JoJo’s Review of KATIE’S CHOICE…
Amy Lillard is an award-winning writer who loves reading romance novels from contemporary to Amish. These two genres met in her first book, 2012′s Saving Gideon. Born and bred in Mississippi, she now lives with her husband and son in Oklahoma. To find out more about Amy and her books, please visit her online at http://amywritesromance.com.
Are you ready to go back out on assignment?” The phone line crackled slightly on the last word, but he thought Jolene Davidson, senior editor for Around the World magazine, had said “assignment.”
Zane Carson sat up in a hurry. He’d been lounging on the couch watching reruns of Happy Days when he should have been at his physical therapy session. But he just wasn’t up to another round of incredibly boring exercises with the commando instructor. No sir, he just couldn’t do it again today. He’d been a little contemplative lately.
Okay, so he had been downright depressed. But who wouldn’t be? One bullet and his entire life had been put on hold. His entire life had changed. He’d been sent home, grounded, and for once he’d started to think about the future. His future. His and Monica’s.
“Of course I am,” he lied. But what better way to prove to everyone that he was ready to hit the red zone than jumping on the horse, so to speak?
“Are you sitting down?”
“As a matter of fact, I am.” Jo was always one for drama. If she weren’t such a wordsmith, she could have been an actress instead. “Lay it on me.”
“Oklahoma Amish country.”
“Come again?” Surely he heard her wrong, because he thought she’d said—
“Oklahoma Amish country.”
He leaned forward. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you . . . going to Oklahoma . . . and living among the Amish to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be part of such a community.”
“Jolene, I am a war correspondent. That means I cover wars.” He purposefully made his voice sound like he was talking to a four-year-old. When would they accept that he was ready to go back out into the field? Maybe ready was a bad word, but he needed to get back out there, if only to prove that he could.
“Now, Carson, this is an important assignment—”
“Jolene, there aren’t many wars in Oklahoma, and there certainly aren’t any in Amish territory.”
“Whatever.” He flopped back on the sofa, then grimaced as he jarred his healing shoulder. “Aren’t they conscientious objectors?”
“You’ve been calling every day asking for an assignment.”
He hadn’t called today and look where that got him.
“Now they want to give you one. You can’t turn it down if you ever want to get back into the red zone.”
She was right. But . . . “Did you say Oklahoma?” Did they even have an Amish community? Why not Pennsylvania? Everybody knew about Lancaster County.
“Everybody knows about Lancaster County. We’re looking for something different—smaller settlement, tighter surrounding community. Alternate worship right there in the buckle of the Bible Belt.”
Zane didn’t know if he would call their manner of religion “alternate,” but what did he know about such things? He’d never been to church. His parents had preferred to worship nature and his uncle hadn’t had time for that sort of thing.
“I need you to do this for me.” Those quietly spoken words held a wealth of information. “You do this and I’ll make sure you get the Juarez assignment.”
“I thought Douglas was in Mexico.”
“He’s ready to come home, but he’s willing to stay until we can find a suitable replacement.”
Juarez, Mexico. Where innocent people died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was dangerous, very dangerous, this war on drugs. And exactly where Zane wanted to be. Jo knew that, and she used that information to her advantage.
He sighed. “When do you want me there?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
That didn’t give him much time. Zane pushed his fingers through his hair. It needed a cut, but it seemed like even that would have to wait. At least he was going back to work. Sort of. He really didn’t consider an assignment like this work. How challenging could it be? Amish. Right. But with Mexico dangling in front of him, what choice did he have?
“You’ll fly Chicago to Tulsa. There’s a driver who will pick you up and take you to Clover Ridge. And . . .” she paused for dramatic effect. “I’ve arranged for you to stay with a host family.”
“Wait. What? Hold on.” Zane ran his hands down the legs of his faded jeans and tried to get a handle on the information she just dumped on him. “A driver? Why do I need a driver? What about a car?”
Jolene sighed in an aren’t-you-just-the-silliest-thing kind of way that set his teeth on edge. “Zane, the Amish don’t drive cars.”
What had he gotten himself into?
