Read Christmas at Rose Hill Farm Online

Authors: Suzanne Woods Fisher

Tags: #FIC042000, #FIC053000

Christmas at Rose Hill Farm (10 page)

She couldn't hide her disappointment with his answer. What had he done wrong? “Bess . . . are you . . . I mean, is everything all right—” He tilted his head and studied her face until she looked away.

The silence stretched long, until at last, when the whippoorwill had called for the hundredth time, Bess reached for Amos's hand. She cupped it between her two hands. “Oh, Amos, nothing has changed . . . nothing.”

He smiled, though his chest tightened with a sharp sadness that felt like the crisp snap of a twig. He wanted to believe her, but he had an odd feeling that the floor had just dropped from under his feet.

7

A
s the sun was starting to set, Bess crossed the yard from the barn to the house and heard the clip-clop of a horse down on the road. She stopped and saw the buggy turn into the long driveway of Rose Hill Farm and for a moment, she thought it was Amos, returning for the scarf he'd forgotten earlier today. She was surprised by the pit of dread that rose in her stomach—so unlike how she normally felt about his visits. But after spending the afternoon baking their wedding cake, and a quick visit to Windmill Farm, both of them working hard to try to pretend everything was fine between them, just fine, Bess felt exhausted. Miserable and confused.

Amos's mother had wanted her to admire the fresh coat of paint he'd given the Grossdawdi Haus where she and Amos would live after the wedding. Mary Katherine Lapp, her soon-to-be mother-in-law, had been so pleased to show the apartment to Bess, pointing out its assets as if she were trying to sell it to her.

For a brief second, Bess wondered how Billy's father would treat a future daughter-in-law. Indifferent if not downright cold, she supposed. Amos's mother, on the other hand, was kind and gentle, just like Amos. Bess felt completely safe at Windmill Farm. Wanted and cherished. Wasn't that love? And wasn't that
the kind of love that would last longer than silly romantic feelings? Of course it was.

The buggy rose to the crest of the hill and Bess slumped with relief when she saw Maggie Zook holding the horse's reins. The buggy pulled to a stop and Maggie tumbled out, smiling as brightly as a full moon. “Bess! I got it! I got the job at the Sweet Tooth Bakery! Just through the Christmas season, but that's all the time I'll need!”

Bess couldn't hold back a grin as Maggie came running, her face lit up. “Look at my hands!” Maggie splayed out her hands, red and peeling. “I don't know how I have any energy left after the day I've put in for Dottie Stroot.”

When did Maggie Zook ever run out of energy?

“For now, I'm just a dishwasher, but Dottie Stroot promised she'd teach me how to make her cinnamon rolls soon.”

Bess stifled an eye roll. The owner of the Sweet Tooth Bakery was known for her big promises, all empty, but she did make a fine cinnamon roll. “Just don't tell her you're my friend, Maggie, or she'll never reveal her secret recipe.” Lainey had worked at the Sweet Tooth Bakery until she started out on her own to make baked goods from home, which made a dent in the Sweet Tooth Bakery profits, and the owner had never forgiven her.

“I think I'm going to learn how to become a fine baker and move someplace far, far away from Stoney Ridge. Someplace exciting, like Indiana.” A laugh burst out of Maggie, and Bess couldn't help but laugh right along with her. Maggie's laughter was like that. Infectious.

Bess covered her friend's chapped hands with her own. “You can't move. I would miss you too much.”

“Well, if I were marrying someone like Amos Lapp, I wouldn't move either. But you took the only eligible bachelor.”

“He's not the
only
eligible bachelor. What about Tommy Glick?”

“Bad kisser. Cement lips.”

“Timothy Fisher?”

“Edith Stoltzfus has marked him off as her territory. She's already got their future sons named: Paul first, then Jimmy, and so on. Not planning to have girls, she said. Too much trouble. She told the rest of us to stay away from Timothy or else.”

“Or else what?”

“Everyone's too frightened of Edith to bother asking. Even timid Timothy.” She crossed her arms and rubbed her shoulders as a gust of brisk wind blew through the yard. “No, you plucked the only ripe apple from the tree.”

