Rhoda stood over the forty-gallon copper kettle filled with apple butter, slowly pushing and pulling the paddle. Bubbles gently broke the silky, dark-brown surface into soft craters as steam carried the heady scents of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cool mid-October air rushed in through the open doors and windows, dispersing the heat of canning.
At one of the long worktables, Leah rapidly prepared apples for another kettle. Apple peelers, which also cored and sliced the apples, were bolted to the table. In another part of the kitchen, Iva used a long-handled scoop to pour cooked apple butter into canning jars, while a newly hired helper, Mary Yoder, cleaned any drips from the jars, put the metal sealing lids on, and screwed on the band.
Although Orchard Bend Farms had been established only a year ago, everyone rolled through the day with the kind of expertise one would expect after several seasons of hard work tending to the orchard and canning—Samuel; his sister Leah; Rhoda; her brother Steven; his wife, Phoebe; Rhoda’s longtime Englisch assistant, Landon; and hired, live-in helper Iva. All of them were really good at doing whatever task faced them.
The newer helpers from the Amish families who had moved to Maine only a couple of months ago, like Crist and Mary, weren’t as useful yet, but they were eager to learn and were very pleasant to be around.
Migrant workers filled the orchard, picking the trees clean, and they had another month of work to do.
But a huge part of what made the canning season such a success was this kitchen. The longer Rhoda worked in it, the more she realized that Jacob had thought of every possible canning need—like the gas-powered eyes that were sunk into the floors and surrounded with bricks. The sunken eyes worked much like in-ground firepits, and her kettles fit right over the heat sources. He’d also built massive worktables, oversize sinks, and numerous storage shelves, pantries, and spice racks.
A dull ache mixed with guilt throbbed inside her chest.
Jacob. How was he faring?
In the three months since he’d left, she and Samuel had talked about him and prayed for him often. If only he would contact them. He had a cell phone. His uncle Mervin, the man Jacob had gone to work for after the breakup, had given Jacob’s number to Samuel. But Jacob hadn’t responded to a single call they’d made or so much as sent a postcard.
Although she longed to hear from him, she didn’t blame him for ignoring her. She’d said some really harsh things as they’d hurtled toward the breakup. If she could go back, she’d be kinder. Oh, so very much gentler. They still would have broken up, and he’d have left hurt and angry. But she wouldn’t be carrying the guilt of having dumped on him her anger and mounting disappointments. And she wouldn’t be continually rehashing the unkind words she’d spoken.
Only a few people knew where Jacob was working these days, and no one at Orchard Bend Farms was privy to his whereabouts. What had she and Samuel done to the man?
“Rhoda.” Crist stepped into the harvest kitchen, holding up a clipboard.
She shooed the heartache and remorse back into their hiding place. “Ya?”
“I ran the inventory like Samuel said, and we’re missing fifty cases of jars. He said that’s not possible. But I’ve checked everything three times.”
Samuel strode into the kitchen, and her heart turned a flip at the sight of him. Despite their grief and guilt over Jacob, they navigated it together, and the rare and genuine honesty they shared was helping their hearts to mend. The distraction of this busy harvest season helped too. Samuel’s brown eyes moved to hers, making her heart race even more.
“He’s right.” She held Samuel’s gaze. “It’s not possible.”
In the evenings after she and all the others retired to their rooms, her thoughts of Samuel and her hopes for their future lingered long into the night. When she did finally go to sleep, she saw him in her dreams. When would he ask her out? Would she have to wait until Jacob had forgiven them?
But the truth was, Samuel didn’t have to use words to say all she needed to hear. Staring into his eyes like this, she could forget the world and every problem that faced them.
Crist tapped the clipboard against the palm of his hand. “Then do you have any idea where the missing jars are?”
She couldn’t manage to break eye contact. Was that what caused a slight blush to cross Samuel’s cheeks before he lowered his head, smiling?
Some semblance of thinking returned to her, and she focused on Crist. “Did you check my loft like I said to?”
“Ya. The barn has no crates of jars left.”
“Crist,”—Iva pointed to the ceiling—“she meant her sleeping loft.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t check that one.” He shrugged. “You actually want me to go into your bedroom?”
“It’s not really a bedroom.” It was a small space where Rhoda slept some nights. Samuel’s uncle Mervin had come for a visit a few weeks after the harvest began. When he realized Rhoda was climbing a ladder and sleeping on the floor of the attic some nights, he built her a set of stairs and turned the attic into sleeping quarters with what might be the smallest half bathroom ever. Although a man couldn’t stand up straight there, she managed just fine. But she would sleep there only during the busiest canning times, like now, when she started her day before sunrise and worked late into the night. In the slower seasons she returned to her bedroom in the farmhouse she shared with her brother, his family, Samuel, Leah, and Iva.
