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Rated: 13+ · Novel · Romance/Love · #2307228
Two people, two worlds, two broken hearts.
Prologue



          Audrey Shiloh sat in the relative darkness of her insanely priced one-bedroom apartment. Her dull gray curtains were pulled tight to shun the glare of the early summer sun. A single lamp with a low-energy lightbulb was the only thing that she turned on to add light to her tiny living space. The stone-faced clock on the wall read 9:30 AM.
          It was Sunday, her only allotted time off work, and the city outside of her recently washed floor-to-ceiling windows was abuzz with the obnoxious sounds of traffic and people hollering at each other. She had opted not to attend church that morning, making her decision at the sound of her alarm clock's screams. There was strife in the congregation, and she didn't have the emotional or mental energy to currently deal with it.
          Instead, Audrey had ordered a coffee to be delivered by the nearby coffee shop - one that was within walking distance of her apartment, but she had never bothered to personally visit. As she waited for the coffee to be brought to her, she booted up her brand-new laptop. To compensate for skipping church, Audrey decided that she would attend an online all-woman bible study group. It counted, right?
          She changed out of her silk pajamas, choosing a flowing shirt and a smart pair of jeans. The shirt was much too baggy, adding unwanted volume to her already voluptuous frame, and the jeans were a tad tight. That was current fashion though - make the skinny people skinnier and make the fat people look and feel fatter. A glance in the floor-length mirror told Audrey that her mop of auburn hair was in dire need of a shower and brush. Instead, she pulled it back into a sloppy bun. Another modern fashion statement if you listened to the ramblings of young influencers.
          Her doorbell buzzed. Coffee! Audrey took the ridiculously expensive foam container out of the pock-faced college kid's hands. She should've asked for his name and how his day was going. She should have smiled at him and thanked him. She didn't. Audrey handed him $20.00 for his trouble and shut the door in his acne-scarred face.
          The bible study was slated for 10 AM. Audrey sat her ample bottom down on her designer couch and took to browsing her social media accounts to help pass the time. Twitter was a warzone of politics and angry, indigent people. Instagram was nothing but airbrushed influencers flaunting their recent vacations and crafters showcasing their picture-perfect finished projects.
          Audrey shot her dark gaze over to her pile of unfinished knitting projects that sat beneath a small desk tucked away in a corner. On top of the desk sat a dusty, unused sewing machine. Guilt burned hot in the pit of her stomach. Her artificially sweetened coffee went sour.
          Facebook was bombarded with old high school friends - many of whom she hadn't seen or spoken to in person since graduation day - showing off black-and-white ultrasound photos, SOLD signs held aloft while standing beside brand-new houses, and flashy engagement rings. Audrey 'liked' and 'hearted' the posts. She left half-hearted, empty comments here and there when she felt that the pushing of an imaginary button wasn't good enough.
          As time ticked on, she continued to scroll, taking a swig now and again of coffee that started to turn lukewarm. Audrey kept a half-interested eye on the time to make sure she wouldn't miss her chance to join the online study. The cutoff to join was within five minutes of the slotted start time. People who were slow on the draw would have to wait until next week to try their luck.
          It was at this time that an all-too-familiar sensation began to flood Audrey's system. There she sat, staring blankly at the minutely flickering screen of her laptop while the whitewashed walls of her apartment seemed to tighten and press against her. Everything took on a dull, muted haze. Time froze, if even for just a heartbeat.
          Through the paper-thin walls of the complex, someone began to scream. A door slammed down the hall. This was followed by the tell-tale tinkle of broken glass. Someone stomped down the carpeted hallway. Their footsteps were heavy. Swears spoken in a foreign language spilled from the person's mouth.
          A fist struck the wall close to her apartment door. Audrey jolted out of her melancholy reprieve. She shook her head, hoping to clear the hazy wall of fog from her idle brain. It was now 10:03 AM. She'd missed the cutoff to join the bible study and had once again lost several minutes of her life.
          "Damn!" She huffed, slamming her dangerously thin laptop shut with an unsatisfying snap.
          At some point, she'd set down the foam coffee cup - an act she didn't remember doing -
and her angry outburst sent the now cold brew to tumble down onto her cream-colored carpet. She swore again, moving to grab the still-dripping cup before it could finish spilling its dark contents. She knocked a shoulder into her glass-topped coffee table, causing her leather-bound bible to crash to the floor with a solid thunk; right on top of the spilled coffee.
          Audrey made the sound equivalent to that of a wounded animal. She took the offensive foam cup into the kitchen and chucked it in the trash, taking little pleasure in the sound of the lid slamming shut over top of it. She returned to the living room with a bottle of cleaning spray and a half-used roll of paper towels. Luckily for her, the bible had landed pages up, leather side laying in the pool of coffee. It was opened to the book of Ecclesiastes.
          She knelt to begin cleaning up the mess she'd caused. The well-loved book - a gift from her grandma when Audrey turned 11 years old and had told everyone who would listen to her that she was old enough to attend real church now because Sunday school was for 'babies' - appeared to her like a fallen dove, gold-tipped wings spread out and broken. Her fingers touched the book, its thin pages and well-worn leather a familiar comfort. As Audrey lifted the bible, she froze. A long-forgotten photograph had fallen from its hiding place within the marked-up pages of the old book.
          Laying there, color faded over time and the caresses of many fingertips was the friendly and wrinkled face of her grandma. Her eyes, the same eyes that Audrey shared, were a deep, rich brown - like the plowed fields of Pennsylvania in springtime. Her short red hair, a shade or two lighter than Audrey's, was tinted white with age and set in a neat, tight perm. She had it braided and tucked up beneath a paisley bandana. Her crooked smile bared teeth stained from a lifetime of drinking strong black coffee.
          Grandma wore a well-loved sundress, covered in a rainbow of patches and it was overlaid with a deep-pocketed wrap-around apron. In the crook of one of her flabby but strong arms was a large wicker basket. It was overflowing with the bounty of summer crops; sweet corn, green beans, sugar snap peas, gnarled carrots, radishes, fire engine red tomatoes, and beets the size of a man's fist.
          Scattered to-and-fro in the photograph were Grandma's hair-brained and fluffy butted hens that had supplied the best eggs in the world. To this day Audrey still hasn't had an egg taste as good as one of her grandma's freshly laid ones. Sitting at Grandma's bare feet was her ever-faithful soulmate at the time - a long-coated black and white border collie. Audrey recalled that his name had been Buster.
          Audrey gathered up the photograph. She placed it to her trembling lips, breathing in a deep and shaky breath. She could almost smell the richness of the freshly watered earth; the zing of just harvested plants; and the crisp, clean air as it blew down from the low-slung, heavily treed mountains and across the large pond that made up a large portion of the field just past the backyard. Hot tears stung the corners of her eyes as Audrey sat the picture down on her coffee table.
          "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven; a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. Ecclesiastes 3:1-2." Audrey read the verse that had caught her eye out loud as she tenderly gathered and cleaned up her bible.
          Just then, her cell phone began to ring and vibrate. Audrey set her bible next to the photograph and she chucked a wad of crumpled paper towels down onto the coffee stain. She made a mental note to hire a cleaning agency to come take care of the mess before her landlord had a cow and docked her security deposit.
          Audrey answered the phone without looking to see who it was calling her, "Hello?" Even to her own ears, she knew she had put on her best customer service voice and a false smile.
          "Audrey! Sweetheart, good morning. It's your grandmother," cooed the rich. soft voice on the other end of the line. It was a tender but firm tone, the kind that made you feel both cherished and secure at the same time.
          "Oh...oh, Grandma!" Audrey sobbed, cradling the phone as close to her ear as she could.
          Her grandma was silent for a moment. There was the sound of her pulling back a chair. Audrey could just picture her now; sleep-rumbled hair in a silk bonnet; round, soft body (the kind Audrey herself had inherited) covered in a faded nightgown - one that she swore up and down was one of the reasons she had produced an army of children with her late-husband; a rough, work-toughened hand curled around a still steaming mug of coffee.
          "What's the matter, pumpkin? You can talk to me. You can talk to your dear, old grandma."
          "I had an accident...made an awful mess. It's...it's nothing, Grandma. I...I also found an old picture...fell right out of my bible..."
          Grandma chuckled, "Just feeling all sorts of emotions this morning? I got ya. I've been there myself. If it's a bad time though I can call back -"
          "No, no, Grandma! Never a bad time," Audrey gulped for a breath of air and rummaged for a paper towel to blow her nose. "I love you. What made you call?"
          "I love you too, Audrey," Grandma said, and Audrey knew those words to be solid and real and true, "I woke up this morning and felt that God had put it on my heart to check up on you. So, here I am checking up on you and I think our Heavenly Father was right. You sound like an awful mess, sweetheart."
          "Can I come visit, Grandma? I..." Audrey paused to blow her nose again. Her tears were finally starting to subside, "It would only be for a few days. I miss you. I miss home."
          "I'll have your old room set up for you, just the way you like it, honey. Door is always open."


