisa, who seemed to understand her best these days.
She contemplated the first time she had unintentionally embarrassed her English friend. It had happened early on in their letter writing, when brown-haired Louisa sent a small wallet-sized school photograph of herself, asking for the same from Annie. Not wanting to put Louisa on the spot, Annie had explained that the People didn't take pictures of themselves, carefully following the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
So she'd attempted to get around the Scripture and simply drew a colored-pencil self-portrait, showing the oval shape of her face, the single dimple, the soft blue in her eyes, and her golden-blond hair. She had also sketched the sacred symbol --- the white heart-shaped head covering with its white ribbons dangling onto the bodice of her light green cape dress.
Such a long time ago, she thought, remembering how Louisa had written back with praise about the drawing, saying she'd immediately framed it for her bedside table. Annie wondered if Louisa still had it.
Here recently Annie had spent a rainy afternoon, counting her letters from Louisa, only to quit after reaching nearly five hundred. Smiling now at her amazing connection, not only with the outside world but with her English friend, she began to swing her arms, enjoying the pleasure of walking instead of having to hitch up the horse and carriage, as she often did to help Mamm on market days.
Yet even as she pretended to be carefree, she could not ignore the pangs of guilt.
Good thing Daed has no idea. She pondered the significance of her actions, or when it came to joining church, her lack thereof.
Sighing, she spied an enclosed gray buggy up ahead, pulled by a prancing steed with shiny new horseshoes. The young woman driver waved urgently. "Annie, is that you?"
Pleased as pie, Annie waved back just as enthusiastically. "Hullo, there!" she called, hoping Rudy's younger sister might stop and chat a bit.
"I'm so glad I ran into you," Rhoda said, pulling on the reins. She motioned for Annie to get in the buggy. "Come on 'n' ride with me, won't ya? We best be talkin' some."
Annie lifted her skirt and climbed into the buggy.
Right away, Rhoda spoke her mind. "I'm not s'posed to know, prob'ly, but Susie Yoder's cousin's big-mouthed sister said Rudy has been seein' Susie 'stead of you." Rhoda's brown eyes were about as big as gingersnaps.
Annie shrugged. "My lips are zipped."
"Aw, surely ya know something ... after all, Rudy was your beau all them years." Rhoda eyed her curiously and slapped the reins, getting the steed moving again.
"Well, if ya must know, ask him."
"I'm askin' you!"
Annie kept her eyes forward, wishing she might've continued to walk instead of accepting the ride.
"Can't ya give me a hint ... the least little one?" Rhoda pleaded. "Honestly, I'm in your corner. I wouldn't want Susie Yoder for my sister-in-law."
"Oh, why not? She's a right nice girl."
Rhoda paused a moment. Then she said, "Well, I'd have to say it's because she's nothin' like you."
Ain't that the truth, thought Annie.
"Surely Rudy didn't have a fallin' out with ya, did he?"
Puh! Truth was they'd fussed like two cats toward the end. One of them feistier than the other. Even so, Rudy had been the most wonderfully kind --- even affectionate --- boy she'd ever known during the years of their courtship. She had accepted rides home from Sunday night singing with several other fellows before him, but the minute she'd met Rudy, there was no other for her. Rhoda knew as well as anyone there was nothing bad to report about her own brother. He was not a troublemaker like some fellas. If anything, she had been the problem, unwilling to join church when he was ready to.
"We've parted ways, Rhoda, and that's all I'm gonna say."
Rhoda sniffled, like she might burst out crying, but Annie decided no fit of temper was going to change her mind. What had transpired between Rudy and herself was nobody's business. Least of all Rhoda's, who Annie just realized was something of a tittle-tattle.
They rode a good quarter mile in silence. Then, hesitantly, Rhoda asked, "Where're ya headed?"
"To my cousins, Irvin and Julia's, but I can get out here and walk the rest of the way." She wished Rhoda would take that as a hint to halt the horse.
"No ... no, that's all right. Ain't so far out of my way."
In a few minutes, they arrived at the redbrick house, set back a ways from the road. Irvin Ranck owned a harness shop across the vast meadow behind the house, in a barnlike structure he'd built years ago. Daed had always spoken well of his first cousin. Irvin was a good and honest man, one Mennonite the Amish farmers didn't mind paying for their stable gear. Just maybe that was the reason her father hadn't protested her working for the Rancks, even though Irvin's family had left the Amish church many decades before.
"Denki for the ride," Annie said, hopping down from the carriage.
"I'll be seein' ya" was all Rhoda said with a quick wave.
Hurrying up the walkway to the prim house, Annie spied four-year-old James pushing a toy lawn mower over a pile of leaves in the side yard. "Hullo!" she called and was delighted to see his eager smile.
"Cousin Annie!" the towheaded tyke called, running toward her with open arms.
"How's your little sister?" She gave him a quick squeeze and let him go.
"Oh, Molly's got lots of bumps ... you'll see." James hurried alongside her as they rounded the corner of the house, entered through the back door, and walked upstairs to the nursery.
James was quite right. Molly had oodles more chicken pox bumps than two days ago, wearing mittens now so she couldn't scratch. She was plumped up with several pillows, sitting in her toddler-sized bed made by her father.
"Annie's here ..." said Molly, trying to smile.
"Jah, I'm here, sweet one. And we'll look at lots of books together, all right?" Her heart went out to the little blond girl with eyes blue as cornflowers.
That brought a bigger smile to Molly's face, and James promptly went to the small bookcase and picked up a stack of board books. "These are Molly's favorites," he said, placing them gently in Annie's hands.
Bright-eyed Julia sat on the edge of her daughter's small bed, looking pretty in one of her hand-sewn floral print dresses. She wore her light brown hair in a bun, similar to Annie's, only Julia's was set higher on her head. Atop her bun, she wore the formal cup-shaped Mennonite head covering.
"I need to visit one of my expectant mothers in Strasburg today," Julia said softly. "She wants me present at the birth of her baby in a few weeks. I hope you don't mind."
"Ach, no, we'll be fine," she said. "Won't we?" Annie looked at both children, who were bobbing their heads and smiling.
Cousin Julia went on to say that the word was getting out about her being a "gentle midwife, although I'm not certified at all."
"But you have such a comforting way," Annie commented. "I can see why folks depend on you."
Later, after Julia had left and Annie had read each little book twice, she pulled up the quilted coverlet and smiled down at Molly, already asleep and clinging to her favorite dolly. Annie turned and raised her pointer finger to her lips as she and James tiptoed out of the nursery. "Time now for your nap, too, young man," she whispered, and the boy willingly followed her down the hall.
When James was tucked in, Annie hurried to the attic. Instead of closing the door behind her as usual, she left it wide open, tuning an ear to the children.