“Kumm, Crist.” Iva rinsed her hands. “I’ll count boxes. You take notes.”
Crist glanced at Leah before nodding. “Sure.”
Did Leah realize Crist liked her? Rhoda doubted it. Crist was a broad-shouldered, good-looking man who was even tempered and had a lot of energy, but Leah seemed as taken with Landon as Rhoda was with Samuel. Unfortunately, if Leah chose an Englisch man over an Amish one, Rhoda would be blamed because she’d kept an outsider as a worker even after partnering with the King family business—as if Samuel’s Daed needed another reason to dislike her.
As Crist and Iva went up the narrow stairs that led to the small attic, Samuel dug oranges out of his coat pocket and set them on the counter near her. Rhoda used grated orange peel for flavoring in one of the apple butter recipes. As he continued to pull the fruit from his pockets, she grabbed a clean, long-handled wooden spoon from the counter, dipped it into the kettle, and waited for the apple butter to cool.
She wished Landon and Leah hadn’t fallen in love, but people couldn’t dictate to their hearts who they wanted to spend a lifetime with. She and Samuel knew that all too well. But it did hamper their business decisions. They wanted and needed to make Landon a partner, and at times Amish businesses partnered with the Englisch. An Englisch partner could bring certain modernization to the business that Rhoda and Samuel were forbidden to implement—like having electricity in the harvest kitchen or using motorized vehicles to haul apples and tend the orchard. Landon knew they wanted him to become a partner, but they couldn’t pursue it right now, and he was willing to wait.
The problem was that the approval of such a venture would have to go through Samuel’s church leaders in Pennsylvania, because that’s where the original business started, and the founding owner, Samuel’s grandfather, had been a church member in Pennsylvania. The scrutiny and visits from those church leaders would soon reveal that Landon was going out with Leah, and under those circumstances the ministers wouldn’t approve Landon as a partner. And once Samuel was turned down, he couldn’t appeal. So Rhoda had no idea how many years they’d need to wait or what would have to transpire before they could make Landon a partner.
Samuel set two more oranges on the counter. “That’s all Phoebe had. She said if you need more, Landon will have to run to the store.”
“That’s plenty for today.” She and Samuel weren’t yet skilled in knowing how much of certain items they would need for the kitchen or the orchard. Those calculations had been Jacob’s forte. “But Landon has no time to make a run to the store today or tomorrow. If I need more, maybe Camilla still has some from the bag she bought.” Despite how busy everyone stayed, Rhoda found a way to snatch a bit of time here and there with her Englisch neighbor, and Camilla drove Rhoda whenever she needed to shop for canning supplies.
Samuel kept an orange from rolling off the countertop. “Speaking of Camilla, she left a voice mail asking if you had time to meet with the private investigator this Sunday evening.”
Fresh guilt pushed in on Rhoda.
“Don’t.” Samuel pointed at her, reading her face. “Trust me. They will find Sophia and her mother. I know they will.”
She forced herself to nod, but she had good reasons to feel culpable in this. God had given Rhoda several insights concerning Sophia even before Camilla knew she had a granddaughter. But out of fear that the leadings might not be from God, Rhoda had held on to them for so long she’d botched what God had wanted to accomplish through her. The investigator the Cranfords had hired had yet to find Sophia and her mom, and Rhoda felt more uneasy with each passing month, concerned that something may have happened to them.
Unlike working in the orchard or the harvest kitchen, she could do nothing physical to fix the problem. Like the situation with Jacob, she could only pray about it.
Rhoda drew a deep breath, aiming to find her cheerful self. She couldn’t let grief and guilt over her yesterdays snatch all the good God gave her today. She held out the end of the spoon to Samuel.
He inched forward and took a taste of the apple butter. “Perfect.”
She sampled it too, verifying his novice opinion. “It is, and it’ll be ready for the jars in an hour.” She went to the sink and dropped the spoon into the sudsy water.
In an odd way what happened to her and Jacob reminded her of the Bible saying that a person cannot serve two masters without loving one and hating the other. In her experience a woman couldn’t keep a healthy relationship with one man while harboring tenderness for his brother. But Jacob shouldn’t have been the one to call the situation what it was. She should have. If she had, she would’ve freed him sooner with more of his heart and self-respect intact.
Samuel stirred the concoction for her. “Phoebe is setting up lunch on one of the tables outside. Let Mary do the stirring while we eat.”