“You’re going there to learn how to live like them, give the world an inside perspective. You certainly can’t do that if you’re zipping all over the place in a rental.”
That might be true, but he was sure he could get the feel for the lifestyle without being stranded in podunk Oklahoma with no means of transportation. But he knew better than to argue with Jo when she thought she was being brilliant. “Define ‘host family.’”
“Basically there’s a family, let me see here . . .” Zane could hear her shuffling papers. “The Fishers. You’re going to stay with them, and learn how to live like the Amish.”
“And what do they get out of the deal?”
She paused. “The satisfaction of helping their fellow man?”
He shook his head. “Helping their fellow man sell countless magazines and make lots of money. Isn’t that a little . . . un-Amish?” Even writers were sometimes at a loss for words. But someone once told him that the Amish weren’t interested in making money and getting ahead. They only earned what they needed to in order to care for their families. Or maybe he had read it in a magazine during one of his countless layovers.
“The mom has cancer. They’re hoping that the exposure will help bring more people into the community and thereby raise enough money to cover the medical costs.”
That seemed a little out of character too. But what he knew about the Amish could fit on the back of a postage stamp—with room to spare.
Host family usually meant an in-depth study, a series of articles, and quite a bit of time away from home. Zane glanced around his tiny apartment. He was so sick at looking at these walls. Maybe an assignment like this was worth getting out for. “How long are we talking about here?”
“Are you insane? Three months?” He flipped the calendar to October. Three months would get him back to Chicago at the first of the year. “I’ll be gone during Christmas.”
Jolene snickered. “I thought you might like to spend the holidays with someone other than me.”
Truth was he’d never spent any personal time with Jo at the holidays, or any other time for that matter, but he was one of the few reporters at Around the World that had no family to speak of. No one would miss him if he were on assignment Christmas Day. Not even Monica. Well, she might miss him, but she would understand. Not that it mattered. It’d never been a big holiday for him before or after his parents died.
“And you’re sure it’s okay with them?” The Amish were a tight-knit group, and the last thing he wanted was to invade their inner sanctum. He’d been in war-torn countries with bullets whizzing past his head like fiery hail, he’d suffered discrimination of being the only white face in the jungles of Africa, but there was no way he’d overrun someone’s private time with their family. That was not a road he wanted to travel down.
“Are you worried, Zane?” She said this, but what she really meant was, Are you going soft on me?
“Not at all.”
“Good, then. They’ll be expecting you on Thursday. I’ll send over the specs on the angle we’d like to see. This is a serious assignment, Zane. We want it all—interviews, pictures, the works.”
“In the meantime, it’s probably best to start your own research. You’d better get on it though. You only have a day and a half to learn how to live like the Amish.”
Soft music played in the dimly lit restaurant. Zane smoothed a hand down his tie, resisting the urge to loosen it. He was certain the maitre d’ would frown upon anything less than perfection from his diners. And the noose was for a good cause. He glanced at his dinner companion.
To call Monica Cartwright pretty was the understatement of the century. With her silky, black hair, flawless complexion, and petite frame, beautiful didn’t seem to cover it either. Gorgeous, stunning, breathtaking—those came close. Or maybe it was the way she carried herself, with a self-assurance that came from old money. Why she had set her sights on a footloose vagrant like him was beyond comprehension.
He wasn’t going to examine it too closely, though, but instead ride it for all it was worth. He absently fingered the little black box he’d tucked away in his suit coat. Tonight was a special night. And he had yet to tell her about his sojourn into the land of the backward.
That wasn’t fair. He was sure the Amish were good people, but he needed to be in the thick of things. That’s what made him tick, made him feel alive. What had Jo talked him into this time? Amish. She had better deliver on Mexico the minute he returned.
He lifted his gaze to Monica, only then aware he’d been staring at the menu without even reading it.
She shifted in her seat. “You’re a million miles away.” The immaculate navy blue cocktail dress hugged her like a second skin and matched her eyes to perfection.
“Sorry.” He smoothed his tie once again. She was probably sensing his unease. He’d have to tell her eventually about his assignment. She’d be disappointed, but she understood the business. Even if the magazine she worked for was owned by dear old Dad, Monica prided herself on working her way into her current position as staff editor of Talk of the Town magazine. Of course, she wrote about Chanel lipstick and Louboutin shoes, not the harsh realities of war. But she understood.
