Joy tried not to limp or rub at her sore backside as she paused at the edge of the tree line to observe the area around her family’s home.
The large barn where her dat housed the horses he trained—for Amish as well as Englischers—partially blocked her view. Beyond that lay their old family farmhouse with its well-cared-for clapboard siding, flourishing garden thanks to her mamm’s careful attention, and sheets drying on the line. At this hour of the day, Dat would no doubt be either in the barn or the paddock also hidden from her view, Mamm in the house, expecting Joy home soon to help with dinner.
If she could make it inside without anyone seeing her in this state, Joy could change her dress, and no one would be the wiser. Mamm wouldn’t know that she’d tried to repair the fence in the back pasture on her own. Anna Yoder didn’t like her only dochder doing what she called “man’s work.” Not when she was trying so hard to get that same dochder married off.
Joy brushed at the large streak of dirt across the skirt of her blue dress, to no avail. At least this wasn’t her favorite yellow dress. Even if she could clean herself up more, the additional insult of a large rip wasn’t something she could hide from her parents’ eyes, which were sharp enough to see even a small one.
Guilt tweaked at her heart, because she had been going against their wishes, even if she had only been trying to help. Unfortunately, the fence might be in worse shape now.
That was the least of her worries, though.
Cautiously she made her way through the tall, green summer grasses of the open field between the trees and the barn, accompanied by the hum of the bees working away at the wildflowers. Luck was with her, and she reached the red-sided barn unseen. Sticking close to the building, she scooted her way down the long side. A quick poke of her head around the corner showed no one in sight. With careful steps, she inched along. She was almost to the wide, open barn doorway when the low rumble of Father’s voice had her stumbling to a stop, her heart leaping like a hop toad in the creek that ran through the woods.
“It saddens me to hear that, Joshua,” Dat was saying.
Joshua Kanagy, no doubt. One of their closest neighbors, he was here often, helping with the horses.
Joy paused and, to her shame, moved closer to the doorway to listen better.
Her girlhood fellow adventurer no longer paid her much attention, unless she made him. Not since he’d grown “too old for shenanigans.” His words, not hers. A hurt that had worked its way under her skin like a splinter, but she’d been determined not to let it fester. Forgiveness had always come easily for Joy. All Amish practiced it, but she had never had to try.
“You know I have appreciated working with you,” Joshua’s voice sounded now.
Appreciated? As in the past, but not anymore?
Dat’s heavy sigh was easily distinguishable. “I must admit I had hoped you might apprentice under me.”
Joy had to put a hand over her mouth to hold in her gasp.
Joshua was quitting. Except . . . he couldn’t. He was born to do this work. Dat said his hands were blessed by Gotte, that Joshua was a born horse trainer. He was here every chance he had. Why would he give up such a gift?
“Amos and Samuel might take over someday,” Dat continued. “But training horses is a wonderful gute business, enough to go around, and they won’t be old enough for years yet. Are you certain?”
She wasn’t sure what Joshua’s reaction to that was, because only silence greeted her ears before Dat spoke again. “I appreciate that you must honor your parents’ wishes and continue your family’s work.”
Understanding settled over her like her mamm’s knitted winter shawl. The shop. Joshua was quitting to help run his family’s gift shop in town.
Joy clenched her hands in fists at her side to keep from running into the barn to argue. Cry out that anyone with half an eye could see that Joshua didn’t want to work the shop the same way he did with horses. Gotte didn’t pass out blessings of ability and passion to everyone, but He had to Joshua. How could he not honor that? How could his parents not see?
But she’d been trying lately to be less impetuous and had already landed herself in trouble once today. A cooler head prevailed, and she stayed put.
Except Sugar Cookie, the poorly named massive orange-and-white barn cat who didn’t like anyone, decided at that moment to slink by, hissing at Joy as if she’d moved into his territory.
“Shoo,” she mouthed at the thing, waving her hands. He stopped right in the open barn door and batted a paw at her, his pinched and graying face curled in a snarl.
“Go away,” she mouthed next.
Sugar Cookie glared then finally turned up his nose, tail in the air, and slunk away. Joy held her breath, hoping neither man heard or saw anything amiss.
They didn’t. “This is my choice,” Joshua was saying. “Please do not say anything to Mamm or Dat.”
Her own dat remained silent, and no surprise there, because Joseph and Ruth Kanagy were part of their close-knit Amish community but, as their nearest neighbors, were also close and dear family friends.
“Very well,” Dat said, the words heavy.
That was all? Very well and let Joshua walk away? He couldn’t be pleased about this.
This is none of your concern, Joy Yoder. Her mother’s voice sounded in her head. Always Mamm’s voice when common sense tried to override her natural spontaneity.
Silence inside again. What were they doing?
The sound of footfalls nearing where she stood had her jumping to scramble back around the side of the barn. She pulled up as she rounded the corner, plastering her back against the wood as Dat stomped away, off toward the house.
