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Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
"I can't believe my eyes. Is that who I think it is?"
Ezra Stoltzfus looked up from the new buggy he'd been admiring. His older brother Joshua had done an excellent job with the courting buggy he was building for his son. It was low and sleek, exactly what Ezra's nephew Timothy would want when he was ready to ask a special girl to let him take her home from a singing.
He was about to ask Joshua what he was talking about, but then he looked through the large glass window at the front of his brother's buggy shop in the small village of Paradise Springs. Every word fled from his mind.
It couldn't be. Not after all this time. It had been ten years.
Getting out of a family buggy in the parking lot of the line of shops connected to the Stoltzfus Market was a slender woman dressed plain in dark purple. From beneath her black bonnet, her white kapp peeked out along with her golden hair that glistened in the spring sunshine.
A small, black dog jumped from the buggy and stayed close to the woman as she spoke to someone inside. She smiled, and he knew. It was Leah Beiler!
He couldn't have forgotten Leah's heart-shaped face with the single dimple in her left cheek. Not if he tried, and the gut Lord knew how much he'd tried for the past ten years, since she and her twin brother, Johnny, left Paradise Springs. They'd gone without telling anyone where they intended to go. They hadn't come back.
Did her family know she was back? They must, because she was driving Abram Beiler's family buggy. He recognized it by the dent where his neighbor had scraped a tree on an icy morning a few months ago and hadn't gotten around to bringing it in to Joshua to get it repaired. Why hadn't Leah's daed mentioned that his kinder were home? They'd spoken three days ago when Abram came over during milking to talk about the selection of a new minister for the district at the service on the next church Sunday. Abram had mentioned he was going to be away at a horse and stock auction west of Harrisburg for over a week and that he hoped he'd be home in time for calving, because several of his cows were due to deliver soon. How could Abram have talked of those commonplace things and never mentioned his twins had come back after so many years away?
Ezra couldn't forget the conversation he and Abram had the very day Leah and Johnny had disappeared. They'd spoken about Abram's youngest daughter, who was torn between her love for her way of life and faith in Paradise Springs and her twin brother's increasing rebellion against both, as well as his family.
Ezra had reminded Abram of Leah's strong faith and her love for her family, but he understood her daeds concern. She was always determined to rescue any creature needing help. It didn't matter if it was a baby bird fallen from its nest or her wayward brother who kept extending his rumspringa rather than committing to his community and God. She would throw everything asideeven gut senseif she thought she could help someone. It had been her most annoying quality, as well as her most endearing. He knew of her generous heart firsthand because Leah had been there for him during the months when he grieved after his beloved grossmammi died and many other times for as long as he could remember.
That day, as they talked on the Beilers' porch, Abram had been at his wit's end with worry about his youngest kinder. Otherwise, he never would have admitted to his concerns. Abram Beiler was a man who kept his thoughts and feelings to himself.
Was that why Abram hadn't said anything the other day? Ezra didn't know how a man could keep such glad tidings to himself unless the tidings weren't gut. Could it be Leah and Johnny hadn't really come home to stay?
Ezra looked around the parking lot in front of the Stoltzfus Market. He saw a few cars and a couple of buggies, but no sign of Johnny. Was he in the store, or was he still in the buggy? When Leah smiled again as she spoke to someone in the buggy, he wondered with whom she was chatting. Her brother? A husband? A kind?
His gut crunched as the last two questions shot through his mind. The whole time Leah had been gone, she'd remained, in his mind, that seventeen-year-old girl who was always laughing and who always had time to listen to his dreams of running his family's farm and starting his own cheese-making business. Oddly enough, she was the only one who hadn't laughed at his hopes for the future.
Now she was back in Paradise Springs and at the shops run by his brothers. Where had she been and why had she come back now?
Joshua set down his hammer as he turned to Ezra, his mouth straight above his dark brown beard. "I guess I don't have to ask. The expression on your face says that it's got to be Leah Beiler."
"The woman does look like her, but she's turned away so I can't be completely sure." He kept his voice indifferent as he walked from the window toward the table where Joshua kept paperwork for new buggies and repairs on used ones, but his older brother knew him too well to be fooled.
"Even so, you think that's Leah Beiler out there."
He nodded reluctantly. The last time he had been false with Joshua was when they both were in school and Ezra had switched their lunch pails so he could have the bigger piece of their grossmammfs peach pie. His reward had been a stomachache and an angry brother and a gross-mammi who was disappointed in him. At that point, he had decided honesty truly was the best way to live his life.
So why was he lying to himself now as he tried to convince himself the woman could not possibly be Leah?
"Are you going to talk to her?" Joshua asked as he glanced up at Ezra, who was four inches taller than he was. Joshua was the shortest of the Stoltzfus brothers, but stood almost six feet tall. A widower for the past four years, he had the responsibility for three kinder as well as the buggy shop.
"I wasn't planning on it." He stared at the neat arrangement of tools on the wall so he didn't have to look at his brother or give in to the temptation to glance out the window again.
"You're not curious why they went away?"
He wanted to say he wasn't any longer. Not after ten years. But that would be a lie. At first, after she and Johnny vanished, he had thought about Leah all the time. She'd been such an important part of his life, around every day because they'd grown up on farms next door to each other.
Then, as time went on, he found himself thinking of her less because he was busy taking over the farm from his daed. Chasing his dreams to become a cheese-maker consumed him, allowing him to push other thoughts aside. Yet, he'd never forgotten her. At night, when the only sounds were his brothers' snoring and the crackle of wood falling apart in the stove, memories of her emerged like timid rabbits from under a bush. They scampered through his mind before vanishing again.
And always he was left with the questions of why she had left and where she had gone and why she'd never returned.