Of all the days to get an assignment.
“It’s all right.”
He was about to spill the news when the waiter came to take their order. One prime rib and one frou-frou salad later, he couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“I got an assignment today.”
“Oh.” Crestfallen was the only word he could think of to describe her expression. Of course, she thought he was going back to the Middle East.
“It’s an easy assignment.”
She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, then gave him a sad, brave smile. “Where are you going?” For all her talk about accepting his job, he knew it wouldn’t be easy for her when he headed off to Mexico.
Her brows rose. “Are you joking?”
“I wish I was. It’s a crazy assignment, but if I want to get back out in the field, then I have to go.”
“I understand.” She looked down, seemingly captivated by the pattern on the ends of their flatware.
He hated the resigned slump of her shoulders. “It’s only for three months.”
“That’s not bad.” There was that brave smile again.
He shook his head. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about.”
She took a sip of water, watching him over the rim.
Zane’s hand started to tremble. Surely a natural reaction. After all, it wasn’t every day a man got engaged. He pulled the velvet box from his suit pocket and placed it on the table in front of him.
Her sapphire eyes grew wide. “Zane, I—”
He shook his head, effectively cutting off whatever she was about to say. “Just hear me out.” He took a deep breath, then flipped open the top of the ring box to expose the sparkling ruby and diamond engagement ring inside. Another breath. “Monica, I’ve always been something of a loner. I guess it’s in my genes, but getting shot made me stop and think about the future. That’s when I realized I didn’t have one. At least, not one that I was looking forward to.”
He cleared his throat and dropped down on one knee beside her. “Monica Cartwright, will you marry me?” His voice cracked on the last word, but she didn’t seem to notice.
She looked from the box on the table to the knot in his tie, but made no move toward the ring. “I don’t know what to say.” She didn’t meet his gaze.
“I believe this is where you’re supposed to say yes.”
“Oh, Zane.” Her voice was filled with anguish and indecision instead of the happy love that he’d been expecting. She tugged on his sleeve. “Stand up. Stand up.”
Zane rose, then sat in his chair, wondering where his proposal had gotten off track.
“What about your job?”
He shrugged, his shoulders stiff. Then he tried to laugh it off. “I’ll need to keep it, don’t you think? We’ll still have bills to pay.”
She dropped her gaze to her lap. “You’ll be gone most of the time.”
He reached across the table and took her hands into his own. “I was laying there in that hospital bed wondering if each sight was going to be my last and all I could think about was you. And the future. That’s how those soldiers do it, babe. They can go over there and fight because they know they have someone to come home to. I need you to be my someone.”
Tears filled her eyes, but she blinked them back. “I don’t know, Zane. I—I just don’t know.”
This was not the response he’d expected. In all fairness he was asking a lot. For her to wait on him, to wonder and worry, raise their family and never know if he’d return in one piece. But they weren’t the only couple facing the same prospects in this time of war. Others survived. They could too.
He picked up the ring box, snapped it shut, and pressed it into her hand. “You think about it while I’m gone, okay?”
She nodded and slipped the box into her evening bag. “It’s not that I don’t love you—”
“Shh. I know.” He pressed one finger to her lips. “We’ll talk about it when I get back.”
Engaged. He was engaged. Well, almost engaged. He’d taken Monica by surprise was all. And now this assignment. He was counting on the old absence makes the heart grow fonder thing to kick in while he was gone. She’d come around to his way of thinking. He was certain of it.
Engaged. It was a weird thought. There was someone waiting for him to return. Someone who counted on him to come back and continue their relationship without question. The idea was as foreign to Zane as the landscape whizzing past.
As promised, a driver named Bill had met Zane at the airport. Bill was more than willing to talk about the weather, the trees, and how the University of Oklahoma football team was playing this season, but Zane didn’t think it was the time to drill him for secrets into the culture he was entering. Bill wasn’t Amish.
“Mennonite,” he supplied with a smile and a glance in Zane’s direction.