Over the years, she had managed to purchase everything she needed to create her landscape paintings, as well as her few attempts at portraits: Irvin and Julia's children, either from memory or from photographs. Naturally, she didn't dare bring even James up here for a sitting. And both Irvin and Julia knew her love for creating was to be held in the closest of confidence, even though Julia had admitted to being tempted to hire a professional tutor for Annie.
Mixing paints on her palette, she dabbed some purple onto the sky, making repeated attempts to blend it to create a rich lavender streak. Next, she gave the clouds a wispy sweep with her brush.
She eyed the canvas and scrutinized the creek bed and cluster of trees. She had stood on that very spot some weeks back, studying and pondering what precisely had happened there so long ago. But now she checked off each aspect of the painting in her mind ... the sunlight twinkling on the wide stream, the covered bridge, the density of the trees, the depth of gray and the basket-weave texture of the trunks, complete with thorns protruding from trunk and limb. And the pale autumn yellow of the leaves.
The trees could not be climbed due to the wicked thorns, yet locust wood was the toughest kind, much stronger than cedar. It made the best fence posts, too, according to her eldest brother, Jesse, soon to be considered a master carpenter.
Annie stood in the middle of the unfinished garret where the easel had been positioned so that light from the two dormer windows, especially in the afternoon, could spill around the canvas like a crown. But the grayness outdoors was hardly adequate today, so Annie turned on the recessed lighting, which Irvin had so kindly installed last year. She always felt a thrilling sensation when flicking on the light switch.
Going back now to stand before the painting, she contemplated the waft and wisp of clouds. Several bluebirds populated the painting, one in flight, two others perched on a distant branch --- feathery flecks of color.
She moved closer, her brush poised. The connection of hand to brush and brush on canvas sometimes triggered something important, something subconscious pulled into awareness.
Holding her breath, she touched her brush to the first tree.
The long swing, that's what!
Steadying her hand, she drew a thin line down. Jah ... good.
Suddenly, she heard her name being called. "Annie!" The sound came from downstairs. "Are you up there, Annie?"
Someone --- who? --- was coming up the staircase!
"I'm here," she called back, her heart in her throat.
"What the world are ya doin' up there?"
Now she recognized the voice as her sister-in-law Sarah Mae.
No ... no, dear Lord God, no!
Dropping her brush, she grabbed the nearest rag and began to wipe the paint off her hands. She heard Sarah Mae's footsteps on the wide-plank hallway at the base of the stairs and her heart began pounding.
She's going to discover my secret!
Quickly Annie stepped out of the studio, pulled the door closed behind her, and ran down the staircase, bumping into Sarah Mae as she did. "Oh, hullo," she managed to say.
Sarah Mae's round face was flushed and her blue eyes were inquisitive. "I knocked on the front door but guessed the children were asleep, so I just let myself in."
Annie nodded, feeling nearly dizzy with fright.
"What're ya doin' clear up here?" asked Sarah Mae. Then, without waiting for a reply, she added, "Does Julia have you redd up her attic, too?"
Not wanting to lie, Annie paused, thinking what to say, stumbling over several answers in her head. She stared down at the rag and said, "Jah, I'm cleanin' up a bit."
"Well, I stopped by to see if you'd be wantin' a ride home, since it looks to be turning a bit cold ... and I'm headed there to drop off some blueberry jam to Mamm."
"I need to stay put till Julia returns. But denki --- thank you."
Sarah Mae nodded, "All right, then." She inched her way backward down the narrow staircase.
Whew! Annie blew out a puff of air. I must be more careful!
Following a supper of lamb loaf, scalloped asparagus, buttered carrots, homemade bread with Sarah Mae's blueberry jam, and topped off with Mamm's well-loved misty mint salad, Annie washed and dried the dishes, taking pleasure in redding up. Mamm put away the few leftovers in their new gas-powered refrigerator, then swept the floor.
Soon her father wandered to the corner cupboard and took down the big family Bible for evening reading and silent prayers. He went and poked his head out the back door and called for Yonie, just turned nineteen last week, Luke, seventeen, and Omar, fifteen months younger than Luke --- all courting age.
Annie had heard Daed refer quite often to his "empty wallet" now that Omar was sixteen. The price of a good road horse was twenty-five hundred dollars, not to mention her father's purchase of a new open buggy for Luke, close to three thousand dollars. All this with Daed being something of a penny-pincher, too. But a new horse and buggy assured each boy attendance at the all-important Sunday night singings, as well as other necessary activities during rumschpringe --- the running-around years before a young person settled down to marry.
Later, when evening prayers were done, Annie hurried upstairs to her room and lit the gas lamp. She sat at the little maple desk Daed had made for her twelfth birthday, pulled out the narrow center drawer and found her floral stationery. She was mighty curious to know how things had turned out with Louisa's mother's idea of having dozens of white doves released from cages as the bride and groom hurried out of the church to something called a stretch limousine, whatever that was. Annie had not the faintest idea about most of the things Louisa shared in her letters. Nonetheless, she began to write to her best English friend:
Wednesday, October 26
Hello again. How are you doing?
I've been thinking so much about you lately. I hope you're not as tired this week as you said you were last, what with all the places you and your mother have been rushing to. Hither and yon, goodness me! Do you ever feel like just going to bed with the chickens, the way I do?
Which reminds me, did you decide what to do about the doves? Or has your mother changed her mind yet again? (I'm sure you're still wishing to have your guests simply blow the little bubbles, as you described in your last letter. To be honest, I think that would be the most fun.)
She stopped writing, trying to picture thousands of bubbles with every color of the rainbow gleaming within each tiny circumference. Smiling, she daydreamed about being present on Louisa's special day, to witness firsthand the peculiar yet fascinating way the English celebrate a wedding ceremony and reception.
"What would Daed think if I just upped and went?" she whispered to herself. I really ought to....
But Mamm was entirely right --- she had never set foot outside Lancaster County. So what made her think she could be high-minded enough to get herself a bus or train ticket all the way to the Rocky Mountains, which is nearly where Louisa's well-to-do family lived? Somewhere south of Denver, in a place called Castle Pines. Louisa had herself an apartment in the town of Castle Rock, just a hop, skip, and a jump from her parents' home.
According to Louisa, the prime location had been her father's first choice some years ago --- five acres, a custom-built home set high on a ridge with sweeping views of the mountains, with three rock fireplaces, a separate library large enough for a writing desk and three overstuffed chairs, and five large bedrooms, each having its own bathroom. And although only the two of them resided there, they had four living areas, a "separate dining room big enough to entertain thirty for sit-down dinners," as Louisa described it, a butler's pantry, and a kitchen with every imaginable appliance, including electric everything --- refrigerator, a regular oven, convection oven, dishwasher, garbage disposal and compactor, and the list went on and on. All this in a room the size of the entire downstairs of the hundred-year-old farmhouse where Annie lived. Most of these things Annie had never heard of before in her life.