"Of course, I'm curious," Ezra said before his brother noticed how he hesitated on his answer.
"Then go out and see if she's really Leah Beiler." Joshua gave him a sympathetic smile. "You'll kick yourself if you don't."
His brother was right, and Ezra knew it. After spending too many years on "if only," he could not add another to his long list of regrets. God had brought this unexpected opportunity into his life, and ten years of prayer for an explanation could be answered now.
"All right." He took his straw hat off a peg by the door and put it on his head.
"Then let me know," Joshua called to his back. "You're not the only one who's been wondering if we'll ever know the truth of why she and Johnny left. And why they're back."
Ezra nodded again as he opened the door. Fresh spring air flavored with mud and the first greenery of the season filled the deep breath he took while he walked out of Joshua's buggy shop and into the midmorning sunshine. It took every ounce of his willpower to propel his feet across the parking lot toward where Leah stood by the buggy.
The crunch of gravel beneath his work boots must have alerted her, because she glanced over her shoulder toward him. Surprise, mixed with both pleasure and uncertainty, widened her eyes. They were the same warm shade as her purple dress, and that color had fascinated him since they were young kinder. Like her dimple, they had not changed, but she seemed tinier and more fragile. An illusion, he knew, because he had grown taller since the last time they were together. In addition, Leah Beiler was one of the strongest people he had ever met, the first to raise her hand to volunteer.
"Gute mariye, Leah," he said quietly as he stepped around the small dog who ran from her to him and back. So many times he had imagined their reunion and what he would say when he saw her again. He couldn't recall any of it now when he paused an arm's length from her. The memory of the girl she had been, which had become flat and dull through the years, dimmed further as he beheld the living, breathing woman in front of him.
"Good morning," she replied in English, then repeated the words in Deitsch, the language spoken by the Amish. She acted unused to it now. "How are you, Ezra? You look well."
"I am. You?"
"I am fine." She glanced along the storefronts in the small plaza with the market in the middle. A simple sign by the road stated Stoltzfus Family Shops. "Are all these businesses owned by your family?"
"Ja." He pointed to each shop as he added, "Joshua builds buggies. Amos owns the market. Jeremiah and Daniel are woodworkers, and Micah makes windmills. Since the bishop approved us using solar panels, he's been installing them, too."
"What about Isaiah?"
"He has become a blacksmith, and his smithy is around back." He wondered how she could act as if everything were normal, as if she and Johnny had not disappeared abruptly.
"Leah?" asked a sleepy voice before he could blurt out the questions swirling through his head.
She turned to look into the carriage. He did, too, and saw a girl sitting in the buggy, a girl who looked like Leah had when he and she were both going to school together.
He knew at that instant nothing could be the same as it had been before she left.
Leah Beiler had known the chances were gut that she'd see at least one of the other Stoltzfus brothers when she came to speak with Amos Stoltzfus at his market, but she hadn't expected it would be Ezra. She'd hoped for more time before she spoke with him, more time to become accustomed to the plain life she had left behind a decade ago. Even though she'd tried to stay true to the ways in which she had been raised, some Englisch ways, like looking for a light switch when it was dark, had subtly become habits she needed to break.
At least the propane stove seemed familiar this morning when she rose to make breakfast, because she had used a gas stove the whole time she was away from home. Johnny had suggested an electric one, but she'd refused, one of the few times she'd put her foot down after they left Paradise Springs.
She was glad for the excuse to look away from Ezra when Shep gave a yip as another buggy pulled into the parking lot. Calming the dog, she tried to do the same for herself. She had offered to come to the market to get some cinnamon for Mamm because she had wanted to speak to Amos about displaying some of her quilts for sale. The quilts she had made and sold during the past ten years provided money to feed and shelter them, and she hoped she could go on selling them to help with expenses at home now that her parents were older. She had been thinking of that instead of realizing she shouldn't have come to the market without preparing herself for a chance encounter with people she'd known.
Especially, she should have thought about the possibility of running into Ezra. Time had turned the awkward teen with limbs too loose and long for him into a handsome man. He had definitely grown into himself, because his suspenders seemed narrow on his wide shoulders and muscles were visible beneath his rolled-up sleeves.
He didn't have a beard, which meant he'd never married. That surprised her because several of the girls who had been her friends before she left Paradise Springs had talked endlessly about Ezra Stoltzfus. At the time, he'd seemed oblivious to their hopes that he would ask to take them home on a Sunday after church. He was kind and teased them, but, if he agreed to take one of them home, it was because he was going to see one of their brothers and wanted to be polite. She had been certain he would ask Mary Beachy to walk out with him until the night he kissed her.
Did he remember that night? They had been sitting by the stream that cut through the back fields of her family's farm, and he'd leaned over to shoo a mosquito away. She had turned her face to thank him, not realizing his was close. Their lips brushed. The kiss had been swift, but the reaction had remained with her all night as she recalled how warm his mouth had been against hers.
She never had a chance to ask him if he'd meant the kiss or if it had been an accident. The next night, Johnny had the worst argument ever with their daed and left, taking her with him. He'd offered to go with her into the village for an ice-cream cone. Instead, they met a young woman in a car. Johnny had insisted Leah come with him when he got into the car. She'd gone, knowing someone had to try to talk him out of his foolish plan.
For ten years, she'd repeated the same plea for him to return to Paradise Springs and their family and their home and their friends. Not once had he wavered. He would not go back to their daed's house.
And he had been true to his word.
But she had come home at last. Her hope that it would feel as if she'd never been away was futile. Ten years of living among Englischers had altered her in ways she couldn't have foreseen. Now she had to relearn to live an Amish life.