“And what would you say the primary difference is?” Zane asked. “Besides driving.” He’d been a little surprised that the driver was also of the Anabaptist sect, though he wouldn’t have known it if the chatty Bill hadn’t volunteered the info.
“Well, now, there are quite a few differences. ’Course you got your Old Order Amish and your New Order Amish, they differ greatly as well.”
“And Clover Ridge?”
“Definitely Old Order.”
Zane nodded. Not that he understood any of what that meant. He wished he’d done a little more research. All he could remember about the Amish was the tragic shooting several years ago and that they seemed to be a loving and forgiving sort of people. He had been in Bosnia when it happened, so all his info had been filtered by the time it reached him.
“I thought Oklahoma was flat and dusty.” Zane gestured toward the green grass. The sky was colored a pristine blue, and the hills seemed to roll on forever into the distance. Sort of reminded him of Oregon and the commune where he grew up. At least how he remembered Oregon.
Bill laughed. “Not this part. You’re in what’s called Green Country. Out in western Oklahoma, it’s like that. Dry prairie. But neither side lives in teepees.”
Zane turned to face him, questions on the tip of his tongue.
Bill’s eyes twinkled.
Must be an inside joke, Zane thought, and leaned back in his seat.
The rest of the trip flew by in a blur of unexpected green. Bill pointed out a few more things along the way—mistletoe, the state flower, and the scissor-tailed flycatcher, the state bird. And in less time than it would have taken him to drive from his apartment to downtown, they were entering Clover Ridge.
The town was a mixed oddity of old and new. There was a McDonalds and a Walgreens, but somehow they had managed to keep the Walmart invasion at bay. A general store named Anderson’s sat next to the post office, then a lumberyard, and a Dairy Queen.
But most interesting of all were the buggies hitched to horses and tethered in front of all the stores. At least they weren’t in the drive-through line at Mickey D’s, he thought, hiding a smile.
In no time at all, they pulled into a long dirt drive lined with wooden fences on both sides. Across the road from the turn, a field had been left fallow, the rich, dark earth looking like no soil he had ever seen. A small wooden shanty stood at the edge of the field, seeming too new for the rest of the farm.
“Here we are.” Bill pulled the car to a stop in front of a rambling white house that looked like it had been added on to several times.
A big red barn stood opposite the haphazard structure, a pasture with no end spreading behind it. The yard itself teemed with life. Chickens, dogs, cats, geese, and even a duck strutted around pecking at bugs and giving the occasional cat a chase.
Bill didn’t even honk the horn. At the sound of the car’s engine, three people rushed from the house to the porch. Zane stepped from the car, looking from them to the stern-faced man coming from the barn, the obvious Amish patriarch.
Before he could utter one word of greeting, Bill raised his hand toward the elder man. “Abram Fisher. I’ve brought your new house guest.”
Abram raised his hand in return. “Bill Foster. It is good to see you.” The men shook hands and clapped each other on the back as Zane watched the group on the porch. A tall, slender woman stood in the center of the fray, most likely Abram’s wife. What had Jo said her name was? Ruth, yeah, Ruth.
“You’ll stay for natchess,” Abram said, not quite a question, but Bill nodded in return. “Wouldn’t miss Ruth’s cookin’ for nothin’ in the world.”
Abram shook his head. “Ruth’s restin’ more these days. It’s Gideon’s Annie who’ll be preparin’ your food for the evenin’. But a right fine cook she is at that.” Zane couldn’t help but notice the haunted look in his eyes at the mention of his wife’s name and once again he worried that his staying with them might turn out to be more of a hardship than a benefit.
He mentally shook himself. Maybe Jo was right. Maybe he was getting soft. Normally he wouldn’t care about such things. They had invited him here. They were getting something from the deal. He was just doing his job. And that’s all there was to it.
“What say you, Bill Foster?” Abram asked. “What else do we need to pay you for your services this evenin’?”
Zane stepped forward and reached for his wallet. “I’ve got this.” He pulled out two twenties and a ten, more than enough to cover the gas for the trip. He thought better of it and pulled out a couple more twenties. Surely that would pay for the man’s time.