She peeped after him, waiting until he disappeared inside before hurrying into the cooler darkness of the barn with its familiar smells of sweet hay, leather, and horseflesh. It took a few blinks for her eyes to adjust after the bright sunlight outside, but then she spotted him. Joshua stood at the other end, putting away equipment.
Dark hair that all three Kanagy brothers had inherited from their dat was sticking up in all sorts of ways. Which meant he’d been running his hands through it, a sure sign she recognized from childhood. Joshua was bothered. He had the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, and her steps slowed as his arms flexed, hefting a freshly oiled saddle onto a rack on the wall. Joy wasn’t sure when she’d noticed that Joshua had grown into a man, but every so often she found it . . . distracting.
And improper, she reminded herself in that mental Mamm voice again. She should be interested in who that person was, his character, not his physical appearance. Usually, Joy didn’t find that a problem. Probably because Joshua had a kind heart, too. All the girls in the district talked about him.
“You can’t go,” she called out as she got closer.
Joshua straightened abruptly and whirled around to face her. “Joy?”
His gaze skated over her disheveled appearance, and he gave her that look. The one he’d started giving her when he’d reached the age to start Rumspringa. Without her, because she was a little over two years younger. About the same time that he told her he was too old to play anymore.
Joshua’s face, arranged in a deep frown, clearly said, What did you do this time, Joy?
What he said out loud was, “Ach du lieva. What did you do, Joy?”
At least he’d left off the “this time” bit.
“You’re a mess,” he continued. “There’s a rip in your dress, and where’s your kapp?”
Her hand flew to her head, and she grimaced to find it uncovered, her dark hair no doubt a tousled knot. She’d tried to heft a fence post and ended up tumbling into the dirt to get pinned under its weight. Now she’d have to go back to the field to fetch the head covering.
“Ach vell, I fell, but I’m unharmed,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. Then stepped closer, tipping her head to gaze up at his face. “You can’t quit horses, Joshua. You love them. You love them so much, you fall asleep in the stalls sometimes. And Dat says you have the best hands in all of Indiana. You know you do.”
She stopped to take a breath.
He cocked his head, arms crossed, though she caught a flash of sadness in his dark eyes. She wasn’t wrong about this. “Eavesdropping again?” was all he asked, though.
She wrinkled her nose. “As if I do that often.” She might get herself into unusual situations, but listening to others without permission was not typical. “You didn’t answer me.”
Joshua twitched a shoulder, tension settling across his broad back like a burden. He was hating this as much as she guessed he would be.
Without thinking, she took one of his hands in both of hers, like he had once when she’d been a little girl and skinned her knee jumping out of his family’s buggy. “Why are you doing this?” she asked softly.
She shouldn’t be holding his hand. They were both in their twenties now, no longer kinder to excuse such a gesture. Certainly not sweethearts. But Joshua had always been one of her favorite people, and he was hurting. She could no more keep herself from offering comfort than her younger brothers could keep out of mischief.
“I grew up a while ago,” Joshua said. “Now I should accept my responsibilities. All of them.”
Always with the growing up. For a person who liked to tease as much as he did, the man was a contradiction.
“But Aaron doesn’t work in the shop anymore,” Joy pointed out.
Joshua’s brother now worked for the Troyers making custom furniture. Obviously the Kanagys would understand if—
“Hope works in the shop now, taking his place,” Joshua pointed out. “I don’t have someone to take mine.”
Aaron’s brand-new wife, Hope, was a sweetheart and perfect for Aaron and for the gift shop. So tempting to offer to help Joshua by taking his place. Joy had other dreams—like turning her quilting hobby into a shop that not only sold materials and quilts, but held classes and quilting get-togethers for Amish and Englisch alike. When she let herself daydream, she could easily picture doing that from Joshua’s family’s adorable store.
Except her mamm’s own rules about working stood in her way.
Her mamm had watched several girls a bit older than Joy get jobs in nearby towns to help support their families. Englischer jobs, with the permission of the bishop and their Amish community, of course, thanks to the shrinking options in their region of northern Indiana. Several of those girls had eventually jumped the fence, or they remained unmarried . . . and Mamm had made her rules.
Joy sighed, because no matter how she thought through it, she couldn’t see a different answer for her old friend. “I’m sorry, Joshua.”
He smiled his thanks, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes, then he glanced down. His hand tensed in hers a heartbeat before he pulled away.
Heat flamed into Joy’s cheeks as he also stepped back, apparently not able to put distance between himself and her forward ways fast enough. Her impetuous nature would get her into serious trouble one day, and not just embarrassing situations with men.
Not that this was that kind of thing. This was Joshua.
“A man is never old until his regrets outnumber his dreams,” she said. Her grossdawdi used to say that before he’d died.
Joshua chuckled and her heart warmed at a shared joke, because he’d heard that phrase often enough from everyone in her family. Used to, it would make him wink at her. Not this time.
Instead, he sobered and pointed at her dress. “You’d better get changed before your mamm sees you like that.”
Joy grimaced. He wasn’t wrong. Mamm’s wrath wasn’t worth risking, so she nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow at Gmay.”
