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Rachel Hurst paused outside the back door of the huge Victorian house, uncertainty slithering down her back like an icicle. Did she really have courage enough to do this?
She glanced back at her younger brother, waiting for her in the buggy, his straw hat shielding his face. She caught a glimpse of bright blue eyes and an encouraging nod. Sammy believed in her, and it wouldn’t set a good example for him if she backed out now.
Besides, what was there to fear? Geraldine Withers needed a housekeeper, and Rachel needed a job. She’d be taking on the same position her own mother had held, years ago. If Mammi could do it, surely she could.
And what other choice did she have? Move in and be the spinster aunt in one of her brothers’ families? Neither Joshua nor Sammy deserved to have his big sister planted on him when they were both newly married. This was the only way forward that she could see.
Stop dithering. She could almost hear her mother’s brisk voice in her mind. Just do it. Mammi had always gone straight at whatever was next to do. She would want her only daughter to do the same.
Rachel raised her hand and knocked. The door opened before she could take a breath, and Ms. Geraldine Withers stood confronting her.
Ms. Withers made an intimidating figure—straight as the trunk of a pine tree despite her seventy-some years. Rachel wasn’t sure whether she needed the cane in her hand, but she certain sure wasn’t leaning on it. Steely blue eyes gave Rachel an assessing look. Then something that might have been a smile softened her stern mouth.
“Well, come in. What are we standing here for?” The voice was an echo from the past. Sometimes she’d come with Mammi to work when she was a small girl, and she’d found the voice frightening.
Mammi’s response had always been a smile and a quiet, “Ach, her bark is worse than her bite.” At seven or so, she hadn’t found that reassuring.
Ms. Withers turned and stalked down the hallway, the cane clicking on the wide polished boards of the floor. Rachel had to scurry to keep up, giving her no time for second thoughts.
They passed a huge kitchen and several other rooms before emerging into the front of the house. Archways on either side led to a dining room on the left and what she remembered Mammi calling the parlor on the right. She had a flash of memory—herself at five or six, standing awestruck at the sight of the immense portrait over the mantel of a man who frowned disapprovingly at the room and anyone in it. He had bushy white eyebrows and an equally bushy white moustache. The image had appeared in more than one childish nightmare.
The elderly woman seated herself in a highbacked armchair and turned to Rachel. Her frown was only slightly less intimidating than that of the man over the mantel.
“You were looking at the portrait.” She gestured with the cane. “My father, Davis Withers.” Her voice was surprisingly deep for a woman, and it struck another echo in Rachel’s mind that she didn’t bother trying to track down.
“Yah, I remembered it. From when I was here with my mother a long time ago, I mean.”
The elderly face softened. “Lydia was a special person. You have a look of your mother about you.”
“Denke.” Rachel’s voice wavered. Even after ten years, the mention of her mother could do that to her.
“Yes, well, the question is whether you’ll suit me as well as she did.” Ms. Withers seemed to be sizing Rachel up. “Lydia never argued. I can’t stand people who argue with me.”
Since she thought it highly unlikely she’d want to argue with this woman or anyone else, Rachel just nodded. Seizing the opportunity, she sized up her prospective employer in her turn.
Gray hair swept back from Ms. Withers’ thin face to hug her head, making her face appear even thinner. Her blue eyes weren’t quite as forbidding as those in the portrait, but her thin lips formed a straight line that suggested firmness, maybe even stubbornness.
“You’ll have a bedroom and bath to yourself along with your salary,” the woman went on, “and I don’t expect you to act as a nurse. I don’t like people fussing over me.” She paused as if for emphasis, but she was speaking as if everything had been settled. “And no heavy cleaning. There’s a service…”
She stopped at the sound of the front door opening and the click of heels on the hall floor. A second later a woman appeared in the archway, already talking. “I’ve brought those papers, Aunt Geraldine.” She gave Rachel a quick, questioning glance before putting a glossy folder on the lamp table next to Ms. Withers. “I’m sure you’ll be impressed by all this new housing complex has to offer.”
Rachel knew the woman by sight, as she knew most people in River Haven. Lorna Withers’ husband was Richard Withers, and his father had been Ms. Withers’ younger brother. Everybody knew about the Withers family. They’d been the founders of River Haven, and its most important residents for a long time.
Richard ran the largest real estate agency in River Haven, probably in the whole county, and his wife had her finger in every civic event in the area. Amish women didn’t pay much attention to women’s fashions, but Rachel knew expensive when she saw it.