Bill shook his head and made no move toward the money. “I’d rather not have money, if you’ve still got any of them pickles.”
Abram nodded. “That we do. A couple of jars of those, and I’ll say we’re even.”
Zane looked down at the cash he held in his hand. Pickles? Was he serious? The Amish man and the Mennonite shook hands. Evidently they were.
“But—” he started, not really knowing what to do and how to protest that Bill hadn’t taken his money in trade for services. Bill looked down at the bills in Zane’s hand.
“That’s mighty kind of you, son,” he said, plucking it from his fingers and handing it over to Abram. “Perhaps this would be better used in Ruth Ann’s fund.”
“Danki, Bill Foster,” Abram gave a nod of his head. “I’ll make sure Annie gets it.”
“Come on with you both.” Abram pointed to the bags Bill had pulled from the back of the car. The men grabbed the luggage and started toward the house.
“By the way, I’m Zane Carson.” He didn’t know why he felt compelled to say anything. It wasn’t like they had paid him the slightest attention, but he felt he should say something. Or maybe not. He adjusted the strap of his laptop bag and followed behind Bill and Abram.
“Ach,” Abram said with a shake of his head. “That you are.”
Zane didn’t have time to think about the lack of greeting. All at once they were standing at the foot of the porch.
“Annie, I hope you’ve prepared enough, we’ve got guests for supper.”
A petite woman with dark hair and unusual eyes nodded to Abram. “I have indeed. There is more than enough to go around.”
Her accent was different from the others’. Abram’s voice held the lilt of his German ancestors, but Annie sounded like a purebred Texan. And stranger still, Zane had a feeling he’d met her before.
“Abram,” the woman on the porch said, “introduce the family and guests.”
The eldest Fisher jerked his head. “Zane Carson,” he said with a motion back toward him. “This here’s my wife, Ruth Ann, and that’s Annie Hamilton, my son John Paul. Gideon will be along directly with our son, Gabe, and his boys.”
“And Lizzie,” Annie said. “I mean, Mary Elizabeth, will be here too.”
“Don’t forget Katie Rose,” John Paul added. “She’s my sister.”
Zane did a quick mental calculation and, depending on the number of boys that belonged to Gabe, there would be at least twelve people at this natchess, maybe more. He hadn’t survived in the Middle East without being quick, and he could only assume that natchess was the next meal.
Everyone bustled into the house, the inside much warmer than the greeting he’d received from Abram. Yet, there weren’t any of the vanity objects that dominated non-Amish housing. No pictures on the walls, no knickknacks scattered about. The floors were solid wood, covered only by a few homemade-looking rag rugs. There were no curtains on the windows, no cozy items strewn about. All in all he couldn’t figure out why it seemed so welcoming.
Maybe it was the family. Despite Abram, Ruth Ann and Annie seemed to welcome him into the house. Upon closer inspection, he could see the ravages of cancer treatment on the Fisher matriarch. She wore a black bonnet that he was pretty sure hid the last remains of her chemo-ravaged hair. Her skin held a gray tinge, her cheeks puffy from the steroids, her eyes sunken. Her dress hung on her frame, but those mossy green eyes sparkled with a light that even medical science couldn’t extinguish.
Annie was much younger and healthier, though Zane noticed she hovered close to Ruth as if to spot her in case she stumbled. Zane still couldn’t shake the feeling that he knew her somehow. They say everyone has a twin. Well, at some point in his life, he’d run across Annie’s.
“John Paul,” Ruth commanded, her voice strong despite her frail condition. “Take Zane Carson’s things upstairs and show him to his room.”
“Thank you, ma’am, but I can get it.”
Ruth shook her head. “John Paul will help.”
The young man stepped forward and for the first time Zane noticed he wore faded jeans to rival his own. His blue shirt looked impeccably tailored, and he’d rounded out his attire with a pair of dirty running shoes. Had he not had the distinctive chili-bowl hairstyle, John Paul Fisher would have looked like any other teenager in countless other small towns around the country.
Yet the women had both dressed the same: dresses covered in some sort of apron and shawl, hair pinned back and covered with a small, white cap. Why did John Paul dress differently? Zane made a mental note to find out the first chance he got.