Chapter One

Winds of Change



          Thick, fat streams of lemon-yellow sunshine, the kind that children often portray in the corners of their crayon drawings, poured into the large, warm bedroom from beneath the coffee-themed curtains. These curtains had been a two-person job as well as a labor of love - Audrey doing her best to learn how to sew and Grandma being ever patient as she tried to teach her grown granddaughter the skill - artform really - of using a sewing machine. Though the stitching was uneven and the curtains themselves were crooked and each one sporting a difference in length, Audrey was proud of them and had hung them over the single-paned windows in the room that had made up most of her childhood, and now was her permanent, bedroom.
          A cool early morning breeze, one that teased summer but still had a nip of spring dampness to it, caught the bottom of the curtains and fluttered them open. This allowed more sun to pool into the room. The low buzz of honeybees - the tiny, fat insects already hard at work - danced on the wind. Soft clucks from fat and happy hens floated up from where they scratched and pecked in the yard.
          Birds tweeted in the large maple tree centered in the backyard. They sang of their joy for life and cooed to their unhatched eggs. Occasionally there was the gentle, placid snort of a pig snuffling about in their pen. Earth moved and grass bent beneath their powerful disk-shaped snouts and sharp hooves as they searched for a smackerel of food that may have spilled from their troughs the night before.
          Audrey turned over beneath the thin, knotted quilt that covered her. This put her back to the offensive morning light. Beside her, her still-sleeping companion grunted in his sleep and refused to budge even though Audrey had nearly rolled on top of his small, squat frame. She reached out a drowsy hand, eyes still closed and petted the warm, velvety fur of the tri-colored beagle.
          Butterball picked and rotated who he slept with every evening. Some days he picked Grandma, hogging the bed. Others he picked Audrey, loving to be the little spoon. Then there were the days he preferred his own company and opted to stretch his body over the length of the small couch in the living room.
          Butterball was warm and soft beside her. Audrey draped her arm around him. Her hands and fingers stroked his fat tummy. He sighed in his sleep and snuggled into her.
          This is what life is about, she thought dreamily. She willed herself to drift back into the realm of sleep even if it was just for a few more minutes.
          The days, and weeks, leading up to Audrey's 180-degree change of lifestyle and move out of the city could be considered as dramatic. Most of her 'friends' and colleagues from her previous life had come to the collective agreement that Audrey had fallen clean off her rocker and plunged straight into the deep end without knowing if she'd be able to swim or if she'd sink to the bottom and drown. To this day most of her so-called friends from the city refused to speak to her.
          But Grandma had been there, every step of the way, and she was supportive of her granddaughter, no matter what path Audrey chose to follow. It was a little over two years ago that Audrey had taken an impromptu vacation to go and visit her Grandma back in the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania. One week turned into two. Two became three.
***

          Audrey had found herself burning through her accrued vacation days. Even though she had a few hundred hours saved up - she never once used her earned time off and it rolled over year after year - at some point or another, that time would come to an end. The very thought of having to go back home to her grueling 9 to 5; often with early mornings and late nights spent at the office that went without any sort of acknowledgment outside of her hefty paychecks; at the tech firm she worked at had sent Audrey into a full-blown panic.
          Grandma had found her mid-crisis in the pig pen, sobbing over the trough as the pigs gobbled up their breakfast slop and smacked their lips with satisfaction. Grandma had thrown her arms around Audrey, drawing her into a hug while simultaneously wiping away the tears on her freckled cheeks with the hem of her apron. When pressed as to what had distressed her, Audrey admitted that she didn't want to go back to the city.
          She didn't want to go back to her soulless, colorless apartment. She didn't want to return to a job that sucked the very life out of her. She didn't want to head back to a city that was so filled with anger and distrust that she had to have three different locks on her door to sleep with peace of mind at night.
          Then Audrey did what she never thought she'd do - not since turning her back to the small farming community that had practically raised her after her high school graduation to pursue the excitement of an international college and sowing her oats in the big cities - she begged her Grandma to let her stay. Permanently. Audrey wanted to move in; to stay on the farm and fully embrace the happiness she'd discovered. The peace that had flooded her since walking through the threshold of the 150-year-old farmhouse had been like a balm over her broken heart. It was not something that she wished to be free from ever again.
          Grandma was more than happy to grant Audrey's wish. She was, after all, not getting any younger herself and had been a widow for far too long. She knew that it was only a matter of time before running the 10-acre farm on her own would become impossible. The time she'd spent with Audrey those last few weeks had been a collection of answered prayers.
          Blessing given, Audrey quit her job and cashed out what remained of her vacation days, sick leave, and retirement fund. Together the two women began to move Audrey into the clapboard farmhouse. When the final box was dragged into the house, it was time for a party. Nearby neighbors came over with enough food to feed an army. It was a time of laughter and celebration. That night Audrey had experienced the sort of happiness that had long been missing from her life.
          Life had been given back to Audrey in spades and she took each day with a smile on her face and a prayer of thanksgiving to God on her lips.
***

          The scent of coffee, rich and heavy, filled the air. It wafted in beautiful aromatic streams from the kitchen downstairs and slipped under the closed door of her bedroom. The warm and acidic smell curled around her, caressing her nostrils with the promise of much-needed energy. Audrey had hoped for a few more minutes of sleep but if there was the smell of coffee then it meant that Grandma was up. If Grandma was up, then that meant it was time for Audrey to wake up and start her busy day.
          Audrey gave Butterball an affectionate pat, "You awake?"
          In response the beagle huffed. Though he pulled his weight around the farm by treeing stray cats, keeping the pigs in line, and barking at all the passing cars, there was no doubt that Butterball was a certified couch potato. Nothing was better to him in the whole wide world than sleep, except maybe eating table scraps and rolling in rabbit poop.
          "We have to get our chores done, little man." Audrey cooed as she stroked his soft and slightly pungent coat. "We can't expect Grandma to do it all on her own."
          Butterball gave a moan that Audrey translated into 'she was doing just fine till you showed up on our doorstep'. Audrey gave a moan, body stiff from sleep, as she sat up. Her arms rose above her head, hands stretching towards the popcorn ceiling. She untangled herself from the quilt and got out of her bed.
          Bare feet, not liking the chill of the hardwood floor, slipped themselves into tattered slippers. She snagged her robe from the foot of her bed and slipped it on, tying it around her soft middle and covering her floral nightgown. Audrey then padded over to the closest window. With a skilled flick of her wrists, she threw open the curtains and welcomed the blast of fresh air as it hit her full in the face.
          She breathed in deeply, her skin erupting in goosebumps. A smile, one that seemed to stretch from ear to ear, spread over her freckled face at the sight on the other side of the half-open window. The farmhouse she called home was blessed with 10 acres of rolling fertile farmland that spread out in patches of different shades of green like that of a quilt.
          Out in the far field, just on the cusp of the horizon, were the darkened outlines of the herd of sheep as they grazed the dew-covered grasses. Dotted along the larger, horned frames of the adult sheep were smaller, bouncier ones, the lambs. They'd fetch a fine price when sold off at market in a few weeks and the wool supplied by the adults would be handed off to a local mill to be spun into yarn. This yarn would then be knitted by Audrey and Grandma into hats, socks, mittens, and scarves to sell on Market Days.
          Another part of the farm, closer than the sheep paddocks, was dedicated to an ample orchard. Nearly three acres of nothing but apple, pear, and cherry trees. Close to the orchard was the berry patch. A collection of blueberry bushes as well as raspberry and blackberry canes made up that acre. The berry canes had to be wrangled into submission every few years, but their yield of sweet, summery goodness was well worth the back-breaking work.
          Beside the berry patch was a large pond where the duck house sat. Grandma raised a dual-purpose breed of duck. She liked the fatty flavor of the meat, and the eggs were rich and hearty. Scattered among the flock of ducks was a guard goose or two. They were mean birds but the protection they provided for the flock more than made up for the occasional chase.
          Closer yet to the farmhouse was an old arbor with gnarled grapevines. Beneath the tangled vines sat a white-painted metal bench. Then, within a leisurely walk from the back door of the farmhouse was the chicken coop, pig pen, and raised garden beds. It was here that Audrey got a real eyeful.
          She gasped, her face flooding with color as secondary embarrassment overtook her. She pushed open the heavy wood and glass window frame up as high as it would go. Audrey stuck her head out, red hair falling into her face.
          "Grandma!" Audrey shouted, mustering up all the shock and scandal in her voice that she could.
          At 87 years old, Grandma's body was shaped by years of hard work, hearty food, and bringing seven children into the world. She was walking across the length of the backyard as naked as the day she was born. Completely naked, save for the blue bandana tied around her head to cover her hair. There was a bucket of feed in either one of her calloused hands and she was making a beeline for the pig pen. Upon seeing the old woman heading their way with their breakfast, the pigs began singing - a collection of snorts, grunts, and squeals.
          At the sound of her granddaughter's voice, Grandma stopped. She set the buckets down and turned towards the farmhouse. She looked up in the direction of Audrey's bedroom. Her hands came to rest as fists on her wide hips.
          "Audrey!" Grandma shouted back, matching energies with her. "'Bout time you woke up and joined the land of the living."
          "What are you doing?" Audrey asked.
          "Joining the welcoming committee for the president," Grandma replied. "What in heaven's name does it look like I'm doing? Chores, child, chores!"
          "Why are you naked?" Audrey shouted. "What if the neighbors see you?"
          This caused Grandma to double over with laughter. She laughed so hard that for a moment Audrey feared the old woman would pee herself. Thankfully the only fluid that came from her were the tears she had to wipe away from her sun-reddened cheeks.
          "Our neighbors are a mile away on either side of us. They can't see nothing." Grandma said defensively. "And even if they did then good for them! Would do their prudish hearts good to get an eyeful."
          "Grandma!" Audrey hissed.
          She waved away her scolding, "It would do you good too to do the morning chores naked every once in a while. It puts me in mind of what Adam and Eve experienced in the garden of Eden before the fall of Man."
          "You're crazy, old woman!"
          "And you're not crazy enough!"
          With those words, Grandma bent down to retrieve her buckets of feed. She turned her back to Audrey and resumed her naked march to the pig pen. I'm crazy enough to quit my job in the city and move in with you, Audrey thought. There was no malice or anger in these words as they raced through her mind. No, they were conjured up with nothing but warmth and love towards the old woman.
          Audrey turned away from the scene outside her window. She changed from her nightgown into a patched-up ankle-length skirt and a stained blouse. Overtop of this she pulled on a wraparound apron, a dull-colored one made from linen. Her hair was pulled into a bun which she covered with a white checked bandana.
          "Come on, Butterball." She said as she pulled open her bedroom door. "It's time to get to work."
          Audrey hurried down a hall lined with nothing but family photographs. She went down the wooden steps that creaked with every footfall. Then she moved down another hall filled with knickknacks and even more photos before finding herself in the large, country-style kitchen. It was large enough to fit at least a dozen bodies.
          She threw the coffee pot a longing look as she kicked off her slippers and crammed her bare feet into her soiled muck boot. There would be plenty of time for coffee after the morning chores were completed. Audrey took her wide-brimmed sun hat from its peg on the wall and whistled for Butterball. She listened to him jump out of bed, his nails click-clacking as they moved across the hardwood floors.
          He barreled down the flight of steps and he came charging into the kitchen. Audrey threw open the screen door. Butterball launched himself across the back porch, flew off the steps, and tore across the yard. Hens scattered like bowling pins in a flurry of squawks and feathers as the beagle charged through their ranks, baying all the while. He never hurt the chickens. Butterball just liked to keep the hair-brained poultry on their toes.
          Audrey let the screen door bang shut behind her. The cacophony of the farm - the baying of a hound dog, an army of songbirds, the pigs and ducks and chickens, the late-to-bed frogs, and the distant bleats of sheep - was the most beautiful sound to Audrey's ears. The sun-kissed her bare arms and warmed her. Fresh air hummed through her blood, bringing her to life in a way that even coffee wasn't capable of.
          Today had the feeling of excitement as if the day that awaited Audrey was full of adventure. Maybe it was because she'd slept so well. Could be the fact that she had nothing but pleasant dreams while she rested, and Butterball didn't keep her up with his freight train snoring. It could also very well have been because Audrey had been greeted by the view of her naked Grandma in the early morning sunlight.
          Either way, Audrey felt as if today was going to be magical.