She couldn't begin to know why Louisa's parents needed so many rooms, but it was not her place to question. Englischers were often frivolous, Daed had always said of outsiders. Still, in spite of that, Annie felt mighty happy all these years to have ended up with such an interesting pen pal. A true and faithful friend.
She let her mind wander back to the day the first letter from Louisa had arrived in the mailbox.
The afternoon had been unseasonably cool and rainy. Fall housecleaning was well underway, with plenty of hands making light the work. Annie kept herself busy whitewashing the picket fence that bordered the main pastureland.
When the mail truck came with a letter postmarked Denver, Colorado, but with the recipient's name and address all soiled, Annie opened it, planning only to read enough to see who the letter was meant for. The inside salutation had read simply: Dear New Friend, so Annie began to read the first few lines. The letter writer introduced herself as Louisa Stratford, named for her paternal grandmother. Louisa was obviously not Amish and said she was almost eleven. But she'd written that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up, "with all of my heart, I do." Declaring this in the first few lines immediately grabbed Annie's curiosity.
Reading further, Annie soon realized the letter was not intended for her. She knew she ought to check at the next farmhouse over, to see if the English farmer's daughter, Jenna Danz, had signed up for a Colorado pen pal at school, maybe. Yet eight-year-old Annie was compelled to read on, especially because some pretty drawings in the margins caught her eye. And before she knew it, she'd read the entire letter, so captivated by this faraway modern girl and the way she described herself. Most of all, her keen love of drawing.
Quickly Annie wrote down Louisa's name and her return address. Then she put on her galoshes and raincoat and promptly marched down the road stepping in all the mud puddles, taking the letter to its rightful owner. She also apologized for having opened the letter and read it all, but dared not admit why ... that she, too, loved to draw. She left that part unsaid, hoping Jenna would forgive, and she had.
Returning to the house, she had scarcely any hope of ever getting a letter back, even if she did have the courage to write to the Colorado schoolgirl. But since she was still learning English grammar at the one-room schoolhouse, she reasoned childishly that writing to Louisa Stratford would be extra good practice for her, too.
The rest was history, as Louisa liked to say. Besides that, Annie had always felt it providential --- meant to be --- her getting the letter from outside the Plain community ... the two of them so completely worlds apart, yet opening up their hearts to one another by mail. Daed had never said one word against it, though Annie was fairly sure he had no clue how often the letters flew back and forth.
But Mamm knew and was good enough to keep it to herself. Annie supposed her mother assumed there was no harm done, what with all the miles between the girls. Up until just this year, Annie never would have given a second thought to a wedding invitation such as the one she held now in her hands.
What would it be like to see the colors of all those cut flowers ... and the golden candelabra, and satin bows, and ... ?
She shook herself, knowing she must simply pick up the pen and politely reply on the RSVP card that she would not be going. Even though with all of her heart, she would be there in her mind's eye when Louisa took her father's arm and strode the lengthy walkway along the rows of church pews, the "aisle," Louisa had called it, covered with an ivory runner and sprinkled with red and pink rose petals by the five wee girls dressed as miniature brides and carrying flower baskets. All this to get Louisa on her way to her smiling and handsome husband, who was to stand with nine other men also in fine black suits, lavender shirts, and matching cummerbunds high at the chapel altar. Formal tuxedos, Louisa had written to describe them and had sketched them, as well.
Annie easily read the words, but without the aid of the drawings tucked into each letter, she would have been completely bewildered about the upcoming wedding ceremony of Miss Louisa Victoria Stratford to Mr. Michael Logan Berkeley at twelve o'clock noon on Saturday the nineteenth day of November....
Louisa Stratford parked her silver Mercedes in the circular driveway in front of her parents' home at Crown Pointe Place. Opening the car door, she headed for the house, already missing her signature jeans and ankle boots. At her mother's urging, she had donned one of the few ultraconservative outfits hanging in her closet --- a chic blue-and-gray-plaid woolen skirt and coordinating blue cashmere sweater.
"Hello, dear!" Mother called as she emerged from the front door. "Shall I drive today?"
"My car's warmed up," Louisa said. Making note of her mother's prim navy suit and pumps, she went to open the passenger door and waited for her mother to get settled in the front seat.
When they were on their way, heading north on I-25 to Denver, Louisa absentmindedly slipped in an old Sheryl Crow CD, one of her favorites. "I'm exhibiting my art students' work in two weeks, so I can't be late for class today," she said, hoping to keep their outing as brief as possible.
Suddenly, the plaintive wail of Every Day is a Winding Road blared into the car, and she quickly poked the eject button. "Sorry about that."
Off to a classic start, she thought, restless, even preoccupied. She was eager to meet with her students again, having grown weary of the wedding preparations, more than a full year of them already. Each week's schedule of events, teas, and luncheons was a reflection of her parents' tastes, but she had learned from her childhood to acquiesce to Mother's wishes to avoid making waves.
Her dream wedding --- hers and Michael's --- bore little resemblance to the plans being carved out for them. Both families had decided their children, their only offspring, deserved something of a gala to die for. Well, Louisa was dying all right, and it had nothing to do with the composition of the gift sachets --- satin or netting? --- for three hundred dinner guests, nor whether the reception china should be rimmed in gold or silver.
Gold, her mother had insisted, with full endorsement from Ms. Tyler, the wedding planner. The reasoning was linked to the gilded birdcages with large satin bows tied to their gleaming posts to be positioned strategically along the wedding aisle. No mere candelabra or flowers with simple bows along the aisle, no. Nothing ordinary in this wedding. And because the embossed invitations were also gold, it was only fitting the dinnerware be etched with the same.
On the other hand, the groom had early voiced his humorous opinion to the bride, but the notion of saying vows before a justice of the peace was out of the question. Not with his family connections. And hers.
In fact, Michael paid little mind to their wedding plans. If anything, his primary interest seemed to be the exotic honeymoon cruise package. She smiled to herself. Typical guy.
"Driving a little fast?" her mother commented as Louisa navigated the wide streets of Littleton, a suburb of Denver, to the appointed boutique.
She tapped the brake. "Sorry."
Today's quest was to select gifts for the bridesmaids and junior bridesmaids, as well as the guestbook girls --- why three? Louisa knew the answer all too well. Everything was about Daddy's prestigious law firm. It was essential, as it had been explained to her, that the upper echelon of her father's company --- their up-and-coming progeny, at least --- be well represented in the Stratford/ Berkeley wedding, whether Louisa and Michael had ever made their acquaintance or not.
At least I chose my own maid-of-honor, Louisa consoled herself, smiling at the thought of Courtney Engelman, her outspoken, even cynical, but fun-loving college friend.
The addition of bodies had begun to aggravate her, including three of the supposedly "charming" yet nameless flower girls whom Mother had lined up without her knowledge until just recently.
Sighing, Louisa parked in front of the boutique, then pulled her keys from the ignition.