John Paul picked up Zane’s suitcase and started toward the large set of stairs. “This way.”
Zane grabbed his computer and followed behind.
“You’ll be sharin’ a room with me, since Gideon’s Annie has the other.” He nodded his head to the closed door directly across the hall. He pushed open the opposite door and ducked inside.
Two neat beds sat side by side in a surprisingly large bedroom. Each bed was covered with a quilt of vivid colors—black, red, yellow, orange, and green. A rocking chair had a strange-looking floor lamp next to it, the neck of it protruding out of an old propane tank.
“This one’s the bed I usually sleep in.” John Paul pointed to the one on the right, and it wasn’t lost on Zane that he didn’t call the bed “mine.” “But I’m not here much.” He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “whatever.”
“Then I’ll take this one.” Zane hoisted his laptop bag into the center of the quilt. “Tell me again, Gideon’s Annie is who?”
“She’s the dark-haired girl downstairs. She’s intended to my older brother Gideon.”
“Why do they call her by his name too?”
“You see, there’s a lot of Annies, but she is—”
“Gideon’s. Got it.”
“Come next fall, they’ll be married. Well, once she joins the church.”
Zane sat down on the bed, briefly wondering if John Paul would mind if he opened his laptop and took notes while the young man talked. Probably. So he kept his expression blank as he asked, “She’s not a member of the church?”
“No, she just moved here.”
“From another community, you mean.”
As in Texas? He wasn’t so far off the mark after all. He was pleased to know that six months stuck in his own apartment hadn’t dulled his instincts. “I wasn’t aware they had an Amish settlement in Dallas.”
John Paul shook his head. “Gideon’s Annie isn’t Amish. She’s an Englischer wantin’ to be Amish so she can marry my brother. She can’t do that until she joins the church. And she can’t join the church until she passes her lessons and proves that she’s committed to our ways.”
Now that sounded downright cultish, but Zane supposed love could do that to a person. “How did an Amish man meet a city girl from Texas?”
“Ach, man, now there’s a good story,” he said, sounding all the more like his father. “But it’s better voiced by Gideon or Annie. I can tell you, though, that Annie, she wrecked her car on a snowy night this past spring. Gideon rescued her from the car, and she . . . well, I suppose you could say that she rescued him from his grief. His wife and son died over a year ago. Gideon never quite recovered. Until Annie, that is.”
“I see.” In the shoes he wore right then, he couldn’t imagine how Gideon felt. How would he feel about the matter after Monica gave birth to his child?
John Paul sat down opposite him, and Zane nodded toward the young man’s jeans. “So the men are able to dress like they want and the women wear the . . .” He motioned toward his torso and head.
John Paul laughed. “No. All Amish men and women dress the same as each other, but I’m in rumspringa.”
“And that means . . . ?”
“I get a chance to go out and experience the world. I can wear what I want, drive a car, drink alcohol. Make sure I really want to join the church.”
“And if you decide not to join?”
John Paul shrugged. “Then I can leave the district and go to live with the Englisch.”
“Interesting.” More than, actually. He would have loved to question John Paul some more about the rum-whatever, but they had been gone long enough. Time to get back downstairs and meet back up with his host family. He made a mental note to find out more at the first available opportunity.
“Is there a place I can plug in my laptop?”
John Paul grinned. “No.”
“But the lamp?” He nodded toward the corner light.
“Runs off propane. Didn’t anybody tell you? There’s no electricity in Amish homes.”
He had heard something to that effect, but it just hadn’t sunk in. Or maybe it just didn’t seem possible. “They were serious about that?”
John Paul’s grin got a little bit wider. “Absolutely.”
Back downstairs, it seemed that the house would burst with all the people who had arrived for dinner. Gabriel, it turned out, had five sons ranging in age from four to thirteen with his daughter Mary Elizabeth topping the list at fifteen. From her, Zane learned that rumspringa started at sixteen and could last as long as five years. Soon Mary Elizabeth would be joining the run-around time. By the gleam in her eyes, she could barely stand the wait. Gideon also arrived, looking as much like Abram as Gabriel did. Both Fisher boys were bulky and solid, with coffee-dark hair. Their mossy-green eyes were identical to their mother’s, the one trait she seemed to have passed to her sons.