“I wish I could.” Would she always long for every possible minute with Samuel? “We have to get the batch Mary is working on into the jars before it cools. Leah’s prepping another batch, and this batch has to be stirred nonstop for another hour until it’ll be ready to put into jars. I’ll eat later.”
“I’ll help you get to a stopping point.”
“There isn’t one, not today. Just have her put sandwiches on the porch like usual, and we’ll grab bites while working.”
“Rhoda,”—Samuel’s tone said he was ready to argue if need be—“it’s the halfway point of the harvest, and Phoebe wants the core group, plus anyone else who can, to eat a picnic lunch together.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“That’s because you missed dinner the last two nights, and I forgot to tell you about it.”
“Ah, makes sense, but like I said, we can’t stop for lunch.”
He turned his back to the others. “Find the time. Do we need to dump out the batches that are cooking?”
Even as their love grew, they still managed to argue easily. Would that go away with time, or was it part of who they were together? “You wouldn’t dare!”
He raised his eyebrows, and the firm look in his eyes said he would. “Then be reasonable, please.”
“You can’t breeze in here, Samuel King, and start telling me how to run my kitchen.”
“I don’t see why not. You don’t mind telling me how we need to run the orchard.” He studied her, waiting for her rebuttal.
She wanted to put her hands on her hips and set him straight, except…he was right. She drew a breath. “I guess I should be grateful that you insist I take breaks.”
“You should, but that would be asking too much.” He grinned. “I would settle for begrudgingly agreeable…and for lunch, with everyone together.”
Regardless of how much work there was to do, how could she argue with his reasoning? “We need to get the batch Mary is working with into jars. While we do that, she can eat, and then she can take over stirring this batch.”
He nodded. “That’s a plan I can live with. What do you want me to do to help?”
“You stir.” She passed him the apple butter paddle and turned to Leah. “It appears we’re having a picnic, so let’s stop preparing apples for another vat. We’ll delay starting the next batch.”
“Works for me.” Leah set down the knife and began to clean her work station.
Rhoda went to the foot of the stairs. “Iva? Crist?”
Iva peered down. “Ya?”
“You two are needed down here, and you can return to that later, okay?”
“Sure.” Iva hurried down the steps, and Crist followed her.
Rhoda gave instructions. Bringing most of the kitchen to a halt during the day wasn’t easy. It’s why they ate in shifts.
“Mr. King.” The foreman of the migrant workers stood at the door of the kitchen. Samuel had told the man not to call him mister, but it was no use. Perhaps the man’s English wasn’t that good, or perhaps using titles was part of his culture.
“Coming.” Samuel went outside to see what he needed.
She and Samuel had rented a home not too far from here for the migrant workers to sleep in, and they’d hired two cooks to feed them. The overhead of running an orchard seemed crushing to her, but Samuel was used to it.
They could use extra workers to help in the spring too, but the migrant workers would be long gone by then. Samuel had hired some workers from the new Amish families in the area to help this fall, but since farming their own land was their main goal, they wouldn’t be available during the spring or summer. Orchard Bend Farms might not have much help during spring and summer for a few more years yet.
Within thirty minutes Leah, Iva, and Crist were washing their hands. They passed around a hand towel to one another and then left the harvest kitchen.
Leah paused. “You coming?”
“Ya.” Rhoda passed the paddle to Mary. “I’ll be back in a bit to check on you.”
“I won’t let it burn. I promise.”
When Rhoda stepped onto the porch, she paused, soaking in the lovely fall day. A canopy of clouds hung overhead. Trees were filled with the splendor of the fall colors.
Landon brought a wagon to a halt, jumped down, and looped the lead over the hitching post. “Hey, Rhodes, I brought a bushel basket of McIntosh from cold storage.”
“Thanks.” She used the sweetness of a McIntosh to mix with the tarter apples, which cut down on the need to add sugar to the apple butter. “You’re joining us for lunch, right?”
“Definitely.” He left the apples in the wagon and headed for the table.
Could the day be any more gorgeous? Her five-year-old nephew, Isaac, and his three-year-old sister, Arie, were sneaking food to the dogs under the picnic table, and Rhoda laughed. As she watched her loved ones under a harvest sky, she saw Samuel take a box from Phoebe, and then he paused, staring at Rhoda. He walked toward her, his boots echoing against the wooden porch. “Hi.” His deep voice rumbled softly. “You joining us for lunch?” He winked, and warmth ran through her all the way to her toes.
She raised an eyebrow, aiming to look defiant as she teased. “Maybe. If you’re lucky.”
He chuckled. Since Jacob had left, she and Samuel hadn’t held hands or kissed, yet they were—dare she think it?—intimate.
How long would she have to wait to begin a life with him?