Chapter Two

Holmesville, Pennsylvania



          "I wish you would just let me drive you into town, Audrey," Grandma grumbled as Audrey made her third trip into the house to gather up her remaining stack of foil-wrapped pies. "It would be quicker than that damned bike of yours."
          "It's fine, Grandma," Audrey said with a soft smile as she came back out onto the porch, three aluminum pie pans stacked neatly in her hands. "It's a quiet and beautiful morning. Plus, I need the exercise."
          Grandma sat on a rocking chair, bare feet pushing against the grayed, weathered wood of the porch floor. She was finally clothed, at least in a plush robe which Audrey decided to count. She glared at the purple three-speed mountain bike parked in the gravel driveway. The older woman hated the contraption - from its white accents to the store-bought wicker basket attached to the handlebars, and the tow-behind cargo trailer. Nothing about the bike sparked joy in Grandma's soul. She'd much rather see Audrey hop into the 1980s beast of a truck she owned to do her errands with.
          "Those roads can be dangerous, Audrey," Grandma said, flicking her gaze back to her granddaughter as she set the last of her pies into her insulated trailer and zipped it up tight.
          Audrey sighed, her eyes on the empty oil-and-chip road that ran throughout most of Holmesville. "It's not even 7 AM, Grandma. Only people out this early are the neighbors and their buggies."
          Grandma waved away Audrey's causal statement, "I'm not worried about the Amish, child, you know that. I worry about the idiots driving cars. It's a straight stretch of rural highway. People don't pay attention out here."
          Audrey's heart tightened at the concern in the old woman's voice. She understood where that feeling of fear and helplessness came from. In her youth, Grandma had lost a childhood friend to a reckless driver and just last year an Amish neighbor lost one of their young daughters to a hit and run. Eventually, the culprit, an underaged teenage driver who'd been texting while also operating the car illegally had fled in a panic, had been caught when the kid came forward after the family made a public plea.
          Accidents, though rare, happened. Audrey wasn't afraid of them though. God knew the day, time, and place of her death. She wasn't about to make herself sick with worry about something that was out of her control. That being said, she was always careful.
          Audrey came back onto the porch and stopped in front of her grandmother. The old woman stopped her rocking long enough to level her gaze with hers. Grandma couldn't help but see herself as she looked at Audrey's face and it had very little to do with the fact that she was a spitting image of her when she had been a young woman. Audrey was sweet, kind, compassionate, funny, and about as stubborn as a mule. Once she got something in her head there was no way of getting her to change course. Sink or swim, succeed or fail, Audrey had to see her decision through to the end.
          Still, as bullheaded as Audrey was, it was a trait she'd inherited from her grandmother. If she couldn't be persuaded to do it her way, then maybe she'd accept a compromise. Grandma rubbed an imaginary knot in her neck.
          "Why don't you have Mrs. Jackson pick up the pies she ordered on her way to work? That makes more sense to me." Grandma said.
          "And have that poor woman pass her workplace to come all the way out here?" Audrey shook her head, "That's not fair to Hazel. She pays good money to have me bake those pies and deliver them before the construction crew punches in for the day. Plus, she tips handsomely."
          Grandma huffed, "Fine! At least wear a helmet. Please, Audrey. If you insist on risking your life by driving that contraception into town then at least put on a helmet."
          Audrey stooped and planted a kiss on Grandma's cheek, "I can do that. I love you."
          "I love you too, pumpkin. Be careful."
          "Always!" Audrey called over her shoulder as she bounded down the stairs and went over to her bike.
          Moments later Audrey was on the road with a sleek, black helmet perched on the top of her head. From the farm where she lived to the construction business where the pies had to be delivered was nearly 4 miles. It was relatively flat ground and therefore smooth sailing. There was only one hill Audrey had to contend with.
          On good days she was able to pedal up the steep beast. But, more often than not, she had to dismount her bike and push it up to the crest of the hill. She hated herself when she had to do it. It broke the nice, even pace she set for herself.
          "Gut Mariye, Audrey!" An Amish man with a salt and pepper beard called out cheerfully to her.
          Audrey pumped her brakes and came to a full stop. She lifted a hand and gave a friendly wave. Her smile broadened as the black buggy, pulled by a large liver-colored horse, trotted up to her. The occupants of the buggy were an older Amish couple. They smiled and returned her wave as the man pulled back on the leather reins and brought the buggy to a halt.
          "Morning, Sol." Audrey said, her voice just a little breathless, "Morning, Agnes."
          Solomon Bram, known as Sol to everyone but his mother, and his wife Agnes, were Audrey and her grandmother's closest neighbors. They liked to do their off-the-farm chores early in the morning before the streets grew too crowded with traffic.
          "You're out rather early, Audrey," Sol commented with a tug of his long beard. "Where are you off to? Where's your grossmudder?"
          "S&S Construction," Audrey said and motioned to her trailer. "Mrs. Jackson - Hazel - ordered some pies for the boys to enjoy after work today. I gotta get them there before everyone shows up, or else the surprise is ruined. As for Grandma, she's fine. I left her on her rocking chair on the front porch."
          "Want us to give you a ride?" Sol asked, "That's a mighty long bike ride."
          "Nah," Audrey shook her head and patted her soft middle. "Gotta fight the pudge somehow or another. Thanks for the offer though."
          "Are we still on for Wednesday?" Agnes asked from where she sat on the passenger side of the buggy.
          She was a rather rotund and stout woman who liked to wear bright, cheerful dresses - today she was sporting a soft pink - and went around barefooted whenever she could. Upon hearing through the grapevine that Audrey was moving in with Grandma, Agnes had brought over one of the best-tasting tuna noodle casseroles Audrey had ever tasted, and a heaping plate of oatmeal raisin cookies carried by her eldest unmarried daughter, Bridgette.
          Since then, Audrey and Agnes, sometimes shadowed by Grandma and Bridgette, did their best to meet up once a week to bake, craft, or gossip over a board game. Not that the women would ever admit to gossiping; it was frowned upon by the Amish church. On Wednesday night it was Audrey's turn to head over to the Bram's house.
          She was planning on bringing two jars of last year's strawberry and rhubarb jam as well as a large bowl of her sweet, vinegary cole-slaw. The recipe she used was just the right amount to feed the Bram's hungry brood of 12. The jam would most likely be used to make a batch of buttery thumbprint cookies.
          "Wouldn't miss it for the world," Audrey said.
          The trio talked a few moments more. Sol was excited about this year's growing season. He had spent the winter with the help of his sons building more garden beds. He was also dedicating a whole bed to a new, sweet onion he'd been working on breeding and developing over the last few summers. Agnes talked of their dairy cow, Daisy, who was a middle-aged Jersey. They'd bred her to a Brahman bull, and she couldn't wait to see what type of calf was produced from the pairing.
          Audrey told them about how she was hopeful for this year's newest batch of piglets. They were born with great bone structure and muscle mass and were set to be the biggest group of grow-outs the farm has ever produced. There was potential that they'd break the records come butcher day. If so, she was planning on breeding their sows back to the same boar next year.