Zane couldn’t help but notice Gideon and his intended were not very affectionate—at least not outwardly. He did catch them staring longingly at each other when they thought no one was looking. Maybe that was part of the culture as well. He wished he’d thought to bring his notebook from his case, but then again, maybe it wasn’t kosher to take notes at the family dinner. Even if Bill the Mennonite driver was also attending. So Zane made do with mental notes, etching the questions into his brain so he could retrieve them later when he went to his room.
“Katie Rose,” Mary Elizabeth said, grabbing the arm of a woman he had yet to meet. With all the milling bodies, it was no wonder he hadn’t seen the Fisher daughter as she had arrived with her brothers.
She turned to face him, and Zane’s greeting died on his lips.
Tall and slim, she looked as much like her mother as the Fisher boys favored their father. Honey-blonde hair, pale green eyes, with the barest hint of color high on her cheekbones.
And she took his breath away.
She exuded an angelic quality that even surpassed the peace and love that shone in Ruth Fisher’s eyes. Wholesome. That was the first word to come to mind. She was what Monica would call a natural beauty. No makeup, no highlights, no artificial anything, and yet she was perhaps the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
“It’s nice to meet you.” Was that his voice? He nodded to Katie Rose, still trying to get his bearings, as he reached out to shake her hand.
“And you as well. Welcome to Clover Ridge.” Katie Rose smiled as she shook his hand, and Zane’s breath stilled in his chest. Her fingers were warm in his, solid with just a few rough spots that told the tale of the life she lived. Monica would have been at the salon every day to have them removed, but they fit the natural beauty of Katie Rose Fisher.
He couldn’t pinpoint what it was about her that seemed to seep into his bones. She was not his type, but the man in him could appreciate her beauty. The engaged man in him, however, knew to keep his distance. Now was the time to show his professionalism.
“Katie Rose is our teacher,” Mary Elizabeth gushed. “Well, not mine anymore, but the other children’s. She’s wonderful.”
“I’m sure she is,” he said, realizing that he still held her hand in his.
Katie Rose pulled away, her smile unwavering. “I hope you enjoy your stay here.”
“I’m sure I will.” Zane did his best not to feel discarded as she nodded a “so long” and disappeared in the throng of her family.
Just when he thought the house couldn’t get any fuller, someone called out, “Go get Noni.”
From the back, John Paul brought in a stooped, elderly woman who couldn’t have been a day younger than ninety. Arthritis had gnarled her hands into near talons, but her eyes still held the sharp edge of intelligence. She had a walking cane and a long black dress, her iron-gray hair parted down the middle pulled back and covered just like the young women.
Once they were all seated around the two large wooden tables, everyone bowed their heads. Everyone, but Zane. He looked around at their bowed heads, his gaze stopping on one of Gabriel’s sons. Samuel? Or was it Simon? It didn’t matter. Only the buzzing silence that filled the room as everyone prayed. For what, he didn’t know. Zane had never been one to pray. At least not to a god . . . or the God. He just . . . never saw the point.
His gaze flitted from Simon to his aunt. Katie Rose had her head dutifully lowered, her eyes closed, and her hands folded neatly on the table. There was a peace about her that Zane couldn’t place, and he pushed back thoughts of his earlier reaction to her. Her beauty had taken him by surprise. Where he came from, women did everything from color their hair to inject their lips in order to gain the aura that Katie Rose held by the grace of nature.
Professional, he reminded himself. Be professional. He was a little out of practice at living with other cultures. Six weeks in Chicago had done that to him. Maybe Jo had a point: He needed this assignment more than he realized. He’d definitely be in trouble if he lost his edge in Juarez. Better to get back in the habit of adapting to the Amish before he had to survive in the wild world of Mexican drug lords.