"Darling." Mother turned and touched her arm lightly. "Is something the matter?"
Louisa sighed again. "I'm fine ... maybe a little tired." Not only was she tired physically, but weary of attending to the infinitesimal details of a full-weekend wedding celebration, from calling to double-check room reservations at Denver's most exclusive hotel, the Brown Palace, for out-of-town guests to a zillion and one bridal showers in her honor --- both lingerie and household --- all happening in the next two weeks. Not to mention the post-wedding announcements to be sent to newspapers on the never-ending list: the Denver Post, for their present location, theChicago Tribune, where most of Daddy's side of the family lived, the Los Angeles Times, where Mother's people still resided, and several more small-town papers her parents had decided were a "must send."
Why did we hire a professional planner at all? she wondered, wishing she and Michael might have arranged a simple but elegant wedding.
"We mustn't tire you out, darling. You tell me when you've had your fill, all right?"
Louisa forced a smile.
Growing up in opulence, Louisa was accustomed to the niceties of life. But once this wedding hoopla was past and she and Michael returned from their honeymoon --- once the hundreds of thank-yous were properly addressed and stamped, with the proper return address label on the proper day --- the life she now led was going to screech to a halt. She had little interest in kowtowing to the almighty dollar. Daddy's riches hadn't brought joy to Mother's heart or peace to her perfect plastered smile. Oh, they were content and at ease with their friends and societal functions, but deep down weren't they as frustrated as everyone else on the planet, well off or otherwise?
However, in the midst of this crazy and contrived world, Louisa knew someone who had long embraced a simple and unpretentious life. A young woman who knew well the meaning of genuine beauty, laughter, and love, although without a boyfriend at the present time. Annie Zook understood how to live to the fullest and on very little means monetarily, or so Louisa assumed. The Zooks supplemented the sale of cow's milk and butter by raising peacocks, and from the honest and caring letters Annie wrote so frequently, Louisa had enjoyed a front-row seat to the Plain life --- the daily routine on the back roads of Paradise.
Perfect name for a honeymoon resort, Louisa thought, smiling.
While her mother paid for each of the two-hundred-dollar bracelets to be presented to the attendants at the bridesmaids' luncheon in a few days, Louisa wandered toward the lace-covered bay window. She looked out to the horizon, past the flurry and cacophony of traffic, and considered the Pennsylvania barnyard where Annie often ran barefoot up until the first frost, bringing home their herd of cows twice daily and feeding the peahens and their chicks. She closed her eyes and visualized the fall plowing which was happening this week, with the help of Yonie, Luke, and Omar, the three younger Zook boys.
A "closet" artist, Annie also had a surprising knack for word pictures, even though she had only an eighth-grade education. The real-to-life descriptions in her letters helped Louisa envision the foreign world of the Old Order Amish.
Her curious connection to Annie Zook all these years had created within her a yearning for a less-complicated life, even though it was clear that brokenhearted Annie was caught in an ominous situation with her secret love of art, which was forbidden by her strict church community. A train wreck about to happen, she thought, wishing she could do something more than write letters to support her friend.
"She's as trapped as I am ... in a different way," she whispered into the air, thinking how ironic it was that she had not been able to pry herself away from her parents' wishes for her own wedding. Just as Annie had not been able to please her parents by abandoning her art and joining the Amish church.
"Louisa," her mother said, tugging her back from her reverie, "let's have lunch. Somewhere wonderful."
Conscious of her mother's anticipation, she surrendered. "Sure, if you like, Mother."
Her mother waved at the thirty-something wedding planner, Katrina Tyler, who was pulling into the parking lot. "Why don't we head downtown to the Brown Palace Hotel and kill two birds with one stone?" Mother suggested. "Would you like that?"
Translation: Why don't we sample the reception dinner entrée?
"I'd really rather not." The words tumbled surprisingly off her lips.
"Beg your pardon, dear?"
Pardon, indeed ...
Louisa shook her head. "Can't we trust the head chef, the wait staff, Ms. Tyler, and everyone else you and Daddy have shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to, to get it right? To make my wedding day the perfect memory. Can't we, Mother?"
Her mother's brow pinched up and her tone turned icy. "We're scheduled to meet the caterer there."
"I'd much rather grab some fast food. I'll ask Katrina to meet us at --- "
"The luncheon is already set, Louisa."
Why didn't you say so? She glanced over her shoulder and noticed the boutique owner's face crumpling while whispering to the clerk.
Louisa turned to leave and politely held the door. She forced herself to slow her pace and wave at Ms. Tyler when she opened her car window and called a perfunctory greeting. "I can drive if you'd like," the wedding planner offered.
"I'm driving!" Louisa said. "We'll meet you there." She matched the dignified slow tempo of her mother's stride. Everything these days ---everything --- was a corresponding link to the Stratford family name and fortune. The way things were expected to be. All the years of finishing school --- how to walk and not to, how to point toes, cross legs at ankles, how to present oneself perfectly in public ... whether dressed in scanty swim attire, tea-length tailored suit, or floor-length evening gown. She knew the drill.
"I'll spring for burgers, okay?" she said, making one final attempt when they were settled in the car. "We could eat them on the way. Consider it appetizers." She snickered at her own mouthy joke.
"Far too much fat for a bride who must fit into her size two gown." Mother said, shifting into her most-determined mode.
"I'm not worried about clogged arteries or zipping up my gown. You never saw what I ate during art school."
"Well, we fed you the very best food growing up."
The very best ... How often had she heard that?
At Seventeenth Street, they pulled up for valet parking at the Brown Palace Hotel, and Louisa was told they were lunching at Ellyngton's, the place to be seen and home to the "power meal." Maybe Michael might wander in for lunch with his attorney pals. She could only hope so.
After all, she thought wryly, we're on the brink of marriage ...
When they were settled at a window overlooking Denver's lively financial district, Mother suggested the baby greens and three-tomato salad on the starter section of the menu, to which Louisa quickly agreed. In doing so, she would improve her chances of ordering what she really wanted for her main course, which was neither the spinach and wild mushroom salad nor the lemon-marinated salmon. The Angus burger would satisfy her hunger. She had enjoyed it before, several months ago when Michael had met her here during his short lunch hour, to discuss a prenuptial agreement his attorney had drawn up. She'd found it to be rather annoying at first but was informed of the "necessity" of such an agreement, as explained to her later by Michael's private attorney. And, silly her, she should have figured this might happen, with the amassed Berkeley fortune being "old money," unlike her family's more recently acquired wealth. After cooling down, which took a few days, she had signed on the dotted line, with a wink and a nod from Michael, who assured her there was "no need to worry."
Now she reached for her glass of sparkling mineral water, studying Katrina, who had taken her checklist out of her briefcase. No older than thirty-two, this wedding planner was earning her keep. She would not derail with an impertinent approach and had way more style than her predecessors. She also possessed the single most important ingredient of all: the ability to persevere.