          After promising the Bram's a pig for their smokehouse and Agnes promising to send one of the children down to fetch Audrey when the calf was born, they parted ways. Sol and Agnes headed in the direction that Audrey had been coming from. Audrey set her bike in motion and continued her ride to downtown Holmesville.
          Holmesville, Pennsylvania was a small farming town with a population of 1,246 as of the last official census. It was founded in 1781 by a Dutch merchant whose name was lost to history. The Amish boasted the most members of the community with the Englishers, or non-Amish, coming in a close second. Here and there were a few Mennonite members but they only numbered a few households.
          The oil-and-chip changed to a smooth blacktop beneath Audrey's tires. The smile she'd been wearing since her encounter with the Bram's broadened. Holmesville had only one traffic light and at 10 PM sharp every evening it switched over to a steady yellow blink.
          She zipped past Miller's General Store where a teenage Amish girl, wearing her white prayer knapp and a dark blue dress with a black apron, was busy sweeping the old wooden porch. Audrey rang her bell and waved with a cheerful greeting. The girl waved back, taking a moment to lean against her broom for a short break.
          "Gut Mariye!" The girl called out as Audrey passed.
          The Miller's General Store was owned by a family who could trace their roots clear back to a founding member of the town. If you needed everyday household goods or groceries, then Miller's was the place to go. Sitting beside Miller's was the one and only gas station in town. It had no name, but The Gas Station, and it was run by a tight-lipped old man with more bite than bark.
          The Gas Station had a functional pay phone, you had to ask for the key to use the bathroom, and the third pump was always out of order. It sold hot-and-ready fast food, go-to snacks, and black coffee. However, despite its quirks and questionable manager, it was the universal meeting place for all hunters on the first day of buck season. There they'd fuel up on greasy food, cheap coffee, swap tales of ye olde golden days, and flaunt their kills.
          Audrey dropped a gear, slowing her pedaling to more of a crawl as she approached the stop light. On the left-hand side of the street sat a massive log structure and from it wafted the most delicious, toe-curling scents. The large sign that hung from the wrap-around porch read Grossmammi Sue's. It was an Amish-owned and run restaurant. They served the best peach cobbler in the state and their homemade vanilla ice cream was just heavenly.
          Next to Grossmammi Sue's was a quilt shop owned by four women, a mixture of Amish and Englisch: Brenda, Betty, Belle, and Bettina. This led to the shop being called Four Bees. Their logo, which hung from a hand stitch flag that flew from a metal rod while they were open for business, was a circle of four bumblebees perched on a bluebell. Simple and pretty, much like the four women themselves.
          On the right-hand side of the street sat one of Audrey's favorite shops, Dottie's Yarn Boutique. Even though she and her Grandma raised sheep and produced their own wool, Audrey still made a once-a-month trip to Dottie's to add a little padding to her yarn stash. To the left of the yarn shop was Bob's Hardware. On the right was the local coffee shop, Jo's Joe.
          On the other side of the traffic light sat a tack and harness shop. Beside it was a buggy repair shop. The Amish of Holmesville loved this little section, and they often called it their 'one-stop' shopping center. Across the street from these two businesses was S&S Construction. This was Audrey's destination for her trailer full of pies.
          Further yet, about a half mile or so out of downtown sat Holmesville's miniature hospital. It was deemed miniature to the simple fact that it was a one-story concrete building. Only two full-time doctors called the place work. Alongside the two doctors were a handful of nurses who rotated shifts. One ambulance was in operation and on 24-hour duty with several EMTs working around the clock.
          Behind the hospital was a large red brick building that worked as both the sheriff's office, jail cell, and courthouse. Holmesville had one police car, an old and balding sheriff, Rogers, and a young spitfire deputy, Weathervane. Sheriff Rogers was firm but fair and he was well-liked. Deputy Weatherbane was the third to hold the position in as many years. She was small and wiry, with eyes that sparkled with mischievousness.
          Across from the Holmesville Area Hospital sat a huge gravel lot, nearly the size of a professional football field, and two large and empty warehouses. For six months out of the year, the lot and buildings sat empty and unused. But, from May through October, they were abuzz with a sea of activity.
          During those six busy months Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays became Market Days. Holmesville's numbers swelled to 5,000 easily and it made up the town's greatest source of revenue. Anybody who was anybody had a booth and could sell their wares. Everything was up for sale; baked goods, crafts, leatherwork, livestock. If you could name it then most likely someone was selling it.
          A car beeped behind Audrey. She blinked and started. The traffic light was green. She pulled off to the side, letting traffic - a trickle of automobiles and buggies - pass her by. The thought of Market Days had derailed her concentration.
          "Hello, Audrey!" The greeting was carried to her by a bright and high-pitched voice.
          "Hello, Johanna!" Audrey called back when she spotted the speaker.
          Johanna Smithport, also known as Jo, was the owner and operator of Jo's Joe. To look at her was to see joy personified. Her purple hair was pulled back into a shaggy bun. A rainbow bow held her curls in place. She wore patched coveralls over a green tank top.
          On her feet were open-toed flip-flops that showed off her pedicure. This month Johanna's toes were alternatively painted blue and pink. They matched the long, pointy acrylics that graced the tips of her fingers.
          "What's the flavor of the day?" Audrey asked.
          "I'm trying out two today." The older woman said as she fished a jangle of keys out of the breast pocket of her coveralls. "Banana Foster and Coconut Cream Pie."
          Audrey felt her mouth water. She licked her lips and patted her belly theatrically. Jo's Joe made the best coffee. Johanna specialized in clean, fresh, and organic ingredients.
          She didn't serve the same coffee day after day. She liked to cycle her flavors - if one flavor was showcased and had done well then it wouldn't be seen on the menu board again until at least two weeks had passed. The only coffee that was sold on the regular was straight black and it was up to the customers to add cream and sugar.
          "That sounds so yummy, Jo," Audrey said, "I may be up after I drop off my load. I think I want to try some of that banana goodness."
          Johanna winked at her, "I'll keep a cup on standby with your name on it."
          Audrey matched her smile, "Thanks."
          "What goodies do you have for the boys today?" Johanna asked, nudging Audrey's trailer with a colorful foot.
          "I treated them good today. I've got eight shoo-fly pies in there."
          "Eight?" Johanna whistled. "However, do those boys keep those ruggedly good features of theirs when you're feeding them milk and honey all the time?"
          Audrey flashed a wolfish grin, "All that hard, manual labor they do I suppose. I always bake extra, just in case someone wants a second helping."
          "It's amazing you ain't married yet, Audrey. Baker as good as you - a woman as sweet as you - should have someone to come home at night to enjoy your treats with."
          "Well," Audrey said, her tone dropping and the smile she'd worn all morning fading away to a frown, "it's not like I haven't tried."