He cleared his mind of personal thoughts of Katie Rose and inspected her with a journalist’s eyes. She, like the other women, wore a white kerchief-kind of hat perched on the back part of her head. Must be an Amish thing. He’d never thought about it until now, but in all the pictures he had seen of the Plain people, the women wore that same type of covering, or something similar. He made a mental note to ask John Paul about it.
Thankfully, Abram uttered “Aemen” and everyone raised their heads. Being at the table with so many people brought back memories of the cooperative where bowls of food were circulated and everyone served their plates before passing to the next person.
Someone burped. No one made mention of it, no one said excuse me or waited for another to do the honors. Another Amish thing? For so many people at the table, there wasn’t a great deal of talking. Even the children were strangely quiet. Granted, what he had seen of Amish children tonight led him to believe that they were better disciplined than kids on the outside. Still, he couldn’t help but believe that his presence at the table had something to do with it.
“How’s your natchess?”
Zane’s gaze jerked to Katie Rose. She smiled, and he realized her eyes were a lighter green than her mother’s. And sweetly smiling instead of tired, as she waited for him to answer.
He realized he wasn’t eating. Old habits and all. He’d never been a big eater. He was usually much more interested in what was around him than in food. But he had the next three months to absorb all he could of the Amish way of life. No sense in starving himself this early in the game.
“Oh, fine, fine,” he answered, taking a bite to add credit to his words. “Very good, in fact. My compliments to the chef.”
A few seats down, Annie blushed.
The meal was tasty. Some of the best food he had ever eaten. Maybe because it wasn’t full of preservatives or lean on fat and calories. He could feel it clogging his arteries that very second, but he wasn’t sure he cared. It was that delicious. “What do you call this?”
“Chicken pot pie,” Annie answered.
“It’s Annie’s specialty,” Mary Elizabeth said with a smile.
“And onkel’s favorite,” Matthew was quick to add.
Another inside joke?
“There was fine weather today,” Abram said from his place at the head of the table. “Tomorrow we’ll start plowin’.”
“Plowing?” Granted he’d been a city boy for the last twenty years, but he’d spent quite a few formative years in a commune. And he’d learned a thing or two about farming. One thing he knew was that it was October. Not time to plant anything.
“Jah,” Abram said with a short nod. “Plowin’.”
“You made out easy,” John Paul added with a nudge to his side. “Last week we laid the manure.”
“Seems like I came just in time,” he said with a laugh. For the first time since he agreed to this crazy plan of Jo’s, he realized the extent of what he’d gotten himself in to. Farming. And backward farming, at that. He rubbed at the dull pain in his shoulder. He supposed it was better than heading into a war zone. Safer, and not as stressful. A little cleaner and a lot cushier. But how was he supposed to live his life to the fullest on an Amish farm in the backwoods of backward Oklahoma? Three months, he told himself. Three months, and he was out of here.
Abram Fisher had made a mistake. He was a godly man. He had learned humility. And he could admit when he’d done wrong. And this time he hadn’t done right by his family.
He looked down the table to the stranger he had invited into his home—their home. He’d done it all for Ruthie. He was a selfish man, he knew. Every night he prayed to God to forgive him and his selfish ways and thoughts, but heaven help him, he wasn’t ready to let her go.
But this Englischer with his hard eyes and unsmiling mouth was not a man he should have asked to come into his house. Not like this. But the deed was done. Zane Carson was staying, living among them, writing about what it felt like to be Amish.
Abram couldn’t understand the draw of the outside world to their little community, but the Englischers seemed to be fascinated by the ways of the Plain folk. It beat him as to why. They all acted like Plain folk did something special. More special than just follow God’s plan. Everything was right there in the Bible for everyone to see, to use. T’weren’t any more special than that.
But with Ruthie’s cancer treatments draining the funds from the district, Abram had to do something to put it back. The only thing he could do was take the fancy, fast-talking editor lady up on her plan. Invite a reporter to come into their midst, live with them, work beside them, and then write a bunch of stories about the experience. She assured Abram that the articles would bring tourists from all over to sample the wares, tastes, and simple life that was offered in Clover Ridge. More visitors meant more money for the town, and more money for the town meant more funds in the emergency coffers. More money for cancer treatments.
So he had done it for Ruthie. Everything for Ruthie.