Yep, Ms. Tyler will cross the finish line.
Later, when Mother and Katrina ordered identical desserts of apple beignets with lingonberry jam, Louisa went for broke with the black bottom pie, having chickened out on the burger and ordered a chicken entrée instead.
But it was following the meal, when the schmoozing with the caterer started, that Louisa stifled her opinion. She followed Katrina's lead, feigning interest in the reception entrée options: Filet Mignon, Roast Prime Rib of Beef, Chicken Edgar, Chicken Italia, Sesame Seared Salmon, and Herb-Crusted Haddock. Or a trio of three to please all palates.
After an hour and a half, she was no longer able to sit demurely by. She glared up at the chandelier, fidgeting idly with her smart phone and keys, wishing she dared call Michael. But his day would be demanding as always, tied up with important clients, as a busy junior partner at a competing law firm some miles from her father's.
Mother continued to deliberate the selection of ivory versus ecru linens, now kindly conferring with Katrina on the matter. Louisa let her mind drift away to the perfect daydream ... to gorgeous Michael, who planned to drop by her apartment after work tomorrow evening. Together they would grill the steaks marinating in her fridge, but he would insist on making a walloping big Mediterranean salad while she stir-fried his favorite snow peas, oyster mushrooms, young asparagus spears, and strips of red and yellow bell peppers. Once dinner was over, she would share what was troubling her, confiding her dire frustration, asking if it was too late. Too late for what, babe? To make their mark on the most important day of their lives. Or, better yet, to go back to the drawing board and do it their way. He would assure her, pull her into his arms, and fervently kiss away her stress, while Muffin, her blue-gray cat, would blink his green eyes all curled up on Louisa's funky secondhand black-speckled Garbo sofa.
A good dose of sanity ... soon! She could hardly wait.
Sunlight played chase with yesterday's fog, and the newly painted clapboard farmhouse beamed like a white moon against the backdrop of a considerable willow tree in the backyard. There, dozens of scarlet cardinals flocked to its branches in the early evening, as if drawn to the thousands of golden leaves.
A stand of sugar maples on the opposite side yard made a show of their dazzling red tresses, and each day more crimson blanketed the ground below.
Never in disrepair, though more than a hundred years old, the three-story house stood as a testament to hard work and constant care. Out front, just steps from the yard, a scarcely traveled ribbon of road divided the property in two --- the house on one side and the barn and several outbuildings on the other.
Annie stared out her bedroom window at the radiant foliage bursting forth from nearly every tree, the array of colors reminding her of an artist's palette. She chided herself a bit. No time for daydreaming during the harvest, she thought, what with everyone keeping busy --- men filling silo, womenfolk making applesauce and cider, this very morning, in
fact, in Mamm's big kitchen. She headed downstairs. I must do my part, too. For now....
Annie and her mother were soon joined by more than a dozen women, each assuming a different task. Looking around intently, she saw that one very important helper was missing. Annie held her breath, thinking of her dear friend Esther Hochstetler, hoping she might yet arrive even at this late hour.
Mamm's three older sisters, Aunts Suzanne, Emma, and Frannie were on hand with their married daughters, Mary, Katie, Suzie, Nancy, Becky, Rhoda, and Barbianne. Another half hour passed, and Esther was still not there, even though two weeks ago at Preaching service she'd told Annie she was definitely coming today.
I hope she's feeling all right. Esther was expecting again, and this pregnancy seemed to be the reason she gave lately for staying home.
Annie continued to help her cousins prepare the apples for cooking into sauce, cutting a neat circle in each apple to core the seeds and stem. All the while, Barbianne and Suzie chattered about the corn-husking bee tomorrow, the familiar light evident in their eyes as they talked softly of those "pairing up," unaware of Annie's hollow heart.
They continued whispering of the fun in store, hoping one of them might find the colored corn --- Indian corn --- for a special prize of candy or cream-filled cookies.
Then, for no particular reason, Annie happened to glance up. There was Esther coming through the back porch and mudroom area, hesitating slightly before stepping foot in the kitchen, looking awful tired and pale.
Lickety-split, Annie set down her paring knife and wiped her hands on her apron. She rushed to Esther's side. "Ach, I'm so glad you're here!" She pulled her into the kitchen. "Where have you been keepin' yourself?"
Esther blinked her pretty eyes, blue as can be. "Oh, you know me ...'tis easy to get caught up with the little ones."
"Well, two in diapers must be nearly like havin' twins."
Esther nodded. "Jah, seems so at times."
"Who's with them today?"
Esther paused. "Uh ... Mamma came by, said I needed to get out a bit."
Annie agreed. "I'm glad she did!" She led Esther over to the section of the table where the cousins were still coring and peeling. "How does your big girl like first grade?"
"Laura thinks goin' to school is the next best thing to homemade ice cream." Esther gave Annie a quick smile. "But I miss her help at home ... for sure."
They went over and began working on the first bushel basket. Then, after a bit, when the next group of women had the apples quartered and ready for the sugar, cinnamon, and water, they all took a short break while that mixture cooked.
Annie sat with Esther at the far end of the table, pouring extra sugar into her own cup of tea. "Laura's always been keen on learnin', seems to me."
Esther nodded, holding her teacup. "She's doin' all right ... in school, jah."
"I remember I always liked spelling best." She bit her tongue and almost said drawing, too. But, of course, that subject was never taught in the little one-room schoolhouse over yonder. "I remember your favorite was geography. Am I right?"
Esther's lip quivered slightly and she was still.
"You all right?" Annie touched her arm. "Come, let's walk over to the outhouse right quick."
"No ... no. I'll keep workin' here --- you go on."
Annie was stumped. Esther looked to be troubled about something, so why did she clam up like that?
Hurrying out the back door, Annie headed around the side yard to the wooden outhouse. She hoped Esther was all right, really she did. Essie, as she'd called her when they were girls, had always been a most cheerful playmate. She and her family had lived a ten-minute buggy ride away, so she and Annie got to visit each other often, and Annie loved it, being the only girl in a family of boys. She also remembered that up until Essie's courting years, she'd worn a constant smile on her pretty face.
But sadly it wasn't long after Essie married Ezekiel that the infectious smile began to fade. Soon Essie was asking folk to drop her youthful nickname. "Call me Esther from now on," she insisted.
In the few months following her wedding day, Esther became sullen, even distant, and within the year, she was scarce at gatherings. When she did go to help can vegetables and fruits or put up canned meats, she didn't say much unless spoken to first. It was as if Esther had to be pried free of something each and every time.
Annie could not put her finger on the reason for the drastic change. But something sank in her like a rock in a dew pond whenever she thought about who her friend had become. What was it about getting hitched up that caused the light to go out of some girls' eyes?
Annie shook away her fretting and headed back to the house. She wished she could help, but there was a thick wall around Esther now and it seemed no one could break through.