Chapter Three

Helping Hands



          A weather-beaten sign hung from an iron hook bolted to the brown-painted door frame. The sign was made of some sort of hardwood. Bold, black lettering decorated the front of the sign and it read 'S&S Construction - Founded 1971'. The sign was currently painted in hues of gold and pale green. It was said that the color scheme changed with each new decade.
          S&S stood for Shepard, the last name of the English owner, and Saul, the first name of his Amish partner. From what Audrey had been told, the two men had been born and raised in Holmesville. They had been good friends as children, and both had developed a love of working with their hands as they grew older.
          Together, they had worked out a business plan and so the construction company had been born over scribbled napkins and cold beers. If it could be made of wood - porches, garages and sheds, barns, houses, cabinets, shelving units, and fencing - then S&S was the place to go. Despite the owners coming from two different walks of life the business had survived for more than 50 years.
          Audrey parked her bike out front of the low-slung building. The warm morning sun glinted off the red-tiled roof. The image presented a near postcard-perfect photo. It was moments like this when Audrey wished she had a camera.
          As she dismounted her bike, she reached into the deep pocket of her mid-length skirt and removed a set of brass-colored keys. She then took off her helmet and hung it from the handlebars of her bike. Her fingers strayed to her hair where they blindly felt to see if her head covering, a pink scarf, was still in place. When her fingers touched the cotton fabric her mild worry melted away.
          Dressing modestly and wearing a head covering were still new-ish traditions for Audrey. She'd been used to them - a rule set in place by the Christian beliefs and standards of her paternal grandparents - as a child when she lived summers at the farm, but she had fallen out of the practices when she'd moved to the city. Audrey re-adopted the dress code upon permanently moving back into her grandmother's house.
          Audrey skipped up the few wooden stairs of the small porch. The red-painted door popped open with the turn of a key. She flicked on the overhead lights. As they came to life, they filled the small space with a low hum.
          She hung the burrowed keys on the rack by the door. There they hung side by side with three sets of car keys that belonged to the small army of boxed vans that the construction crews used to go from job site to job site. Satisfied that Hazel's keys were in their rightful place, after triple-checking where they hung, Audrey headed back outside.
          She opened her insulated wagon. The foil-wrapped pies were still cold to the touch. This brought a smile to her face. They'd been baked earlier that week and then frozen to guarantee that they would be fresh upon delivery day. Last night before she headed off to bed with Butterball, Audrey had pulled them out to thaw in the fridge.
          She scooped down and grabbed all eight pies. It was a balancing act, but it was one that Audrey was very familiar with. She got them into a position that was easy for her to hold, manage, and carry. Carefully, Audrey made her way back to the short flight of steps that led up to the mini porch. She was almost to the top step when a deep voice called out to her.
          "Need some help there, Miss?"
          Startled, and a little bit frightened at the intrusion, Audrey jumped with a yelp. Her leaning tower of pies came dangerously close to collapsing. A pair of large, tanned hands, calloused from years of hard manual labor, reached out to help steady her wobbling load. Warm fingers brushed against hers.
          "Thank you." Audrey breathed, thankful that her hours of hard work were safe and sound and not scattered across the gravel parking lot in a foil, molasses, and crust massacre.
          From her point of view, all Audrey could see were dark trousers and scuffed-up work boots. That, paired with the deep and rich voice heavily accented with Pennsylvania Dutch, told her that her pie hero was an Amish man. Their fingers still touched. Audrey's cheeks flared pink and hot at the intimate connection.
          "How about," the deep voice said as Audrey felt the weight of all eight of her pies leave her arms, "I take these off your hands and you get the door? I'm sure you'd rather not lose them to an accident."
          "Alright."
          Audrey scurried to the door and held it open. He was a big, broad man. Tall too. He moved fast, balancing the pies like a pro. She figured he probably used to help his mother out in similar situations in his childhood kitchen while growing up.
          "Get the ice box for me?" He asked.
          "One second please."
          Audrey fumbled to shut the front door and then she ran into the kitchenette. The refrigerator was a throwback to the 1950s or 1960s. She grabbed the metal handle of the well-maintained dinosaur and the door popped open with a gust of cold air. Together the two strangers got all eight of the pies settled on the frosted metal racks of the old machine.
          Audrey turned towards the man and gave him her most sincere smile, "Thank you so, so much!"
          "You're very welcome."
          Audrey instantly recognized that this Amish man was unfamiliar to her. Beneath the wide brim of his straw hat were dark green eyes and ringlets of blond curls. He wore the mustache-less beard often worn by the married men. He kept it short and neat. When he returned Audrey's smile, dimples formed on his cheeks.
          He was a handsome man and the acknowledgment of that fact caught Audrey off guard. It had been years, many years since she'd allowed herself to register the attractiveness of a man. The fact that she found him good-looking sent a red-hot blush to creep up from her chest and flood her neck and face. Suddenly self-conscious of herself and her reaction to the stranger, Audrey smoothed a trembling hand down the front of her white button-up blouse. She hoped that her hair wasn't a mess beneath her head covering.
          "I'm Audrey." She said, sticking out her hand in greeting, "Audrey Shiloh. Thanks again for saving my shoo-fly pies. Hazel paid good money for them, and the boys would've been crushed if they'd been destroyed."
          The expression that passed over his face could only be described as giddy. Excitement lit up his eyes at the word 'shoo-fly'. He peeked at the fridge behind Audrey's shoulder with an almost boyish eagerness. Audrey noticed that his handsome face was also kind and even though his voice was deep, it was gentle and soft-spoken.
          He accepted her outstretched hand, his own swallowing hers whole, "Pleasure to meet you, Audrey. Are they wet-bottomed or dry?"
          "Wet bottom." Audrey said with a mock scoff, "Everyone knows that that is the best and only way to make a shoo-fly pie. The crust is my go-to recipe, a shortening style. Can't beat it."
          "Schee." He said with a broad grin. His gaze locked with hers, "I use a similar one. Water or vodka?"
          "Water. I haven't tried the vodka trick yet. You?"
          "Vodka, personally. Makes the crust light and crispy."
          Audrey realized that their hands were still clasped together in a handshake, though neither one was pumping their arms any longer. Her blush deepened. The attention she was receiving from this man was undivided. It practically overwhelmed her.
          His dark gaze was intense, and she felt as if he were able to look into her very soul. She wanted to look away. She wanted to cast down her eyes and break the tension that was building between them. Instead, Audrey pulled back her hand and he released it without complaint or issue. She took a step back and her arms folded themselves over her middle.
          "So, what brings you to S&S so early?" She asked, "They don't open until 8 o'clock and I'm afraid that Hazel is still a few minutes out, Mr. - oh my! I'm so sorry! I never got your name."
          He shrugged off her apology and removed his straw hat to push his fingers through his blond hair, "Just as much my fault as yours, Audrey. The name is Noah Smuckers."
          Her brown eyes lit up in recognition of his last name, "Are you by any chance related to Daniel Smuckers?"
          Daniel was an older Amish man who worked here at the construction company. Audrey had met him only a handful of times, but she'd taken an instant liking to him. Daniel had big hands, a big laugh, and an even bigger heart. Noah nodded his head, and he stroked his short beard.
          "Jah. Daniel is my Dat. I'm here today because he had an accident over the weekend."
          A hand went to Audrey's mouth as she unsuccessfully tried to stifle a gasp. Without thinking, she placed her other hand on Noah's arm. His skin was warm and the muscles beneath her palm were corded.
          She flushed at her forward behavior and Noah's cheeks turned pink. They locked eyes. The tension that Audrey had felt earlier began to build once more. Heat pulsated between them that was both unexpected but not the least bit unpleasant.
          "Is Daniel alright?" Audrey asked.
          Just as the words left her mouth, they both heard the gravel lot outside get crunched beneath a set of tires. Audrey jerked her hand away from Noah's arm as her eyes darted to the clock on the wall. She sighed. The car no doubt belonged to Hazel who was just pulling into the parking lot.
          Hazel, not Audrey, was the woman that he needed to talk to. Audrey went to the door. Noah stood back and watched her. His skin felt cold now that her soft touch was no longer there.
          Audrey was a pretty - no - beautiful woman. Her smile had left him awestruck when she first thanked him for saving her baked goods and he had found himself lost in the deep, dark pools that were her eyes. She was kind and friendly. He also liked the way her skirt twirled around her full and curvy thighs. Lord, he thought, I am a goner.
          "Good morning, Hazel," Audrey called out as she held open the door for the white-haired, heavy-set woman.
          "Morning, Miss Shiloh," Hazel answered. Her voice was brisk and held a no-nonsense tone but there was also an underlying friendliness to it that made her sound grandmotherly instead of stern. "Is everything alright? You're usually gone by the time I get here."
          "Everything is fine with me," Audrey said as she stepped aside to let the older woman in the navy-blue power suit in. "But you do have a visitor here and I didn't want to leave him here by himself."
          With quick fingers, Hazel flipped the 'CLOSED' sign over to 'OPEN'. She turned her attention towards Noah for a moment, nodding her acknowledgment to him as she went to her old metal desk. Music filled the office space as she turned on the brick-shaped radio. In the next instant, she had her landline phone reconnected.
          Hazel pulled back her rolling chair and sat down. She motioned for Noah to sit in the seat across from her as she rummaged through her desk drawers for a pad of paper. From a chipped coffee mug that read 'World's Best Receptionist' she pulled pen after pen until she found a working one.
          Knowing that Noah was now in the capable hands of Hazel, Audrey slipped unseen and unheard from the office. The older woman would get that handsome man sorted. Handsome - once again the word flashed through her mind's eye, and it gave Audrey pause as she made to mount her bike. It had been too, too long since she'd willingly admitted to herself that she found someone of the opposite sex attractive.
          Audrey shook to head to banish the thought from her mind. She buckled her helmet into place. She had a date with a hot cup of banana foster coffee and if she kept delaying then it wouldn't be hot for much longer. What was the point of focusing on a man she barely knew and who she'd most likely never see again? Still, as Audrey kicked off the gravel lot and began to pedal her way back towards Jo's Joe, Noah's green eyes and soft smile kept replaying in her mind.