Bess smiled. Maggie had never been shy about her opinions, though she wasn't shy about anything. So often, Bess wished she had more of Maggie in her. Maggie was often criticized for poking her nose in everybody's business, and while that was true, she always meant well. And her love of life was contagious. “There are other ripe apples, Maggie. You're just being fussy.”

“Maybe, but I hear the boys in Indiana are much more handsome and manly than the boys in Pennsylvania.”

“Any chance Edith Stoltzfus told all of you that?”

“Why, in fact, it
was
Edith!” Maggie scowled and squeezed her fists. “I was nearly duped.”

“I don't know what I'd do if you moved away.”

A smile returned to her face. “Not to worry. I don't think Dottie Stroot is planning to have me do much else besides wash dishes for a long while. She says I talk too much.” She glanced in the direction of the house, then lowered her voice. “But that's only part of my news. Here's the other part: Billy Lapp's father is running out of days.”

“Where'd you hear that?” Billy's father had been ill with something—no one knew exactly what—for over a year now and was rarely seen at church. Rarely seen at all, now that Bess thought about it.

“I overheard my dad tell Jorie.”

Then it probably was true. Maggie was a skillful eavesdropper on her father's conversations, and while Bess should have frowned on hearing news that the bishop didn't intend anyone to hear, his daughter was a source of fascinating information. “You didn't tell your father that Billy was here, did you?”

“Why does everyone have such little faith in me?” Maggie shook her head vehemently. “I didn't say a word.”

That was a relief. If Caleb Zook knew Billy was here, he would probably try to talk to him, to reason with him, to draw him out. To convince him to return. And with the tetchy mood Billy seemed to be in, that would send him scurrying off to his hiding hole, rose or no rose.

Another gust of bitter wind swirled around them, lifting dried leaves, and Maggie stamped her feet to stay warm.

“Do you want to come inside and warm up?”

“Can't. I just wanted to let you know about Billy's father. I hoped you might be able to convince him to go visit his father.”

“I have no influence on Billy.”

“You're kidding, right?” Maggie looked at her curiously, tilting her head. “He's still hung up on you, Bess.”

Bess felt her face heat up. “That's not true.”

“He couldn't keep his eyes off you during breakfast this morning.”

“He was famished. Have you noticed how thin he is? If he was watching me, it was to hurry up and bring him a hot meal.”

“No, Bess. Not like that at all. ” Maggie's voice had none of her usual swagger. It was all seriousness now, and Bess glanced up at her. “He was watching you like a man who can't watch enough.”

Bess dipped her head to study her shoes. She didn't want to hear that about Billy. But she did. “You shouldn't say such a thing. I'm to marry Amos soon. Very soon.”

“Well, that doesn't mean Billy can shut off his feelings like that.” Maggie snapped her fingers in the air to prove her point. “Bess, you're not having second thoughts about marrying Amos, are you?” She took a step closer to Bess. “Billy Lapp might be my second cousin, but he's hardly the right horse to bet on.”

Bess rubbed her shoulders with her arms and glanced up at the farmhouse. “I need to get inside to help Lainey with dinner.”

“Bess . . .” Maggie's voice had a warning note. “Amos is a wonderful catch. One of a kind. You would be crazy to have doubts about him.”

“I don't have any doubts about how wonderful Amos is.” And that was no lie. “I'll talk to you tomorrow.”

Bess hurried to the house and up the porch steps, then turned to wave. Maggie stood where she was, watching Bess with a worried look on her face.

Later that night, in her room on the second floor, Bess prepared for bed with an odd feeling, like she'd swallowed a goose egg. The lamp in her hand flickered, hissed, and spat, low on oil. She blew it out and climbed into bed to consider her unsettled thoughts.

Amos, she thought. What a simple, dear man.

Billy. She frowned. Anything but simple and certainly not dear.

If only their personalities could in some way be stuffed into a paper bag and shaken up—Amos could use some of Billy's gall and Billy some of Amos's quiet self-control. After Amos's courtly manner, she found Billy abrupt, gruff, easily offended. How long could a man go without smiling? Without laughing?