Just then Annie spied her father and Rudy Esh's older brother, Caleb, across the road smoking cigars near the springhouse. How peculiar. In all her days she did not recall ever seeing Caleb Esh chewing the fat with Daed.
A little shiver went down her back, seeing Caleb, because he looked a lot like Rudy. What on earth does he want with my father?
But, alas, she'd worried enough for one morning. Taking a deep breath, she forced her attention back to applesauce-making and to dear downtrodden Esther. She opened the back door to the tantalizing aroma of tart Granny Smith applesauce.
* * *
Jesse Zook puffed on his cigar, exercising as much forbearance as possible, saying not a word as Caleb Esh gabbed away.
"My brother Rudy must have had a good reason for picking a different girl --- it's just that I think your Annie's far and away a better choice of a mate, Preacher."
Jesse had not made a practice of knowing who was seeing his daughter and who wasn't. He wouldn't start speculating now ... unlike some fathers who required a report from their sons of the scallywags who drove younger sisters home from barn singings and other church-sanctioned activities. Never had he cared to interfere that way with Annie's courting years. She was a level-headed sort and downright determined, too. Hisdaughter would have no trouble attracting a fine man to marry, but only when she was good and ready to settle down.
"Rudy is makin' a big mistake, the way I see it," Caleb continued.
Sighing, Jesse removed his hat and inhaled his tobacco deeply. He contemplated the field work to be done yet, and here they were wasting time. "Well, I have to ask ya, just what's your concern in this?"
"Only that Rudy was in love with Annie. Sure as my name's Esh."
"But you say he broke off with her?"
"That he did."
Now Jesse was confused and perturbed. Seemed Caleb wasn't making much sense for a man nearly thirty-five years old, married, and the father of nine children, last count. This here Caleb had also been talked about as a possible preacher nomination back last fall after council meeting, amongst some of the brethren.
A busybody, to be sure ...
"Is all your plowin' done, Caleb?" he asked right quick.
"Well ... almost."
Jesse shook his head a bit, looked down at his straw hat, and then placed it back on his head. "Why not let nature take her course where courtin's concerned. Seems the Good Lord works all that out just right fine, given the chance."
Caleb nodded his head quick like and said, "Afternoon, Preacher Zook." Then he sauntered over to his horse and carriage, where he'd left them smack dab in the middle of the lane.
"Be seein' ya at Preaching service come Sunday," Jesse called to him, attempting to keep a grin in check.
* * *
Louisa lit each of four candles on the table, two tall tapers and two votives. She softly blew out the match and returned to the kitchen, where Michael was putting the finishing touches on his organic dressing "experiment," as he called it: extra-virgin olive oil, French sea salt, freshly-squeezed lemon juice, dry Italian basil, fresh garlic, ground black pepper, and Greek oregano --- leaves only, all mixed into one dressing bottle.
"Looks exotic," she said, smiling. "And the steaks await."
He carried the wooden salad bowl, tongs, and dressing to the table. "How about some dinner music?"
"Sure. What are you in the mood for?"
He winked at her in response, and she felt her face blush.
She went to the sitting area of the small living room and scanned the CD tower. This was not a night for anything heavy. Keep it mellow, she decided, thinking ahead to the topic of conversation, which must wait until they had enjoyed the jointly made candlelight dinner.
She reached for her old favorite, legendary Stan Getz --- cool tenor sax --- and slipped the disk into the CD player. Smooth jazz filled up all the spaces of silence, and she sat down across from Michael.
"Hold your plate," he said and forked one of the steaks.
She watched him place the medium-rare piece of meat onto her plate. She was aware of his hands, his well-manicured nails ... and immediately she thought of her mother's plans to do an all-day manicure, pedicure, and facial with all the bridesmaids. Then, they were all supposed to go to a glitzy tearoom Mother had booked, where Louisa was to present the gold bracelets.
But here she was having a really terrific dinner with Michael, who was making nice remarks about the steaks she'd grilled. Saying other complimentary things with his eyes, as well.
Oh, she groaned inwardly. Wrong timing.
But later, during a dessert of peach sorbet and gourmet butter cookies, it was Michael who mentioned that his mother was asking about "all those groomsmen."
"Did you tell her it was my mother's idea to have a million bridesmaids, which meant you had to scrounge up that many groomsmen?"
He shook his head. "Moi?"
"Well, it's excessive, and it seems Mother has decided this wedding is to be the most costly, the most lavish of any in Denver's recent history."
"Hmm ..." Michael frowned. "I take it you're not happy."
"It's just that ..." She spooned up a small amount of sorbet and stared at it. "I was hoping our wedding might reflect something of the two of us."
"Doesn't it? Our families aren't exactly collecting food stamps. Why not have a good time?"
This wasn't going as she had imagined. She looked at him. "It's gotten so out of hand, and Mother's calling all the shots."
He reached across the table for her hand but she stiffened. "What's reallywrong?"
"Don't you get it, Michael? It's not a wedding anymore, it's a Las Vegas show!" She thought she might cry.
"Do your parents know how you feel?"
"It's not me they're trying to please. It's all about making impressions ... Mother's society sisters, for one. And everyone else on the guest list."
Michael shrugged. "So? My mom's one of the society girls, too, remember? She's equally anxious to see a gala wedding for us. Everyone, both families, all of our friends, are on board."
"Except me." Her words came out like a thud, and Michael's eyebrows shot up. Until this moment, she hadn't realized how terribly disillusioned she had become. What had changed? Was it Annie Zook's friendship over the years, an Amish girl's influence from afar? No, it was more than that. Had to be.
She swallowed hard. "A quarter-of-a-million-dollar wedding won't make our day more special or meaningful, will it?" She had to hear him refute it. Instead, he pushed his chair back and reached for her salad plate, as well as his own, and carried them to the kitchen sink.
Returning, he brought along a bottle of champagne and two glasses. "Look, babe, who cares how much money our parents throw at this wedding? It's how we were raised. Our parents have more money than they know what to do with, so what's the harm?"
She shook her head. Either he hadn't heard a word she'd said or he simply didn't care. Or worse, he didn't understand.
Wealth is all he knows ... it's all I know. Of course he doesn't understand.
"I'm tired of this life," she said softly.
He leaned forward, frowning. "I don't think I heard you. You said what?"
She was so frustrated, it was all she could do to measure her words, to keep from simply bursting. "I have no intention of living the way my parents --- or yours --- do. Look around here ... at my apartment. This is the real me. I crave secondhand furniture and flea market treasures. Old stuff. Things with class but inexpensive, worn, and scuffed up ... things that exude character." She paused. "I thought you knew."
Michael grimaced. "Isn't this merely a phase, your latest artistic flair? I didn't think you were serious." Casually he unwound the wire fastener from the bottle. "You want the look of poverty, well fine. That's cool."
She sighed. He doesn't get it.