Chapter Four

Coffee Date



          It wasn't often that Audrey had time to herself when she was away from the farm. Usually, she had a tag-a-long in the shape of either her Grandma or Butterball. As much as she loved her little family, Audrey was thankful for the little bit of 'me time' that solo trips allotted her. Even though she didn't own or use a cell phone - a conscious decision she'd made when she left her old life behind her and moved back into the sleepy little town - Grandma had ways of getting ahold of her in case an emergency popped up while she was out.
          Audrey was nursing her second cup of banana foster coffee when she heard the chime of Jo's door ring out. When she had arrived earlier that morning the coffee shop had been the scene of chaos as half-awake customers shambled in for their first hit of caffeine. Now, however, it was going on 9:30 AM and the morning rush had ebbed away into a trickle. Not wanting to appear nosy, Audrey kept her head down as she sipped her coffee and enjoyed the soft instrumental music that piped through the sound system.
          "Noah!" Jo called out cheerfully. "It's been a while. How the heck are you?"
          Audrey's lips quirked up at the unending bubbliness of the shop owner. Though Jo herself was not a Holmesville native, she knew everyone in town and had a steady repertoire with her customers. Since the town was predominantly Amish and most residents were of the Christian branch of religion, Noah was a popular name.
          Because of this, Audrey didn't look up to see which Noah this man was. He could be any of a couple of dozen. At the sound of his deep, rich voice her head snapped up with such force that Audrey was worried she'd given herself whiplash. There he stood, his broad back well defined by the soft pink material of his shirt as it stretched across his flesh.
          His big hands were buried deep into his pockets. His head tilted and swiveled as he studied the blackboard menu display. Then his head dipped as he looked in the glass case heaped full of baked goods. There was a soft smile on his full, pink lips and he was polite to Jo as she asked him for his order in between questions about how his life had been going since she last saw him.
          Audrey couldn't help but notice that his answers, though friendly enough, were brief and to the point. He was being aloof with Jo. Had he been that way with her earlier that morning? No, she didn't think so. Noah had seemed warm and sweet towards her.
          As if he could hear her train of thoughts - or maybe he could feel the holes she was boring into his back with her eyes - Noah turned his attention towards Audrey. His smile grew broad, dimples catching the light, when her gaze mingled with his. She flushed, embarrassed that she'd been caught gawking at him. She'd been raised better than that!
          He opened his mouth as if to speak to her before his attention was once again dragged back towards Jo. She handed him a steaming paper cup and a brown bag loaded full of pastries. Audrey took Noah's temporary distraction to dip her head and pretended to find something of interest in her unpolished nails. Please don't stop here. Please don't stop here. She mentally chanted. She'd never hear the end of it from Jo.
          "Hello again."
          His voice washed over her like a warm wave. Audrey's blush deepened. Slowly, shyly, she lifted her head to meet his gaze. She smiled at him, praying that it would come off as cute and friendly. Knowing her luck though, it was most likely strained and creepy.
          "Hello," Audrey replied, and she flinched inwardly at how breathy her voice sounded.
          "Is this seat taken?" Noah asked as he motioned a full hand towards the chair directly across from her.
          "No." She heard herself say.
          His smile grew bigger yet. He sat down. From over his shoulder, Audrey could see Jo pull at her shirt collar as she mocked fanning herself. She mouthed the word 'gorgeous' and shot Audrey two thumbs up. She wanted to sink into the black and white floor tiles.
          "It was Audrey, right?" He asked.
          "Ah," she pulled her attention back to her unexpected guest, "yes."
          Noah laid his bag on the table and pulled out four massive chocolate chip muffins. He used his bag as a plate and offered Audrey one of the treats. Her stomach rumbled and it helped to remind her that breakfast had been nearly four hours ago. She was hungry.
          "Thank you." She said as she took the offered muffin. "How was your meeting with Hazel? Was she able to help you out?"
          Noah shook his head, "No. It's not her fault. English paperwork and rules aren't always cut and dry."
          "Did it have something to do with Daniel? How is he by the way? I don't think you were able to tell me before Hazel came in."
          Daniel Smuckers was indeed mostly alright. On the previous Saturday morning, he'd gone over to his brother-in-law's house to replace the awning over Martha's roadside stand. Martha was Daniel's sister and said brother-in-law's, wife. The scuttlebug around town was that Martha sold some of the tastiest canned goods around.
          Daniel, being the closest relative with any sort of construction experience, had offered to go over on his day off and climb up onto the roof of the stand. From there he'd fallen. On the way down his leg got caught in a ladder rung and it got jerked and twisted. Thank God nothing was broken but Daniel was put on bedrest by the doctor for a few weeks until his leg healed up.
          "That's where I come in." Noah said, "I was hoping S&S would allow me to work in place of my father until he was feeling better."
          "Not gonna happen I take it?" Audrey asked.
          He shook his head, "No. Too much paperwork and red tape. It's alright though. God will help me find work to help supplement my family's income until Dat is better."
          "If I overstep, please tell me, but why you?" Audrey asked.
          He shrugged, "I'm the eldest and I'm also not currently held down to any one job. My family is large and most of my siblings have families of their own to care for or they are young and still live at home with our parents."
          "How big is your family? Not ones added on via marriage, mind you. I'm talking strictly about biological siblings."
          Noah sat back in his chair and wiped the crumbs from his beard, "All told I've got 10 brothers and sisters. I'm the eldest at 35 and the youngest is Annabeth. She turns 13 this summer."
          Audrey whistled, "That household must be fun during the holidays."
          "It's a circus all year round. But yes, it's especially fun during the holidays." Noah said with a laugh. There was a twinkle in his eyes. "What about you?"
          "What about me what?" Audrey asked. She felt her shoulders tighten.
          "How many siblings do you have?"
          "I don't." Her tone was guarded and flat. "I'm an only child. My parents live in California full-time. I only hear from them at Christmas time when I get a card in the mail. Even though Grandma had seven children, they all scattered to the wind. I know I have a ton of cousins but I'm not close to any of them."
          Audrey's parents made it no secret that she'd been a burden to them from the moment she was born. They'd only had a child to shut the grand folk up. When she wasn't at a boarding school, she lived at her Grandma's house during the summer until she finally graduated and decided on a college. During her college years, her parents had all but cut ties with her, only showing up twice a year to sign on the dotted line that ensured her schooling would continue to be paid for.
          During college breaks, Audrey either had to crash at a friend's house, stay at the dormitory, or flee back to the farmhouse of her childhood. Her parents had turned her childhood bedroom in California, which she'd been allowed to use only sparingly, into an office and they had no room for her. Her parents had not been supportive of her college classes, and she'd been forced to change her major several times to keep them happy.
          Nothing she did back then, or now, was ever good enough. They hadn't even bothered to show up to her college graduation. Grandma had though and Audrey had drawn strength from the older woman to not burst into tears while on the auditorium stage. It was only when Audrey had gotten her job with the IT firm that her parents finally began to show some interest in their daughter.
          This interest was short-lived. After she'd quit her office job and moved back to PA to pursue a different lifestyle, they'd once again cut ties with her. She was pretty sure that it was Grandma's influence that she even got a card during the holidays. Her father had never been able to deny his mother of almost anything.
          "I'm sorry your family isn't close," Noah said. "It sounds so depressing."
          "I have my Grandma. She's all the family I need." Audrey said.
          Audrey's and Noah's peaceful morning conversation was interrupted by the harsh ringing of Jo's wall phone. Audrey flinched at the abrasive sound. Together, the two of them watched as Jo picked up the old avocado-green telephone and cradled it to her ear.
          "Thank you for calling Jo's Joe. How may I help you?"
          There was a pause.
          "Why hello, Mrs. Shiloh," Jo said loudly, her eyes training on Audrey. "No, I'm afraid you've just missed Audrey. She stopped in for a cup of coffee and I believe she said she was heading home afterwards when she left."
          Another pause.
          "Yes, Mrs. Shiloh. Take care now. Bye-bye." Jo hung up the phone and fixed Audrey with a pointed stare. "Best to finish up your date there, Audrey. I bought you some time with Grandma, but I don't think she was convinced."
          Audrey was on her feet. She began to clean up her empty coffee cup and wipe up the muffin crumbs. Noah both heard and saw the shift in her demeanor. It was subtle, like the shifting colors on an octopus' skin.
          "Is everything alright?" Audrey asked, worry lacing her tone.
          Jo waved away her concern, "Nothing serious, Audrey. She said the screen door came off of its hinges again."
          "Not again." Audrey groaned. "That's the second time this month. I'll have to call..."
          Her voice faltered mid-sentence. Her brown eyes lit up as an idea took root in her brain. She turned towards Noah with a smile that made his stomach flip-flop. It was a pleasant feeling that caught him off guard. He was ready to agree to whatever it was this woman was about to ask him.
          "You said you need work to help your family out while your father is on bed rest?" She asked.
          "Yes."
          "I've got a 150-year-old farmhouse that has some problems. Just some TLC. I'm willing to pay if you're willing to put in the work."
          "I can do everything but electric." He said.
          "That's fine," Audrey said. "It'll be odd jobs but I'm good for the money and I can pay handsomely for your troubles."
          It wasn't the fact that his family was counting on him to help tie them over until Daniel was back on his feet that made Noah say yes. It wasn't that he was a jack-of-all-trades. Noah didn't care for manual labor. He said yes because he wanted to spend more time with Audrey. She was fun, witty, and just about the most beautiful woman he'd ever laid eyes on. She intrigued him, this woman who turned his insides to jelly, and he wanted the opportunity to get to know her better.
          "Deal," he said and stuck out his hands for a shake. "Let me drive you home. Then I can look over the house and see what kind of work needs to be done to it."
          Audrey's face lit up brighter than the sun. She took his outstretched hand in both of her own. There was that heat again. It shot up Noah's arm as if he'd been zapped by a live wire.
          Together Audrey and Noah bid Jo goodbye. Noah held the shop's door open for Audrey. The simple act of chivalry caught her off guard.
          Audrey stopped by her bike, "Will this be a problem?"
          "Nah. It'll fit in the back of my buggy."
          Much to his surprise, Audrey knelt and unscrewed one of the plastic caps of a bike tire. She pocketed the little black piece of plastic. Noah arched a curious eyebrow at her.
          "Jo told Grandma that I'm already on my way home. If I show up in a buggy instead of my bike, she'll make me play 50 questions. I'll tell her I got a flat tire and that you were nice enough to pull over and offer me a ride."
          "You want me to lie to your grandmother?"
          "More like a stretch of the truth," Audrey said, holding her forefinger and thumb close together. "Just a little white lie."
          He sighed, "Fine."
          Noah picked up both her bike and her wagon with ease. He led her to his buggy where a lovely brown and white horse stood attached to it. She was in a half-sleep but at the sound of her master's approaching footfalls, she opened her big dark eyes. The beautiful animal nickered as they approached. With little excursion on his part, Noah loaded up Audrey's bike and wagon into the back of his buggy.
          He walked over to the passenger side of the buggy. Audrey was right there beside him. He held out a hand to her to help her into the cab. When she took it, Noah leaned in close to her. His breath was hot on her ear and their chests were all but pressed together.
          "If your grandma smells a rat," he said, his deep voice filled with a playful tease, "then it's everyone for themselves, Audrey. Got it?"
          "Ok." She breathed. Her face was hot.
          "Ok." He repeated back to her.
          His smile was practically rakish. Then, he helped her into the buggy. As she looked down at him from her perch on her seat, he winked at her. Then the door slid shut.