Before he could say anything, she scurried toward the smaller door leading outside located at this end of the barn. She checked that no one was about.
“Joy,” Joshua called, much louder.
“Shhhh—” She swatted a hand in his direction even as she turned to find out what he wanted. “What?” she whispered.
Joshua suddenly grinned, his handsome face turning into something else entirely. Into the boy who had once been her hero, dark eyes twinkling with the delight of a shared adventure. “Don’t get caught,” he whispered back.
Joshua had to bite back laughter at the sight of Joy Yoder bent over at the waist, peeking out the barn door. Somehow, even on the worst days—and this counted as that—she always managed to make him laugh.
Granted, usually Joy’s plans, promises, and schemes didn’t end up with her in such a shambles. Most involved helping other people, which no doubt she’d been trying to do when she ripped her dress. He didn’t buy that oh-so-casual “I fell” story for a second.
A disheveled wreck with the dirt and the tear and the missing kapp, her mamm was like to take a switch to her if she caught her. He would be sneaking about, too, if Anna Yoder was his mamm. Not that Anna wasn’t kind and wunderbaar. She simply had certain ideas when it came to her only dochder.
He was tempted to offer to go distract Anna so Joy could slip in the house unseen, but where would the fun be in that? Watching from back here was a lot more entertaining.
Joshua crossed his arms and waited for her to make her move.
For once her face, the side of it at least, was cast in a serious frown, dark brows drawn down over her eyes, and no dimple in sight.
This isn’t grown-up behavior. He could practically hear his own mamm. A lament she’d shared with him almost daily as a child, thanks to his own behavior. Not as much anymore, because he took things more seriously these days. The step he’d taken today to devote himself to the family gift shop was part, parcel, and proof of that.
Telling Mervin Yoder that he was going to quit helping out with the horses had left an ache right in the center of Joshua’s chest. He rubbed at the spot and hoped Gotte would take it away soon.
But he’d seen his own fater’s face when Aaron had asked to leave the store to move into his own carpentry and furniture-building business. Dat had been disappointed. After all, their shop, A Thankful Heart, had been in Dat’s family for generations yet. He’d made no secret of his dream that his sons would one day run it together. Even if Joshua’s own wishes tugged him in a different direction . . . that was selfishness speaking. Gotte had already provided him a solid life and future—running the store with his family.
That’s what he’d do.
Even if every hour spent in there crawled like the box turtle he found crossing their dirt driveway once. Maybe he’d settle into the job better now that he’d removed the temptation of working with horses.
After all, in order to mold his people, Gotte often had to melt them. That had to be what this was, and Joshua was trying to be faithful about it.
Though sometimes knowing the Lord’s will and wanting to follow it were two very different things.
Joy telling him he couldn’t quit—her big dark eyes all concerned like a doe-eyed mama bear, such a Joy-like combination—didn’t help. After all, he was trying to follow Gotte’s calling for his life. How was he supposed to do that if he was being yanked in opposite directions? He couldn’t keep going the way he was, dividing his loyalties between himself and his family, or he’d eventually fray, then rip right down the middle, like a worn-out lead line.
Joy jerked, as if she was going to start for the house, then pulled up short and settled back in her hiding spot.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked her, not lowering his voice. Because she still hadn’t moved.
“I can see Mamm in the kitchen window.” Joy continued to whisper, and he grinned.
This reminded him of the time she fell into old Mr. Fischer’s pond—well, he’d pushed the boat they’d “borrowed” out into the water with her in it, and the boat sank. She’d had to sneak into the house under her parents’ noses then, too. Of course, she’d been only five at the time.
Things had changed since then.
Like that odd moment when he’d glanced down at his hand in Joy’s. Despite the dirt under her fingernails from whatever she’d been getting up to, he’d suddenly realized she had lovely hands. Long, slim fingers, pale against his darker, rougher skin, and soft despite the hard work of cleaning and mending and gardening that he knew she did every day.
He hadn’t been able to let go of her fast enough, and even then, he’d stepped back.
From Joy of all people. His playmate since childhood, and until he’d gotten too old for such things, maybe his closest friend other than his bruders. He wasn’t supposed to be noticing things like how she smelled of sunshine and sugar cookies.
Or how much she’d grown up, despite currently being bent in half as she watched her house like the worst thief ever.
He’d never finish these last chores he’d promised Mervin he’d get done before leaving if she didn’t get herself safely inside. Shaking his head, Joshua moved closer.
He’d meant to tug her out of the way so he could check for himself what was happening in the house. Only the second he put a hand on her arm, Joy swung around with a gasp. He was close enough that she bounced off his chest like a rubber ball and would’ve gone down had he not instinctively reached out to catch her.
The action pulled her near and they both stilled and sort of stared at each other a long beat. He blinked, because, for the first time, he noticed Joy’s dark eyes had a lighter inner ring around the pupil. Golden almost. Lovely.
Joshua frowned. What was wrong with him noticing such things? This was Joy.
He was about to let go when a small voice piped up from directly behind her. “What are you and Joshua doing, Joy? Playing tag?”