"What does it matter about the wedding?" he continued. "Why not go along with the plans? You know your parents always get their way. Like they did with you and me."
His words slammed into her heart. "What are you talking about?"
He gripped the bottle and pulled up, grimacing slightly. "You know. The long-range plan." He popped the cork for effect.
She blew out a breath. "What?"
Their eyes met, and Michael flashed a smile. "Surely you remember how we met."
A blind date. "My dad ran into your dad...." She struggled to remember.Where? "And they began talking, and one thing led to another, and then ..."
He chuckled. "Well, yeah, but there's way more to it."
"More to what?"
"Oh, come on, Louisa. You can't tell me you didn't know."
She was unable to breathe. It's so warm in here.
He poured champagne into her glass first, then his own. He set the bottle to the side and raised his glass, proposing a toast, waiting for her. But she could only stare at him, too flustered to reach for her glass.
"Nothing changes the fact that we belong together, Louisa. Does it really matter how it happened?" He gestured toward her champagne. "I say we make a toast to the future --- yours and mine, as well as to my partnership with your father's law firm ... eventually, but certain."
She glared at him. "So that's what this is? An arrangement?"
"Louisa, don't play the drama queen."
"I thought we had something special."
"We do. Someone simply got the ball rolling, that's all."
She searched his eyes for some hint of insincerity, some indication he was teasing her. But he was incredibly earnest and more than eager to make the toast.
He winked at her, as though hoping to humor her. "To the Berkeley-Stratford merger."
Her mind whirled. Surely we weren't merely pawns in our fathers' hands!
He was smiling at her, attempting to charm her, still holding his glass high. "Our future is secure and rather limitless. Won't our children be perfect?"
She had not fallen for him for any of those reasons. She had been totally in the dark. "No ... don't you see? Our beginning was a fraud," she whispered, blinking back tears.
He set down his glass. "What's the difference how it started? What matters is how it ends." His tone was one of impatience now.
How it ends. The words rang hollow and prophetic.
"It matters to me," she said.
"You're making too much of this."
She couldn't help it ... she thought of her first boyfriend, a man a few years older whom she'd met at the start of her junior year --- an art fanatic like her. Trey Douglas had loved her for who she was. But the timing was all off for them. She should have followed him to London. Instead, she'd fallen prey to her own father's misguided scheme.
She shook her head. "No, Michael! I don't want any part of this. I thought you loved me, no strings attached. I had no idea this was part of someone's plan to manipulate us. The whole thing is messed up." She rose and hurried down the short hall to her bedroom and closed the door.
"Louisa, baby ... wait! Let's talk this out."
"I've heard enough." She locked the door, leaning her head against it, clutching her aching throat.
Even in spite of his repeated knocking and calling to her, she simply could not bring herself to open the door. It would break her heart even more to look into his face.
All a charade!
Saturday's corn-husking bee at Deacon Byler's farm was off to a grand start, even though neither the shucking of ears of corn nor the stacking of stalks had begun. Young people, and a few married chaperones, were arriving, and already dozens of buggies were lined up in a row, parked along the side yard.
Annie and her sister-in-law Sarah Mae worked together, straining their fingers to unhitch Dolly from the enclosed family carriage. Pretty soon, Obed, one of Deacon Byler's sons, walked over and helped finish the task. That done, he led the horse up to the barn, where he would water and feed each of the driving horses stabled there.
"Denki, Obie," called Annie.
Suddenly she spotted Rudy Esh and several other fellows standing near the woodshed. Ach, he's here! She quickly looked away. Her hands grew clammy, and a sickening lump formed in the pit of her stomach.
I should've stayed home!
If he happened to take Susie Yoder home in his buggy later, it would do her in but good. She'd never actually seen them sitting side-by-side in Rudy's open carriage, and she didn't want to start now.
Rejecting the urge to wallow in self-pity, she found the courage to walk with her head high. I'm not ashamed. I've done nothing wrong. But she knew for certain she had, for her fondness for art had come between her and Rudy. Her paintings and drawings were a result of doing what she believed the Lord God had somehow implanted in her heart. I paint the beauty I see around me. How can that be wrong? Yet it was, according to the rules of their Ordnung, which governed much of their lives.
When she got to the house, she discovered a whole group of girls --- mostly courting age --- gathered in the kitchen. Some were pouring cold apple cider into paper cups; others were arranging cups on large trays.
"Hullo, Annie!" Deacon Byler's wife, Kate, called to her. "I heard tell your wailin' peacocks kept your neighbor, David Lapp, up all hours last night."
"Well, I heard nothing once I fell asleep," Annie replied.
This brought a wave of laughter.
"Must be mating season, jah?" one of the older girls said, and they fell silent, followed by a few snickers. "Them peacocks can yowl worse than an infuriated cat, I daresay."
"And they get awful lonely," Annie explained, as if the girls had never heard this about the bevy of beautiful birds she and her brothers raised. "They like bein' close to each other."
Several girls had their heads together, giggling.
"Once one of them flew off lookin' for his mate after she died.... I'm not kidding." Annie straightened her apron and pushed her shoulders back. "But for the most part, they stay put. They don't stray too far from home."
"Besides that, peahens are some of the best mothers ever," Kate Byler added amidst more peals of laughter. "Now, listen. What Annie's sayin' is ever so true."
More than amused by Kate's seriousness, Annie watched her dark eyes sparkle as she appointed different girls to carry the trays of drinks out to the men.
As if on cue, right then Rudy Esh appeared in the back doorway. His auburn hair shimmered clean, and he held his head at a slight angle, as if questioning her resolve even now. "It's time to team up and get to workin'," he announced.
His take-charge voice reminded Annie of all the happy yet frustrating years she'd spent as his girl. Here was a young man who knew precisely what he wanted in life, and she'd fully messed it up for him.
Turning her attention back to the girls, she refused to let on, but she missed him all to pieces.
* * *
Louisa kept to the speed limit as she headed up Highway 285 toward the town of Conifer, taking in the sweeping views of pine and evergreen. The highway was a two-lane sliver of concrete, crawling with cars filled with hikers, soon-to-be bikers, and tourists too late for peak foliage of aspen gold.
She was glad for a blue-sky day with not a threat of snow or sleet. This late in the season, a blizzard frequently enveloped the road within minutes of the first sign of snow-laden clouds moving quickly from the mountains to the eastern plains.
At Pine Junction, she made the turn south on Route 126, her ultimate destination being the cozy bedroom community called Pine a few miles from Buffalo Creek, another well-kept secret with an elevation of eighty-two-hundred feet above sea level. She knew of a secluded inn where she'd gone to work on several drawings sometime ago. The place was set back in the woods, with hiking trails that led to a spectacular overlook. She had called to reserve a room for the night, for the purpose of getting her emotional bearings. Of course, she could be reached if necessary, and she checked the time on her smart phone as the Mercedes climbed in altitude.