Chapter Five

The Start of Something



          Noah's pulse was racing. His palms felt sweaty as they held loosely onto Juniper's leather reins. There was a warmth beneath his collar that had nothing to do with the late May heat and everything to do with the beautiful woman seated in the buggy beside him.
          What had he been thinking when he asked Audrey to allow him to drive her home? They were practically strangers, having only met that morning. She also lived on the opposite side of Holmesville than he did. The guise of wanting to check out the farmhouse the same day he was offered the job of repairing it was solid, but it had also been an excuse.
          Truth be told, Noah wanted to spend more time with Audrey. He had been disappointed, the feeling cutting him like a knife when Jo had interrupted their chat. When an opportunity had been offered to him to be able to steal a little more of Audrey's time, he'd selfishly taken it.
          "I hope you won't get into any sort of trouble for giving me a ride home," Audrey said, breaking into his train of thoughts.
          He gave her a crooked smile, "Hardly. A lot of Amish and English ride together. Sometimes it's in a car, other times in a buggy. Unless we get caught doing something inappropriate, no one will even think to bring it up."
          His smile and the word 'inappropriate' sent a swarm of butterflies to alight in her stomach. Audrey blushed. The beard, Audrey! He has a beard! She tried to tamp down the strong pull of attraction she felt towards Noah. Unlike the married men from her world who could hide a ring in their pocket, the Amish men wore their marital status on their faces in the form of a mustache-less beard.
          "I...I meant with Mrs. Smuckers." She blurted out before she was even aware she'd thought of the question and could stop herself.
          Noah shot her a curious look and she inwardly groaned. Her question was blunt, forward, and it didn't take a scientist to see that she was reaching to find out his relationship status. Audrey prayed that the floor of the buggy would open beneath her and spit her out onto the oil and chip road.
          "I'm not sure why my mother would be bothered -"
          "I meant your wife!" Audrey fumbled and she couldn't stop the train wreck she was sure she'd created, "I mean...I...I know some wives can be jealous."
          Noah gave her another look. This one was of amusement instead of curiosity. Her face was scarlet, brown eyes were round and wide. He gave a small laugh. The woman sure was cute.
          "Can't say I've ever had someone go in such a roundabout way to ask me about my marital status before. Most just outright ask if I'm married." His deep timbre was alight with good humor.
          "I'm sorry." Her voice had grown meek, her eyes downcast. "I...that was inappropriate of me."
          Self-consciously Audrey shifted in her seat so that her body was tilted away from the handsome man beside her. She was both ashamed and humiliated by herself. Her gaze locked onto something nonexistent in the distance. Hot tears pricked the corners of her eyes.
          "I've been a widower for longer than I was married." Noah's voice floated towards her through the haze of her self-loathing. "Mary was a sweet and tender woman. I believe you two would've been fast friends."
          "Widower? Oh, Noah...I'm so sorry." Audrey said. "How long were you married?"
          "A little over a year. It's been almost five since she was taken to our heavenly home." He said.
          Noah didn't often talk about Mary. It was the Amish way to move on from the death of a loved one. To dwell on their passing was frowned upon. People of the faith were taught as children that death wasn't the end of life but the beginning. Those who passed on were in a much better place than their Earthbound counterparts.
          Not to say that he didn't miss her. Noah had loved Mary with every fiber of his being. They'd gone to the same one-room schoolhouse as children. Mary had been a grade beneath him, but he was struck smitten the moment he laid eyes upon her. His lunch and recess had revolved around spending as much time with her and their mutual group of friends as possible.
          After Noah had finished school, he was shipped off to Ohio to live with distant family in the hopes that he'd pick up the trade of roofing. After a year spent away from home, it had become obvious that though he'd picked up the skill and had done well at it, his heart just wasn't in it to make it into a career. He'd moved back to Pennsylvania and went looking for Mary, hoping to reconnect with her. She and her family had moved away near the end of her last year at school.
          For 10 years Mary and Noah were separated. It was at a wedding of mutual friends - he knew the groom while she knew the bride - when God brought them together again. They'd collided, literally, on the makeshift volleyball court that some young men had set up after the wedding dinner was over.
          The Mary of his childhood had been bold, fierce, and boisterous. As a young woman, she'd matured and mellowed. Her faith in God was strong and her heart was one of gold. Noah was no longer smitten. He'd fallen in love.
          Their courtship was long by Amish standards. It lasted almost two years before Noah had worked up the courage to propose. They were married six months later, at the start of the summer harvest.
          Their marriage, though brief, had been one that was full of happiness and love. They had decided to wait on having children, wanting to build a strong foundation for themselves first. They learned to live under the same roof and work together as a team. They shared the chores, troubles, and growing pains that came with a new marriage.
          One day Mary had gone off to join a collection of women - Englisch, Amish, and Mennonite - for a sewing bee. She never returned. A state trooper knocked on the door at a quarter past seven that evening. Noah remembered that he had been washing the dishes. Drying his hands with a dish towel, he'd gone to answer the door. He remembered the confusion he'd felt at the thought of 'who could that be'.
          "Mr. Smuckers?" The trooper asked as he removed his hat, eyes sad.
          "Yes."
          "There's been an accident."
          To this day Noah couldn't recall much of that night or the days that followed. Mary's body had been so mutilated when he was brought in to identify her that if it hadn't been for the mat of straw-colored hair, he'd never have known that it was her. A semi-truck driver had fallen asleep at the wheel of his rig. He'd merged into the other lane and into oncoming traffic. A wooden buggy and a 1,200-pound animal were no match against the speed and weight of a nearly 80,000-pound machine.
          There were days that Noah wished that he and Mary hadn't waited to have children. Maybe then he'd still have a piece of his beloved to cherish. Most of the time though, Noah was grateful that he didn't have to go through life as a single father. He would've been pushed to remarry for the sake of necessity. After all, children needed a mother.
          Noah's expression had grown sad. His green gaze was distant. Audrey could tell that he was lost somewhere in the past. She reached out a hand to him. Her mouth opened to speak.
          She faltered, swallowing whatever words she'd been wanting to say. Her hand hovered in the space between them for a moment before she withdrew back to her side of the buggy. There was nothing she could say or do to bring comfort to him for a wound that painful and deep.
          Just then, a sleek red sports car blew by them at breakneck speed. It passed so close that its side mirror almost nicked the horse. Juniper reared, hooves tossing in the air as she screamed in fright. The buggy rocked with a violent jerk and Audrey's heart leaped to her throat. She felt herself slide; her scream lodged in her throat as she imagined the buggy capsizing. Lord, help us!
          She collided with Noah. Without thinking he threw his arm around her, holding her close as his other hand managed the leather leads. In the next few pulse-pounding moments - a lifetime as everything seemed to slow to a standstill - the world righted itself. Noah had gotten the horse to calm, pulling the buggy over onto the berm.
          As the taillights of the reckless driver's car disappeared around the corner, Noah turned towards Audrey. Her face, which had been rosy just a few seconds ago, was now ashen. Her dark eyes were wide and shiny, tears threatening to spill over. Instinctually the arm he had wrapped around her gave a small squeeze. His other hand gently touched the side of her face, tilting it so that she was looking at him.
          "Are you alright, Audrey?" He asked blond eyebrows crinkled in concern.
          She took a deep breath, "Fine."
          "Are you hurt?"
          "Only a little frightened," she said with a shaky exhale.
          He could tell that she was fighting to stay composed. He gave her another gentle squeeze. She was so soft. His thumb absentmindedly stroked her cheek. Audrey gazed up at him and gave a watery smile. Noah smiled back and then his attention turned towards his horse, who released an irritated snort.
          "I've got to check on Juniper. Stay in the buggy." He said.
          In the next instant, he was out and walking the berm towards his horse. Audrey watched as his big, warm hands stroked the animal's thick neck. Her body still tingled where he'd touched her. It had felt perfect to be tucked against his body like she had been made to fit there. Don't think too much about it, Audrey. He was only concerned about your welfare, and he had a scare of his own.