Billy was so extremely aggravating.

And so handsome it hurt.

Had she only imagined that moment of connection between them in the greenhouse, right before Amos arrived? No, she hadn't. Billy had been aware of it too; she wasn't making it
up. For one brief, revealing flash, she had seen it clearly in his eyes. Something had sizzled between them while they'd stared at each other.

It was awful. It was awesome.

She shook her head to rid it of longing. Had she not spent the last few years trying to unbind herself from yearning for a man who didn't truly love her?

The next instant she thought of Amos's wonderful eyes, the warmth of his devotion to her, the comfort of his faith. Amos was a man who knew how to love a woman. One woman. He was ready to be committed to her.

Why wasn't that enough for her? Why did she yearn for a man who didn't know the first thing about love?

Should she tell Billy all she knew about this rose?
Tell him. Don't tell
him.
She needed to find the key that would bring Billy back to Stoney Ridge. This rose, she thought, might be it. But maybe nothing would make him stay.

Sighing, she rolled over and tried to find sleep, but when it came it was fitful and strange, filled with crimson roses and empty greenhouses.

As Billy rode the bus back to College Station, his mind rolled through the day past, the day to come, the years behind, the years ahead. He cringed, thinking of that unguarded moment he'd had with Bess in the greenhouse at Rose Hill Farm. Even now, hours later, he could feel the heat climb his neck. How ridiculous he must have looked to her, allowing his attraction to show. It was up to him to hold her at arm's length.

Then . . . in walked Amos Lapp, of all people. His cousin, his friend, a man to whom he owed a great deal.

His very life.

He rubbed the scar on his left wrist and thought back to that
awful, horrible Christmas when he felt so hopeless, so lost. He hadn't been able to sleep for over a week, didn't have enough money for more than one meal a day, and felt unbearably lonely. On Christmas afternoon, his lowest moment, he picked up his pocketknife, fingered it for a long time, felt the edge of the blade, and impulsively drew it against his wrist. Watching the blood spill from his vein, he suddenly felt a panic, a desperate feeling.
What have I done?
Oh, God, help me!

He lunged for the door of his small rented room in a boardinghouse to shout for help and, miraculously, there stood Amos Lapp, his arms full of gifts and groceries. Quickly and wordlessly, Amos assessed the situation, made a tourniquet for Billy's wrist, bundled him off to the emergency room, stayed with him until he was stitched up—turned out, he hadn't hit a vein at all—went with him to the psychiatric facility where he was admitted for a twenty-four-hour observation. Amos sat upright in a chair throughout the night and read aloud from the book of Psalms. Soothed by his cousin's deep voice, by the strong meds given to him by the nurse, Billy fell into a deep and healing sleep. When he finally woke up, two days later, Amos was gone. He had left a note for Billy with his phone number on it and two words:
Come
home.

But Billy couldn't. He planned to never go home again.

The psychiatrist at the hospital discovered that Billy knew a great deal about flora and fauna. He thought Billy needed a fresh start, a new beginning, and was able to secure a job for him in the greenhouses at Penn State. Billy worked hard at his new job, and knew more about roses than any other employee. After identifying a string of rare roses, he became known as a rose rustler. Then, as
the
rose rustler. Billy might not have been happy, but he wasn't unhappy.

And Amos never told a soul about what Billy had done in that small, dingy rented room and he knew he never would. That's the kind of man Amos was—a good man.

Billy had to make himself look away when Amos and Bess left the greenhouse. He felt jealousy billow when he noted the possessive way Amos had hold of Bess's arm, as if branding her as his. He'd best get used to it, he scolded himself. Once they wedded, were living and loving in their own home at Windmill Farm . . .

He shook his head. It was a punishing thought.

He took off his hat and rested it on his lap. It was the only possession that mattered to him. He circled the brim of his hat with his finger, remembering his grandfather, his mother's father, to whom the hat had once belonged. Billy had adored his grandfather Zook. He shadowed him around his farm as a child. He leaned his head against the bus seat and closed his eyes, traveling back in his mind to another winter. Against his will, an ugly memory surfaced.

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