Ignoring Rachel as if she were a piece of furniture, Lorna plunged ahead. Not sure whether she should stay or go, Rachel took a step back. Trying not to listen, she gazed out the large front window. The house was on a rise of ground overlooking the whole town. It seemed almost isolated from the town, with only two other houses along the street and the ground rising behind them to the woods and the ridge.
She moved restlessly from one foot to the other. Lorna was now urging her aunt-by-marriage to look at the folder she’d brought. Rachel could see Ms. Withers’ face setting into stubborn lines…the more Lorna urged, the deeper the stubbornness grew.
Well, Rachel could handle stubbornness, that was certain sure. After ten years of managing her daad and brothers, there was nothing Ms. Withers could teach her about being stubborn. Daad had been compared to a mule more than once by her irreverent younger brothers. But not in his hearing, of course.
“You can see what lovely facilities they’re building over at Green Lawns. It would be perfect for you.” Lorna thrust what seemed to be a colorful brochure into Ms. Withers’ hands. The woman responded by letting the brochure slip through her fingers to the floor. Rachel’s lips twitched.
“Green Lawns, indeed.” Ms. Withers snorted. “Sounds like a cemetery to me.”
Now she had to hide a smile at the woman’s tactics, so Rachel bent to pick up the folder. She took a quick glance that told her it advertised the new retirement community being built over near Fisherdale. She held it out to Ms. Withers, who waved it away. Lorna snatched it from her hand and put it down on the table carefully.
“Now, Aunt, you know Richard talked to you about this, and you agreed you’d consider it.” Lorna sounded as if her patience were wearing thin. If they were going to quarrel, maybe she should excuse herself.
Rachel gestured toward the door. “If you’d like me to come another day…” she began, but Ms. Withers struck the floor sharply with her cane, ensuring silence. She drew herself up, her eyes flashing.
“Lorna, you can tell my nephew that I’ve already solved the problem of living alone. Rachel Hurst is coming as a live-in housekeeper, and she’ll take care of everything. So you can stop trying to put me in a home.”
“It’s not a home—”
Ms. Withers ignored her to address Rachel. “You go have a look around the place. Come back in about an hour.”
It appeared she was hired. A little stunned at the turn of events, Rachel nodded. She decided not to risk saying anything to either of them and slipped out. The voices, momentarily silenced, started up again as soon as Rachel was in the hall.
Rachel escaped into the kitchen. Now this was more familiar territory. Much of her day was normally spent in a kitchen, after all. This one had old-fashioned glass-paned cabinets combined with what looked like brand-new appliances. She blinked at the number of knobs and buttons on the electric range, but if it cooked food, she’d manage it.
Among many other things, she hadn’t yet learned what meals she’d be expected to prepare. Still, whatever her tasks, it would certainly not be more than she’d been doing for the past ten years, taking care of Daad and the boys.
She glanced back as the sound of a raised voice penetrated the parlor door. It was obvious what had been going on between Ms. Withers and her kin. They were concerned about her living alone in this big house, and Rachel could hardly blame them. But Ms. Withers was just as clearly used to managing her own affairs, and the effort to push her into something had backfired.
Would they give up at this point? Or would the nephew be back with a more convincing argument? If so, her job here might be fairly short-lived. She suspected Ms. Withers had only announced Rachel’s employment to silence her niece. Still, it was a place to start, and she couldn’t let herself be discouraged.
The click of heels again announced Lorna Withers was leaving. The footsteps headed toward the front door, stopped, hesitated for a few minutes, and came back toward the kitchen. When she appeared in the doorway, Rachel closed the cabinet door she’d opened and managed to smile.
“May I help you with anything?”
She got a frown in return. “You probably don’t know that my aunt has been having problems living alone. She wouldn’t tell you she’s had several falls, and I hardly imagine having you in the house is going to prevent that. You may want to think twice about this position. If you like, I’m sure I could find something else for you.”
Rachel discovered in herself a dislike for having other people tell her what to do. “I already have a job, thank you.”
Lorna’s face stiffened, showing her age despite the careful make-up. “Very well,” she snapped. “Just realize that if anything happens to Ms. Withers, the responsibility is on you.”
She spun and stalked back to the front door, closing it firmly behind her. A moment later Rachel heard a car pulling out.
Rachel stood where she was, surprised by her own reaction to the woman. But was she right? If Ms. Withers needed more care than she could provide, she might have made the wrong decision in coming here.
Still, she didn’t regret it—at least, not yet.
Standing there brooding wasn’t going to help any. A glance at the clock showed her that she had a good forty minutes before she would talk to her new employer again. She couldn’t very well keep Sammy waiting that long, so she headed out back.