          Noah's voice was low, and calm as he spoke to Juniper. He ran his hands over her sweat-slicked body. His hands rubbed up and down her long, thin legs. She didn't feel hot. As he righted himself, he saw that her ears were forward and eyes bright.
          "Let's get going, old girl."
          She knickered in reply. His eyes shifted to behind the horse. From behind the windshield, he could see Audrey was watching him. Her brown eyes were intent and there was a small crease between her auburn eyebrows. Noah gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. She gave a watery smile back.
          "Is she alright?" Audrey asked as Noah climbed back into the buggy.
          "Right as rain." He said. He looked for oncoming traffic before pulling out into the road once more. "She had a fright is all. Juniper isn't hurt."
          "Speaking of rain...it would appear that there's a storm coming," Audrey said.
          He looked towards the approaching horizon where black clouds now swirled. They hadn't been there a few moments ago. Noah let out a breath of annoyance. Next to him, Audrey flinched at the sound.
          "I'm sorry."
          "Sorry for what?" He asked, fixing her with a stare that she couldn't read.
          "If it wasn't for me, you'd probably be tucked away at home by now. Instead, you're going to get caught in the rain."
          "A little rain never hurt anybody." Noah countered. "And what of you then? You'd be caught in the weather if you had ended up riding your bike home."
          He had a point, not that she wanted to admit it. Audrey was grateful to find herself being taken home instead of biking. She hated getting rained on. Plus, the view sitting beside her had been a treat.
          Audrey looked back towards the storm front. It had moved closer to them. The static charge building in the air caused the fine hairs on her arms to stand up on end. Thunder, low and steady, began to rumble.
          "If the weather is too bad when we get home, Grandma is going to insist that you come inside for coffee and cake until the weather clears."
          "Coffee and cake sound wonderful. Plus, I think a little impromptu visit would work to our advantage of weaving the 'little white lie'. Don't you?" Noah said.
          As they crested the top of the last hill before reaching Audrey's house, the heavens opened. Juniper's ears pinned back, and her eyes squinted as buckets of cold rain soaked her in an instant. A strong wind picked up, the plant life growing alongside the road folding over. The temperature in the buggy dropped several degrees. Audrey's arms folded themselves over her chest.
          Up ahead of them, a large house loomed. Downstairs several windows were aglow with warm orange light. The dark figure of a short, plump woman filled a window frame. She had the curtains pulled back, shadowed eyes watching the road intently.
          "That's Grandma," Audrey said. "Next to the house, on the far side, is a two-car carport. It can hold Juniper and your buggy until the weather clears."
          Noah followed her instructions. He guided Juniper under the metal roof of the open-walled structure. She fit in easily next to the large blue and white truck that was parked there. While the rain poured off the steep roof in rivulets, the ground beneath the outbuilding was dry. He hopped out and tethered the horse to one of the wooden posts.
          Audrey had followed him out of the driver's side of the buggy. She stood there, eyeing the curtain of cold water sourly. Lightening forked, lighting up the dark sky. Thunder boomed, rattling the frame of the house. The lights inside flickered but stayed lit.
          "Let me guess," Noah said as he slid up next to her, "we're going to have to get wet to get inside the house."
          "Yup."
          "Couldn't have put in a side door closer to the carport?"
          Audrey barked a laugh, "If it had been up to me, yes. But my grandfather was a stubborn man. He saw no need to cut out a hole in the side of the house. There are already two perfectly good doors, he'd say, pick one and go with it."
          A soft weight was placed upon her head. Startled, Audrey raised a hand and felt the brim of Noah's straw hat. She gave him a puzzled look.
          "Don't want you to get wet." He said.
          "What about you?"
          "I'm not made of sugar. I won't melt." He gave her a wide grin. "Count of three?"
          She nodded, "One...two...three!"
          Together they ran out into the rain. The path from the carport to the front porch was roughly 30 feet. In the cold late spring rain, it felt like the length of a football field. Rain sat in ankle-deep puddles and soon both of their shoes were soaked through, as were the rest of their bodies. Audrey's skirt grew heavy.
          Though Audrey felt certain that Noah was more than capable of outrunning her, she felt a surge of gratitude that he kept pace with her. From somewhere inside the house. Grandma had seen the two young people running through the rain. She flicked on the porch light, lighting up the dry wooden structure like a lighthouse on a storm-tossed beach.
          Wood creaked as Audrey and Noah bounded up the porch steps. Grandma threw open the heavy oak door. She waved them in, a little frantic. Worry etched deep lines on her face.
          "Get in, get in!" She shouted above the wind and rain, "That storm blew in out of nowhere. The weatherman said it'll be over soon though. Oh! You two are soaked. Stay there, on the carpet. Don't drip on my hardwood floors. I'll fetch some towels."
          The two stood there, somewhat huddled together on the rag rug just inside the door of the house. Grandma rushed upstairs. Audrey heard the door to the towel closet in the hallway open with a squeak. Her gaze then flicked to Noah.
          He was looking everywhere but at her. He turned towards the living room where the radio was softly playing. His eyes bounced from lamp to picture frame to furniture. Audrey bit her lip, feeling self-conscious. What was he thinking? She'd been inside Amish homes before and knew that they were much less cluttered than her own.
          "Here you go, children," Grandma said as she came back down the stairs.
          In one arm she held some thick, fluffy towels. In the other, she carried a collection of clothing. Audrey took a towel and handed it off to Noah, before taking the second one for herself. For a few moments, they stood in silence as they mopped the water from their bodies. Grandma took the towels from them once they were finished and then handed over the clothing.
          Audrey recognized the dress as being one of her favorites. It was a bright yellow one with daisies scattered all over it. Grandma had also given her a new head covering. This one was white, matching the flowers on her dress. Noah took the clothes - a pair of faded jeans and a blue flannel button-up shirt.
          "You're mighty big but so was my George," Grandma said with a soft smile on her lips. "They should fit. I'll pop your wet clothes in the dryer. Down the hall and on the left you'll find the half bath. Go on and get changed in there."
          "Thank you," Noah said.
          He kicked off his boots, leaving them on the rug, and padded down the hall. At the click of the bathroom door being pulled shut, Audrey began to pull off her wet clothes right there in the hall. Grandma took each discarded article as she removed them.
          "No underwear? No bra?" Audrey asked after she'd searched the pile of dry clothes for fresh undergarments and found none.
          "I wasn't comfortable digging through your dresser. You modern young women tend to keep..."
          "Grandma!"
          "I'm not wrong," Grandma said. "Anyways, you'll be fine, Audrey dear. There's a sweater there on the armchair if you feel like you need to cover up."
          Audrey's eyes flicked towards the little room where Noah had gone off to change. She was much too big of a woman to go without a bra. She licked her lips. She padded into the living room and snagged up the cream-colored sweater.
          "Best hurry up and put on those dry clothes." Grandma said, "Noah will be out any minute now. I know he's handsome but it's best to not show off the goods just yet, don't you agree?"
          "Grandma!" Audrey hissed.
          The older woman's words were enough to spur her into action. She ran back into the hallway and shimmied into the dress. With skilled fingers, she untwisted the straps and smoothed down the furled skirt. She pulled on the sweater, smoothing out the wrinkles. Audrey had just finished tying her new headscarf around her head and pinning it in place when the bathroom door swung open.
          Noah stepped out. Audrey sucked in a breath. The jeans were snug. He'd tucked in the plaid shirt, buttoning it almost to the top. He'd left the top two buttons undone. The blue fabric clung to his sculpted arms and chest in a way that only worked on airbrushed models. His blond hair was still damp, and his curls had lost their bounce.
          "I knew they'd fit. You look sharp there, young man. I'll have your clothes dried in a jiffy though, don't you worry."
          Grandma walked over to him and took his wet clothes from his hands. She disappeared down the hall. Audrey gave Noah a shy smile as she walked up to him. She couldn't help but notice the way his green eyes seemed to drink in her appearance. They left a heated trail from the top of her head to her feet. He returned her smile, eyes a little darker than they were a few seconds ago.
          "Come on. I'll make a pot of coffee," She said.
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