A GROOM FOR GRETA
A serious, no-nonsense schoolmarm should be exactly what Luke wants in a wife. Still, he can't help but be charmed by Greta's warm smile and impulsive ways. Does he dare to stray from the sensible choice and take a chance on happiness?
Celery Fields, Florida
Luke Starns hammered the molten iron into shape, the sound of metal on metal ringing in his ears as the hammer struck the rod. He set the half-completed horseshoe on the white-hot fire and wiped his brow with the back of his bare forearm. Then he stretched as he pushed open the single window that offered relief from the shadowy darkness of his blacksmith shop and livery stable. He was hoping for a breeze, but this was Florida, not Ontario. And it was August, steamy and humid, and at four in the afternoon there was no sign of relief from the oppressive heat. He fanned himself with the wide-brimmed straw hat that was one of the unmistakable signs of his Amish heritage.
Business was slow but not nearly as slow as it was in the outside world—the rest of Florida. The economic depression that had gripped the entire United States had taken a huge toll on businesses and lives all across the state. Luke counted himself fortunate that he had skills that were still in demand—although with the growing number of cars and trucks crowding the roads, he wasn't sure how long there would be enough customers to sustain his business.
He thought about taking a break, perhaps getting a dish of ice cream at the parlor next to the bakery. He wasn't exactly dressed for shopping but it was late on a Saturday. Most everyone living in and around the Amish settlement of Celery Fields would have already headed home. As he rolled down the sleeves to his col-larless shirt, he heard voices just outside the small window—a man and a woman—the man's voice was stern and serious, the woman's laughter was high-pitched and nervous.
"I can't marry you, Greta Goodloe," the man announced. Luke sighed. Quarrels between Greta and her long-time beau, Josef Bontrager, were so common that most of the townspeople tended to ignore them completely. Luke was inclined to agree that this was probably the best plan. He finished rolling down his sleeves and glanced out the window when he heard the soft plod of horse hooves in the sandy street and saw Bontrager's dark buggy driving away. After that all was quiet.
Wiping his hands—black with the soot of his work—on a rag he kept hanging by the window, he removed his leather apron and checked the front of his homespun cotton shirt. Then he ran his fingers through his damp black hair and reached for his hat. A dish of Jeremiah Troyer's vanilla ice cream was sounding better and better, but he wanted to at least make the effort to look decent before venturing out. His concern was not for himself, but he felt it was just good manners to make the effort for others. He was headed for the door of his shop when he heard a sound.
The two double doors to his blacksmith shop and livery stood fully ajar but there was no one there. At least that he could see. Then he heard the sound again. A soft keening like someone in pain. He moved closer to the door's opening and there framed in the doorway, cast in silhouette by the late afternoon sun at her back, stood a woman—an unwed Amish woman, given the black ties of her prayer kapp that peeked out from beneath her bonnet. She was grasping the frame of the doorway.
Fearing that she had been struck ill or perhaps overcome by the heat, Luke rushed forward. On his way he grabbed the shop's one battered chair. "Hold on," he ordered, but before he could reach her, she took two steps forward and then started to crumple to the floor. Luke dropped the chair and caught the woman.
"What's to become of me?" she whispered as she looked up at him from beneath the brim of her bonnet with fathomless sea blue eyes that belonged to only one female in Celery Fields.
"Are you ill, Greta Goodloe?" he asked, raising his voice in case she might be on the verge of passing out. "Wounded? Have you been in an accident?"
"Oh, he's broken it," she moaned miserably, her voice choking on her sobs.
"Who? What is broken?"
She looked up at him, her eyes widening in what he could only describe as horror. With surprising strength for one so petite, she pushed him away and stood without support for the first time since entering his shop. She glanced around and seemed stunned to find herself there, but she no longer appeared to be in danger of passing out.
"Sit down," Luke ordered, sliding the chair behind her. "Let me have a look. Is it your.. " He ran through the possibilities. She was standing without apparent pain on both legs. Her arms were flailing about like windmills as she apparently tried to regain control of her emotions. "Where is the pain, Greta Goodloe?" he shouted, hoping to break through what was clearly a case of hysteria.