Michael's tense voice mail still ricocheted in her head. What was there to discuss? They had talked for more than an hour by phone following the superb steak dinner, only for Louisa to understand more fully how susceptible to the trappings of success Michael had become. Her fiancé's true motives had finally surfaced. Just like Mother and Daddy, she thought, and all their friends.
Excessive extravagance --- the kind Michael continued to argue for, even on behalf of her own mother --- had begun to slowly sicken her toward all she had grown accustomed to, although she had never known anything different. But now, enough was enough, and the way Michael had explained it, there was simply no room for compromise.
She pondered her life as Michael's wife. They were formed from the same mold, but she had come to long for something meaningful ... the simple life, the way Annie Zook lived. At this moment such a peaceful existence strongly beckoned to her.
Most importantly, she could not marry a man who was so consumed with his career and making money that his wife --- and eventually the children he wanted --- would come in at second or third place. Or maybe fall right through the cracks.
She glanced at the sky now, at each tuft and curl of clouds, contemplating what she would give up by not going through with the marriage. Her father's favor and approval, for one. Possibly her eventual inheritance ... who was to know? Anything and everything money could buy. She conjured up images of being disowned, destitute. At least she would have a say in how she lived her life.
If she were to call off the wedding, she would have to tell Michael first, then her parents. She must also be the one to tell her maid-of-honor.Courtney will think I'm insane! The rest could hear it from Mother.
She gripped the steering wheel as though clutching the remnants of her life. Will my parents ever forgive me? Will Michael?
What was she to be absolved of really? Hadn't they gotten the whole relationship started ... that first blind date introduction?
At least she would give them an earlier heads up than most runaway brides. She would not wait until the actual wedding day, nor would she wait until the luxurious rehearsal dinner to call it off. There was still adequate time to alert guests, immediately. Most had not sent RSVPs yet, nor had many gifts arrived.
So much for the Fostoria crystal and the posh flatware, including two sets of silver-plated tableware. None of which reflected her taste --- all chosen with Mother's plans for them in mind.
She thought back to the day Michael had accompanied her and her mother on yet another trip to register for wedding gifts; this one at Nordstrom in Park Meadows Mall, in south Denver. There had been tiny chinks in the armor again on that day. The hollow feeling she had when Mother kept insisting on the most impractical things --- the one-of-a-kind placemats that had to be thrown away if ever soiled, the linen napkins, the too-delicate glassware for everyday use. Michael had seemed to approve of her mother's every selection, surprisingly.
And only the most exclusive honeymoon package would do for them.Nothing but the best. His mantra. And hers, as well ... until now. Something had snapped, and there was no turning back.
Adjusting her automatic seat, she hoped Michael's parents could get a good portion of their money back. Ditto for her parents. The last thing she wanted to do was rob them blind. But even with three weeks' notice, there was an enormous risk of loss.
She thought again of her pen pal, wishing Annie had access to email. Instant messaging would be even better. She needed to talk to her, but only one telephone serviced four Amish farmhouses, and those homes were well spaced, as she understood it.
There was something quite incredible about the wisdom of the unassuming girl who'd become her truest friend, though she lived in a remote area of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Louisa knew precisely where, because after only two exchanges of letters, she had searched out the town of Paradise in her father's big atlas. The one most highly prized by Daddy nestled on the first shelf nearest the writing desk, in his cherry-paneled home library.
Annie would understand....
She pulled into the inn's wide dirt driveway and found a parking spot. Turning off the ignition, she leaned on the steering wheel, looking up at the historic rock-hewn structure of Meadow Creek B&B.
The fresh, strong scent of pine hung in the air, and the trickle of the spring-fed stream bordering the property welcomed her back.
If there's a God, He would definitely hang His hat here, she thought, getting out of the car and pulling her backpack behind her. She had never been one for church, the result of her parents being too socially busy to bother with religion. Their god was their lifestyle, and even they would not have disputed the fact.
Suddenly a strange idea struck her, and she stopped walking. What if I went to visit Annie ... to see just how long I can last without the good life?
The notion was incredible --- staying with an Amish family, if they'd be agreeable to it. Actually, it was quite perfect!
But she could hear it now. Her parents cautioning her, questioning her once their anger subsided over the called-off wedding. If they ever calmed down. You're out of your mind, dear. What are you thinking?
Michael would sneer, You don't think you're just like us? Well, sure, try it for a while. But you'll cave, and then you'll come crawling back, ready to accept your real life.
* * *
Annie absolutely refused to give up, keeping an eye out for the coveted colored corn on the stalks, hoping to find it, to be a winner of a special prize. She'd heard from Rudy, who was working on the same team as she, that the prizes were not merely homemade candies and cookies this time.Why would he tell me that? she wondered.
She couldn't get over how nice he had been to her for all the hours they had worked to husk the corn from the stalk, but then she'd never been ditched by a beau before, so she wasn't exactly sure how she should act. And what she did know, nevertheless, was how terribly difficult it was to stand in such close proximity to him, as they tied the stalks into bundles. She caught the occasional whiff of his sweet-smelling peppermint gum, which he seemed to continually chew, no matter what he was doing.
I must still love him, she thought. But I love my art even more....
Rudy had been most pleasant during their courtship. For too long, she had simply taken his keen affection for granted, just assuming it would always be there, offered to her for the taking. But here they were working shoulder-to-shoulder, yet no longer planning a future as husband and wife. Quite the contrary. They'd gone their separate ways, so to speak, all the while involved in the same church district.
She wondered, Can it be? Was his thoughtfulness this day a way to show he still appreciated her? No animosity between them? If so, she was grateful, Indian corn or not.
"I found some!" Cousin Barbianne called out.
"Give that girl a treat," one of Rudy's buddies hollered.
"By all means!" said Rudy himself.
Barbianne blushed, obviously a little embarrassed yet thrilled to be a winner. But her big brown eyes sparkled as she was given the large whoopie pie, its icing threatening to trickle out between two homemade slabs of chocolate cookies.
Just then Annie spotted Sarah Mae motioning to her from the cluster of workers who were taking the nicest corn from the stalk for cornmeal. "Come over here and help us," Sarah Mae said, offering a sympathetic smile.
Annie went willingly, if not quite relieved. She was sorry ... even sad to leave Rudy and his group behind.
How long before I don't give a care?
Sarah Mae chattered about the delicious ham bake to follow the husking bee. She also mentioned the anticipated full evening of singing and games geared to single youth.
The sun flickered and flashed light through leaves high overhead, and an occasional breeze made the work more pleasant. At one point Annie stopped and stretched a bit when several of the other young women did the same. Stealing another glance at Rudy, she couldn't help but wonder why Susie Yoder had not shown her face here at all today.
Excerpted from THE PREACHER'S DAUGHTER (Annie's People #1) © Copyright 2012 by Beverly Lewis. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.