Sammy was leaning against the buggy, staring up at the fanciful curlicues and turrets the house sported. He jerked his head at them, grinning a little.
“Pretty fancy, ain’t so? Well, what’s the verdict? Did you get the job?”
“I did.” She couldn’t help returning his grin.
“Good going!” Sammy wrapped his arm around her in a hug. “I knew you could do it. Wait until everybody hears.”
By everybody, she supposed he meant Daad, who was off on a wedding trip with his new bride. She’d agreed she’d be moved out by the time they came back, and so she would.
“I’ll have to go back to the house to pick up my things, but Ms. Withers seems to want me around this afternoon. Are you okay if I call the phone shanty later and let you know when to get me?”
“For sure.” He gave her a questioning look. “Are you okay about all this?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him, hoping she meant it. “It’s natural that Evelyn will want her new home to herself. And it’s much better for me to be independent.”
A shadow crossed his face, making her think he had been as shocked as she had when Daad had announced out of the blue that he was marrying again after ten years of being a widower.
“If it doesn’t work out, just remember you’ll always have a home with Sarah and me.” His young face seemed solemn and grown up all of a sudden.
“Denke, Sammy.” It was her turn to hug him, and her throat was tight. “I’d best get busy. I’ll call later and leave a message.” She turned away quickly, not wanting him to see her face while she blinked back tears.
Sammy climbed to the buggy seat, picked up the lines, and then glanced at her again. “Rachel, I’m not so sure about this. Did you know—”
“Go on, now. Go. I’ll see you later. It will be fine.” Her confident smile wouldn’t last much longer, so she waved and hurried to the door. She wouldn’t look back to see him drive away. Much better to do as Ms. Withers said and get familiar with her new home. And keep her mind off the past.
An hour later Rachel had seen much of the house and had a chat with her new employer. The tour had left her wondering how many people had once lived in such a huge place. Amish had big families, but they did it without a house the size of this one.
It must have been built in part to show the community that Davis Withers had been a man of wealth and importance, at least in the town’s eyes, she supposed. He and his wife had had four children—information she obtained from the extensive framed family tree in the upstairs hall. They’d certainly had enough bedrooms for a couple more.
Some of the rooms were closed up, and her talk with Ms. Withers had assured her that she wouldn’t be expected to keep them clean. A cleaning service would take care of that. Rachel’s job—cooking, laundry, and light cleaning—was far less than she’d been doing at home.
She mentally added another job as she walked out onto the back porch. According to Lorna Withers, she was responsible for keeping Ms. Withers from falling, and that might be the most challenging job of all. Somehow she couldn’t see herself telling the woman what not to do.
She’d called and left a message for Sammy, but it would take a little time before he received her message and drove over. Rachel decided she’d take a look around the grounds. She’d have no responsibilities there, but she could still enjoy them.
The plantings that made the Withers’ place the star of the annual garden tour were filled with an array of spring flowers. The early bulbs were past, but a variety of tulips stood proudly along the porch, including a rich lavender hue she’d never seen before. She walked slowly along the back of the house. A small kitchen garden drew her eyes, already green with early lettuce and the spears of spring onions. She’d have to ask if she could pick what she needed for meals, wondering whether the gardener might disapprove.
The sound of hammering drew her on around the building, past a thick row of lilacs in full bloom, ranging from deepest purple to pure white. As she rounded the corner of the house, a grape arbor came into view. She stopped, entranced by the memories that seized her.
Her mother had sometimes sent her outside with instructions to play quietly until she’d finished her work. If Ms. Withers’ nieces and nephews had been there, quiet play had been questionable, but she’d found a haven in the grape arbor. She’d never seen one quite like it, extending for what she now saw was a good twelve feet in length and wide enough to have benches down either side. She’d loved to hide there in the cool shade, making up stories with the tiny dolls she’d created from hollyhock blossoms.
It was too early for hollyhocks now. Smiling, Rachel shook her head and recalled herself to the present. According to her mother, she’d always been a dreamy child, happy to entertain herself with her imagination, although the advent of two younger brothers had sometimes made that impossible.
The grape arbor had been her place, and the pounding was coming from inside it. The gardener, maybe? She certainly hoped it wasn’t being torn down.
Walking on, she reached a point at which she could see the inside. She came to a dead stop. Someone was working on the arbor, someone who stopped and stared at her as if he didn’t believe what he was seeing.
Fair enough, because she didn’t want to believe what she was seeing either. Jacob Beiler, the one person in the Amish community that she didn’t want to meet here or anywhere else. Jacob Beiler, the man she’d jilted nearly ten years ago. And he was staring at her with a look cold enough to freeze her on the spot.
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