"Right here," she announced, clutching at her chest. "And please stop shouting. Do you want the whole town to witness my.. " Fresh tears leaked down her cheeks and she sat down hard in the chair and buried her face in her hands as her entire body shuddered with the force of her crying.
She was awfully young for a heart attack but he seemed to recall that her father had died of one a year or so earlier and her mother had succumbed to heart failure when Greta was but a toddler. If it ran in the family…
"Stay there. I'll go for the doctor."
She was on her feet in an instant and looking mighty healthy for a woman having palpitations. "You will do no such thing," she growled. "You will have the decency to forget that I ever came in here today, that you ever witnessed…" Once again her eyes filled with fresh tears. "My shame," she whispered and sat down on the chair.
Only this time she did not fall to pieces as Luke might have expected. Instead she looked all around the shop, finally settling her gaze on him. Then she drew in a heavy sigh and fixed him with a look that seemed rather harsh, considering he had done nothing more than show her kindness and concern.
"So, Luke Starns, we have a problem. That is, I have a problem—several of them at the moment. But let's begin with addressing the problem before you and me."
"I'm listening," he replied. "I'll help if I can but I'm not sure what."
"Oh, please do not pretend that you weren't eavesdropping just now," she snapped. "I saw you standing by that window there. You had to have heard and seen every horrible bit of it."
Luke frowned. "And I am telling you that whatever might have taken place between you and Josef Bon-trager."
"There," she interrupted pointing her finger at him, "you admit it. You were watching us. I have not so much as mentioned Josef's name and still you."
Luke had no time and little patience for her tantrum. "You are speaking in riddles, Greta Goodloe. This is my establishment and if I take a moment from my work to stand at my window that is my right."
"Your window is open as are your doors. Do you honestly expect me to believe that you did not hear my conversation with Josef?"
"I cannot say what you will believe or not. I am telling you that whatever business you had just now with Josef is of no interest to me. And now if you are feeling better I have work to do." He abandoned the idea of ice cream and headed back toward the fire. But given that Greta Goodloe was right there next to him when he turned to pick up his apron, it was evident that this was not yet over.
He was dismissing her. Greta was certain that the blacksmith had heard and seen everything. When Josef had driven away, she'd seen Luke Starns watching from his window—the window that overlooked the town's main and only street. Her intent in entering the shadowy recesses of his shop had been to confront him and make sure that he did not speak of what he had seen to anyone else. For surely Josef's announcement was some nightmare from which she would awaken any moment.
One minute she and Josef Bontrager—the man she would finally marry after five long years of courtship—were looking at a china teapot in Yoder's Dry Goods. The next they were crossing the street on their way to the lane that led past the blacksmith and livery stables and on to the small house that Greta shared with her older sister, Lydia.
Suddenly Josef had stopped walking and when she had turned back to him, her chatter about plans for their wedding momentarily silenced, Josef had looked down at his dusty boots and said the very last thing she could ever have imagined coming from his mouth.
"I cannot marry you, Greta Goodloe."
At first Greta's mind had raced with any possible cause for Josef's unbelievable declaration. "You mean this autumn?"
Tradition had it that marriages took place in late autumn after the fall harvest. At least that had been the way of things up north where most of the Florida Amish had lived before migrating to Celery Fields. Of course, in Florida late autumn was just when the planting started. The following day at services, Bishop Troyer would announce all the weddings that would take place that fall.
So Greta and Josef had planned their wedding for September to give themselves plenty of time to travel north for the traditional round of visits with family and friends. They'd be back in time to plant the fields of celery, the cash crop on the large farm that Josef had taken over when his father and brothers decided to move back north.
"I mean I know times have been hard," she had rushed to add, wanting to assure Josef that in spite of his constant worries over financial matters, they would be fine. He was always talking about the depression and how even though business in Celery Fields had not been affected, there could come a time when the community would feel the ravages of the financial disaster sweeping the rest of the country.